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Literature / Gladiator

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A novel written in 1926 and published in 1930 by Philip Wylie, not to be confused with the 2000 movie of the same name. Not great literature, but truly genre-making. The story of Hugo Danner, whose professor father experimented on him as a fetus, so that he developed a reasonable degree of Invulnerability and Super-Strength. The plot is mainly concerned with Danner dealing with his singular condition as he attempts to find a useful place in society, which turns out to be harder than you'd think.

He suffers the guilt of killing another player on the field while playing football, leading him to drop out of college. He gets a job in a bank, but finds he has to save a man who will suffocate inside a safe. He rips the safe open, leading his employers to attempt to find out how he managed it through (ineffectual) torture and ultimately resulting in him losing his job. He has another job as a manual laborer, but loses that because he's making the other workers look bad. He finds some use for his abilities in World War I, and is about to attempt to end the war single-handed when it ends of its own accord. He is ultimately appalled by the whole experience. Eventually, while helping on an expedition amongst the Mayan ruins, he takes the expedition leader into his confidence. They discuss the possibility of creating more people like himself, to be used to improve the world. Deeply concerned with the possibility, he stands on a mountain in a storm and asks God to judge. God provides his answer.

This work is mainly significant because it may be the first modern depiction of a superhero, and may have been a great influence on the story of Superman (we don't know for sure as neither Jerry Siegel nor Joe Shuster ever admitted to it), and Doc Savage. It also provides part of the backstory of "Iron" Munro from The Young All-Stars.

