How does Steve Rogers pick up his shield each day and Bruce Wayne don his cowl? What drives Thor to lift his hammer and Clark Kent to remove his glasses? Although we’ve been watching exploits of incredible proportions for longer than many have been alive, we still haven’t found exactly what makes them tick.
Fame, Glory, and Riches?
We can knock this one off the list quite quickly. Although the assembled hordes of heroes may contain a few who begin with the intent of gaining a reputation (looking at you Booster Gold) the greedy layer quickly wears away. Two of the best Spider-Man moments I’ve ever seen were his invitations to the Avengers. Captain America tells him that they have no funding which is typical for the web-head but he accepts anyway because he can do more good. Thankfully, Iron Man easily recruits him several years later with the promise of a salary. Still, few people are in it for the fame. Seriously, why would they wear masks all the time if they wanted credit?
Another swing and miss. We have seen several take up mantles, both original and otherwise, to settle old scores. On the other hand, some heroes remove theirs to avoiding staining the legacy. Although this often works, sometimes outside forces have left damage that they just can’t erase. Regardless, most heroes do not simply fight for their own reasons. Of course, just because they don’t make it the center of their costumed careers, they won’t turn down the opportunity. Joe Chill was horrified to discover that he was the creator of the Batman.
With Great Power…
Although the iconic phrase “with great power, comes great responsibility” is a cornerstone of the comic world, it doesn’t actually work out that way. If I got time-travel powers tomorrow, I would go back and erase that time I bought 50 lottery tickets instead of stopping robberies or solving world peace. If the formula “power = responsibility” actually held true there would be no super-villains. Maybe several off-worlders would still come to pester Earth over vague prophecies or planetary differences, but — other than the clinically insane — universal peace to all people. Galactus would still binge his way around the galaxy in his hunger but you wouldn’t see Spider-Man going off to fight him until the course swung to Earth.
Sadly, loss is what drives the majority of heroes onwards. The Justice League features two world-orphans, the fish-man who was abandoned by both his races, one resentful cyborg, the man who tried to prove his father’s innocent of murdering his mother, my favorite moody detective who watched the murder of his own parents and Wonder Woman, who had never seen the world beyond her island. The JLA once fought “probability cancer” which reached into the past and caused Joe Chill’s gun to jam, leaving all three Waynes standing. Batman instantly disappeared with no trauma to create him. When under the effects of Black Mercy, Superman imagined a Krypton that didn’t explode and he lives a normal life. Without the pivotal despair in their lives, there would be far fewer heroes.
Sorry to break the news, but heroes are mainly people incapable of dealing with grief. If the comic world had more shrinks, there would be a serious surplus of spandex.