During World War II, my grandfather was in Europe, and one day walked by a superior officer (whom he didn’t think was all that bright) who was reading a Superman comic. A moment later, his superior sneered and tossed the comic to him, saying, “I’m not reading that stupid thing again. It’s a story where Superman meets Santa Claus.”
My grandfather was confused by this. His superior officer then practically shouted in annoyance, “You can’t have Superman meet Santa Claus. Santa Claus isn’t real!”
That story and statement fascinate me to this day. What are the boundaries we make for our fictional characters? Why is it ok for some of us (myself included sometimes) that Superman can defy physics and meet figures from Norse and Greek mythology, but it’s just strange and offputting if he meets beings such as the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus unless it’s a dream or a story that is announced to be outside of canon? Why are we looking for there to be any sense of “reality” in the stories of super-powered people at all?
Chasing the real
When he directed Suicide Squad, David Ayers repeatedly told the production team that he wanted to “chase the real.” He said he didn’t want any super-villain or superhero costumes, but to make the world resemble the real one that you and I inhabit. Whatever your opinion of the film, I find that approach both interesting and a little odd considering the same movie involves a crocodile man and a magic soul-stealing sword, and operates on the premise that a solar-powered alien who could shoot lasers from his eyes recently died in combat while fighting a genetically engineered zombie monster. Automatically, that is not the real world. And right now, as Hollywood and media are saturated with superhero films, the strategy to take away any remotely outlandish element of these characters to make them more “realistic” — replacing superhero/villain costumes with metal plated armor and hoodies — actually hastens the idea that these stories are played out and generic, no different than non-superhero action films before it.
Superheroes and their related characters exist in a realm that is truly their own, and we often have trouble with that when our impulse is to push stories into familiar categories and boxes. We like to know whether to put something on the science fiction shelf or the horror shelf or fantasy. But superheroes exist in overlapping worlds and genres even before you establish them as inhabitants of shared universes — the idea that Iron Man lives in the same world as the sorcerer Dr. Strange, who can turn a building into an Escher drawing and the alien-worshipped-as-a-god Thor whose hammer controls the weather.
In Batman #5 (1941), the Dark Knight fights the sinister killer the Joker in one story, but then in the very same issue is transported into Fairyland thanks to a scientist’s special machine and a massive sized book of fairy tales. There, Batman and Robin meet giants, Father Time, dragons and the “Black Witch,” and make their escape in the end by riding a literal magic carpet that they initially didn’t realize they were standing on. These two stories in the same issue weren’t seen as contradictory. One didn’t have a label saying “mature readers” while the other one said “hey, this one is just for kids.” Batman was, like most mainstream comic book superheroes created before the 1980s, an all-ages character — in the end, no less a cartoon than Mickey Mouse or Archie Andrews. As long as the stories were entertaining, remained true to the main character, and had a coherent and consistent internal logic, readers were happy.
But it’s still trickier than that. Mickey Mouse and Archie Andrews were made to be escapist. Superheroes were, too, but have also always involved an element of commentary on the real world of its readers. Superman was created by two guys in their twenties who imagined how great it would be if there were someone tackling the awful social evils they saw every day.
Superman’s first two issues ever show him proving that local authorities arrested and convicted an innocent person, stopping a man from beating his spouse, convincing a war profiteer to enlist so they can see the horrors of war on the frontline and ending a war by tossing the two leaders of the opposing sides into a room and telling them to hash their differences out themselves instead of sacrificing others. He was a cartoon, yes, one who did impossible things, but he was also a social justice avatar responding to real world evils. He became more real to us than Mickey Mouse because the world around him more directly reflected our own, with symbolic and emotional truth.
It’s telling that for years one of the reasons Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster struggled to get Superman published was that his stories seemed grounded in the real world whereas he did not. His powers were deemed too outlandish for even kids to swallow. To counter this, the very first page of Superman’s debut story in Action Comics #1 informs the readers that Superman’s great abilities might not be so impossible if you consider that his biology evolved differently than a human being’s and that creatures such as insects have similarly developed to leap great relative distances and carry several times their own weight. Even then, in arguably the first American superhero comic, the creators felt the need to convince the audience that their world had weight and depth that wasn’t rendered moot by a bright blue bodysuit and a red cloak.
But in just a short time, this self-conscious nervousness about making the superhero and their world seem real went away. Superman started defying gravity and emitting radiation from his eyes while Batman recruited a circus-trained adolescent and Wonder Woman fought conquerors from sub-atomic worlds. In other comics, a young boy became a superhero by shouting a magic acronym, a woman gained super-strength each time someone rang the Liberty Bell, and a super-soldier serum transformed a weakling into an Aryan ideal ready to fight Nazis. It became accepted that superhero comics didn’t steer away from outlandishness. Whether it was a dark character or a lighthearted one, creators embraced the weird.
