In the past decade, superheroes have gone from starring in small, inexpensive comics to forming the building blocks of global, multibillion-dollar franchises.
Superhero movies are now the biggest earners at the box office, with films like “The Avengers” and the various “Iron Man,” “The Dark Knight” and “Spiderman” installments reaping hundreds of millions of dollars.
But spandex-clad heroes are no longer confined to the pages of comics, cartoons or the big screen. Whether they are vigilantes determined to make their communities safer, political protesters or those who simply want to put a smile on someone’s face, everyday people across the world are donning masks and capes to become their favorite superhero.
So what drives someone to dress as Batman, Superman and Spiderman as they go about their daily business? And why is our culture so obsessed with the idea of superheroes?
“As a civilization, we are in trouble, and so we naturally search for heroes to rescue us from our various problems,” says superhero expert Michael Kantor.
“Look at Batman, who actually has no superpowers at all. Because his character and actions are the most pliable, he has changed dramatically over time. In the ’60s, he was seen as what actor Adam West calls ‘The Bright Knight,’ solving crimes in daylight in a very colorful world of zany criminals. Now Batman is dark and employs the latest anti-terrorist type technology.”
Kantor is the man behind “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle,” a 2013 three-part PBS documentary that examined the dawn of the comic book genre and its powerful legacy.
“Superheroes are uniquely American,” says Kantor. “Yes, other countries can jump on the bandwagon and create their own superheroes, but that particular mix of moral righteousness coupled with physical strength and ‘mightiness:’ That’s America!”
Yet people all over the world have been masquerading as Marvel and DC comics’ greatest characters — or indeed creating their own.
Tokyo is home to Tadahiro Kanemasu, aka the “Carry-Your-Pram-Ranger.” Wearing a green outfit with silver trim and matching mask, Kanemasu waits by the stairs of a Tokyo subway station, lending his strength to older people, passengers lugging heavy packages and mothers with baby strollers.
Mangetsu-man (Mr. Full Moon) is another lovable Tokyo hero. His enemy is garbage. Instead of Thor’s mighty hammer or Captain America’s super shield, this moon-headed hero’s weapons are a broom, a dust pan and an army of volunteers who have joined his mission.
In Slovakia, there is Zoltan Kohari who is also known as The Slovak Batman. While he has not fought crime yet, Kohari believes in justice and wants to help the police. In the meantime, he does what he can to help the residents of his town, Dunajska Streda, make their daily life easier. He receives donations of food in return.
Brazil also has its very own Batman. Retired police officer Andre Luiz Pinheiro demonstrates the same crime-fighting skills as the caped crusader when patrolling the crime-ridden streets of Taubate. Police captain Warley Takeo, one of the policemen who decided to bring in the character to help them fight drug traffickers, hopes that making a connection between the police and Batman would help children have a clearer idea of good and bad.
But as explored in Christopher Nolan’s 2012 film “The Dark Knight,” enthusiastic “white knight” vigilantes are often in danger of becoming criminals themselves while in pursuit of justice.
In 2011, Benjamin Fodor, aka Seattle superhero Phoenix Jones, was arrested after he pepper-sprayed a group of nightclub patrons he believed were involved in a street brawl downtown. Prosecutors eventually declined to charge the leader of the Rain City Superhero Movement, a Seattle-based citizen patrol and crime-prevention brigade.
After he was cleared of charges, Fodor said, “I am just like everybody else. The only difference is that I try to stop crime in my neighborhood and everywhere else. I think I have to look toward the future and see what I can do to help the city.”
As one of the most famous lines in comic book history goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.”