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Why Are We So Obsessed with Superheroes?

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Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Post by contributor Gina Scialabba

I saw Iron Man 3 this weekend. I wasn’t disappointed. Despite my outward journalist appearance, I secretly wish I had a superhero cape. Yes, I love highbrow art house films like the rest of San Francisco. I’ve spent my share of Saturday nights at the Sundance Kabuki viewing foreign language movies and later contemplating the meaning behind Pedro Almodóvar films over a bottle of Napa Valley’s finest red. But I love superhero movies. I always have.

So, what is it about Clark Kent, Peter Parker and Tony Stark that lures armies of audiences to the movie house? Superheroes hold the pantheon of American cultural iconography. Social psychologists study it. Scholars write articles, critical analyses and books on the subject. I am no expert. I can only report what I observe

1. Escapism

Simply put, these films are fun. They’re exciting. It’s 120+ minutes of pure transcendental escapism -- a mini-vacation from your life. With so much going on in the world -- acts of terrorism home and abroad, immigration reform, wide-spread poverty and global climate change -- superhero movies provide a utopian script for life. You can sit back, kick your feet up, eat a $25 small bucket of popcorn and experience a feeling of security, knowing you are in good hands. You can’t control what is going on in the world. Few really can. But, rest assured, Batman can and will.

 2. Reflection of Ourselves

I think deep down, in that little corner of our minds that only we have access to, we all want to be a superhero. The archetypical superhero is symbolic of near-perfection. They are a manifestation of what we wish we had, however unattainable -- a perfect body, perfect teeth, never a hair out of place. I believe it was Shakespeare’s Macbeth who said, “Clothes make the man.” Indeed, superheroes are always fashionable. Billionaire Bruce Wayne is a masked vigilante with serious style wearing perfectly tailored Armani suits. Wonder Woman’s outfit was never an ill-fitting Halloween getup. And caped crusaders also have incredible abilities -- invisibility, x-ray vision, healing power, memory manipulation. Ever had a day you wish you could simply vanish from your office cubicle? Maybe slip out after lunch to catch a 1:05pm ballgame and then simply erase your boss’s memory of your absence? We all have.

3. Reflection of our Secret Desire to be Saved

Perhaps Bonnie Tyler, 1980s semi-diva, was onto something. As she runs out of a burning building, she cries out, “I need a hero.” At first, we may not want to take ownership of our desire to be saved every once and a while. Me? Be in a subordinate position? Just hear me out. We play so many roles in real life -- parent, partner, worker, student, caretaker, bread-winner -- wouldn’t it be nice to let someone else steer the automobile called your life? Even for a day? What if Superman could swoop in and pull you out of rush hour traffic when you are late to work? Or, if Bruce Wayne could fight all your petty quarrels with your in-laws?

4. Empowerment

Anyone who feels disenfranchised can look to superheroes for inspiration and hope. Take bullying. It’s been reported that 6 out of 10 American youth witness bullying every day. Superheroes serve as defenders of the less fortunate, vulnerable, innocent, powerless, weak, and oppressed. They defend fair play, truth, justice, law, and order. In a nutshell, superheroes are defenders of right against wrong. We gravitate towards the superhero genre because it gives us hope that things could get better.

5. Hero’s Journey

The myth of the hero’s journey is familiar. It all started with the Greeks and their stories of heroes like Hercules and Achilles. In the Middle Ages, Germanic audiences cheered in the mead halls, pounding their bier steins on the table as Beowulf slayed Grendel. Frodo saved Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Luke Skywalker used the force to battle Darth Vader and the Emperor. These tales are pervasive in our culture. We all love a good hero’s story...over and over again. Watching the good guy win never gets repetitive. We are drawn to a hero who achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization.


The bottom line is that superhero movies serve a purpose. They have much more than mere video game depth. They help us cope with the external world. They provide hope to people of any age, race and gender. They are stories of empowerment.

So, this summer head out to the theater knowing you can reveal your hidden geek. Watch Iron Man save the world. See Superman once again duck into a phone booth in Man of Steel. Marvel at the teeny, tiny leaf people in the animated movie, Epic. Just go and enjoy. You can watch Ingmar Bergman movies another night.

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