Why Are Superheroes so Important to Us?

I heard a news report on TV this morning about box office sales for new movie releases. Once again, a superhero movie blew everything else out of the water – even a drama with two huge names as co-stars. I wondered why superheroes are so interesting to us.

Is it because they bring justice to a chaotic world?

Is it because they have miraculous skills that we wish we had to make our problems all go away?

Or something else?

It seems that age has nothing to do with it. We’re just as obsessed as our children. While the kids get themed lunch boxes, Halloween costumes, and action figures, parents run off to see the latest superhero movie – with or without the kids. The production value of these films has come a long way from the Superman TV series from the 50’s or the Batman series from the 60’s. Studios are pouring millions of dollars into films that appear to be constructed more for the grown ups than the kids – and we flock to theaters in droves to see the latest releases.

Not long ago, a study was done at Kyoto University. Babies between the ages of 6 and 10 months old were shown animated characters that were being aggressive toward each other. The babies preferred videos that showed a third animated character coming to the rescue. It seems our sense of justice is developing even before we’re a year old.

It’s interesting to notice that the most popular comic book characters upon which our movie superheroes are based were released at times that coincided with major world events – the Great Depression and World War II, for example. A new wave of “graphic novels” came flooding out after 9/11, several successful movies came out during the Great Recession, and in recent years there has been another explosion of superhero movies.

These trends lend credence to the theory that we hope our heroes can solve the problems of societies in chaos.

More technological advances have been made in the last 30 years than ever before, and as soon as we become accustomed to new systems, something else – potentially better, faster, or easier – emerges. Despite the convenience new tech brings, we feel the need to keep up, are forced to learn new skills for our jobs, and are available to the world 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It can be overwhelming and stressful.

Do we wish for the gifts and skills of our superheroes to save us?

Are we hoping technology, rather than causing stress, will help us overcome our ordinary-ness and become something spectacular?

Our sense of justice and coveting those abilities aren’t the only things that draw us to superheroes. We look to these heroes to demonstrate to us how to overcome critical flaws. Batman, for example, lost his parents at a young age and used his rage to seek justice – or was it revenge?

He doesn’t really have super powers, but lots of gadgets and gizmos intended not only to fight crime, but to bring justice to both Gotham City and himself, for his loss. That less noble side to his personality was emphasized in the movies’ art direction, creating a dark and gloomy environment for the Caped Crusader. Audiences flocked to see them.

Most of our heroes have similar, potentially damaging flaws. Does seeing the challenges that our heroes have – both personal and in their crime fighting – make us hope to do the same? The complexity of the characters creates empathy in viewers for those dark sides. If Batman can throw a tantrum and demolish the Bat Cave, then it might be OK for us to think about railing against the boss and trashing our office. If our superheroes’ flaws are spectacular, then ours don’t seem so bad.

In light of this, what about the bad guys – do we secretly want to emulate their behavior and have their creativity? Think about the intellect of characters like Lex Luthor, the Penguin, or the Joker, and the schemes they devise. While watching the Batman TV show from the 60’s, I was always amazed by the seemingly impossible tortures the villains created for the Dynamic Duo. Any of these “bad guys” could quickly have disposed of our heroes, but a complex system was always designed to make their demise slow and torturous – and, of course, gave them a chance to escape. Is this a safe way for us to appreciate deviousness?

Are we subconsciously desiring to step outside of polite society and be naughty?

Seeing our heroes overcome seemingly impossible situations with bravery, grace and creativity is a reinforcement that good always triumphs over evil – or, at least, we think it should.

The alter egos of superheroes like Superman and Spiderman are another source of empathy and attraction for audiences. Are we looking to change our perceived persona to a bad-ass instead of the ordinary (and, in my case, nerdy) one? Most have high standards and morals, despite their character flaws. Their intentions are almost always pure.

How much of our sense of justice and fair play is shaped by these characters?

Bullies should be stopped. People who might be “different” should be accepted.

Everyone should work together, despite personality conflicts – there’s a sense of cooperation that is frequently lacking in real life. Our outrage of injustice becomes justified, and we’re permitted, even encouraged, to think in terms of “should” and “ought.”

What do you find appealing in your favorite superheroes?

What, exactly, draws you to them? Are they savvy and smart?

Do they have special powers that they were they born with or acquired?

Do you like their costumes? Do you love their “toys”?

Perhaps you’re attracted to the production values of the movies themselves – the acting, art direction, scenery, makeup, direction, or costumes. What about your favorite villains? Are you fascinated by their motives, their backstory, their psychology, or something else? We can use our admiration for these characters to learn something about ourselves.

Make a list of those qualities that you’d like to have, whether it’s bravery, physical prowess, gadgetry, or having something magical in your life to deal with problems and challenges. Write down the situations in your life that you could use your superheroes’ abilities to overcome.

What would you be able to do differently?

How is your life similar to the stories in the movies, and how is it dissimilar?

Is the attraction of these stories that good always wins out over evil, that nerds can be cool, or is there something more?

This information can be used to brainstorm solutions to life challenges. We might not have the (sometimes unrealistic) qualities our heroes have, but we do have others as substitutes.

By emulating positive behaviors such as problem solving, gathering information, creativity, and basing our actions on a higher good, we create our own “super powers.”

Developing self-esteem, self-confidence, and a strong value system to live by makes us the superheroes of our own world.

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Website: The Quiet Zone

Susan Petang is a Certified Mindful Lifestyle & Stress Management Coach, and author of The Quiet Zone - Mindful Stress Management for Everyday People.