The Rise of the Übermensch

It is uncertain how long the Earth has played host to forces that fray the very bounds of science. Clearly, humanity has believed in miracles and magic, gods and demons, the immortal and the inhuman, since its earliest records. To ancient minds, many have assumed that a god would be indistinguishable from any being of great power, and, as determined by Clarke’s Law, magic is indistinguishable from technology too advanced for current comprehension.

What is known is that, by the 20th century, the forces that would become known as metahumans had worked very hard to veil their existence in history, avoiding undue attention and allowing the passage of time to turn facts into myths. Modern scholars believe that many otherwise inexplicable events can be explained via the machinations and shadow wars of some of these beings, but proof is as elusive today as it was at the time.

Yet one of these shadow wars proved that being more powerful than a normal human does not necessarily prove one wiser. Heirs to a presumably ancient order of warlocks, necromancers, and artificers dubbed themselves the Thule Society and offered their assistance to the Axis in the second World War. A Germany armed with a metahuman advantage, even one kept secret, was too overwhelming for the rivals of the Thule society to permit. They privately announced their own existence to the leaders of the Allied forces. Moreover, they defied their traditional slowness of induction, using ancient arts to bestow powers upon certain elite agents to contest the might of the Axis.

Protected by a competing cadre of powered individuals, the Allies won the war, rooting out and destroying as much of the Thule Society as possible in the process. Things might have gone back to normal, with the metahuman benefactors of the war brokering deals to slip back into myth. However, the induction of dozens of young men of heroic and patriotic disposition had a more resounding effect than initially expected.

The Lehrman Act

Not long after the War, several of the young men that had been empowered began to grow restless, and turned their newfound might to the eradication of problems at home. Based on the comics of the previous decades, many of these individuals took to wearing colorful outfits as a symbol of their difference from common men, and as a way of protecting their private identities while they struggled against crime and other injustice.

A fierce debate broke out in the centers of world government over the disposition of these individuals. Based on the USSR’s decision to force all non-retired metahumans to register their identities with the state and continue to serve in the people’s army, Senator Herbert Lehrman of New York was able to successfully convince the United States to do the opposite.

Under the Lehrman Act of 1952, it became permissible for individuals to operate legally under a costumed identity separate from their private one. While costumed heroes were encouraged to register with the government, at least sufficiently to verifiably contest any individual in a duplicate costume smearing the hero’s good name, doing so was not required.

No costumed individual meeting a certain standard of conduct (primarily, the establishment of capabilities at or beyond the peak of a normal human) could be forced by government agencies to divulge his private identity, or be associated with a private identity by forensic techniques, unless he voluntarily declared himself (or admitted to being a Communist).

However, any individual availing himself of this identity protection tacitly agreed to comply with all local laws and the directions of the mundane authorities or face summary judgment: costumed menaces to society were subject to incarceration without a trial and, if necessary, a much lower bar to law enforcement considering them a clear and present danger (i.e., the police had carte blanche to use lethal force if deemed appropriate).

Under the Lehrman Act, vigilante justice was, de facto, legalized, so long as costumed heroes made a real attempt to follow the intent of the law and did not interfere with the duly appointed authorities. Conversely, many figures of organized crime began to use the law as a loophole, conducting their own dealings in costume to protect their personal identities from legal repercussions from their crimes. The era of superheroes vs. costumed villains began.

The Golden Age

Escalation happened slowly, but with growing force. Those secret societies that had loaned their might to the first of the costumed heroes during the War began to doubt their own policies of remaining secret in a world clearly aware of powered individuals. Some began to imbue and train even more good men and women in their varied arts, while some stepped into costume themselves: banished alien lords, weird scientists, archmagi, and things that were not remotely human stepped into the public eye alongside their enhanced protégés.

Meanwhile, the baby boom had begun, and powered individuals had not been any more complacent than their peers. By the 1960s, the second generation of open metahumans was apparent, and more would follow. Some claimed that even direct descent from a metahuman was not required to display powers, though it was difficult to research this fact due to the Lehrman Act. However, it did seem that new metahumans were arising throughout the world in a frequency unexplainable by simple genetics, and many began to suspect, in the era of the atom, that nuclear and microwave radiation, perhaps combined with profligate power use by existing heroes and villains, had created a self-propagating incidence of metahumanity.

