Ever since Superman touched down in that fictional Kansas field back in 1938, our comic book superheroes have tended to be stoic, self-confident and somewhat simple men. They bravely fight for "truth, justice and the American way," and with their chiseled features and bulging chests, we just know our caped crusaders will always save the day.
What a difference seven decades makes. The world has changed beyond recognition since Superman's pre-WW2 debut, and today's comic book heroes reflect that. They still wear crazy costumes and wield superhuman powers, but unlike their ancestors, contemporary superheroes are flawed and conflicted. They suffer the same frailties as their millions of fans. Who needs Kryptonite when you're wracked with crippling self-doubt?
Comic book pioneer Stan Lee once observed, "If you can have a good guy who's got hang-ups and flaws and failings, he's more interesting because he not only has to defeat the villain, but he has to defeat and conquer his own flaws and inabilities."
This summer's upcoming crop of comic book-inspired movies all feature these many faceted heroes. And what with war, a faltering economy, terrorism and environmental disasters, audiences today are poised to embrace them. We can identify with these post-modern characters; their pain is our pain, and when they achieve redemption, we do too.
Iron Man stars Robert Downey, Jr., a notoriously troubled mortal in his own right. Iron Man is the heroic alter ego of Tony Stark, a cocky, hard-drinking, womanizing billionaire and weapons manufacturer. When the US military convoy he's traveling with in Afghanistan is ambushed, Stark is held captive in a cave by insurgents and tortured. Eventually, Tony outwits his captors by constructing a crude suit that turns him into Iron Man.
Yet for all his billions, not to mention his late-blooming superpowers, Iron Man is "facing the same types of problems we are," notes director Jon Favreau. Think about it: don't many of us, even the most successful, secretly fear that we're always on the verge of failure, or that others will find out we're not the perfectly polished professionals we 'play' in the game of life?
But if Iron Man thinks he's got it rough, it may be because he hasn't met The Incredible Hulk, who returns to the big screen in the sequel to Ang Lee's 2003 movie. Most people know the story: after a gamma-radiation accident, Doctor Bruce Banner (played now by Edward Norton) is involuntarily transformed into a spinach-colored powerhouse whenever he gets angry. The poor Hulk is feared, mistreated and misunderstood, an outcast forced to wander the world in an elusive search for sanctuary.
Batman is back, too - this time in The Dark Knight, starring Christian Bale, reprising his acclaimed portrayal in 2005's Batman Begins. Again, the legend is familiar to generations: billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, traumatized by the murder of his philanthropic parents, adopts the vigilante alter ego Batman in order to battle crime in Gotham City. In The Dark Knight, Batman squares off against his infamous nemesis, the Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger, whose untimely death can't help but cast a further pall over an already pitch-black tale.
The mood is considerably lighter in Hancock, in which the irresistible and ever-popular Will Smith portrays a disheveled, alcoholic superhero with a public relations problem: he destroys everything in his wake whenever he comes to the rescue.
Talk about superheroes with super issues. Yet as we watch them battle their inner demons along with all those external villains, we find ourselves being inspired as well as entertained. The reluctant superhero speaks to that urge we all have to be something greater, to selflessly serve others and make the world a better place. It is as if all these fictional characters have taken to heart the haunting words of Talmudic sage Rabbi Hillel: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is an internationally known, best-selling author who chairs the Religious Affair's Committee at the renowned New York art school, Pratt Institute. His first book Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero, received the prestigious Benjamin Franklin Award for the best religion book of 2007. His second book, Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century, will be published in fall 2008.