There has been, really, only one superhero in the Marvel universe, Stan Lee (1922-2018). The creator of the unforgettable Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, the ‘incredible’ Hulk and the Fantastic Four and the ones that have, more recently, found mass appeal thanks to their Hollywoodisation — Black Panther, Daredevil, Ant-Man and c — Lee’s ability to create superheroes with their confused mental and emotional states, angst and fragility – DC’s Batman, arguably the most angsty of superheroes, notwithstanding – was unique and trendsetting. If one flips through The Superhero Reader (2013), one discovers that the contribution of Stan Lee puts into shade every other comic book writer.
Lee continues, of course, the tradition of humans-turned-superheroes, Thor excepted, where, Lee and Marvel took up Norse mythology’s most recognisable hero-god. In a departure from routine, Lee created a Luddite variant of the superhero in a universe filled with technologically enhanced advanced and armed bodies, with Thor’s rather quaint choice of instrument, a hammer.
The other variant in Lee’s oeuvre was, of course, the Incredible Hulk. Part of the fable tradition of shape-changers, Lee’s Hulk was the embodiment of a Freudian beast – the angry unconscious – trapped inside the human. Lee takes the framework of the alter ego as the foundation of the superhero: we all have somebody else within us, a theme brilliantly captured in the ur-text of alter ego stories, Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Then, of course, the superhero has to stay ordinary, hiding underneath the mortal frame of a Peter Parker-type person.
Lee created a universe of posthumans who defy gravity, injury and pain. Given the contemporary biomedical industry’s quest for similar amplifications via pharmacological and technological means, Lee’s universe fits perfectly into a global social imagination of a race of advanced human bodies and minds. Superheroes such as the ones Lee created represent the human anxiety to excel, and to transcend the limits of corporeal fragility and abilities. To fly, to dodge bullets, to run faster than average humans (yes, Usain Bolt also does that) and above all else, to transcend mortality itself.
From the mythical ‘elixir of life’ to contemporary cryogenic sciences, mankind’s quest for immortality and eternal youth – superheroes do not age, although Frank Miller has been portraying an aging Batman since The Dark Knight Returns (1986) – forms the subtext to the Lee universe. (Readers demand a consistency and recognisability in the superhero, as critic Umberto Eco notes in his essay on Superman, so to show an aging, physiognomically altered superhero would be unacceptable.)
The metaphoric immortality of superheroes, then, is aspirational. It is because of this aspirational feature of superheroes that Richard Reynolds termed them ‘a modern mythology’ in his pioneering Superheroes: A Modern Mythology (1994). While dominated by white men, the superhero universe also tried to carve out a niche for women superheroes (as studies by Lillian Robinson and Trina Robbins have argued) and black men (studied by Jeffrey Brown) battling for space in a Caucasian ultra-masculine mythos.
Stan Lee’s X-Men is of a different order of characters. Set in an atmosphere where genetic engineering and cloning appear a not-too-far reality, the X-Men universe’s theme song of anti-mutant sentiment has larger connotations. The X-Men mythos symbolises the human fear of difference, and the witch-hunts that follow. The necessity of disguising their difference so as to ‘blend in’ appears like an object lesson to migrants: assimilate or be annihilated.
Consequently, one can read racism and speciesism into the embattled X-Men universe.
Yet, the Lee superheroes are distinguished by their heroism defined as an ethical consciousness. They seek to restore balance in a world where good is repeatedly disappearing and evil reigns. Combating criminals and aliens, the superhero universe is, undoubtedly, an alternative theology and belief. But the superhero universe is also a theodicy, where gods are plausible, despite the persistence of evil in the world.
Need for Order
One induces the existence of gods, and the Marvel universe supplies them in the form of superheroes. If, as sociologists of religion tell us, religion arises because of the human need for order, then Marvel provides us a plausible mode of eventually having such an order: vigilantes and enhanced humans with a commitment to the earth and its inhabitants (this does not of course answer the question why Spider-man or Superman cannot find a cure for cancer or poverty).
The Marvel universe is about transformation, and about the potential the human race carries within it to become something more. Its pantheon of humans evolves, without due processes spread over centuries, thus defying evolutionary biologists, into something more. While the emphasis in these superhero universes is on physical and mental attributes, they may be seen as a preliminary step to moral enhanced beings at some point in the future.
One may well ask: if physical and mental attributes may be enhanced, why not other human qualities such as compassion and empathy? Posthuman theorists (Julian Savulescu, Nick Bostrom, among others) have argued a case for such moral enhancement of humans which would contribute to a different – and better – world order. Octavia Butler has tried this idea in her speculative fiction, positing a ‘hyperempath’ character, who viscerally feels another human’s pain and, therefore, cannot injure another. The question for us, from the possible hyperempath super-human is: if one experiences another’s pain, would we torture others?
Stan Lee’s contribution to the superhero mythos is unparalleled in comic book history. The range of characterisation and the themes he took on – from the Cold War to drug running, crime and alien invasion – converge primarily upon the ‘saving the world’ idea, and remains the cornerstone of the superhero genre. Stan Lee, mourned by fans worldwide, is the true superhero author, or shall we say, Marvel-man.
(The author teaches at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad)