TechnologyFrom Superman to
how technology spawned your
Your favorite superhero's powers didn't come out of thin air. Here's the technological history that birthed their origins.
Superheroes might be the people of tomorrow, but for the last 75 years, they’ve been influenced by the technological advances of the day. From Superman to The Avengers, these vigilantes have long looked to the politics of science and technology, and the fears that come with them, to create new abilities, weapons, villains, and story arcs that don’t just use tech, they reflect how we feel about it. With the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, we’re looking at how technology has informed some of the world’s most famous heroes.
1930 - 1938
Crash landing in Smallville – Jet engine, developed
Superman - Crash landing in Smallville and on newsstands in 1938, Superman was designed to be the Man of Tomorrow, a man that was better than technology. After all, he was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and could leap tall buildings in a single bound. He pretty much puts to shame the latest technology of the 1930s, except for one. Superman is probably one of the most famous immigrants the world has ever known, rocketing to Earth when his planet went nuclear. Yet, a single technological advance on Earth made this possible: the jet engine, developed in 1930. The jet engine launched the world into a new age where people could reach the powers of Superman, thus giving readers reason to believe a man could fly. However, as technology continued to advance, and jet engines broke speed limits and sound barriers, Superman would be forced to keep up with technology. He would do this best and most famously in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, when he throws all of the world’s nuclear rockets into the sun and created one of the stupidest villains of all time, the solar-powered Superman doppleganger, Solar Man.
Project: Rebirth – Pseudo science of "eugenics"
Captain America - More so than Superman, Batman, or any other characters of his time, Captain America was very much the offspring of technological breakthroughs, albeit some sketchy ones. Sure, he championed the rah-rah, “buy warbonds” sloganeering of 1940s’ comic books, but he was also a genetically altered uber mensch, built by the same kind of creepy Nazi doctoring that led to the pseudo science of “eugenics.” Told he was too small, scrawny, and weak to enlist, Steve Rogers, the man who would become Captain America, signed up for an experiment called “Project: Rebirth.” Rogers, under the supervision of the American military, would ingest a serum that gave him the powerful upper-body strength we know and swoon over today. Of course, “Project: Rebirth” has its own tinge of “master race-iness” but so does Rogers’ patented blonde hair and blue eyes. If anything, Marvel was merely posing the question, what if we used the uber mensch against the Nazis themselves?
1945 - 1962
A mutated man – Cold War paranoia, nuclear war fears
The Incredible Hulk - The Incredible Hulk was the anti-Captain America—with Cap representing the bravery of war, Hulk represented the dangers of it. The rise of the Cold War led to some very real fears and frustrations about Russia pointing their rockets squarely at Washington, DC. As co-creator Jack Kirby said, "As long as we're experimenting with radioactivity, there's no telling what may happen, or how much our advancements in science may cost us.” This would become the foundation for almost of all Kirby and Stan Lee’s creations for the next decade, but Hulk might still be the best distillation of that fear, channeling the rage, brutality, and mutation that the Cold War would bring.
1945 - 1962
Radioactive spill blinds Murdock – The popularity of radioactive technology
Daredevil - By the 1950s, the world had fully entered the nuclear age. Every house had a microwave, kids were learning how to duck and cover, and by 1956, the first full-scale nuclear power plant opened in Calder Hall, England. But along with the benefits of nuclear power came a whole bunch of anxiety. What could this new world bring? Well, if you’re 10-year-old Matt Murdock, not much good. While saving a person from being hit by a truck, Matt came into contact with some radioactive materials and was left blind. Still a boy, Murdock’s senses were heightened and he became the hero Daredevil. Like the Hulk before him, Murdock’s plight played out some of the concerns people have about radioactive materials being so close to home.
1959 - 1962
Pym invents machine to help him change size – World's first microchip
Ant-Man - By 1959, things needed to get smaller, much smaller. So it should come as little surprise that two engineers would have the idea for and the technical know-how to build the world’s first microchip. Developed by Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce without any knowledge of each other’s work, the microchip took the world from the atomic age and to the computer age. Marvel comics took notice. In 1962, Hank Pym, better known as Ant-Man, invented a machine that would allow him to change size. Just as the microchip gave engineers the ability to replace the bulky transistors without losing power, Pym too saw the advantages of a tinier frame, solving crimes from ground level yet maintaining his full-grown strength as Ant-Man.
