Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. These “Universal Monsters” were the kings of the silver screen and were all bestial creatures whose otherworldly “powers” challenged the symbolic order of civilisation during the 1920’s and the 1930’s.
They were a manifestation of social values that represented very realistic fears of that timeframe – the undead can be seen as humanity's basic cruel instincts and hunger; the wolf-man could be a symbol of the failure of civilisation; the ghost represents the haunting of secrets and lies that trouble a household; Frankenstein represented the fear of creation and not being accepted into society.
But can the same be said for modern day superheroes depicted in comic books? Are they simply a reimagining of these beast-like traits and challenge of society? Or are modern day superheroes much more than that?
In the late 1950's and 1960's the comic book era was saw a boom with superhero characters like Spiderman, Batman, the X-Men, Superman and many more. The graphic narration began creating characters of archetypes such as the "creature features" of the silver screen - namely Universal Monsters such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf-Man.
The “monstrous” take on superheroes such as Batman, Spiderman, Catwoman, and The Phantom are very closely aligned with the creatures of bat-changing Dracula, Wolf-man and The Gill Man in the Black Lagoon. Each character of Universal Monster and Superhero alike use the powers and knowledge of these animals of cat, bat, radioactive spider, wolf, fish, and jungle cat in a way that could be linked back to a deeper connection with these bestial creatures. This connection to primal animals enhances their superhuman powers which assists in either the fight against corruption, or the fight for survival.
Connections to animals aside, both superheroes and the Universal Monsters have a similar narrative when it comes to world views. Despite being of different times, the overarching themes are very similar. Universal Monsters were dubbed the "primal uncanny" and brought to light “things that ought to have remained secret or hidden”, such as society’s deep-seated anxieties of women, nature, animals, and death. The same can easily be said for superheroes who have brought to light questions of humanity and its deeper intentions.
Both worlds – the one of the monster and the one of the hero – tell a story about the changing world.
However, this is where the superheroes quest for good against evil is a triumphant layer to the idea of the monster. In the superhero narrative there is the idea that despite human kind's cruel instincts, failures, secrets, and lies (amongst others) there are still key acts of kindness, goodness, bravery, and selflessness. Superheroes want to make the world a better place and help their fellow man while monsters essentially just want the right to survive.
This is the ultimate difference between superheroes and monsters.
The monsters of the silver screen are not without their human traits - Frankenstein's monster shows compassion, sadness, and loneliness, while the wolf-man shows fear and confusion. These notable emotions felt in the monster are natural in the human race, but the full spectrum of emotions are not possible for the monsters of the creature feature movies because they were not born of humanity. Frankenstein was created in a lab from dead bodies; Dracula was bitten by a vampire and the Wolf Man bitten by a werewolf; the creature of the Black Lagoon a result of evolution. This means that growth when it comes to emotions are very limited, leaving them exactly as they are – half human/ half animal hybrids who have been somewhat attacked, provoked, or cruelly treated, causing their primal instincts for survival to kick in through a monstrous fashion.
They know no other way.
However, superheroes are generally created with more humanity in them (even though Superman is an alien and Thor is a God etc) so they are not only able to feel the creature’s primal emotions of fear, sadness, and aggression, but they are also able to feel positive emotions of kindness, happiness, and love. Through their emotions they learn from their mistakes and grow, which is why you see so many superheros breaking up with their soul mates during their narratives - they learnt their lesson when their love interests get kidnapped by their arch-villains and they recognise the need to let them go because they want them to be safe.
This growth is what it means to be human, and while a singular answer doesn't necessarily explain what it means to be human specifically, it is still considered that traits such as understanding, intelligence, communication, biology, philosophy, and physiology provide the concepts that equate to being human.
The archetype of the superhero was definitely born from the creation of monsters, who in turn were born of societal fears and primal creatures, but the addition of emotionality has led the archetype of the superhero to their own rightful definition as more than just a simple reimagining to appeal to the masses.
Superheroes are the positive sides of humanity that we need in a crumbling society and they remind us that being different and embracing your primal nature doesn’t doom you to simply being a monster.