Men of Steel and Women of Wonder

Article by Carlos Po

Photo by Matthew Seet

Marvel’s latest venture Guardians of the Galaxy hit theaters August, grossing $94 million on its opening weekend alone and over $300 million worldwide. As the 11th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it set the bar even higher for impending superhero movies—and we can expect plenty more as Kevin Feige, Marvel’s Production President, announced Marvel alone has movies planned for up until 2021.

Although their recent revival might suggest otherwise, superheroes are no modern concept. From mighty biblical Samson to godlike Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh, superhero-like figures are evidently as old as mankind. But how exactly have superheroes survived the test of time? How have they manifested themselves in so many different forms across so many different cultures over time? Why is this fascination with a transcendental human being penetrated so deeply into our psyches?

Let’s travel back to America in the 1930s,when the Great Depression—a massive stock market crash—nearly crippled the country. Hundreds of thousands of Americans became homeless and set up shantytowns across the country, as unemployment reached a ridiculous 25%. The American dream was fast becoming a myth.

Just as all hope of better times was disappearing, two Cleveland high school students, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, entered the scene. Siegel and Shuster enjoyed self-publishing short sci-fi stories and their “The Reign of the Superman” featured a telepathic villain who sought to rule the world. However—drawing on their situation for inspiration—said villain was quickly revised into Clark Kent, intrepid reporter by day and Superman by night. And it was sold to Action Comics as Superman’s first famous issue ever.

Soon, Superman rose to fame capturing the hearts and minds of the American public. He was seen fighting corrupt business owners and politicians—figures thought by many to have been instigators of the Depression. An early story, for instance, featured Superman trapping a corrupt mine owner in his own mine to reveal its horrid working conditions and allow him a change of heart. After Superman received his own radio serial, his targets were expanded to include the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Semites.

And by no means was this phenomenon of taking villains out of real life exclusive to Superman. Captain America’s first cover featured Hitler being punched in the jaw. Similarly, Captain Marvel (now Shazam) echoed a similar sentiment with one of his recurring villains: Captain Nazi. And Batman—beginning as nothing more than a boy with a plan—defended the powerless from the dangerously powerful thereby transforming into a champion for the weak.

To Depression-era America, Superman was more than just a story. He was a symbol of hope to the American people—of hope that they could get through tough times and things could get better. Batman was a guardian: someone they could count on to protect them when the law could not. Superheroes are thus escapist fantasies that bring hope in times of turmoil and present us with a adventurous departure from the often mundane rhythm of our lives. And in a world of Ebola outbreaks, journalist beheadings, and fake soccer injuries, a good escape might be just the remedy.