Originally published September 3, 1999, in Comics Buyer's Guide #1346
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
-John Donne, "Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions"
There are two movies out at the moment, one squarely comic book related, the other tangentially related, both of which serve to remind me of my earliest days of comic reading. Specifically, what heroes were about, or at least what they were supposed to be about.
The first, as I'm sure you can surmise, is Mystery Men. Based upon the Bob Burden characters introduced into the inimitable Flaming Carrot, the Mystery Men (and woman) are the blue collar heroes. The "other guys," the "superhero wannabes," playing distinct second and third fiddle in Champion City while the activities of Captain Amazing garners the universal praise of the Champion Citizens. The Mystery Men, like the Rodney Dangerfields of the superhero game, don't get no respect.
The most stalwart of them, the Shoveler (William H. Macy, who brings sincerity and quiet dignity to every role he plays) is gently told by his wife that he's a good husband and father, "but that's all." The most deliriously bizarre, the Blue Rajah (Hank Azaria, never better served by his incredible knack for offbeat dialects) hides his predilection for tossing cutlery (forks and spoons only) from his mother. Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), is Bruce Banner sans Hulk, a ninety-pound weakling who, when enraged, becomes an enraged ninety pound weakling who is informed by a prospective romantic interest, "I don't find you threatening. At all." Indeed, the biggest wannabe of them all, Invisible Boy (Kell Mitchell) is convinced he can become invisible precisely because no one ever pays attention to him. The lack of respect he receives is where he draws his questionable strength from.
However, when Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear, rarely more wonderfully smug) is taken captive by the fiendish and dementedly named Casanova Frankenstein (played by Geoffrey Rush, who appears to be having entirely too much fun), it is up to the Mystery Men to step in and try, at least, to save the day. And as opposed to most superhero films, there is serious doubt much--indeed, all--of the time that they will succeed in their endeavors.
The thing is, the comparisons the film draws on its surface between Captain Amazing and the Mystery Men is that the former is ultra-competent while the latter are misfits, idiots, boobs who go into a battle and wind up with wedgies, bruises and bloody noses. But looking beneath the surface, one sees different philosophies in action. For Captain Amazing's priorities from the beginning center around himself. He is a walking advertisement for an assortment of licensees, ambulatory product placement with logos stuck all over his uniform. When he handily disposes of roughnecks who terrorize the residents of a nursing home, he doesn't give a damn about the people he's helped. Instead he focuses on how the headlines are going to look, and despairs to his publicist that he's not going to come across as sufficiently heroic by such low-level stunts. ("I'm a publicist, not a magician," retorts the publicist, played naturally by Ricky Jay the magician. How did Penn Gillette miss out on this role?)
Indeed, Captain Amazing cares so little about the safety of Champion City's citizenry that he actually engineers the escape of Casanova Frankenstein just so that he can have someone sufficiently high-profile to battle.
By contrast, the Mystery Men battle evildoers out of a compulsion to aid their fellow citizens, even though those same fellows feel that the Mystery Men are a waste of superhero space. They are personifications of the words of Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Despite the beatings they take, despite the scorn with which they are greeted, what makes the Mystery Men special is not their costumes, not their powers (or lack thereof) but instead the simple and unshakeable belief that they are needed. And because they feel they are needed, they cannot--will not--turn away. In a world that has come through the "Me" Generation, or individuals who espouse philosophies that put oneself before anyone else, the Mystery Men realize the interdependence of society. The Shoveler is not only able to see a "gift from God" in his relatively meager abilities ("I shovel well!"), but he sees the innate goodness and hints of heroism in everyone, from the largest to the smallest.
The problem with so many comics is that the battles center around hero vs. villain, to the degree that the original point of superheroes becomes lost: namely, to protect and serve the people on an elevated scale. A few heroes have never lost sight of that, most particularly Superman. The mark of a superhero, I guess, is that to the people he or she protects, life without him or her would be unthinkable. Citizens should be wondering how they ever got along before whoever-it-is came along.
If there is a second Mystery Men film, my feeling (for what that's worth) is that it should focus on the hazards of fame as promises of riches and endorsement tempt the Mystery Men down the same road that so corrupted everything that Captain Amazing presumably tried to be at the beginning of his career.
Speaking of Superman
The Iron Giant, the brilliantly animated feature film about the relationship between a young boy, Hogarth, and a nameless alien/sentient robot who comes to earth in 1957, at the height of the Red Scare, draws some of its inspiration from the Superman of that time. There's stuff in the film that will go right past young readers of today, but will draw guffaws from viewers old enough to remember when we were taught that, should a nuclear strike be imminent, hiding under our desks would somehow increase our survival chances. (Kids nowadays who have accurate images of nuclear blasts emblazoned in their memory thanks to Terminator II will probably wonder how anyone could have been that naive.)
At one point, Hogarth attempts to explain to the (misunderstood, naturally) giant that although others might view him as a monster and menace, actually he is one of the good guys: like Superman, to be specific. The giant takes the message so much to heart that he even fashions an "S" emblem for himself. (What did you expect? It's a Warners Film.)
What Hogarth teaches the giant--indeed, what makes not only Superman heroic but a hero heroic, as far as the lad is concerned--is a respect for the sanctity of life, and the belief that one should not, must not, kill. That if one is going to aspire to be Superman-esque, one is accepting a code of conduct and behavior that abides by the simple commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill. The Iron Giant draws his inspiration and, indeed, his moral code, from the greatest superhero of them all.
It's particularly apt, especially with the recent issue of CBG celebrating the anniversary of the Punisher fresh in my mind. The Punisher did what he did, not to serve the commonweal except in the most oblique of terms, but rather simply to hurt and/or kill as many bad guys as he could. His motivations were almost sadistic rather than altruistic.
(As an aside--in that issue, I referred to Jo Duffy as "the hardest working man in comics." It's come to my attention that some folks might not realize it's a kind of running gag between Jo and myself. She's spoken of how some fans refer to her as "that Jo Duffy guy," particularly in stating, "That Jo Duffy guy sure knows how to write great Punisher stories. A real man's man, that Jo." So, please don't bother writing in and telling me I don't know Jo's female, because I kinda do. But I digress )
That may be part of why people believe that superheroes are on the wane. Because as superhero stories become more and more about good guys in suits beating up on evil guys in suits, they lose their grounding in the real world. And it's that grounding that gives the reader their interest in the fates of the characters, their gateway into the world in which the superdoers live. If issue after issue is about heroes and villains, who really cares? Audiences want something to which they can relate directly.
Even TV series that were about bigger than life characters weren't really about them. In Dallas, for instance, the real draw wasn't just the super-rich Ewings. The draw was that here were these people who had more money, more property, more opportunities for sex than most mere mortals can hope for--and they were all miserable. For those of us who will never have a tenth of the privileges of the Ewings, seeing that money didn't buy happiness was something of a sop. It made having less feel better when we saw that those with more were emotionally worse off than we were.
Mystery Men and The Iron Giant, at their cores, are tales of the strength of the human heart. No matter how high they fly, or how outlandish the schemes of the villain may be, the spirit of simply, purely doing good is never lost. It may grow dim from time to time as the plot unfolds, but it never disappears.
Let's hope it never disappears from the real world as well.
(Peter David, writer of stuff, can be written to at Second Age, Inc., PO Box 239, Bayport, NY 11705.)