With the imminent arrival of Yet Another Seven Superhero Movies this summer as well as the successful debut of Fourteen Goddamned Superhero Television Franchises over the past couple years, it seems clear that our culture's fascination with superheroes is still going strong. And whether that reflects our interest in the contours of their tight, tight pants or an infantile retreat into a world where problems are simple and can always be solved with fists, there don't appear to be any signs of it waning soon.
Thrill at the sight of Powerman undertaking 12 years of grueling treaty negotiations
only to be thwarted at the last minute by an intransigent Congress!
But fantasizing about heroes who solve everything with their powerful fisting isn't new; it's basically the first thing human beings learned how to do with our brains. The pages of history are littered with characters with incredible powers, insane origin stories, and armies of faceless goons to deploy them on. Here are five of the fist-fistingest.
Let's start with one you might have heard of before, although in popular culture he's a lot less well-known than Hercules, his half-brother (by way of his dad, Zeus, who, as these things are measured, "got around"). Perseus has a pretty cool origin story by modern terms, although an almost mundane one by classical standards. Born to a mortal mother knocked up by Zeus, Perseus was then while still a baby thrown into a box with his mum and cast into the sea by his grandfather.
This is a pretty normal Greek parenting technique to this day, I'm told.
He survived, grew up to be a strong young man, and as is so often the case with young men, got into foolish dares. After being goaded by his prospective step-father, Perseus ventured into the wilderness to kill the Medusa, a horrible snake woman who could turn people into stone with her gaze. Along the way he met up with some of his siblings (also gods, remember) who gave him a set of winged sandals and a mirrored shield and a pretty nice bag. He then found the Medusa, slew the Medusa, and tossed her head in the aforementioned bag.
That's an interesting adventure, but what really makes him superheroey are the adventures that came next as he wandered around, righting wrongs. Also of note: He apparently lugged Medusa's head around for years, like it was his mascot or something. On at least three separate occasions, he dragged it out of its sack to win an argument by turning someone into stone.
They don't allow this move in debate club anymore.
So. Abandoned at birth, super strength, slays evil monsters. That's basically all the ingredients needed for a modern, flawed-yet-badass superhero, plus we've got some childish use of a superweapon? Nice. Perseus rules.
Chinese culture is full of heroes with incredible powers, and there's an entire genre called wuxia (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) where everyone has incredible, gravity-defying martial arts abilities. But if we go back further than that we can find a hero who puts almost every other superhero ever conceived to shame. Let's open up one of the classics of Chinese literature, Journey To The West (later remade for American audiences as Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle).
Some of the subtleties were lost during the adaptation.
Sun Wukong is the name of our hero, although he's better known as the Monkey King. Which isn't a colorful metaphor. He is a monkey, and he is the king of the other monkeys. Born from an enchanted stone and infused with the energy of the gods, Sun Wukong is effectively immortal and incredibly strong. He fights with a staff that weighs thousands of pounds and can vary in size from a sewing needle to a massive stone pillar. He can transform into other animals, where he is also presumably treated as a king. He can pluck hairs from his body to create clones of himself, to fight in battle or dominate the paint in basketball games. Also, he can cross vast distances in a single jumping somersault. He is very much like Superman, in fact, in that not only is he incredibly strong, he's also clearly assigned powers any time a writer deems it convenient.
Though why you would need more powers if you can summon tiny little monkey clones is unknown.
His only downside is that he's kind of reckless, although it's hard to blame him for that, because he's an immortal monkey lord who need fear no consequences. Sun Wukong rules.
Momotaro is a Japanese name meaning "Peach Boy." He isn't himself a peach, and he doesn't attack his enemies with peaches, or anything like that. Nor is he covered in soft, downy hair. No, he was just a boy born from a giant peach.
With all the proportional strength and speed of a peach.
He explains (as a baby) that he was sent from Heaven to be a good, peach-scented boy for a childless couple. The couple raise him, and in time Momotaro grows up to be a strong, peach-scented young man. He then sets out on an adventure to stop a group of Ogres who have been tormenting the village he lives in.
A problem in Japan to this day.
