Once upon a time, heroes and superheroes were people we looked up to. Fictional characters, to be sure, but we needed them because the very reason for their creation was to serve as a light of sorts, a beacon for the world to look up to during uncertain times, whether it was the Great Depression, WWII or even the Cold War.
However, as the Silver Age came to a close in the early 70's, there's been this trajectory towards making sure that our gods were not only mortal, but in some cases, worse than the average powerless person. In theory, and sometimes in practice, this is actually a good thing. Part of the human experience is deconstructing our myths so that we can develop a greater understanding of ourselves, but somewhere along the line, such deconstructions became a fetish of sorts.
Which brings us to now.
Over the weekend, I sat down to watch Amazon Studios' new pilot for Ben Edlund's The Tick. I'd been a fan of the big blue lug since the late 80's when I stumbled across him at a comic shop in Kansas. I was used to superheroes played straight, and The Tick, well, he was a lunatic. I don't know if I was fully ready for him at the time, but my love was solidified with the early 90's Fox Kids cartoon, which toned down some of the rougher edges of the character and gave us something hilarious and felt more like a ribbing of superheroes than an outright takedown.
When Edlund finally got his chance at a live-action version of The Tick, it still felt good-natured in its execution, kitchy even. Given that it came out (after a long time in development) in the early 00's, audiences, or at the very least, executives, weren't ready for the Age of the Superhero, so after nine episodes the plug was pulled.
Had that show been on the air now, it would've been a massive hit, indicated by the fervent cult following those nine episodes have today, which lead to the resurrection of the show—or at least another iteration—on Amazon.
The show itself is still run by Edlund, which is a nice rarity to have a creator still closely tied to their creation. Edlund has been a beacon for The Tick, and has never stopped trying to spread the character far and wide, and that's fine. However, I suppose after watching the Amazon pilot, one almost universally-loved by critics, I came away with a bad taste in my mouth.
I didn't necessarily have a problem with what I saw, and it was certainly a fresh take on the character and his reason for existing as possibly a figment of his new partner, Arthur's, imagination, but it's also a reflection of everything that's wrong with our treatment of heroes these days.
It's the same feeling I had after seeing Man of Steel and later Batman v Superman. By the time those films saw light of day, it was evident that there is now this creative push towards making superheroes every bit as questionable as the villains they protect, or more to the point, hunt down. In some cases, this is perfectly fine (see: Castle, Frank), but in others, it feels like a creative desire to drag the best of our heroes down to a baser level.
We used to want to cheer for Superman, largely because the very existence of the man inspired hope. Hell, he was the creation of two Jewish men who seemed to react to the rise of Hitler in Europe before WWII. Superman was a protector, and the best of all of us, raised in a stable home with solid midwestern values, and even if he was an alien, he was possibly the most American of all of us.
In 2016, he grimaces as the U.S. Capitol building blows up around him, and sulks outside of his girlfriend's hotel room.
"What if God was one of us," right?
There's big business in succumbing to pathos in this day and age. It seems we're no longer interested in being inspired, and the heroes who still try to live up to a higher ideal on screen (Captain America), are broken in other ways, whether it's seeing their institutions of justice being exposed as a long-time lie (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), or outright lying to one set of friends to protect another, even if that's the worst thing one could do (Captain America: Civil War).
Don't get me wrong, there is still great value in probing the inner depths of a hero's psyche, however, it seems that creators nowadays are more bent on not only unravelling the mysteries of what makes a hero a hero, but show how "one bad day" could make them no different than the villains who present the problems, or are at least supposed to.
In a way, this is a reflection of our real lives. The public hungers for just about any flaw in a celebrity, politician, athlete, or other public figure in order to feed a need of normalcy. People can't stand too much success in others. Become too popular, and you run the risk of becoming the villain, a theme that perfectly played itself out as a reflection of reality in The Dark Knight.
The popularity of superheroes now, more than ever, proves our need for them. This is something creators should remain mindful of, because as we face depressing realities in pretty much every facet of our lives, it's the heroes of fantasy that will, or at least should, always be there to pull us from the doldrums and at the very least salvage our imaginations, because that's where hope has always made a home.
Let's not forget that as we become so comfortable with the notion of heroes so damaged that being a hero is simply more an option than a mission.