Just this weekend I realized that I knew of four examples of something, and now I want to call them a pattern.
Example 1. Spider-Man 2 (movie). Peter Parker has quit being Spider-Man so he can have a life, and his powers have lapsed into latency. But when he sees a building on fire and a child trapped inside, he runs in anyway to save her. It’s amazingly dangerous and he nearly gets killed, but he brings the kid out safely.
Example 2. The Incredibles (movie). Mr. Incredible and his buddy Frozone are superheroes who have been pushed into retirement by the government’s antisuperhero policies. But they still get together every week to listen to the police band and do a little low-profile superhero work. One night, they hear that a building’s on fire, so they drive over and rush in to rescue some people trapped inside. The building collapses, but they get everyone out (and involve themselves in further complications while they’re at it).
Example 3. Watchmen (comic book). Nightowl and Silk Spectre are superheroes who have been pushed into retirement by the government’s antisuperhero policies. But they get together one night and take the Owlship out for a spin. They find a building on fire and swoop down to get everyone out, by extending a bridge to one of the windows.
Example 4. Wild Cards (vol. 1) (novel). Tom Tudbury is an ordinary schlub who dropped out of college and works in an electronics store. (This is in the early 1960s.) He also happens to be, secretly, the most powerful telekinetic in the world, a world in which the alien wild-card virus has created thousands of super-powered, and/or monstrous, people. Tom decides to use his power for good, even in the face of a world who hates or fears his kind, but since he’s a pudgy guy who can’t fight and needs to concentrate to use his powers, he needs an angle. So he and his buddy cover an old car with armor plating, cameras and stereo equipment; when Tom’s in there, he’s perfectly safe, and he can use his telekinesis to float the whole ‘shell’ around. In his first public appearance as The Great And Powerful Turtle, he hears about a building on fire while listening to the police band. In his shell, he floats over in time to telekinetically rescue a woman from the building, and then lifts water from the river to put the fire out.
First observation: these examples aren't taken from just any old superhero stories. They're arguably the best superhero stories ever created in their respective media. I don’t know what it means that our four examples come from the best of the best, but it shouldn’t go unnoted.
Our four scenes have similarities and differences. The heroes in Spider-Man 2 and The Incredibles enter the building while it’s falling down around them; the heroes in Watchmen and Wild Cards are outside in vaguely egg-shaped aircraft. There’s an atmosphere of hostility to superheroes in all four examples, even if the hostility in Spider-Man 2 only comes from J. Jonah Jameson. None of the fires were deliberately set. All four scenes are set in New York City, except maybe the one from The Incredibles, in which we’re never told where the city is (but it is a coastal city). The Turtle is the only one of the heroes who actually fights the fire, although Nightowl does try to slow it down some. The heroes in Watchmen save a bunch of people, the ones in The Incredibles save a few, the ones in Spider-Man 2 and Wild Cards save one each. The people saved in the fires aren’t major characters, or even day players; they’re just extras.
The most important similarity between these scenes is that they are all a signal of the same thing: superheroes, once retired, becoming active again.
Example 4. In the Wild Cards world, superheroes (or ‘aces’, in the jargon of this series of books) first appeared in the years following World War II. A group of heroes called the Four Aces became famous for their work for the U.S. government… but society soon turned against them in a way that paralleled the anticommunism of the 1950s. After Kennedy’s assassination, aces slowly stopped hiding their superpowers, and the Great and Powerful Turtle was the first and greatest of the heroes to emerge.
Example 3. Superheroes have been outlawed for years in the Watchmenverse, before the events of the story. The only active heroes are Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian, who work for the U.S. government, and Rorschach, a wanted vigilante. Rorschach is investigating a murder and a conspiracy but getting no help from retired fellow heroes like Nightowl and Silk Spectre. After rescuing the people from the fire, though, they have a change of heart and join Rorschach’s investigations.
Example 2. In the Incredibleverse, legal and financial problems cause superheroes to be outlawed, and the government helps the former superheroes go underground. Some, like Mr. Incredible and Frozone, just can’t stay retired, and keep their hands in in small ways, like the fire which is the first non-flashback action scene of the movie. The fire also starts Mr. Incredible down the chain of events which will result in the return of superheroes to public life.
