As I alluded to yesterday, I recently saw Spider-man Homecoming with my nephews. It made me think again about superhero names. I touched on them briefly before, thinking about how straightforward they are. The majority of the most popular ones are simple compound nouns, featuring an adjective or noun that defines the character, followed by man or woman (or girl). Spider-man. Batman. Superman. Wonder Woman, etc. The practical, pragmatic explanation for this is to make the characters easily recognisable, and not confused for a rival publisher’s characters. That’s why, after all, Spider-man has his hyphen.
This simplicity also helps to make these characters iconic, and perhaps that’s why the characters with the simplest names have become the best known and loved (few children want to bring a Captain Boomerang or Plastic Man lunchbox to school). Despite their iconicity though, these characters still remain relatable. I don’t think they’d be so popular if they weren’t. Partly that’s due to their characterisation. Spider-man, despite all his heroics, remains a teenager, dealing with the normal personal problems someone of his age has to deal with like school, or his love life. Batman’s defining moment in his life was losing his parents in an act of random violence. Not something we can all necessarily relate to, but it at least makes him human.
And I think that the fact most of these characters have man/woman/girl as part of their name helps to make them relatable too. It reminds us that despite their powers or fabulous wealth, they’re still men and women just like us. It makes it easier for a child to imagine that they too could fight for justice like Spider-man or Wonder Woman. It’s interesting to contrast the fact that most famous comic-book villains don’t have a personalising word like man or woman in their name: The Joker, The Vulture, The Riddler, Magneto, Galactus, Doctor Doom etc.
Another interesting thing about supervillains is that so many of them have the definite article (The) in their name. I think that’s to make them less relatable. Batman or Wonder Woman could be any (wo)man, so children can imagine being them. But The Joker or The Riddler are specific individuals, and therefore less relatable. And they often represent a particular concept, representing a psychological or emotional challenge we all have to overcome, or that we fear. The Joker represents chaos and an inherently absurd universe that sometimes feels like one big bad joke. The Riddler perhaps represents our the intellectual struggles we have to deal with, or the mysteries we often have to face. The Penguin… maybe people find it weird that penguins are birds but can’t fly? Ok, maybe this analysis doesn’t apply to every villain.
Superhero names aren’t necessarily always so straightforward though. Superman is perhaps the best example of how complex they can be. Sure, he’s a man (well, an alien), and he’s super. But in the early days of his history, superman was a more charged term. Even before considering that though, superman, objectively, can be ambiguous. Super- as a prefix means above or beyond, so superman could be interpreted to mean above or superior to man. Granted, most of us now wouldn’t think of the word in those terms, but in the 20s and 30s the situation was different. The first version of the character was in a story entitled “The Reign of the Superman” by Jerry Siegel (and illustrated by Jerry Shuster) written in 1933. The story featured a character who suddenly develops tremendous powers and uses them to become a villain. The story wasn’t successful, so the two men decided to keep the name Superman, but make the character more heroic, as Siegel felt that would be more marketable. And clearly he was right.
At the time in the United States, superman was often used to refer to men of great talent or ability, generally athletes or politicians. In Germany though, a word which could be directly translated as superman was being used with more sinister connotations: Übermensch. The term was coined by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and featured prominently in his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Nietzsche imagined the Übermensch as a powerful, creative, free individual, and an ultimate goal of humanity. Hitler, however, seized upon the concept of the Übermensch in a racial sense, imaging his ideal Aryan individual as an Übermensch in contrast to the untermensch of what he viewed as inferior races. Such rhetoric was well-known to the world by the time Superman was created.
Now I don’t want to suggest that Siegel and Shuster conceived of Superman as a fascist character, especially considering that both men were Jewish. I wonder though, if they were drawing, perhaps even unconsciously, on Nazi rhetoric in creating the original villainous version of the character. And it’s curious that they retained the name when they decided to make the character heroic, perhaps aware on some level that there might be something troublingly fascistic about this exceptional individual who’s naturally superior to humans, and deals with problems unilaterally (and in fairness I think that later writers have dealt with the ambiguity of the character: certainly the version of the character in the last two films has been, for me, disturbingly fascistic).
And I don’t mean to pick on Superman (who generally seems like a really nice guy), because this is an ambiguity at the heart of the concept of the superhero in general. We imagine brave, fearless individuals who risk their lives to save those who can’t save themselves. But we’re aware of how frightening this can be. What if these powerful individuals turned against us? And don’t they reflect badly on us? Don’t they show us that we’re too weak to help ourselves? So yes, they are men or women, heroes we can aspire to be. But they’re still superheroes, above and beyond us. And the language we use reflects our ambiguous feelings about them. They’re people, so they’re not impersonal Jokers or Riddlers. But at the same time, they’re Spider- or Bat- or Iron- men. There’s still something inhuman about them, which helps us to remind ourselves that they’re not quite like us after all, for better or for worse.