Superheroes seem to stand apart from the rest of us, but their origin stories and exploits are part of our most awesome super power. (More)

Our Stories, Our Selves, Part III: Superheroes and Origin Stories (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at the stories we see, hear, and tell and how they shape our sense of our place in the universe. Thursday we contrasted classical tragedy and comedy with modern competence porn. Yesterday we explored individual heroes and institutional villains. Today we conclude with modern superheroes and origin stories.

“If I could be a superhero/I would be … Awesome Man”

So sang Stephen Lynch in the title track to his 2003 album Superhero. Most of the eight-minute-plus song was his interaction with a live audience, as they suggested other superhero names he might use.

But of course that’s just a song, and Lynch isn’t a superhero. Superheroes Wear Tights, usually with Chest Insignias. They tend to have Secret Identities so they can walk amongst us undetected until we need them. And of course they have have super powers … or at least exceptional intelligence and physical skills as Non-Powered Costumed Heroes.

Superheroes take competence porn almost full circle back to classical fiction. Like the deities and demigods lowered to the stage by scaffolds, the superhero arrives as a deus ex machina. Marvel’s Thor and Hercules make that mythic link explicit.

But superheroes do not quite complete the circle. The classical gods meddled in human affairs, but mostly in the background. They appeared onstage briefly, if at all. Classical protagonists were humans, the powerful brought low in tragedies and the ordinary exalted in comedies. The modern superhero story makes the superhero the protagonist. Mere mortals may be mentors, paramours, sidekicks, and/or victims to be rescued … but the superhero must rise to the occasion and carry the day.

“A dying alien helped me accessorize”

Each superhero must come from somewhere, and the filk-band Ookla the Mok spoofed such origin stories in the song “Super Powers” from their 1998 album SuperSecret:

I got bitten by a radioactive bug
I tried an experimental drug
I went for a stroll on a gamma testing range
I found an enchanted Uru cane
I made a serum that made me small
I modified the serum so it would make me tall
I got a radioactive isotope in my eye
A dying alien helped me accessorize

TV Tropes classifies nine categories of Superhero Origin stories, but most eventually roll back to The Chosen One: an ordinary mortal selected to perform great deeds by The Chooser of the Chosen One or simply Because Destiny Says So.

Because they have awesome powers, superheroes’ most vexing conflicts are usually internal. It Sucks To Be The Chosen One, as superheroism rarely pays well and No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Many superheroes lament I Just Want To Be Normal

… especially if they recognize the Superhero Paradox: chosen to fight evil, their existence requires or may even attract a steady stream of ever-more-terrible villains. Jessica Fletcher was a charming and brilliant amateur sleuth, but Cabot Cove, Maine had a horrific homicide rate. Had she been able to shoot lightning bolts or freeze rays, the Sorting Algorithm of Evil would have forced her neighbors to flee at least one villain who wanted to Take Over The World. They might even have faced a Suicidal Cosmic Temper Tantrum. So do you really want to be a superhero?

“The most complex motor activity that any person acquires”

In fact you already are a superhero, in comparative biological terms. Most animals communicate and some have demonstrated complex signalling. But so far as we know, only human beings tell stories … and that is more remarkable than most of us realize:

“Speech, by the way, is the most complex motor activity that any person acquires – except [for] maybe violinists or acrobats. It takes about 10 years for children to get to the adult levels,” says Dr. Philip Lieberman, a professor of cognitive and linguistic science at Brown University who has studied the evolution of speech for more than five decades.

We began to develop that superpower about 100,000 years ago, when our mouths began to shrink, our necks grew longer, and our tongues became more flexible. Add subtle changes in the diaphragm that allowed us to more precisely control exhalation, and we developed the sophisticated vocalizations of human speech. Paleontological and genetic evidence hints that this ability spurred changes in our skulls, allowing a bigger brain that could produce and make sense of all that babble. We went from Tree Ape to Plains Ape to Homo narratus … man the storyteller.

The ability to tell stories enabled us to pass on knowledge, to discuss and coordinate plans, and to organize the complex societies and groups that make us what Dr. Jonathan Haidt calls an “ultrasocial species.” And, research shows that telling, hearing, or reading a story activates the same brain centers we use to do the activities in the story. Chip and Dan Heath describe stories as “flight simulators” that both stimulate and help us rehearse actual behavior.

The Most Common Superpower is not gravity-defying mammary organs, but our ability to create, understand, and repeat stories that shape our sense of who we are, what challenges we face, and how we might meet those challenges.

Superhero tales and other competence porn can be fun entertainment. They may even expand our sense of the possible. But we can’t merely wait for a Chosen One to rescue us, and hoping a mere mortal will fill that void is a recipe for disillusionment. We can tell stories about teamwork and cooperation … encouraging and rehearsing the actions that make real change possible.

You can be part of that, because you are a superhero. The fact that you can read this and mutter “Um, not me” … is proof.


Happy Saturday!