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.