Ask several young children (who aren't total spastics, or the product of nerd-mating) who their favorite superhero is, and the answer you are likely to hear the most often is 'Superman'. This is because the question a kid hears is 'what superhero would you like to be?', and Superman is the correct answer. He's the strongest, fastest, see-throughingest, eye laser-shootingest, time-travellingest, most invincible, and his only weaknesses are Margot Kidder and fragments of a planet that is at least 2.2 million light years away (source).
Now, given that Superman was born on Krypton, and that it was destroyed at some point (presumably early in his life), and given that the maximum theoretical possible speed of planetary fragments is an infinitesimal hair under the speed of light, and bearing in mind that even under optimal conditions the actual speed of planetary fragments wouldn't approach even half the speed of light; Taking all of that into consideration, Superman has - minimum - three million years before the first bits of Kryptonite could possibly have traveled far enough to reach Earth. That's if they're travelling faster than light travels through fiber.
You know how when people are talking about really far out numbers, they'll sometimes refer to them as being 'astronomical'? That's because outer space is wicked fucking huge. Outer space is so far outside of normal experience, that the numbers involved when dealing with space look fake. If I railed on all night about how stupidly massive our tiny corner of the universe is, you would still manage to underestimate the mind-boggling bigness of outer space. The human brain is simply not wired to deal with these kinds of numbers or distances in any meaningful way.
Consider that an entire planet blowing up is going to more or less explode in a spherical manner. So only a small fraction of the planet would be travelling in the correct direction. Assuming the Kryptonian Cataclysm generates sufficient velocity for the constituent bits of the planet to overcome their own gravity, the gravity of their stellar system, and the gravity of their galaxy, and travels indefinitely through space without running into anything, after travelling 2.2 million light years, all of the bits of Krypton will be spread out along the surface of a sphere measuring 2,102,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 square miles. That's 2.1 Duodecillion, in case you were wondering. Also known as a jillion grillion brazillian. On a sphere measuring 2.1 duodecillion square miles, the Earth presents a target roughly 1,613 hundred-decillionths of its total surface.
Now, if that number looks stupid and outrageously unwieldy, it is because for all practical purposes anything that has to be measured in hundred-decillionths is equal to zero. I'm not going to bore you with any more math, but the next Coca-Cola you drink will almost certainly consist of far more than that proportion of my urine.
|That's right. Suck it down.|
What's the point of all that numberwang?
Even assuming a clear line of travel between Krypton and Earth, the odds of the merest mote of Kryptonian dust - much less an actual rock - ending up anywhere near the Earth is mathematically nonzero, but practially zero. Worse than your odds of accidentally marrying Carmen Electra (it happened to Dennis Rodman, proving that it is not only possible, but relatively quite likely). Worse than your odds of hitting every lottery in the world for two weeks. Worse than the likelihood that you will be stuck by lightning dressed up as a scullery maid on top of an igloo whilst digitally pleasuring the entire Swedish Bikini Team.
"Oh, come on, now - that would NEVER happen," you conveniently protest.
THAT is my point exactly. Superman is completely invincible. Not merely in the way every Comic Code era protagonist is invincible, protected by the fact that he has to win the day, but invincible in the sense that any danger that befalls him is a kludge designed to make up for the bad writing that overpowered the hero in the first place. He is mathematically invincible. The fact that every third villain seemed to have a bucket of Kryptonite sitting around is total monkeyshit.
Bear in mind, that this kind of literature served a different purpose back then. Superman was created in a time when Nazism was sweeping Germany, and war was looming on the horizon. Meanwhile, the Great Depression was in full swing and we were far from certain that it would ever pass. Today we expect our superheros to overcome great challenges and difficulty - to achieve beyond their abilities. No act of heroism is complete without a proportionate sacrifice. But in the 1930s, people were looking for escapism and wish fulfillment. And thus we were given the strapping young embodiment of American strength, valor, virtue, and ethical superiority. An overdog story to appeal to a nation of underdogs.
