Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Super Cowards

This isn't to put superheroes down, but don't you find it interesting that everyone who just happens to get superpowers turns out to be a hero or a villain? Good guys and bad guys...or gals. What if the person who got powers wasn't particularly courageous. Does getting powers automatically mean you have to do something either good or bad with them? What if you got superpowers?

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "If I got superpowers, I'd become a great superhero." Sure you would. I suppose if you became Superman or Superwoman or something, and your powers meant that nothing could hurt you short of kryptonite (and assuming you were the only superpowered being in the world, which means no serious challengers), it would be easy to have "courage".

You could dive into a burning building, rescue a bunch of people, and not risk getting burned or choking on the smoke. You could stop a bank robbery cold and if someone shot at you, the bullets would just bounce off your chest (sorry about the innocent bystanders who got hit by the ricochets). But what about other, less "perfect" powers?

Say, if you were bitten by a radioactive spider. Sure, Peter (in the origin story) went into entertainment and didn't think a thing about helping other people, until a bad guy he could have stopped but didn't ended up killing his Uncle Ben. If you suddenly had the proportional strength, speed, and climbing ability of a spider, what would you do with it? No, seriously. Not what would you fantasize doing with such powers, but what would you really do?

Would you make a costume and patrol the city by night? Chances are, you don't have the science and engineering skill to make web shooters, so unless you came by web spinning "naturally", as part of the process (like the Spider-Man films), you'd be out of luck there. Would you really dive into a burning building to save some kid, risking burns, smoke inhalation, and even death? Maybe you would. Most people wouldn't.

What if you were hiking alone on some nature trail and you happened to see an alien spaceship crash nearby. If you found a dying alien inside the ship and he gave you a green ring and a lantern to charge it with, then explained what they were and how to use them, would you really become Green Lantern and fight evil and injustice and dance on the ends of the Guardians' strings? Maybe so, maybe not. After all, you didn't ask for the responsibility. You didn't want the job. Why should you risk your neck?

Let's take a look at power rings for a second. You can't just activate one with a casual thought. It takes will power and lots of it. The original Hal Jordan GL had loads of will power but not a lot of imagination. He'd hit bad guys with giant boxing glove, made of green energy. He could fly. He could do anything...as long as he focused all of his will and told the ring what to do. It must have taken a lot of practice.

When Kyle Rayner took up the ring, the rules were different. No more 24 hour time limit on a charge. No more vulnerability to yellow. No requirement to be really honest or brave, which is why Kyle was chosen in the first place, but he grew into being a hero (and good thing he had a lot of imagination). Would that always happen with everyone, or would you toss the ring and the battery in the back of your closet the first time you got your butt kicked? Would you even try to go up against a bad guy or rescue people from a burning building in the first place?

Most people are OK to fly in an airplane, but if you really had the power to fly all by your little lonesome, would it freak you out? If you had spider powers, would jumping off a 50 story high building be even a little scary (this isn't the Matrix jump program...if you splat on the street, you really splat)?

Comic books are unrealistic because people can do impossible things in the comics. We overlook that because it's fun and it's entertaining. However, another piece of the unrealistic we never even think about is that, whenever anyone gets superpowers, no matter who they are or where they're from, they always make the decision, at least eventually, to become a hero or a villain. There's no in between. There's no one who decides it would be too dangerous. There's no one who even considers not making a costume, which always looks OK in comic books but almost always looks ridiculous in real life (put one on, go out in public, and see how people react, if you don't believe me).

One of the reasons superheroes don't exist in the real world is that various natural laws prevent people from getting a spider's natural abilities by being bitten by a radioactive arachnid. As far as we know, no aliens have visited our planet, especially ones with magic green rings to give away to the casual passerby. As far as we know, no alien from another planet has grown up on Earth and gets incredible superpowers just by working on his tan.

Another reason why there are no superheroes is, even if we severely bend the laws of physical reality, no one, or almost no one, who got superpowers would really do what we see people in comic books do...decide they have a moral responsibility to the rest of humanity to use those powers to help. I guess we'll never know if I'm right or not but consider one more point.

We do have heroes. A hero is someone without special powers who dives into a freezing river to help a Dad pull a kid out of a car that drove off the side of the road a minute ago. A hero is a firefighter who runs into a burning building, risking getting burned, choking on smoke, and even killed, to pull out someone who would otherwise die. A hero is someone who joins a group of passengers on a hijacked aircraft to stop the hijackers from crashing the plane into a populated area, dying in the attempt. These heroes are ordinary people. These heroes are your neighbors, co-workers, family, and friends. One of these heroes could even be you. What made them heroes wasn't any special power. What made them heroes was that, when the circumstances called for it, they put whatever fears they may have had aside and made a decision to make a difference.

I could be wrong. Maybe getting superpowers would be like one of those circumstances, but the situation wouldn't be comic book nice and neat. Your life and the people whose lives are in danger aren't just two-dimensional characters on the printed page. They're real. You're real. Powers or not, you may face a situation where you have to decide if you can make a difference. Your name won't be Clark Kent or Diana Prince. They're just examples of what the best of us could be. We're the real life expressions of who we are and the hero we could possibly become.

What if you got superpowers? You probably never will. But that doesn't mean you won't ever have a chance to be a hero. When your chance comes, what will you do?

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