When the Comics Code Authority imposed new rules on comic book companies starting in 1954, the stories went from all-ages to being primarily for kids. Social commentary and realism weren’t something to touch on. But even then, there was an emotional truth behind some stories. Then, in the 1960s, Marvel Comics changed the game again. Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee and others created a shared universe that had a little more weight to it than what DC Comics had become.
Spider-Man’s spider-sense is basically a magic power, but he lives in a world that was based on the real New York. Police don’t trust him, newspapers paint him in a bad light, and he has to cancel dates so he can fight super-villains. The Marvel Universe really formed during this era, not because it chased what would be physically/scientifically realistic but rather emotional realism. Readers accepted a nuclear blast transforming Bruce Banner instead of killing him and that Iceman’s powers didn’t kill him by hypothermia because their stories became cemented in the human experience of being judged by physical/biological traits rather than the content of your character. For years now, even when their world has Fantasticars and magic, Marvel Comics has advertised that their stories occur in “your universe.”
Yet as long as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and certain other characters remain a part of it, the DC Comics universe at its core remains a little more mythical and all-ages. And that’s fine. Harry Potter’s stories are no less impactful because he rides a flying motorcycle or wears glasses instead of casting a Lasik eye surgery spell on himself. Those elements are part of the premise. The fact that the superhero comic book readership is generally older now means we could use updates, yes, but we needn’t dismiss any and every little thing that may make these stories seem childish to some.
It’s fine if other folks don’t enjoy superheroes and villains with strange clothes and nicknames, because we do. Let’s not run away from it by demanding less imagination and putting everyone only in off-the-rack clothing and body armor rather than anything resembling a costume. Let’s not act like heat-vision, bulletproof bracelets, and vibranium-iron alloy shields are really more realistic than the altruism and morality that Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America have in the comics. People know when they enter a theater that this is a superhero story and will involve impossible elements, the same way they generally agree to accept certain things when we sit down to watch of a Fast and the Furious movie, Fantastic Beasts, Godzilla or Zootopia. Superhero and villain stories are not hard science fiction and never have been. They’re more akin to what used to be called “science romance,” where John Carter (one of Superman’s major inspirations) wakes up on Mars one day and becomes a hero.
No matter how much you try to make Batman’s costume into “realistic” armor, he’s still a guy who runs around in a cape that never gets caught on doors, wears fins on his head, and takes the time to decorate all his equipment with a bat motif. The Gotham City police could call him on a burner phone or a secure server, but no, instead Batman is summoned with a spotlight that shines on a passing cloud. In Batman’s world, it’s not a sign of delusion to fight crime in a mask but an accepted part of a subculture that includes many people across the Earth and it history.
If you force too strong a lens of realism on Batman and his dark and weird world, then I have to look at everything else through it and instead of enjoying what an amazing fighter and detective he is, I’m wondering why Bruce Wayne doesn’t just donate all this crime fighting equipment to the police, personally train their homicide and SWAT teams, and then spend the rest of his time building better schools and mental hospitals in Gotham. I’m shaking my head at the thought that he can even jump, much less do gymnastics and be a stealthy ninja, while wearing all that body armor and a belt full of weapons.
The same rules and standards don’t apply to each comic book character, of course, but they all do involve suspension of disbelief. The Punisher is a serious, dark character mired in cynicism and realism, but even he takes the time to paint a skull on his chest and sometimes drives a “battle-van.” Netflix’s Daredevil embraces that the hero wears fake horns and fights magic ninjas, but oddly tries to avoid having anyone actually call him “Daredevil” (as if “the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” is less silly). Watchmen is often called realistic, yet the whole story would go nowhere if it didn’t include a weird blue-skinned nudist who can teleport and see through time.
Batman does not live in the real world and I don’t expect him to. He symbolizes something different and more imaginative, a person raised by a doctor and a humanitarian who now uses his pain as a drive to make his city a better place. It’s fun to bring in elements of the real world, but too much real world “grounding” and you only needlessly limit what a superhero story can do. Focus on giving me creativity, emotional realism and a coherent story with consistent internal logic. When I want to see a world exactly like the one outside my window, I’ll check out a different story. There are plenty of them out there.
There’s a great strength in presenting characters, stories and worlds that are unapologetic in their weirdness and creativity. I love a new adaptation or take on a character and updates can be necessary and fascinating, but we should always do it from a place of love, a place that accepts that Superman is just as real as Santa Claus and that’s not a secret shame. Don’t chase the real. Chase imagination.