Peter Sanderson has some interesting insights in his continuing column, Comics in Context, about the new Pixar movie, The Incredibles and its continuation of super heroes as modern metaphors towards humanity and society. Gone are the clear cut roles of superhumans doing good deeds. They now deal with everyday problems, midlife crises and discrimination. In this latest example, a super hero is sued by a rescued man trying to commit suicide. No longer are bystanders ecstatic and grateful. Instead, they're grumbling and resentful.
Pixar is not the first to take a stab at the deconstruction of a hero. Alan Moore's The Watchmen is a seminal piece dealing with retired heroes and how they cope. Stan Lee's Marvel evolved the view of superheroes in the sixties by giving them everyday problems. His Spiderman was an outcast and a geek who resented having such responsibility with powers. The Hulk was a reinvention of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in that a man was a imprisoned by an out of control persona.
Perhaps the most powerful cultural allegory created by Stan Lee is the X-Men. Being born with powers, making them different, was reflection of racism and discrimination. The mutants risk their lives for a society that hates and fears them. They constantly struggle with what they do and why they do it. One of their greatest enemies is a group of robots called the Sentinals, created by the regular humans to catch and kill mutants. Their arch nemesis, Magneto, is fueled by hatred towards humans born out of his experience in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, perhaps the most extreme example of racial hatred. Ironically, Stan Lee had no grand scheme when he created the X-men. He was simply looking for a way to sidestep the growing difficulty in explaining how super heroes gained their powers. Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four were immersed in gamma rays; it was an easy excuse to just say that some of the costumed fighters were born with super abilities.
Like the Lee and his X-men, Pixar may have not forseen the cultural implications created in its characters. Maybe they were just looking for an entertaining story. They end up bringing to light the struggles that people have today. Whether working crappy jobs they hate or hiding who they are for fear of difference, we are shown how these characters are unhappy and strained and supressed. Sanderson writes that it's similar to artists not using their natural abilities.
The dilemma is not always external. Some of them are very personal. Batman is constantly on the edge of falling into darkness. He has no superpowers but dons an alterego do deal with his deep psychological problems. Superman, the iconic blueprint of what a hero is has lamented that he needs Clark Kent and that he'd go crazy if he had to be Superman all the time. Spiderman has always fought with the burden of being a hero and has multiple times cast away his costume. But there is always something that draws him back, a responsibility. Not even the villians are cookie cutter anymore. Magneto straddles the line of good and evil. He is even friends with the X-men's founder. The show, Smallville added a wrinkle to the Superman/Lex Luthor relationship by making them best friends before they grow up to be bitter enemies.
Many shrug off comics as a childish pasttime, but people are starting to take notice that there is tremendous potential in the writing and the characters. These adventurers are used to reflect ourselves, albiet in a more romantic, exciting way. Under the capes and tights, the message is for acceptance of yourself and others around you.