On his journey he befriends a talking dog, monkey, and pheasant by giving them some pretty good dumplings. Together they all go off to Ogre Island and beat the stuffing out of the Ogres and take their loot and then live happily ever after.
Momotaro's status as a superhero might seem a little hard to justify. He clearly doesn't have many powers -- niceness, talking animal friends, good dumplings -- though that still makes him more powerful than like half the X-Men or these guys. But what really cements Momotaro's position as a superhero in my mind is his story's understanding of what a "hero" is supposed to be. Unlike so many of the "gritty" superheroes we suffer through these days, Momotaro is a cool dude who is nice to his parents and does cool things with his talking pets and delicious fucking dumplings. He's an inspiration. While Batman looks miserable and Spider-Man looks angsty and Superman looks boring, Momotaro is just a rad dude who shows us an original, purer form of what a hero could be.
Less dead parents, more delicious dumplings.
Sigurd is a hero from Norse literature. Born mortal and without any particular powers, he is at least occasionally helped out by Odin, who pops into his life from time to time like a helpful older brother. He also has a pretty good sword, originally his father's, which he famously tests by cutting an anvil in two.
"Very impressive, but you know that anvil was my entire livelihood, right? I'm going to starve now."
After negotiating an anvil replacement fee, Sigurd sets out to kill the dragon that is also his foster father's brother. He does so, bathes in its blood, and then, just for fun, drinks a bit. Doing this of course allows him to understand what birds are saying, and the birds tell him to kill his foster father. He does that, then eats the dragon's heart.
So. A lot of things going on there. I'm not too sure what to make of that.
Maybe ... maybe if you know any Scandinavians, keep a close eye on them?
Anyways, later in life, Sigurd meets his true love, then consumes a potion of forgetfulness (been there), and proceeds to forget his true love. He marries someone else, then helps his new brother-in-law get with his former lover by exchanging shapes with him and wooing her in his place (haven't specifically been there, but yeah, I can relate). This, oddly enough, ends in disaster, and Sigurd, his love, and several other people all die bloodily.
So yeah, don't be under the impression that we invented "dark" and "gritty" superheroes in the 1980s, because the Scandinavians have been all over that shit for centuries.
Gilgamesh is the oldest superhero on this list, and right from the start we can see all the elements of a classic superhero. Superhuman strength, two-thirds god, one-third man, ruler of Uruk ... wait a second. Two-thirds god? Hang on. OK, I've done a bit of work here with a calculator, an eighth-grade health class pamphlet, and some LEGO figures, and that's not really possible. So here, in one sentence, our unknown Sumerian pulp writer has implied the wildest fucking origin story ever written.
"So was it two gods and one mortal in, like, a tent one night? Or was this done surgically?
Or was one god beating off into ..."
Gilgamesh was, by most accounts, a bit of a dink. He took advantage of his rule to sleep with young brides on their wedding nights and challenge the men of his city to tests of wit and strength. The gods themselves had to keep him in line by sending him a badass friend, called Enkidu, to look after him. Enkidu was a wild, hairy man who also possessed superhuman strength, and after wrestling with Gilgamesh, earned his respect.
The two then go on all sorts of adventures, slaying a lion-snake-vulture monster, slaying a pretty big bull, probably slaying a lot of things, to be honest. But then they get into all sort of trouble because the gods really liked that bull they killed, and they slay Enkidu in revenge. Gilgamesh then vows to go on one last big score and find the sole living immortal to learn from him the secret to eternal life. He ends up finding him but isn't satisfied with the answer he receives.
"What the hell is a gluten?"
And that's more or less the end of his story, and we're lucky to have that much, because it was written on a 4,000-year-old rock. But that itself underscores an important point. Seeing as Gilgamesh hails from what is essentially the dawn of history, it's reasonable to speculate there were plenty more superheroes before him. He was just one of the first written down. So rest assured that just about every modern take we've got on the superhero genre has been discussed around a fire millennia ago.
"And then in his suit with nipples this large, our hero ..."
For more from Bucholz on Cracked, check out 6 Ways To Fix Computers (So People Stop Asking You) and So You're Being Confronted By An Army Of Wizards.
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