Example 1. This is the most unusual example. Peter Parker does become Spider-Man again after this scene, but not right afterwards. Instead, the fire scene in Spider-Man 2 is one of several false starts he goes through, also including Aunt May’s speech, the mugging he turns away from, and his attempt to rekindle his powers by jumping off a building. In the end, his powers only come back when he needs them to save his and Mary Jane’s life from a Doctor Octopus attack.
The fire scene is important anyway, because it shows that Peter’s a hero even without his powers. He knows damn well that he’s probably going to get killed when he runs into that building. He knows he doesn’t have the superpowers he needs to deal with the situation. But he sticks with it anyway and rescues the kid despite the burning building coming down around his ears. It’s braver than anything he does with his powers.
And then! One of the firefighters says that there was a guy in the building who didn’t make it out. And Peter closes his eyes and winces, because he thinks that he could have saved him too if he just had his powers. It’s a perfect Spider-Man moment: he goes way above and beyond the call of duty to save someone, succeeds where he has no right to succeed, doesn’t get a word of thanks for it, and feels guilty for not doing enough!
If it’s not too much of a digression, I’ll draw a parallel here between Spider-Man and Roland Deschain from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, because it seems to me that both characters are totally screwed in similar ways. (If you haven’t finished reading that series, watch out, because I’m going to spoil the ending.)
Roland spends the seven books of the Dark Tower series on a quest to seek the Dark Tower. He eventually makes it. He enters the Tower, climbs to the top and opens the final door. He goes through it, the Tower disappears, and he’s back at the start of his quest again, with no memory of his success, just like all the other times.
Now that’s harsh. I know a lot of people were dissatisfied with the ending, and I guess it’s not really satisfying, but it’s nonetheless appropriate. It’s like the powers-that-be are saying to him, “Look, buddy. Your destiny is to seek the Dark Tower, and that’s just what you’re going to do. You can’t avoid this destiny by any device so simple and transparent as fulfilling it. Fulfilling your destiny does not remove it. Now get back to your quest.” It’s also sort of like Roland is finding out (in the split second before his memory is wiped) that he’s not good for anything except looking for the Dark Tower. That’s all he does. So he’s going to have to keep doing it.
Spider-Man has learned that with great power comes great responsibility. In Spider-Man 2 he finds that the responsibility has become too much for him, and his power deserts him. He comes to accept this, figuring that if he doesn’t have the power, he doesn’t have the responsibility either. But in the fire scene, he discovers that he does still have the responsibility, and now he has to deal with it without the great power! Even more harsh. Peter Parker’s destiny is to be Spider-Man, and he can’t avoid it by any device so simple and transparent as not being Spider-Man. It’s all he does, so he’s going to have to find a way to keep doing it.
Why a fire? What is it about rescuing people from a fire that makes it so suitable for use as a flag in this phase of a superhero’s career? Is it some Promethian thing? Or maybe a phoenix rising from the ashes (I actually kind of like this one)? I mean, I don’t want to get too deep here. Maybe it’s that saving people is such a basic thing for a superhero to do.
I have two young sons who I am raising properly, and when I say that, what I mean is that I’m exposing them to whatever superhero stuff I think they can handle. (The one-year-old can identify all seven characters on the Justice League calendar I got a few years ago; the four-year-old recently hypnotized himself watching the old Fleischer Superman cartoons.) When I was explaining what superheroes were to the older one, I had to boil it down for him, and what I said was that superheroes do two things: save people and fight bad guys.
Well, fighting bad guys is complicated, because sometimes the bad guys have their own side of the story, and innocent bystanders can get hurt in a fight. But saving people is simpler, because the superhero is almost certainly not going to make anything worse, and there’s no conflict… except whatever he or she brings in with himself or herself. Innocent people are in trouble: mask on or mask off?
For further research: I have the notion that a parallel type of scene for superhero groups coming out of the ashes is for them to rescue the U.N. (or local equivalent) from terrorists. The examples I have in mind are the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League, the reboot Legion at the start, the reboot Legion after Legion Lost and Legion Worlds, and the threeboot Legion in issue #2. But this is only a half-formed idea at the moment.
If anyone has examples that can help develop any of these ideas, please share ‘em in the comments.