Superhero stories are, hands down, my favorite kinds of stories. They have been for as long as I can remember. There’s something about the dichotomy of good and evil. The comfort of easily identifiable – and often handily dispatched – villains. The idea that there are heroes who will always choose to stand up and do what’s right, to fight for the world that could be, rather than accepting the world that is.
Sadly, real life isn’t as black-and-white. It’s hard sometimes to figure out who the villains are, let alone know how to defeat them. Still, the battle between good and evil remains relevant – even (or especially) in our messy world. I would argue that, the more complicated the real world gets, the more important these stories become. But this isn’t because of the superhuman characters. It’s because of the human ones.
Characters like Lois Lane, Iris West, Alfred Pennyworth, and May Parker have long been some of my favorite characters. In today’s world, they are more important than ever. But why do they matter so much?
A Touch of Humanity
Superheroes – whether on page or the silver screen – are larger than life. They fight gods and bench press planets. Take on ninja armies single-handed and run faster than the speed of sound. They battle universe-ending threats that have no relation to our day-to-day lives.
We admire and are thrilled by superheroes because of what they can do. But I would argue that it is their relationships with the regular humans in our lives that make us love them. After all, we’ll never relate to the Avengers banding together to destroy the Infinity Gauntlet. But we can relate to Tim Drake trying to juggle work and school and family. With making his family happy while doing what he feels is right. We relate to the love between Clark Kent and his parents, between Alfred and Bruce Wayne.
And, while the romance that is so prevalent in superhero stories is often derided by online fandom, it is prevalent for a reason. Comics (and comics-related media) contain epic stories of enduring love. The kind of love that many hope to find one day.
The human characters in these stories give us something to relate to. Superman could be a god, but Ma and Pa Kent remind us that he’s also someone’s son. Batman may be the Dark Knight, but Alfred reminds us of the little boy who was left alone by the death of his parents. Similarly, Spider-Man can web-sling through the city, but Aunt May is a reminder of why he does so, night after night. And, no matter how many times Superman and the Flash save the world, it is the men beneath the suit that Lois Lane and Iris West love.
I admire the superheroes, but, like Lois and Iris, I love the men beneath the tights even more. It is through the non-superheroes that we often get to see my favorite sides of the characters I have loved for over two decades.
The Heart of a Hero
But it isn’t just through the non-powered characters that we come to love the human sides of our favorite heroes. They are also the eyes through which we see our heroes’ biggest successes – and greatest failures. They are often the reason these successes and failures matter.
Consider The Death of Superman. Superman’s fight against Doomsday didn’t have hypothetical stakes. We saw the people he gave his life to protect. We could empathize with their fear, faith, relief, and grief when they watched their hero fight and fall. Of course we enjoy the heroics when heroes save the world. But we feel it through their interactions with human characters. When they cheer, we cheer with them. When they turn their backs on the heroes we (and they) love, it breaks our hearts.
One of the most memorable scenes in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was the scene where a little boy lost faith in his hero, throwing his figurine at Superman’s feet. We had come to know Superman’s importance to the people of Metropolis through his interactions with Lois, Perry, Jimmy, and with the other non-powered characters. We cared about a little boy’s loss of faith in his hero because we felt what he had meant to them before.
And it’s through their personal (and often romantic) relationships that we feel the weight of the hero’s sacrifice. There are consequences to the life they chose for even the most optimistic hero. The life of the hero can put a strain on even the strongest relationships – not just romantic but between parent and child. Brother and sister. And for their alter-ego’s day-to-day jobs. To get a sense of the significance of their sacrifice, we must first get a sense of the relationships they try to protect, as well as their reasons for doing so.
In today’s world, there is one more reason that the non-powered humans are among my favorites in superhero stories. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash…they are all heroes we wish existed. Lois Lane, Iris West, Alfred Pennyworth, and the like are the heroes we actually could be.
We will never be able to fly. It is unlikely any of us will ever take on a League of Assassins, let alone be trained by them. There are (hopefully) no radioactive spiders or gamma radiation experiments in our future.
But the human characters are the ones to remind us that we don’t need superpowers to join the fight of good versus evil. Even without powers, we can fight to bring the truth to light. We can fight to hold on to our morals, no matter if everyone else in the city seems eager to take the easier path. And, even if we can’t fight, we can stand by those who do, helping them in whatever way we can.
And in this day and age, the reminder that you don’t need superpowers to be a hero is a much-needed one.