Families in Superhero Narratives
Updated: Apr 23, 2019
Superheroes are born from childhood tragedies. Or so the story goes. What is it about this particular trope that makes it so prevalent in the genre? As I explained in my first blog post on this site, the most important character arc for a superhero is one that allows them to discover their own identity and also their place in the world.
The smallest form of community a person can be a part of is a family. The early years of childhood are important years in developing one's own sense of self, as well as patterns of behaviors from the adults closest to them who are often parents, or parental figures. However, most superheroes come from backgrounds where this formative family structure is ruptured, broken, disrupted, therefore leaving them with severe PTSD and trauma that becomes the backbone of who they become as adults.
Famous examples include: Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man, Superman. To cite more recent examples, we can turn to The Guardians of the Galaxy, where at least 3 of our superheroes come from, let's say, complicated backgrounds (Peter Quill, Gamora and Nebula). Hugo Nominated pop-culture video essayist, Lindsay Ellis, does a great video on The Complex Feels of Guardians of the Galaxy V.2 where she explores the role that broken families play in the movie. She especially focuses on the theme of fatherhood (mostly Ego and Yondu) and the complicated legacies that imperfect parents leave their children. It seems that tragedy is a rite of passage for our to-be-superheroes.
I was enamored by the newly released film superhero Shazam!, which is by all accounts a family movie, not just in the sense that it is a movie targeted towards families, but it is also a movie about family. Billy Batson is a foster kid who is given the ability to turn into an adult superhero. He fights an evil villain, as most superheroes do, but the greatest moment in the movie is when Billy finally accepts his new family and recognizes them as his biggest strength and says, "If a superhero can't protect his family, then he's not much of a hero."
The positive, inspiring take on the superhero family dynamic was really a refreshing thing to see on screen. It reminded of why I really appreciate characters like Spiderman and Superman who, despite their tragic backstories, still maintain a healthy relationship with their families even in adulthood. I thought about the portrayal of families in most superhero media and I realized that they are most often ignored or given a limited role, or as is the case with Spiderman and Superman, are given one single parental figure. Even Indonesian superheroes follow this trope, for example: Wiro Sableng was adopted as a baby by a old lady in the forest, who taught him everything about martial arts and raised him like a son over the years.
Something about this feels right, for the genre, but also wrong if I were to explore the traditional Indonesian family network, comprising of dozens of extended family members, including grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and everyone in between. It would be impossible to tell the story of a superhero without exploring the effects it has on their family. How does it effect the dynamics between siblings, or parents, what impact does it make on the family name and the way they present themselves in the wider community? A superhero's origin story is just another chapter in a bigger family's encyclopaedia. They've been through so much more than our superhero can imagine.
It's easy to stay in the present and keep our eyes locked on the future, wondering what is about to come, but it can be valuable if we look back and ask our family about our past. Some wounds, they may not want opened, but others can shed light about who we are and where we came from. It can bring gratitude, understanding and perhaps a stronger sense of identity for us to know what our families did for us so we could be where we are today. Even in non-traditional families, we can learn about those who choose to be a part of our lives and the journey they've taken to be with us.
On Earth-19, Rosana's story begins at a period of relative stability. The waters are still, people are living in peace, no one is trying to tear through the boxes they've built for themselves, but there is so much to be uncovered about the past twenty years and the way they've been living since 1999. As our PROLOGUE stated, more than a quarter of the Earth's population left the planet in 1999 in an event we call The Great Departure. We will learn more about it soon enough, as will Rosana.