It’s no secret that our movies, television, and to some extent also our popular fiction are inundated with superheroes.1 The main characters, or the essential focus of the story, is on people with some physical or mental enhancement: super strength, x-ray vision, ability to fly, increased lifespan, or genius-level perception. And I would include here people who are otherwise separated from the human race by exceptional circumstances: vampires, witches, fallen angels, and the victims of medical experimentation.
These movies, television shows—series, I guess you call them now, with extended story arcs—and books are aimed at the young adult, the middling young, and the young at heart. The trouble is that, in my view, they tend to arrest the normal human development from child to functioning adult.
Life’s problems, which all of us must deal with, cannot be solved by punching through walls, seeing through doors, outsmarting your enemies with a genius IQ, or becoming immortal. A functioning adult has to use the skills and knowledge developed through hard work, proper choices, and good use of time in order to gain confidence, capability, and self-esteem. These things cannot be granted by birth on another planet, a medical advance, or a fortuitous afterlife. There are no shortcuts to growing up.
One of my favorite science-fiction series is Frank Herbert’s Dune books, telling the fantastic far-future history of the accomplished Atreides family. The series actually climaxes in the fourth book, The God-Emperor of Dune. The main character there is Leto II, who is the ultimate superhero: emperor of the known universe, served and protected by fiercely loyal people, commanding a superb fighting force, as well as being virtually immortal, physically invulnerable, able to predict the future, and able to access the living memory of every one of his ancestors and so the entire history and example of all humanity. And yet, in Herbert’s brilliant style, he is brought down by two skilled but not super-powered human beings who resist being his slaves. The book is really the anti-superhero story.
To be an adult is to possess hard-won knowledge, to develop skills that cannot be acquired magically or through a pill or genetic manipulation, to have endured experiences that are both constructive and destructive and enable you to know and understand the difference, and to become adept at foreseeing and dealing with the consequences of your actions. All of this must be learned. It must be acquired by having hopes and dreams, working toward them, and sometimes—maybe often—seeing them dashed. It is acquired through working through your problems, paying attention to what happens and when, remembering those consequences, and formulating rules of living both for yourself and your children, if you have any. This is the process that every child, every young adult, and every post-adolescent goes through. If you are lucky to survive, you keep learning and updating your internal database through adulthood and into middle and old age. Perfecting who you are should never stop until you draw your last breath.
And that is the final lesson. To be an adult includes the sober knowledge and acceptance of the fact that you, personally, in your own self, will one day die.2 This is not a cause for grief, fear, rage, or despair. Humans die, animals and plants die, bacteria and funguses can be destroyed, cell lines come to an end. Even rocks and whole mountains wear away to dust and silt, then break down into their component atoms, and rejoin the cycle of life on this planet. In my view, this is the key understanding of the human condition. We are not immortal. We have no lasting power over death, only good fortune and small victories. We only have the strength of our bodies, the power of our intelligence, and the focus of our wills. That is all we human beings can command.
When you know that you will eventually die, then you know how to value your life, your time, and your effort here on Earth. To be willing to sacrifice your life for something you believe is greater than yourself, you have to know how to value your remaining time. This is a rational decision that our brains were designed to make—if they are not clouded by the veil of hope that we, in our own bodies, just might be immortal. That hope protects us when we are young and stupid and have little experience of death. It is a foolish thing to carry into adulthood and middle age, when we are supposed to know the truth and act accordingly.
Oh, and in addition to what we can command and accomplish as individuals, we can also work together, pooling our achievements and our knowledge over time. We can raise vast cathedrals, each person adding his own carved stone or piece of colored glass. We can build a body of scientific knowledge by researching and writing down our findings in a discipline that we share with others. We can join a company—in the oldest sense of that word, whether an economic enterprise, a body of troops, or a group of travelers—to attempt and achieve more than a single human can do. And if we cannot do any of these things directly, then we can support the efforts of others by mixing mortar for their cathedral, serving as an archivist of their scientific endeavors, or becoming the financier, accountant, or quartermaster to that company in whatever form it takes.
Any of these tasks shared with other humans requires a knowledge of self and your limitations, a willingness to hold your own dreams and desires in check and subvert them to the common will, and to take and give orders for the good of the common effort. And this is another aspect of becoming an adult: to put aside the me-me-me of childhood and adopt the us of a collaborative group.
Superheroes, in fiction and on the screen, leap over these everyday problems and concerns. If they experience disappointment and existential angst at all, it is usually focused inward, on their supposed powers and their failure when they meet a foe who exhibits a greater power. But it’s all a conception of, and played out in the mind of, the graphic artist, the writer, or the film director: the presumed power, the challenges, and the intended result. And, curiously enough, the superhero always manages to win in the end. That is the way of fiction.
Real life involves dashed expectations, failed attempts, physical and mental limits, rejection by loved ones, and sometimes rejection by society itself. It is what a person does with these situations, using only the strength and wits, skills and knowledge, that he or she has acquired through conscientious development, that marks a successful human being. And ultimately the extinction of body and mind comes for us all. If you’re not dealing soberly with these things—and superheroes don’t—then you remain a species of child.
Those developing-adult stories, dealing with growth and change, are really the ones worth telling.
1. In fact, about fifteen years ago, when I was still trying to find an agent for my science-fiction writing, one potential candidate asked, “Who is your superhero?” That was the literary mindset: the main character had to have extraordinary powers for any book that could hope to be optioned for a movie—and back then selling a million copies and making it to the big screen had become the sole purpose of publishing. Maybe it still it, for all I know. But Covid-19 and the closing of the theaters might change all that.
2. I believe I first read this in a Heinlein story—perhaps Stranger in a Strange Land, although I can’t find the reference—that the difference between a child and an adult is the personal acceptance of death. To that, one of the characters in the conversation replies, “Then I know some pretty tall children.”