Alone, the two words 'hero' and 'super' seem ordinary. But combine them to form 'superhero' and it inspires awe in 'superlative' proportions.
The word receives a shot in the arm when married to another - 'film'. Finding someone who dislikes 'superhero films' is like discovering an honest politician in India - you'd consider them freaks.
It's not hard to understand why we like superhero films - they have a direct hotline to our DNA. The reason for this can be found in the history of human evolution.
The single most contributing factor to the phenomenal development of human civilisation has been our spirit of cooperation. As hunters fighting the odds to find food and fend off enemies, we discovered the power of strength in numbers.
Even today, despite irresponsible capitalism forcing one to believe that every human can be an island, if you really look close you'll find human life to be an infinitely complicated web of interdependency and trust where even strangers are dependent – sometimes even for their lives - on each other.
Consider this crude example. You willingly leave the reins of your life in the hands of a cab-driver - a complete stranger. What if he turned cuckoo and crashed the car? When it comes to buses, trains and planes, you rarely see the one driving it. Yet you implicitly trust that s/he will not endanger your life.
The truth is that it's now, more than ever in human history, that we need each other. We may be consciously oblivious to this but our DNA - storing within itself memories of millions of years - remembers. And it is this 'DNA memory' that often helps us discover activities that give us the most happiness.
Think back and try to recall the times when you were the happiest, the most satiated and the most in a state of graceful bliss. You'll be surprised that it has never been when you have limitlessly indulged in your hedonistic pursuits. Of course those who know nothing else wouldn't know better.
Instead you'll discover that your true sense of happiness and fulfilment is connected with fulfilling the needs and helping others - be they your parents, siblings, spouse, children, friends or in the case of the evolved amongst you - large communities of strangers.
Hence, those aware beings, in the pursuit of happiness, have often left and forgotten everything in the service of others. Ironically, even those in the pursuit of endless self-gratification and pleasure - like the nouveau-rich industrialists - often cite their endeavours helping others as a justification for employing corrupt means for a 'greater, common profit' (note that its 'profit' not 'good').
It is this, our genetic souls - that a superhero movie touches. Like the Chad Kroeger song from Spiderman that goes 'And they say that a hero can save us, I'm not gonna stand here and wait' these films remind us that the power to act, to transform ourselves and serve the greater common good, rests in each one of us.
We like superheroes for their ability to put others before themselves, to sacrifice, to ignore their own tremendous pains for a higher purpose. They remind us that this ability, of ignoring personal pain for others, lies in all of us. All we have to do is, like them, remove the cobwebs of fear from our souls and express it. They remind us that we do not have to become the mean, petty and graceless people we often end up as in the pursuit of survival on this planet.
It is the realisation towards this highest of truths - that we can be truly beautiful, brave, honest and graceful despite our muck - that inspires us in a superhero. They become the higher ideal we aspire for. For many of us, they become gods. For isn't that what god is all about, not an actual being created in the incomplete image of man but the highest ideal to aspire for?
Of course we are attracted to the magical qualities of their superpowers and their enchanting tricks. The lazy amidst us also find in them a reason for further lethargy (if one superhero can save the world, I can afford to be lazy, can't I?). Yet, what we admire more is the war they wage with their own selves. Is it any surprise that almost every modern superhero is being turned into an angst-ridden protagonist who fights himself as much as villains?
Christopher Nolan understood this best, leading him to a complete reinvention of Batman from an often verbose, almost comical superhero in past films to a quiet, brooding one in his Batman Trilogy. We like that his Batman, before reining in fiends, first manages victory over himself. That is also why we so adore one Thomas A Anderson who seriously doubts if he is 'The One' in the Matrix.
The all-powerful, godlike superman couldn't have been far behind and Zack Snyder gives him the 'human touch' in The Man of Steel. This redeems a film with a despicable climax that becomes a headache of cliched gimmickry with powerful men and machines crashing against tall skyscrapers reminding you of scores of such recent films with similar endings, especially Transformers.
Superheroes thus become metaphors, emblems for the good in each one of us. A fictional superhero becomes our gateway to discovering the heroism in ourselves.
Whether inspired by ancient mythical superheroes or not, the world has seen its share of real, flesh-and-blood superheroes. Let's take the case of the most powerful of the lot.
Mahatma Gandhi did not have any external powers. Yet, can you think of any human in real life or even in fiction who like a Pied-Piper could inspire millions of people to action. Yes, there have been warlords, emperors, dictators and hate-mongers that have inspired marauding men into the mayhem of war, but not one, not even any of the great religious leaders in the world who could inspire millions to do just the opposite – WAGE PEACE instead of war by non-violently accepting the violence of the oppressor without even raising a finger of retribution.
If it was another superhero Jesus Christ who said if someone slaps you on one cheek give him the other, it was the Mahatma who inspired millions to live that adage.
It's simple to inspire hatred and violence in the masses because each one of us is a shameful bundle of fears and insecurities hurtling shakily through life. To instead inspire the confidence in them, enough to accept love and non-violence in the face of brutal oppression, takes magic and superpower of the highest order, making Mahatma Gandhi the greatest superhero, real or fictional and all things considered, that ever laid siege on our imaginations.
His superpowers were of course, not of a visible kind but something that resided deep within him. It was more moral and spiritual than physical. He himself called it 'soul-force' and he said and proved that that power resides in and can be harnessed by every single one of us.
The Mahatma is what is born if all the real and imaginary superheroes of the world used up all their powers to create the perfect and the most powerful superhero.
Hence, in terms of cinema, Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi is a superhero film that traces the doubts and the journey into self-realisation and self-actualisation of one man into something superhuman.
And Gandhi, like all other superheroes, inspires us to find the Gandhi within ourselves. It is another matter that in our age where imagination is breathing its last, we end up believing those who for their selfish gains inspire in us a hatred of this superhero and his powers.
Yet, his and other legends lives on. They survive the fire of hatred and forgetfulness of their values and whenever the world is in serious trouble, they emerge in new avatars but wearing the same ideals of peace, justice and harmony to bring the world back into order.
And great heroes in comics, books or films, do a great job of keeping us on the right track, till the day we find the superhero within ourselves.
All the best. May the 'soul force' be with you.
Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. His writings on cinema, culture and politics have appeared nationally and globally.