The Essential Superhero, or Why Captain America is an Anglo Bruce Lee
Comic book superheroes are inconsistent and vague. They have to be. Even if a writer intends for a character to be distinct, that distinction tends to get lost over the years when the character falls into different hands. Nineteen writers later, who the hell can say what Batman is “really like?” Is he a driven, borderline-loony vigilante? A smiling scoutmaster with a cool belt of tricks? The patriarch of a huge clan of like-minded adventurers? He’s all of the above; it depends on what issue you buy.
If you step outside of comics, I believe it gets a little different. To regular folks, the heroes are understood as icons. They represent basic, simple ideas in funny clothes, a visual shorthand for something. Each successful character has one, maybe two, core traits.
These core traits form the character’s appeal to a reader, traits that both Phineas Q. Fanboy and a regular person on the street can appreciate. Ignore that trait and the hero becomes a cypher, an indistinct brightly-colored blob on paper. Include the trait and any portrayal is basically right.
My pet theory is that you can identify a character’s essential trait, the trait without which the character ceases to exist, by the little frisson of “woo!” you get when you see it used.**
Granted, this is all my opinion, but I think it holds up.
Take the most iconic of superfolk, DC Comics’ big three.
Superman, for example, has the essential trait of “Super Powers Are Cool.” He flies! He lifts heavy stuff! Sure, he stands for truth, justice, and swell-osity, but those are byproducts. What’s the Essential Trait of Superman? The old ads put it best: you will believe a man can fly.
Superman provides the frisson of “woo!” when he uncorks his mighty powers and makes with the awesome.***
Batman has the essential trait of “Scaring People Is Cool.” He skulks! He fights human monsters! Granted, there was his “happy Scoutmaster” period of the Fifties, but that was an aberration. For most of his history, and when he has been most successful, Batman was about scaring bad guys, casting that menacing shadow. Batman provides the frisson of “woo!” when he frightens those who frighten normal people. (His "scoutmaster" period is derided to this day because it failed to make with the woo.)
Wonder Woman is stickier. I’d say her essential trait is “Magical Princess Come to Kick Ass Is Cool.” She’s the Fairy Princess from a magical kingdom, come to dispense two-fisted justice and a kind word to the ugly brutish world we live in. Wonder Woman provides the frisson of “woo!” when she brings out her otherness in contrast to the “Man’s World.” (I think. WW fans, please lemme know if you have a better idea.)
Marvel’s biggest name has an obvious one. Spider-Man’s essential trait is “Everyman With Powers Is Cool.” Spider-Man is, at his core, a regular guy who happens to have superpowers. The gulf between his regular life of spotty employment, girl trouble, and head colds and his superhero life of high adventure and fame has long been his central appeal.
Superman also carries the appeal of the gulf between hero and schmuck, but the flavor is different. Superman is a god in disguise as a mortal. His “everyday man” travails last just as long as he decides to let them. Spider-Man is a regular guy whether he wants to be or not. His powers do not end his problems, they just change them. Spidey’s frisson of “woo!” comes when his Spider-life and his regular life collide: he loses a job because he was busy saving the city one afternoon; Peter’s high school bully is Spider-Man’s biggest fan; and so forth.
Then there are the others. It’s not too hard to determine a popular character’s essential trait. Hulk? “Angry Child Breaking Stuff Is Cool.” Wolverine? “Stabbing Stuff Is Cool.”****
Which brings me back to Cap and Civil War #1.
What did all of them bloggers dig?
When Captain America unloads a giant crate of whoopass on a room full of high-tech soldiers and escapes from an impossible situation.
Sure, Captain America is often saddled with all sorts of political ideas, or at least the writers try to do it sometimes. After all, he’s a walking flag. And there is his status as the cleanest of the clean-cut, the most righteous of them all.
But that’s not his essence. Not really. The symbolic importance of his name and flag-jammies come and go. Englehart and DeMattis made a lot of hay out of it. Kirby and Gruenwald didn’t. His purity of heart is important, sure. But what’s the core? Cap’s sine qua non?
The essence of Cap is “Kicking a Lot of Ass Is Cool.” The quintessential Cap moment is not him giving a speech about freedom. It’s Captain America entering a room with fifty bad guys and smashing the whole group singlehandedly. Preferably as their leader yells, “He’s just one man!”
Granted, most superheroes could do it. But very few of them actually do. Wiping out a Room Fulla Suckas™ is a distinctly Captain America scene, made fun and exciting by his lack of superpowers. Sure, Iron Man or Thor could crush a room full of goons by blinking, which makes it dull and a little disturbing. Cap has only courage, his fists, and a silly-ass costume. Thus do his mass beatdowns provide the frisson of “woo!”
Captain America is the dude who fights the hordes and wins. He is the Tough Guy. He is Badassedness Incarnate. He is Bruce Lee recast as Anglo.
No, really. He is.
Early in “The Chinese Connection,” an angry Bruce Lee visits a Japanese karate school, seeking to challenge its headmaster to a fight. The students, contemptuous of the man, get in his way. Lee unloads three metric tons of whoopass upon the crowded room of trained fighters, smashing them all in record time.
Now that there, that was a Captain America moment. One man, with only skill, courage, and great abs, takes on a small army and kicks the crap out of every last mother's son?
* I have a lot of pet theories. Most are crap. I kinda like this one.
** A corollary to my theory is that any character whose essence can't be defined will never be iconic. If you can't find the woo, the character's a second-stringer.
** Traditionally, Superman had another Essential Trait: the secret identity of Clark Kent and its accompanying “love triangle” with Lois Lane. I'm on the fence about it as an Essential Trait, as it’s been gone for fifteen years and it hasn’t killed the character. Remove the “love triangle” and he’s still distinctly Superman; remove the Super Awesome Powers and he’s not Superman anymore. Then again, to the non-fanboys of the world, the Clark/Supes/Lois "triangle" is huge. Hm.
*** Well, it is.