Brains over Brawn: The Un-Superheroes

To paraphrase Ben Affleck in the upcoming Justice League movie, Batman’s superpower is one we all wish we had – he’s rich. As the archetype of the superhero without any powers to speak of, the Caped Crusader occupies a rare niche in the genre, one shared by fellow Gothamites, Batgirl and Robin, and regular villains, The Joker and Penguin. It’s arguably that mortality that makes the un-superheroes so special; we all like to believe we could be super.

Killer Croc

For all its flaws, the recent team-up movie Suicide Squad reinforced the idea that superheroes don’t have to have super powers or even be nice people; in fact, of the six members of the team, only two – El Diablo and Killer Croc – qualify as metahumans. The rest are prodigies (Deadshot, Slipknot), lunatics (Harley Quinn) or an unpleasant mix of the two (Captain Boomerang). And, given that they’re all pulled from the Batman universe, it’s no surprise.

Unlike Superman, whose rogues gallery tends to include alien despots like Darkseid and actual supervillains (Doomsday, Brainiac, etc.), if only so that Clark Kent’s alter ego has some competition, the Batman canon is a largely superpower-free zone. Even Bane, a monstrously muscled ex-con, derives his signature strength from a chemical known as Venom (hence the mask) rather than through some natural gift or childhood collision with a truck carrying radioactive waste.

The Matrix

The idea of using talents and technology, conventional or otherwise, as a surrogate for superpowers isn’t endemic to comic books either. For instance, the movie 21, one of the best casino movies of all time, depicts the real life story of a math teacher and blackjack prodigy who won thousands in Vegas or, to quote the character Jill, “more money than you can possibly imagine”. Portrayed by Kevin Spacey, the protagonist shows students at MIT a way to win consistently at the table, one that demands perfect recall – and a little bit of luck. Spacey’s character Micky Rosa and his team go on to win $640,000.00 at the blackjack table by sending secret signals to each other when the count at the table is favorable.

Similarly, Rain Man is a film about an autistic savant with a perfect memory and a superb talent for thrashing out calculations in his head. There’s also a burgeoning niche of movies concerned with superpowers derived from computers and medicine, such as Limitless (a magic pill), Inception (a dream-sharing device), and The Matrix, a film about a computer hacker-turned-god, albeit (almost) exclusively in a virtual domain. Then, there’s Big, a Tom Hanks movie that taught us to be careful what we wish for around animatronic sultans in glass booths.

Societal Ills

The obvious question to ask is why we’re so enamored with entirely un-powerful folk. As mentioned, there’s something endearing about humans doing super things (but perhaps not wearing their underpants on the outside) but the un-superhero serves a much greater purpose on planet Earth – they allow us to believe that the average person can defeat crime and other societal ills, even if it’s only a fantasy lived vicariously in the pages of a comic book.

It’s possible to go much further and suggest that the enemies superheroes face (human or metahuman) can represent unpleasant things we struggle to conceptualize or are too frightened to view face-on, like financial collapse, climate change, international terrorism and nuclear war; the bad guys are the fears we all have and watching Superman combat Mister Mxyzptlk and co. provides a certain catharsis to our worried minds.


Obviously, there’s a huge conversation to be had around whether the skills that Batman and Captain America possess actually qualify as superpowers, as evidenced by the fact that even neuroscientists have discussed the likelihood of a billionaire vigilante appearing in real life (and the conclusion is usually a resounding “no”) but, as far as their appeal is concerned, it doesn’t really matter; un-superheroes serve a greater role as inspiration.

To quote scientist E. Paul Zehr, “We’ve all got this bit of Batman inside of us that we can use to help us do better at what we’re doing.” Whether it’s giving back to the community, becoming a better person, or making dreams come true, just about every superhero has a positive message. Villains aside, overcoming adversity is a central theme in some superhero stories: former Batgirl turned Oracle, Barbara Gordon, is wheelchair-bound while Daredevil is blind.

So, according to science, becoming an un-superhero is easy – just be the best Batman you possibly can be. It’s probably best to avoid the rooftops at night though; even the toughest vigilantes have an enemy in gravity.

*Image Source: Suicide Squad on Facebook

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