Contains examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: When Danner gets into a fight with one of his teammates on the college football team, he winds up snapping his neck with only a few punches.
  • Adaptation Name Change: The 1938 movie changes Hugo's last name to Kipp while Abner Danner is the name of the professor who gives the Super Serum.
  • Advanced Ancient Humans: Hugo strongly suspects that ancient civilizations also discovered Super-Strength and used it to build pyramids and temples.
  • Arcadian Interlude: The time Danner spends as a farmhand. It drags out for a while and doesn’t really contribute to the story.
  • Bolt of Divine Retribution: Implied as Hugo gets killed by lightning after wondering if he can defy God by breeding a race of Supermen.
  • Comic-Book Adaptation;
    • The first half of the book was adapted for issue nine of Marvel Preview under the title, Man God written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Tony DeZuniga.
    • Thomas later created Iron Munro of the All-Star Squadron who was the son of Danner who faked his own death in the novel.
    • Was turned into a four-issue comic in 2005 under the title, Legend for Wild Storm written by Howard Chaykin with art by Russ Heath.
    • Danner also appears in a flashback in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen getting killed in a fight with Hugo Hercules. He's like Superman in this setting, being America's main superhero and having faked propaganda videos made after his death showing him being found in a spaceship as a baby.
  • Death Equals Redemption: Shayne's parents always thought him to be a useless waster but were happy when Hugo wrote to them about his war exploits.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Hugo for the entire book, be it college, sports, work war or politics. When he eventually finds it, he dies.
  • Disposable Superhero Maker: One of the earliest examples, since the serum seems to only affect embryos, and Abednego never published his results.
  • Does Not Know His Own Strength
  • Downer Ending: After deciding what he wants to do with his life, Hugo gets killed by lightning.
  • The Film of the Book: Was made into The Gladiator directed by Edward Sedgwick in 1938 where Joe E. Brown plays Hugo who gets injected with the Super Serum in college instead of as a fetus.
  • The Gay '90s: Extrapolating from the First World War breaking out a year after Danner quits college in his sophomore year suggests that he was born on Christmas Day, 1893.
  • Global Ignorance: Apparently most Frenchmen in the early 20th century did not know that Colorado exists, as the captain of the Foreign Legion accepts Danner's lie that his super strength is because of his place of origin. note 
  • Guinea Pig Family: Abednego Danner injects his pregnant wife with his Super Serum, explaining Hugo's abilities.
  • Hope Spot: Every single time it looks like something good will happen to Danner, circumstances conspire to leave him as bad off as when he started.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Which is why Danner can't change society. And he's Not So Above It All.
  • It Gets Easier: As a child, when Danner thinks he killed a bully, he freaks out, even though the kid lives. Then, when he accidentally kills a teammate in college, he has a Heroic BSoD and quits school, even though nobody blames him for it. Then he enlists in the French Foreign Legion and starts killing the enemy left and right, without really caring. As the war goes on and his friends die, he ineffectually tries to cut the war short, and becomes a pacifist after it's over.
  • Kafka Komedy: Danner getting fired from a steel mill for being too good at his job, and then immediately getting arrested on suspicion of being a safecracker (and not given the opportunity to defend himself) after saving a coworker's life, really can't be considered anything else.
  • Let Them Die Happy: Hugo lies to his dying father that he's solely responsible for ending World War I and intends to fix the government by assassinating corrupt politicians.
  • Madden Into Misanthropy: Once Skorvsky proves that even his movement cares more about money and martyrdom than people's lives, Danner tells him to Get Out!, and contemplates derailing a train to punish those Puny Earthlings for being venal and selfish, but decides against it. He doesn't regain his purpose until he goes on the Mayan expedition. And we all know how that turns out...
  • Muggle Born of Mages: Hugo's father states that any children of Hugo's would not inherit his Super-Strength unless they too were given the serum.
  • Muggle Sports, Super Athletes: Enters a boxing match to win his train fare home from New York and uses his strength to excel at college football until he accidentally kills another player.
  • Mundane Utility: Deconstructed because Hugo Danner's attempts to find a use for his Invulnerability and Super-Strength doomed his life:
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Instead of being thanked for saving a fellow employee from suffocating in a bank vault, Danner is immediately suspected for planning to rob the bank with his super strength at a later date, and is promptly fired and interrogated.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Justified, in that Abednego did keep notes of his process and results, but was too afraid to publish them for fear of what would happen. Later, they are destroyed by the lightning strike that kills Hugo.
  • One-Word Title
  • Only in It for the Money: Danner's beliefs that Skorvsky is this is what makes him leave the reformers.
  • Police Brutality: The NYPD is under the control of Corrupt Corporate Executives, and tries to get a confession out of Danner through torture.
  • Proto-Superhero: Hugo Danner, who became gifted with incredible strength thanks to an experiment carried out by his father. However, unlike most examples, all Hugo wants to do is utilize his powers to make a normal life for himself.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Ralph Shayne only respects his son Tom after the latter is killed in action in World War I.
  • Reed Richards Is Useless: Even in the very first superhero story. Danner is only able to save a handful of lives, from fires and the like. Once he enters the war, he can only kill soldiers in a berserk rage— when he finally acquires an airplane and can fly straight to the Kaiser to force an end to the conflict, it's too late because the Armistice just happened. His attempts to intimidate amoral lobbyists fail because Humans Are Bastards. Professor Hardin suggests using the super serum to create a whole race of idealists like Danner, but this never happens because of Danner's swift death. He can't even save his girlfriend from poverty— she leaves him because she thinks that she would hold his college education back otherwise.
  • Secret Identity: Danner gets a job as a circus strongman under the pseudonym of "Hogarth Smith" in order to keep his promise to his parents that his strength will be kept a secret. However, his college friends see through it immediately.
  • Setting Update: The Wild Storm changes World War I to the Vietnam war.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Danner meets his end by getting struck by lightning after expressing doubts on whether he should enact Hardin's plan, ultimately without ever making any impact on society. Only a handful of people will ever know of his deeds.
  • Shooting Superman: Thinks he's dying when he gets shot in the war but realizes the bullets only bruised him then gets up and starts kicking ass.
  • Significant Birth Date: Danner was born on Christmas. The analogy should be obvious.
  • Super-Soldier: Trapped in World War I, Danner becomes a Super Soldier killing as many German soldiers as he can for the French Foreign Legion. He decides to win the war by Instant-Win Condition: hijacking a plane, infiltrating Germany and killing the German Emperor and his generals to force a Decapitated Army. Unfortunately, the war ends on his own accord. The truth is, modern wars (maybe since the nineteenth century) are not won nor lost by soldiers anymore but by economic and political reasons bigger than any human being's control.
  • Tall Poppy Syndrome: Hugo loses his job at the steel mill because he's outproducing the other workers with his strength, and making them look bad.
  • Unbuilt Trope: For Superman specifically, and super-powered superheroes in general.
    • Deconstruction: What actually having Super-Strength would be like, and the extent to which superheroes could affect the trajectory of history, if at all.
      "Reading the final chapter of Gladiator, you get the feeling that Philip Wylie simply didn't know what to do with his superhuman protagonist. How could he? He was not writing escapist pulp adventure, but literature. He had no guideposts, no fixed star to follow. By the conservative standards of early 20th Century literature, the superman was doomed by virtue of being a superman." — Will Murray
    • The deconstructive nature of the story was only heightened when it was adapted into a comic book (retitled Legend), with it deliberately making visual callbacks to the Superman mythos, to the point that Hugo even is drawn to look like Clark Kent (and later wears a strongman outfit that looks like Superman's suit just with the colors inverted). The closest Hugo gets to a typical superhero plot is when he goes to Washington and meets a war profiteer (who looks suspiciously like Lex Luthor), and Hugo effortlessly drives him out of town. And then … nothing. The guy never shows up again. No arch-nemesis, no declaration of revenge, nothing. And why not? Hugo was an unstoppable superhuman, and the guy was just an amoral businessman. He didn't even try to see if there was any Kryptonite Factor to take advantage of. Besides, the deal that Hugo was trying to prevent? It goes through anyway, because money.
  • The World Is Not Ready: Abednego says he would have destroyed his notes if Hugo had not told him his war stories and leaves it up to him to decide if more superpowered people should exist.