The Hero Behind The Mask

Superheroes make for great movies. The mythic figures of our time, demi-gods in lycra, they serve the same dramatic purposes as ancient heroes – wish fulfillment, role models, inspirations, a reassurance in a dark world that there are people who do the right thing and take responsibility for making the world a better place.

Of course, like ancient heroes, they have their dark side. They’re self-selected, unaccountable, and they frequently seek to overcome violence with violence, a tactic that’s usually spectacularly unsuccessful in the real world. As contrived as the “superhero loses his mind and turns evil!” storyline can sometimes seem, it embodies a real truth: the hero is only ever a few steps away from becoming the villain.

But there’s something else about superheroes that we as writers ought to bear in mind: something that might go some way to explaining why some superhero movies fail and others are huge hits.

Superheroes can be utterly unsympathetic figures, because they’re not like us.

The mythic hero is a distant figure, a divine being on a pedestal. His abilities, his personality, his morals and his ethical concerns are very different to ours. We may admire him, but we can never be like him.

Which is why – unlike the great heroes of the Greek, Roman and Norse pantheons, and most cultures around the world – superheroes have alter-egos. Cover identities. Human selves, effectively. And the greater the disconnect between the alter-ego and the hero, the more effective the character – and, off the top of my head, the more successful the film.

Who are the two most popular comic-book superheroes? Batman and Superman, both of whom have cover identities very much at odds with their costumed selves. Big disconnect = big box office. Now let’s take Green Lantern – who, at least as portrayed in the recent film, was very much the same reckless, immature person, in or out of the mask. Zero disconnect = so-so reviews and disappointing box office.

This understanding goes back as far as the 1960’s, at least in comic books. Marvel’s heroes are deliberately ordinary, young, and physically imposing: teenagers, nerds, scientists. Firmly at odds with their abilities and skills, And in film form, Marvel’s heroes have consistently outperformed DC’s heroes at the box office (though identifiable alter-egos are far from the only reason for that!)

Okay, you’re about to say Iron Man disproves my theory, aren’t you? Well, I would say he doesn’t. Tony Stark may think he’s the same swaggering badass in the suit and out of it, but I’d assert that out of it, he’s damaged, careless of others’ feelings, self-centered, and self-indulgent. In the suit, he can suppress that side of himself just long enough to be a hero. Indeed, The Avengers revolves thematically around the idea of consciously “putting on the suit”; becoming, at least for a few glorious moments, the best ‘you’ that you can be.

So, if you ever find yourself writing a mythic hero, think for a moment about who she is when she takes off the mask. The greater the change she undergoes, the better your story.