Excelsior! Stan Lee's death reminds us we need his superheroes more than ever

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Stan Lee. Getty Images
Stan Lee. Getty Images

What Stan Lee's death most leads us to reflect upon is how desperate we are in this day and age for saviours, for heroes to come to the rescue and for good to triumph over evil, writes Mandy Wiener.

Beyond Thor's hammer, Spiderman's web and Hulk's smash, there are reasons that superheroes appeal to so many of us in such a profound way that they transcend age, gender and race.

For some it is the idealism that they represent, that manifests in the inevitable victory of good over evil. For others it's the optimism that comes with submerging yourself in a fantasy universe where superpowers are real and even the weakest can transform themselves into heroes.

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Comic book icon and Marvel co-creator Stan Lee's death at 95 in Los Angeles this week should remind us of all the reasons why we are enthralled by the galaxy of guardians he dreamt up and why we need them now more than ever.

Lee revolutionised the comic book world by ensuring that his protagonists were deeply flawed. Some were outcasts. Others were misfits. There were freaks and pariahs. Peter Parker is an everyman, a regular teenager who has been orphaned, who struggles to deal with his new superpowers that are the result of a radioactive spider bite on a school outing. He still has to negotiate girl troubles and real life despite his ability to spin webs and climb buildings like an arachnid.

Bruce Banner is as messed up as they get. He is a military scientist whose internal struggle is to battle with his enraged alter ego, the Incredible Hulk. Banner was abused as a child and his father killed his mother. There are deep-seated problems there. 

These character traits were deliberate on Lee's part; an attempt to identify with readers and to demonstrate that nobody is all good or all bad. It was this depth and complexity that resonated with society.

"The characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to; they'd be flesh and blood, they'd have their faults and foibles, they'd be fallible and feisty, and – most important of all – inside their colorful, costumed booties they'd still have feet of clay," explained Lee in his memoir. What this meant was that even his villains showed the potential to be good and his heroes were capable of mistakes and had deep flaws.

So often today, we are quick to cast public figures into polarising categories. They are either good guys, speaking truth to power and fighting for what is good or right. Or they are bad guys, corrupt and self-serving, set on enriching themselves at the cost of the country and its citizens. 

It is easy to vilify someone like Jacob Zuma or Malusi Gigaba and designate them to the category of evil supervillain. It's similarly inevitable that we idolise those who we think are good, like the Thuli Madonselas and Pravin Gordhans. We forget that the heroes, too, can have feet of clay, which is why we were so shocked when Nhlanhla Nene revealed his Gupta secrets and resigned.

It is also a reminder of the immense weight that comes with the elevated status of superhero and what it is that makes our leaders fallible. Even if you're not a comic fundi you will recognise Spiderman's mantra of "With great power comes great responsibility". That is also true of our office bearers and politicians.

But what Lee's death most leads us to reflect upon is how desperate we are in this day and age for saviours, for heroes to come to the rescue and for good to triumph over evil. The zeitgeist of the country, and the world, for that matter, is overwhelmingly anxious and negative, as we witness a rise in polarising vitriol, anti-immigrant sentiment and general intolerance of one another and intolerance of freaks and outsiders like those created by Lee.

Lee helped fight this bigotry. He co-created the revolutionary Black Panther and the mythical country of Wakanda which celebrated African excellence. Women superheroes were amongst his cast of gladiators.

"Racism and bigotry are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today," Lee wrote. "But, unlike a team of costumed super villains, they can't be halted with a punch in the snoot or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them, is to expose them — to reveal the insidious evil they really are."

As the globe celebrates the life of the man who, together with his colleagues, gave us a world in which to escape, to explore and to adventure, we would do well to acknowledge that we need his superheroes now more than ever. We need the idealism and optimism that they bring as the light overshadows the darkness. Excelsior! Onward and upward to greater glory.

- Wiener is an investigative reporter for News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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