Superman isn't merely powerful, he's retardedly powerful. This is very appealing to toddlers, because they'd like to be fast, strong, invincible, and able to fly. I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that it is a very good thing they aren't any of those things, because they would possess those powers in the absence of any real ethical or moral code. If you disagree, then you clearly don't know any children. Children aren't gentle and pure. They are brutal single-minded sociopaths, utterly bereft of any concept of right and wrong, completely free from the capacity for forethought and the knowledge of natural consequences - Yet they lack the strength to exert their will onto the world. Think about it - Have you ever been punched by a freight train? The first time your precious little angel kicks you in the shin, your entire body is going to explode from the shockwave.
Children wouldn't use superman's powers to fight crime. After murdering their parents, they'd use those powers to take anything they want, whenever they want it.
|That's right. Suck it down.|
Upon ascending from toddlerhood, one begins to realize that they need something more from a superhero. There's no class in liking Superman. Cheering for that smug, self-righteous son-of-a-bitch is like cheering for the Yankees against a Summer tee-ball team, or cheering for a tee-ball team against the Seattle Mariners. It's not just that he always wins, he also never loses. There's no ambiguity with Superman. He never has to make the hard decision, because there's always a third option when you've got the ability to cut a man's testicle in half with your laser eyes. He always chooses to save everyone, and capture the criminal.
At this phase (7 or 8 years old) kids are ready to pick a better superhero. Back in my day, that generally meant you either became a Spider-man fan, or a Batman fan, or possibly even both - because at that age, no one really cares about the Marvel / DC rivalry. Come to think of it, I still don't care about the Marvel / DC rivalry.
Spider-man was cool because while he was stronger and far more nimble than the average joe, he was far from invincible. Plus he got to swing off buildings and shit with his spider webs. Spider-man really had to work for it if he wanted to save the day, because most of the time his adversaries were more powerful than he was. He was a teenager, cursed with great power and great responsibility (a phrase which originated in Amazing Fantasy #15, not in the movie). He was constantly torn between his responsibilities to his family and friends, and his responsibility to thwart disaster - because he was the only one who could.
Did I mention he lives in New York City? The most populous city in the world. He drops the ball one time, and gets his uncle killed, and now he's on the morally on the hook for preventing and avenging every murder, arson, rape, burglary, assault, bank robbery, mugging, and bridge collapse that happens in New York fucking City. They even saddled him with fantastic senses, so he'd know when anyone around him was in danger. The point is, unlike Superman who always gets everything and never loses anything, Spider-man lives in a world of compromise - often forced to allow the lesser of two evils go unaddressed. It's like one of those experiments you hear about from an ethics book - if you pull the switch one person dies, and if you push the switch the other person dies but if you do nothing everyone dies.
That's every second of Spider-man's day. He's been out kicking ass for three days straight because he lives in New York City, and finally he has to go home and sleep because he's completely exhausted and needs to rest because he's rapidly losing effectiveness. He finally lays down when his super hearing picks up the sound of Tony 'Stinkfist' Valvano beating the shit out of his wife with a waffle iron four houses down. He needs the sleep, but if he does nothing her blood is on his hands, because he was the only one who could do something. On the other hand, even if he takes care of it - HE LIVES IN NEW YORK CITY - someone is always getting mugged or raped or murdered or abducted within a few blocks of his house. Sooner or later he just has to say 'fuck it', and choose to let people die so he can get enough sleep to go back to saving the world from proper villains. All while attending school, and holding down a job.
It's not easy to be Spider-man. Sure he's got all the fun powers, and he gets to give M.J. the old 'Minnesota Hot Pocket' from time to time, but he is constantly forced to make decisions that no one is really prepared to have to make. Moral quandary is the essence of Spider-man. Because he can, he must. It's easy to be good when you're Superman - so it holds less valye. Spider-man is constantly balancing varying degrees of greater goods and lesser evils. His struggle to do the right thing when the path isn't so clear makes him like us. All he can do is try the best he can. It's an admirable trait for us to aspire to. Though, to be honest, he should probably quit, for his own sake. Or at least move to a smaller town.
