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"I think the comic book superhero came out of a context in which the political, social and economic realties were a little tough," Erin Clancy, Director of Curatorial Services, The National WWII Museum.
Superheroes have played a role in times of war and civil crisis since their creation. Timely Comics’ introduction of Captain America during World War II would illustrate how quickly a hero could rise in popularity in times of terror (and, unfortunately, how quickly they could fall after). We’ve seen these stories both used for American propaganda, and censored when the content covered issues a little too close to the war, but their practical application isn’t why we need these stories.
Though some may find their messages trite, superheroes are the quintessential stories of hope. This is exceptionally true of heroes like Superman and the aforementioned Captain America, but it hits the mark for the grimmer heroes as well. The sun might not shine in Gotham as often as it does in Metropolis, but that can make Batman’s victories all the more sweet.
There’s an inherent need for certain types of escapism when cultural and political climates get too rough. It’s important to be involved and take action, but it’s also critical to take a breath and take care of yourself from time to time. Powered heroes help offer that escape, often representing both a literal and metaphorical savior-type that will swoop in and win the day when it’s needed most. Meanwhile, the men and women who don their capes and cowls without a single superpower help remind us that we don’t have to be from the planet Krypton to make a difference.
While the superhero genre offers both inspiration to help others and provide a much-needed escape, it still uses that escapism for a good cause. We all want to get lost in worlds that aren’t our own from time to time, but seeing our beloved heroes tackle real-world issues offers not only the knowledge that the challenge can be conquered, but a sense of kinship.
“Representation matters” might be viewed as a buzzword to some, but it’s hard to argue its effects when little girls see themselves in Wonder Woman, and people of color finally see heroes like Black Panther take to the big screen, or Kamala Khan flying across comic pages. Representation, in this case, can also extend to the representation of real world issues. A viewer (or reader) seeing issues that are close to their hearts acknowledged and fought by their favorite hero helps validate whatever rage or fear they may be feeling while still showing that the day can be won.
Emotions are complicated and messy, and fear can lead to a whole host of terrible and extreme reactions from even the most level headed person. But humans can do funny things when they feel like their emotions are validated. If Kara Danvers, Girl of Steel, is having an emotional moment because the world is ending while her job is falling apart and her personal life is in shambles, maybe it’s okay to take a few deep breaths yourself. And, at the end of the day, she might have used her super powers to figure out the solution, but the basic tools to conquer the problem are there. No one’s going to get struck by lightning or fall into a vat of chemicals and come out super, but when we see characters who inspire us learn new ways to take on complicated issues, it can drive us to do the same.
Nick Fury once said “Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on.” It seems as if every day we wake up to a new headline telling us that things have gotten worse. It’s suffocating, demoralizing, and terrifying, but underneath it all there is hope. There are real life superheroes who remember that the world still needs them, just as it needs the fantastic stories of their fictional counterparts.
The world hasn’t ended yet. Whether they’re a superhero, a character from a film, the well written protagonist of a novel, or not fictional at all, remember to take time to breathe, and to be inspired. The fight will still be there later, and you’ll be able to fight it a hell of a lot better if you’ve taken care of yourself. Even heroes need sleep.