For a long time, it wasn't cool to like superheroes. To admit that you enjoyed tales of men and women who battled crime in colorful outfits was to label yourself a "nerd" or a "dork" and find yourself ostracized by your peers. It's ironic, then, that nowadays movies like The Avengers and The Dark Knight boast some of the biggest box office numbers of all time. How did that happen? Why did it happen?
I think the truth is that we've always loved superheroes; we just didn't realize it until now.
In a way, yes. Superheroes have only been wearing brightly-colored tights since the late 30's, but they've been around far longer. They just looked a little different:
That right there is Heracles, better known as Hercules. Good ol' Herc has everything we've come to expect from a modern superhero: an otherworldly origin; great power and durability; a long list of adventures; a defining tragedy that leads to his greatest deeds. Heck, he even got a continuity reboot when the Romans adopted and renamed the Greek pantheon.
But Hercules is hardly alone; all of the Greek heroes shared tropes with modern superheroes. Odysseus was a guile hero, complete with villains of his own creation. Jason gathered an early incarnation of the Justice League . Achilles had tremendous strength and a ridiculous weakness before it was cool.
Other cultures got into the hero business too, sometimes long before the Greeks. What is Beowulf if not a Norse superhero? Or Samson for that matter? Even the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest stories ever written, is essentially a superhero tale.
So why have these kinds of stories endured for so long? I think it is because the world can be a scary place, and these heroes help us escape to a better place.
All fiction and entertainment is escapism in some way or another, but heroes offer us something unique: hope. Specifically, they offer the hope that the world can be a better place. Heroes have the courage to face all that which terrifies us and come out victorious. They have the power to defend those that can't defend themselves. They can bring justice to the world--and so can we if we follow their example.
Is it childish to look at spandex-clad heroes and see them as examples to follow? Perhaps. The real world is never as simple as in the comics or ancient epics. The lines between good and evil are never really as clear, and the idea of one person or a group of people being able to make a difference seems laughable in the face of the world's challenges. No matter how hard we try, nobody would be able to change the world like a superhero could.
Of course not; that's what makes them superheroes. But does that mean that we shouldn't at least try to make the world better? Of course not. Because a hero never gives up, even when things seem impossible. It's what they do. It's what they've done for thousands of years, and hopefully what they'll do for generations to come.