As a student of superheroes in our culture, I have found it important to cast my glace wider than a simple study of men and women who fight crime in tights, powered or unpowered. First, anyone who dons a costume take power into himself–in the form of confidence, a sense of possessing special initiative over his enemies. No one doubts that Batman is a superhero, despite his lack of any superpowers. The costume itself is worth pages of study and thought. But in the genre of science fiction, a new superhero emerges.
She’s similar to Batman, in that they are technological heroes whose abilities are augmented by technology. Batman has the Batwing, and his utility belt is a virtual arsenal of weapons to suit any emergency. Superheroes in science fiction are the pilots who have the special power or ability to command and fly giant robots or starships capable of raining destruction down on their enemies. One of my favourite sci-fi movies that celebrates the normal personal as extraordinary is a movie from the late eighties called The Last Starfighter. In this movie, Alex Rogan, a trailer park-dwelling nobody with high score in the single arcade game in the camp (The Last Starfighter) finds that his hobby has earned him the notice of an alien federation in desperate need of pilots for their ultra-powerful starfighters, called gunstars. Yes, the video game machines are surreptitiously slipped into the arcades and trailer parks across the US as aptitude testers for piloting skills for gunstars. The controls on arcade games are the same, and they test the situational awareness that all modern pilots must have in abundance to be able to do their jobs.
A similar sci-fi trope exists in the giant-robot genre Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, in which only exceptional human beings are able to pilot giant robots of unparalleled destructive ability and destructive power. A very similar trope exists in the new and excellent sci-fi story mixed with horror elements Knights of Sidonia. In Sidonia, the giant robots are a mix of a starfighters maneuverability and a robots ability to engage in humanoid operations like mining, melee fighting, and rescue operations, but they are nowhere near as powerful as the Gundam robots are in terms of the landslide power they have compared to their enemies.
Again we come to power and powers and the fantasy of having them. Being able to be the hero who saves the day because of a special talent, special ability, or blessing from the gods (think Green Lantern). What I’m trying to do is equate and compare normal but talented humans with enormously powerful heroes like Superman who seize upon special powers through their facility with technology. Star Wars was exciting because we got to see X-wing fighters versus TIE fighters, the empires most lethal fighting machines, and compete favourably. The X-wings had shields, unlike the diminutive TIEs, and carries heavy armaments–proton torpedoes, capable of, with the right surgical strike, of destroying the Death Star, the Empires, greatest military capital investment.
The last television show that celebrated the power of pilots was Battlestar Galactica, and their viper fighters were only evenly matched with the Silon raiders. The way stories played out in the reimagined Battlestar (not the seventies show), you wanted no part of being a pilot. It was a great way to get killed in action. The enemy was just to tough. And because of this, I would argue, the pilots of Galactica were mere heroes, not superheroes. They might as well have been fighting in WWI trenches for all the good their heroics would do to save them from being killed.
The interesting thing to remember about superheroes is their edge over their enemies. Robotech was a late eighties, early nineties cartoon in which fighters transformed into hybrids of robots and then all the way into robots. They, too, despite their marvelous craft, were similar to Battlestar pilots in that they were a dime a dozen to lose in combat.