Monday, 2 March 2009

Is it a bird...? Is it a plane...?

The film adaptation of the 1980s comic book series Watchmen is released in cinemas this Friday and highlights an increasing trend in the popularity of superhero blockbusters. After the seemingly unstoppable success of recent films starring such comic book characters as X-Men, Spiderman, Hulk and Superman, and the critical acclaim of 2008 Batman Begins sequel The Dark Knight, it is unsurprising that films of this genre continue to be released and to draw huge audiences.

Yet while highly imaginative fictional creations, the classic heroes of these stories are often less than original when it comes to the linguistic inventiveness of their names. The animal characteristics that distinguish Spiderman, Catwoman and Wolverine provide their obvious inspiration, while the physical traits of Iron Man and Hulk, or abilities of Storm, Magneto, Iceman and Pyro are reflected in their superhero aliases. Captain America exhibits patriotism in the extreme, while Wonder Woman's pseudonym simply exudes magnificence and the Fantastic Four inspire marvel. The characters of Watchmen are more creative, for example the mysterious Rorschach is named after the psychological inkblot test, or the ingenious and enterprising Ozymandias takes an alternative name for Rameses II, often considered Egypt's most powerful pharaoh.

For many, the traditional, definitive superhero is the one with arguably the least inventive name of all, Superman. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shushter in 1933, Superman first appeared as a comic book character in 1938, marking the beginning of the superhero comic book genre. Yet the etymology of the word reveals a surprisingly academic origin. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche first coined the term in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 1883. Nietzsche wrote of an √úbermensch, which roughly translates to superman, as representing an ideal man and a goal for humanity to reach. Later adopted by George Bernard Shaw in the play Man and Superman, and of course developed by Siegel and Shushter to become the Superman we know today, Nietzsche's superman was an ambition, a theoretical possibility, and ultimately the meaning of life.

So perhaps the recent obsession with the superhero is indicative of a collective quest for higher meaning. Or maybe we all just wish we could fly. But please, let's not go jumping off any roofs trying to achieve Nietzsche's goal for humanity. That's probably not quite what he had in mind.

Deborah Smith

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