Superheroes and Why We Like Them

A few months ago my wife and sister-in-law and I went to see X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  The character Wolverine is a human that, due to a genetic mutation has the ability to heal extremely quickly. As such, he is the only one who could undergo (and survive) a military test operation that coated all his bones with adamantium: a virtually indestructible metal. The result is a man who can protrude, wield and retract, at will, three 12 inch razor sharp knives out of each of his fists and who is almost impossible to kill. He also has a temper and is a somewhat tortured soul.

My wife and I have always thoroughly enjoyed well-made superhero movies.

So I’ve often wondered: Why are such stories so appealing? Why have they always been appealing throughout humankind’s history? (Recall the Roman and Greek gods and goddesses, and countless other myths of people with superhuman strength and power from all cultures throughout the world from all time.) If I was to guess as to their appeal, I would say that what they must somehow touch something in us that we long for…perhaps something missing from our very selves.

The reason I think this is because it seems too trite and easy to say that the appeal lies only in the fantastical. As if to say, just because those stories tell us of something that we do not see in real life they keep our attention. I can imagine a story with many fantastical details that would not make me rush to see the movie or buy the book. That is to say, fantastical does not always equal appealing.

So perhaps it’s the power that the superhero has that enthralls us. Maybe Lord of Rings is right and humankind, above all the other races, desires power. But then wouldn’t the more powerful people in the world enjoy these stories less? (Maybe not if our hunger for power was insatiable.) However, I don’t buy the power theory either because the desire for power (in a superhero way) may not be a totally universal human experience: I don’t know if everyone would agree that they desire power.

So perhaps superheroes’ appeal lies in the fact that they are marked as special, set apart, different, but in a good way–a way that increases their human potential. I believe that is a better explanation of their universal appeal. I believe it appeals to us because we very rarely experience it ourselves.

If this lack is a common existential experience, what does that tell us about our ontological make-up? Why would we all universally experience the same lack or same desire? Were we meant for something greater? Did we, as a race, have a potential that we lost? Or do we intrinsically have it but lost our ability to see it clearly? Why the common yearning and desire?

And then, why do we feel a lack that we seemingly lack the ability to fill? Even recognizing that one desires to be “more” does not enable one to meet their own desire. Even the richest and most powerful people in the world often report that they feel this same lack in life, like something is still missing.

Perhaps finding out what really quenches that desire or fills that lack is the meaning of life.

Too bad adamantium doesn’t do the trick.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Christianity, Culture, Orthodox Christianity, Psychology

8 Comments on “Superheroes and Why We Like Them”

  1. Dan-o Says:

    Just curious, since you are a different part of the world, what are the superheroes there?

  2. Carrie Says:

    Postulate all you want about this “desire”, but I think we like them because they get to wear shiny outfits without anyone judging them! 🙂

    • boehadden Says:

      Carrie, lol.

      yea, I guess once you have super powers you get carte blanch to wear whatever you want…even if someone judges you, they’re not going to tell you aloud… 🙂

  3. Dan-o Says:

    What about a desire for justice?

    It seems to me that many superheroes can carry out their own particular brand of justice with a level of impunity that a normal person cannot. Seeing that justice carried out can elicit some real satisfaction.

  4. Dan-o Says:

    Hmm, not sure, let me crank up the universal survey machine… 😉

  5. Ben Says:

    I don’t think it’s a desire for power so much as a desire not to feel powerless. There’s a difference. Read Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – while it’s fiction, there’s a lot of fascinating insight into the origins of the American superhero ethos.

    When Superman was created in the 1930s, the two creators, along with many other American Jews, were hearing stories about their families in Germany and Eastern Europe being captured and killed. They created Superman (borrowing from the Jewish legend of the golem) as a way to alleviate their feeling that they were powerless to stop the suffering of the Jews in Europe. Since then, superheroes have continued to feed our need to believe that there are people who are better than us, people who will do the right thing in ways that we are unable.

    • boehadden Says:

      Ben,

      I agree, as I wrote, that it is not about power. You make a good point that it may have to do with not wanting to feel powerless (which is different).

      I think we, as a race, have always had this need, though (gods and goddesses, saints, miracle workers, hailed military leaders: John Henry, Hercules, Sampson, etc etc…going back as far as recorded history). Not just since the 1930s. Of course, I’m sure the holocaust intensified the feeling…and as you said, gave birth to the modern “superhero” (I did not know that, btw…very interesting!).

      Thanks for you input! Keep it coming!


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