The problem with Spider-man, is that his is a flawed ethic. His intention is noble, but it is an unsustainable ideal. Imagine someone with amazing superpowers who simply elected not to fight crime - to live a normal life. "You must stop evil, because you can," The old axiom argues. People might get on his case for not jumping to the rescue every time some situation breaks out - By that rationale, people without superpowers should be spending every spare moment in third world countries providing volunteer services to the relief efforts, or working in soup kitchens or adopting tsunami babies, because they can. No one expects you to do all of that, and it's clearly unfair to expect that of people with superpowers.
Batman was cool because unlike the other superheroes being presented, Batman had no superpowers at all. He was egregiously wealthy, and seemed to have a knack for sourcing rocket cars and bat-themed equipment without raising any eyebrows, but at the end of the day batman's 'powers' were intelligence and an unhealthy level of dedication. Sure he's strong and agile and tough and uniquely gifted at kicking asses, but he is none of these things outside of the realm of human possibility. Batman achieved these things through a process of time and a psychotic level of perseverance and focus.
Batman's story is rooted heavily in classical literature. It plays out a bit like the Count of Monte Cristo. Bruce Wayne experiences a great trauma in his youth which proves to be the defining moment of his life. Consumed by grief and the desire to become an instrument of justice, spends the rest of his days engaged in academic research and training to become the ultimate force of justice. Years spent dedicated to building the man he will need to be. His search for just vengeance is tempered by his notions of right and wrong - the only fragment of his parents which remain. Upon entering adulthood, he comes into a limitless fortune with which to pursue his goals.
It's a story that appeals to the growing mind, because Batman is the one superhero you could actually grow up to be. It's not likely, but it's at least possible. And because it's possible, that means that at least someone could become Batman, even if it isn't you. Batman deals in absolutes of right and wrong, while dealing justice to a world gone gray. Deep down, there's a part of Batman that wants to cross that line between deliverer of justice, and criminal vigilante. He struggles with the line that he is forced to walk - and must keep the world at bay in order to protect them. Batman is a dark and capable loner - who ironically is the only beacon of light in a dystopian metropolis. His solitary nature has driven him to be the ultimate omega man. He is separate from those he seeks to save. Batman's heroic sacrifice is himself.
Unfortunately, Hollywood's efforts over the last decade have completely ruined both Batman and Spiderman. I'll admit that Joel Schumacher started the trend, but Christopher Nolan utterly destroyed the Dark Knight. The effects were so conclusive that Spider-man sucked by virtue of being released in the same decade.
And so, everyone has moved on to the X-men. Again, by everyone I mean people who don't actually follow comics. And if there is one X-man that resonates with the ironic post-millennial antihero fuck-you affectation, it's Wolverine. Which would be fine, except that Wolverine is a step backwards in superhero maturity. First of all, Wolverine is the one that everyone likes because he's the one that everyone likes. More importantly, consider the formula:
We've already established that Superman sucks, and that's exactly the template we're starting with. The recipe for turning the Man of Steel into the Adamantium weasel? Reduce and simplify his ethics to increase edginess. Add five 'o clock shadow, cigars, and bourbon. Take away flying, because flying is gay. Scale back his strength. Make him superficially vulnerable, but internally armored. Add rapid healing factor to compensate. Add claws, so he can make things bleed, and so he can interact with his environment in a more visceral manner. Finally, add angsty brooding, and sideburns.
Long story short, they took Superman and added physical pain and emotional anguish, and necessitated a motorcycle. He's still invincible. You can make him bleed, but his internal organs are protected by all that adamantium. He's the ultimate cutter. Bullets bounce off him, but they really hurt. Except that he always just shakes them off and goes back to spike-fisting everything. Hell, according to Wikipedia, he shook off an atomic blast in Logan #2. They essentially turned Superman into an insufferable, amoral prick. A prepackaged antihero who is nonetheless consistently aligned with "the good guys".