Consciousness of a man transfered into an ecology of plant life – Gene splicing
Swamp Thing - The 1970s saw many changes to superheroes. Thanks in many parts to Spider-Man and the X-Men, who revolutionized the 60s, science became a prime component in superhero origin stories. Suddenly, however, science started catching up to the heroes and some really interesting things started to happen. Gene Splicing, for instance, was developed in 1974, and for the next two decades of characters took on the biological properties of other terrestrial and extraterrestrial beings. One needs only look at Swamp Thing or Venom to see comics mixing people with other biological entities. Swamp Thing, for instance, placed the consciousness of a man into the ecology of plant life, while Venom saw the consequences of being overcome by a symbiotic organism. Gene splicing allowed scientific reasoning for some of comics’ most creative and popular heroes and villains to exist, allowing characters like Swamp Thing and Animal Man to deal with real topics like eco-terrorism and vegetarianism with a straight face.
Gus Gorman develops an evil software – Precursor to modern day computer hacking
Superman - As we mentioned earlier, Superman has always been in direct competition with technology, but in 1983, he faced one of his most confusing foes: computer hackers. Superman III is far from anyone’s favorite movie, but it did allow Superman to show his strength. When Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) discovers he has a god-given ability for computer hacking, a wealthy CEO blackmails him into developing a bit of software that help control the world’s coffee crops and build a Krypton ray. By the end, Superman must come face-to-face with his metallic foe and the franchise began to fall apart.
Alex Murphy ressurected as uber cop – Police militarization, media sensationalism
Robocop - Robocop might be the holy grail of satirical superhero movies, and, boy, does it hit all the right notes. Following the death and rebirth of Detroit Cop Alex Murphy, Robocop looks at a world where corporations run the police, putting their employees to work even after death by means of a technological overhaul. Part-human, part-machine Robocop shows a new hero, one who is not just reliant on technology, but rather is technology. With elements of police militarization, media sensationalism, and hefty commentary on the glorification of violence, Robocop proves as relevant today as it was in 1987, which makes us wonder, what happened with that remake.
Bruce Wayne relies on wiretapping technology – Precursor to Edward Snowden's confession
Batman – Though the character was created in 1938, Batman has remained linked to technology since his creation. Aside from citing the da Vinci’s Ornithopter, a type of glider with bat wings, as a prime influence, Bob Kane and Bill Finger created a character that had to change with the times. Born with only the power to justify his own propensity for violence, Bruce Wayne used to technology, such as computers, cars, planes, cell-phones, and aerosols to stay a step ahead of crime. But in 2008 his obsession with surveillance came dangerously close to our own. In The Dark Knight, he uses wiretapping technology and some convoluted sonar to put every citizen in Gotham on watch. Many called this element of The Dark Knight a veiled endorsement of the Bush administration, but it’s easy to imagine Edward Snowden blowing the whistle on Wayne Tech no more than six years later.
Tony Stark controls his Iron Man suit from afar – Drones
Iron Man - Like Batman before him, Iron Man is a superhero that relies entirely on technology. He is billionaire playboy and philanthropist who, in the Marvel Universe, is the worldwide leader in weapons technology. However, unlike Batman, Tony Stark requires technology to keep him alive. While visiting a war zone, a bomb branding the Stark Industries logo went off, littering his body with shrapnel. Stark developed an electromagnet that would keep shrapnel from ever reaching his heart. While Tony Stark and Iron Man provided Marvel with an outlet for the post-Vietnam frustration prevalent in 1970s and 80s, it was in 2013 that Iron Man really lined up with the war technology of the day. Iron Man 3 sees Stark dealing with his falling empire, but while he fights for survival in a world he helped create/destroy, he spends a lot of time controlling robotic Iron Man suits to go into battle for him. That’s right, Iron Man 3 features the first drone superhero with Tony Stark handling the joystick.
Ultron – Artificial Intelligence
The Avengers: Age of Ultron - It seems fitting to end things on the fear of technology. The latest in Avengers flick, the series sees our heroes squaring off against Ultron, an advanced AI designed by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner to replace the Avengers. They wanted to create robotic superheroes (i.e. drones), but like Skynet before it, the AI grows faster and more powerful than their creators could’ve imagined. Age of Ultron is a classic superhero story of technology run amok.
Images sources promotional art for movies