Yet, tied to the belief that humanity has reached its next stage was the fear that those that were not blessed with the transition would be left behind. Many metahumans displayed not only powers beyond what was previously thought possible, but wielded amazing technology far beyond the science of the day. Something about the weird inventions of the metahuman intellect was flawed, however: each such device worked along principles at right angles to commonly accepted science. In order to transcend the limits of modern technology, nearly every intellect beyond humanity seemed to skip steps required for mundane comprehension. The wonders of weird tech were, in fact, unable to be maintained or reproduced by any but their original inventors and mad scientists of a similar bent, and mass production was simply out of the question for all but the simplest of gadgets.

Thus, in a world where battles between colorful titans became a more and more commonplace theatre, those not gifted by superpowers and reaping no apparent rewards from them began to see metahumans not with wonder but as an inconvenience, or even a curse. All that remained was some single rallying event to push public opinion to its tipping point.

The Iron Age

In the summer of 1990, two of the world’s most potent metahumans clashed in the desert of Iran. The United States’ Liberty and The Hammer of the former Soviet Union had long been preeminent heroes of their countries, and had developed a rivalry that could not be set aside with world politics. Scientists would later suggest that their titanic battle merely set off an already unstable fault, but the world at large merely saw television clips—played over and over—of two powered individuals devastating the land for fifty miles in all directions with their vainglorious feud.

The worst that had come of metahuman battles before had been fractured infrastructure and a few lost lives, often in the pursuit of saving more. None of the truly powerful heroes and villains had ever managed to engage in such a direct opposition of forces, nor demonstrated that the effect they could have on their environments was on the order of a warhead rather than artillery. The body count was extensive, and with it the nightmares of the first world: what if such a battle was to take place in the heart of a populated city?

Perhaps overreacting—in a spirit of cooperation designed to distance themselves from the feud of their heroes—the US and Russia both passed legislation, hurriedly copied by many other countries, giving new powers to deal with such threats in the future, and heavily curtailing the vigilante freedom of heroes. The world’s law enforcement was encouraged to cease cooperation with heroes as much as possible and to strongly hold costumed individuals to the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law. One small ray of light remained for metahumans in that attempts to completely overturn the Lehrman Act failed: costumed individuals retained their immunity to having their private lives unearthed by the government.

Many heroes retired immediately, while others weathered the rest of the decade by continuing their activities without police assistance or notice. Most villains simply forwent their costumes and returned to the currently less noteworthy world of organized crime. Others continued to terrorize society only to find themselves being put down hard: those that survived their arrest were consigned to new, high-security prisons without trial or hope of release.

But like all public opinion, the disillusionment with heroes would fade with time.

The Modern Era

The Dotcom boom saw the rise of a new class of metahuman: the spokeshero. As a new generation that was slightly too young to truly internalize the fears of their parents rose to power amongst the newest corporations, so did a cult of celebrity around certain heroes that had remained in the public eye. Heroes had always been symbols in a way that an ordinary actor, athlete, model, or musician would never be, and for a time they became the representatives du jour of Wall Street. Simply attending public events and endorsing products was perfectly legal, even after 1990, and several heroes gladly drank in the public acclaim they had been missing.

After a few years of such an unthreatening resurgence of heroes in the media, the public opinion had mellowed significantly. The next rash of global disasters, including the one that plunged the US into the Middle East once again, showed no traceable connections to any kind of metahuman. But many asked the question: why didn’t heroes stop it? And the answer most came to was simply that they had not been allowed to.

In a world faced once again with a human evil seemingly insurmountable by purely human effort, the world turned its eyes to its abandoned heroes and asked for their help. After nearly a decade of heroes once again on the ground, fighting their nations’ war, a resurgence of heroes at home has also reached a height greater than any time in the last twenty years.

It remains to be seen whether this will be a blessing for the world, or whether humanity would have been better off to let the superhuman fade back into myth.