I’ve been reading through a book on the psychology of superheroes, which I’ve been doing because, well, I like superheroes and I’m a mental patient. It’s a topic I’ve spent some time on before, because I’m interested in the origin of superheroes and their relationship to the mythology of various cultures.
Ultimately, I think most superheroes are products of our hope. This dovetails nicely with my previous post, but that wasn’t intentional. I assure you. But if you look at a lot of the major superheroes – mostly Marvel and DC, because those are what I am familiar with – they tend to be very hopeful characters, even if terrible things are happening around them. Something about that appeals to me.
My first example is my favorite superhero, Captain America. He’s a super-soldier, essentially exactly the type of person Hitler would have wanted for his superior race – strong, smart, blond haired and blue-eyed. And yet he fought against the Nazis – so much that he ended up being frozen in ice for decades. Once he was freed, he was upset, of course, but he resumed fighting against the evils and injustices of the world. While he fights for the US, he doesn’t obey the government – he fights for the principles he believes are the foundation of the country. He fights to make the world a better place. He is by no means the most powerful member of the Avengers, and yet time and again he ends up being their leader, because other heroes – and even many villains – respect him so much.
Superman is similar on the DC end. An alien – theoretically the last survivor of Krypton, though new survivors pop up often in the comics – on Earth, he is raised by humans, good, decent, hardworking farmers in the heartland of America. He learns to be a principled, upstanding person from them, and even though his power is beyond that of almost any being on Earth, he does not try to hold that over anyone, to become a ruler or dominate others. Instead, he tries to help, putting himself time and again between danger and humanity, even if humanity is, at times, afraid of him.
Not all superheroes are so easy – the other great example here would be Batman. Here is a man so tormented by the death of his parents that he devotes his life to fighting crime – not just becoming a police officer or prosecutor, but giving up everything else in his life except his mission, learning investigation, interrogation, honing his body and mind to be used only for this. He is a cold, hard man – and yet, while he is not the most friendly person to be around, he is tireless as a crimefighter. His wealth and intelligence are put to good use, even though he is, at times, extremely paranoid; he is not a billionaire who spends his money on buying islands and gold-plated jets. As The Dark Knight movie points out, he is not the hero we want, but the one we need.
Even the Punisher, as horrific and psychopathic a character as he may seem, shows some sort of hope. In the comics, his family was killed by the Mafia shortly after he returns from fighting in Vietnam in a Mob hit gone wrong. He devotes himself to the brutal, relentless killing of criminals, first big organizations, then smaller groups and single criminals. The Punisher, unlike many comic heroes, doesn’t have a ‘rogue’s gallery’ – almost every bad guy he encounters is a regular, if criminal, person, and he kills them. He’s a terrible person, and possibly the world’s greatest serial killer by body count – but he gives us hope that there is a way to fight the crime we see around us. There are no super-powers, for the most part, in the world the Punisher concerns himself with – just human crime and human solutions.
Human or not, super-powered or not, the motives of superheroes are almost universally hopeful. It’s one of the reasons I am drawn to reading about superheroes – I have an extensive comic collection, though mostly in trade collections than in single issues. There are also superhero RPGs and I find myself fascinated with those, as well; my most recent favorite was the relatively new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, which, while recently discontinued, has a very cool and fun-looking system, and I liked so much that it was the only RPG I brought with me to Menninger. The idea of playing a character like Captain America, Iron Man, or even the Hulk appeals to me, because I think they are interesting characters – and that they show a great deal of hope for humanity.
Superheroes, to me, are proof that the world is not just a dark and unpleasant place. Obviously, they aren’t real, but the fact that there are those who keep coming up with superheroes, and who keep writing and drawing for them, mean that there are people who obviously want humanity to be better than it is. Moreso than organizations like Greenpeace, or groups that work for social justice – which seems a little odd to me as I type it – superheroes represent a hope for a better world.
The flying, energy blasts, and cool toys are just a bonus.