Ironically, by making these changes to the archetype they've gone all the way back to the original formula: Simple wish fulfillment for a simple audience. Wolverine is a hard-ass, a badass, a jackass, and an asshole. He answers to no authority but his own, and is covered in chicks. Furthermore, he's bound to no code of honor, he can take a punch, he can deliver one just as effectively (thanks to that metal skeleton), he's immortal and invincible. And above all, he never had to work a day in his life to achieve any of it. He is the perfect representative for a generation of slackers and knee-jerk iconoclasts. Every problem Wolverine faces can be solved by punching it with spikes. He makes no sacrifice of self, and he lacks a sufficient moral compass to be thwarted by quandary. Unlike Batman who sees the world in black and white because of decades of study and reflection, Wolverine sees the world in black and white because it is easier than puzzling the problem out.
I think the differences between these heroes reveal a great deal about the cultural aspirations of the eras of their inception:
Superman (1938) came from a time when we were striving to greatness from humble beginnings. We collectively wanted to be a force of good, both at home and abroad. Ethical and moral absolutism were the order of the day. We needed to be reassured that the forces of righteousness would always prevail in the face of tyranny. We needed an unassailable symbol to train the boys from childhood, who would be fighting in world war II.
Batman (1939) was a much needed corollary to Superman, Batman showed that moral absolutism could still be a dirty job. If Superman laid the foundation for a concept of perfect heroism, Batman gave the blueprint for regular men to aspire to greatness in combat. Power through work and knowledge. The stoic unquestioning heroes of World War II were built on this framework.
Spider-man (1962) was introduced 9 years after the Korean cease fire armistice was signed - right as the United States was ramping up its military involvement in Vietnam. As a society, we had learned the lesson that we could not have everything that we want. We learned that it was necessary to prioritze, and that every goal came with a price. In spite of this, Spider-man reflects the optimistic view of this conflict. We were aspiring to master this ambiguity without abandoning the core values of goodness and justice.
Wolverine (1974) was introduced at the tail end of the Vietnam War. For the first time in history, we were losing; and despite the government's best efforts to gloss over that fact, the broken and disfigured soldiers returning from the war (and those who did not return) erased any doubt that the conflict was not going as well as planned. Having witnessed the fallability of our own nation, the decay of our ethics overseas, many began to question whether or not any of it was worth hanging on to. Wolverine was born of this disillusionment. A reflection of the real-life anti-heroes returning from Vietnam. The lessons of Wolverine were the lessons of a quitter. If morals and hard work weren't the path to victory, perhaps they hold no value at all. Once the government has fed you an ounce of bullshit, don't stick around to eat the next pound. Are these invalid points? Perhaps not. But they represent a desperate complacency. An erosion of our national will to excel as individuals. The death of our collective faith in honesty, honor, and justice as guiding principles. The abandonment of hard work and accountability.
There was a time that our heroes embodied the loftiest goals of the human spirit. The problem is, our goals aren't so lofty anymore. Maybe it isn't Wolverine that sucks at all. Maybe it's us, collectively - and Wolverine is merely the mirror to our culture's own escapist desires. An outlet for our collective sense of betrayal, and the attendant nihilism that comes with it. Are we shaped by our heroes, or is it they who are shaped by us?
On the other hand, I feel like it's the laziest path to take. Removing extrinsic motivations and cultural limitations from the character in order to 'do what you want' is a return to the super charged toddler. Devoid of responsibility, accountability, or any kind of desire to actually work to improve the world. If this is the mirror of the aspirations of our culture, then we are all to blame for the shit-sack state of the world.
Writers like to use broodiness as shorthand for depth and complexity, but it really doesn't work that way. Openly dealing with your internal issues would require far greater complexity, and would expose any depth that there was to work with. Silent brooding is a device used by writers to avoid filling in the blanks, while giving the illusion of a backstory. At best it is a method for padding out a thin plot. At worst, it is a cheap way to cover up for the fact that you simply don't have anything to say.
Wolverine represents the failure to have something better to say. If Superman was the embodiment of the best aspects of the American ideal, Wolverine is the embodiment of what's left - An immature, self-serving, spike-fisting sociopath with nothing to say and no meaningful contribution to make.
But most of all, fuck yellow.