Long before Barack Obama incited our movie stars to give up plastic grocery bags in the name of a more righteous America, long before Rick Warren persuaded millions of spiritual seekers to fill their lives with purpose, a growing number of lower profile yet visually arresting altruists began serving their fellow citizens by taking on local thugs, helping stranding motorists, volunteering at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and participating in blood drives. They call themselves Real Life Superheroes, or Reals for short, and as their name suggests, their inspiration comes not from elected officials, religion, or the Kiwanis Club, but rather Batman, Spider-man, and the countless other icons of spandex-clad virtue who populate our supposedly meaningless and morally corrosive pop culture.
According to the creators of the World Superhero Registry, an online forum and resource center where freelance crusaders network and exchange ideas, an individual who wears a costume, performs heroic deeds, and is not functioning as a paid representative of any organization are the primary characteristics of a Real Life Superhero. Some explicitly position themselves as vigilante interventionists eager to protect their neighborhoods from bad guys; others imitate their comic-book role models in a more metaphorical sense, applying their standards of justice and social responsibility to various community service efforts. They go by names like Fox Fire, Civitron, and Knight Owl, and at least one of them, Superbarrio, an international crimefighter whose domain is Mexico City, has been plying his trade since the 1980s.
Recent feature stories on Reals in Rolling Stone and the Sunday Times have led to a flurry of interest, but much of the media coverage has exhibited a mocking tone, focusing on the ways in which Reals do not quite live up to their better equipped and more physically impressive fictional counterparts. The Sunday Times piece, for example, opens with an anecdote in which one Real is reconsidering his avocation after getting punched in the face by a "tiny girl." Ironically, at a time when the ideals of service, sacrifice, and community are enjoying great cachet in the national conversation, Reals who are doing more than merely talking about such notions are attracting ridicule in large part because the better angels of their nature like to sheathe themselves in colorful, tight-fitting uniforms.
But is it really so wacky what they're doing? After all, soldiers, police officers, milkmen, firefighters, priests, nuns, Girl Scouts, judges, and football referees all use clothing to signify their commitment to virtuous service. Real Life Superheroes are simply putting a contemporary, hyper-individualized spin on the time-honored notion that clothes make the man. Institutions have long capitalized on the transformational power of uniforms—a young Marine recruit donning his Dress Blues for the first time find himself summoning new reservoirs of courage and discipline as he feels compelled to live up to all the values his uniform embodies. A novice in the Catholic Church undergoes a similar transformation the first time she dons her habit.
But what if you're not a member of the Marine Corps or the Catholic Church, and yet you'd still like to experience the magic of sartorial transformation yourself? While there isn't a "virtuous sweater" section at Urban Outfitters or Banana Republic yet, you can get a custom-made BattleSuit from Hero-Gear.net, for the surprisingly reasonable price of only $140. "Once you get suited up, you're a hero and you have to act like one," explained a Real who calls himself Geist to City Pages last year.
Hero-Gear.net was created by Jack Brinatte, a professional wrestler in Minnesota who started making costumes for himself and other wrestlers. When he advertised his wares on the Internet and started getting inquiries from aspiring Real Life Superheroes, he found himself catering to a new niche; eventually, he created a superhero persona for himself, Razorhawk, and now wears his blue-and-yellow uniform while engaging in community service. "We go out there and try to inspire people to do do good things," he recently told Fox News. Volunteer in your regular everyday persona, Brinatte suggested, and it doesn't have as much impact as when you put on a mask and assume a dramatic superhero persona. "People tend to remember that," he concluded. "Kids see it and it sticks in their mind."
Of course, it's not just a selfless act for the adults who don the suits. The U.S. Army used to promise new recruits an "Army of One," but when they put on their new uniforms, they looked just like every other soldier. That's part of a traditional uniform's power—it evokes the strength of all who've ever worn it—but in the Internet era of conspicuous self-promotion, it's easy to see why a flashy and unique outfit, coupled with a proprietary brand name, is appealing to potential do-gooders. Just because you want to serve a cause greater than yourself doesn't mean you don't want to be the center of attention while doing it. And have a little fun while you're at it.
Indeed, while we may have entered a new age of service, sacrifice, responsibilty, and hard work, do we have to be so high-minded about it? Take this YouTube clip produced by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, in which a gaggle of casually pompous celebrities promise to help President Obama transform America by smiling more, curing Alzheimers, and foregoing bottled water—wouldn't it be a whole lot easier to swallow if Ashton and Demi had nixed the ridiculously solemn keyboards and required all the participants to wear Spandex skinsuits while delivering their lines?
Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his Reason archive here.