Since long before they hit our screens, we’ve been obsessed with superheroes. The Golden Age of comics kickstarted our fascination and since then, we’ve been hooked. Regardless of who you are, where you come from or what your upbringing, chances are you have a soft spot for at least one superhero. We all have one that resonates with us — not necessarily because we feel we’re similar in any way, more because we admire their values, what they stand for and the way they live their lives. But does it go deeper than that?
To understand why we love superheroes and to explore what effect they have on us, I contacted Dr Oliver Sindall, Chartered Clinical Psychologist at Sindall Psychology. Dr Sindall specialises in working with children and adolescents. Based on his experience of how children relate to superheroes (along with his own love of them), Dr Sindall has applied his knowledge of the published work to help us understand — why do we love superheroes? Why are they so important to us?
Why do you think superheroes have been so consistently popular over the decades?
The book Our Superheroes, Ourselves by Robin S. Rosenberg identified a number of factors to help try and understand our fascination with superheroes. As a Clinical Psychologist I think four of those factors are key to the consistent popularity of superheroes:
- Childhood Connection
Our childhood is when our imaginations are the most unfiltered and limitless, when anything feels possible. Therefore as adults, superhero stories allow us to reconnect with that developmental stage when we could really shut out our external reality and go on an amazing adventure.
The formula for a good superhero story is always familiar. The hero saves the day, while overcoming moral, physical and emotional challenges. All of this allowing them to develop into a stronger/better character — “With great power comes great responsibility”.
The familiarity of this narrative is comforting. In the chaos of the world around us, people are not always looking for just escapism; they want to experience some element of certainty and predictability. Superhero stories are like a rollercoaster; thrill rides, with lots of ups and downs, but you know everything will be alright in the end.
- Choosing A Hero.
Whilst the framework/formula of all superheroes is familiar and provides predictability, the ‘package’ it comes in can vary dramatically, meaning that we can always find a superhero that we connect with in some way. There are so many different looks, personalities, emotions, triggers, backstories, strengths, weaknesses and ways in which they save the day! If we can see ourselves in these traits then we can identify with them. We are then drawn in by how they are able to triumph over the challenges they face. Also let’s not forget that with every superhero comes a superpower that we crave, based on our own psychological fears and/or desires. How many people have asked the question “what superpower would you have and why?”
- We All Need Rescuing
As a Psychologist I often find this idea resonates the most. In ‘analysing’ myself I am aware of how my early fascination with superheroes relates to being bullied as a child, and from my work, I know that this is very common. We have all experienced something where we wished we had been rescued. This ranges from the extreme of severe trauma, to the bullies in the playground or workplace. Superhero stories show this wish coming true over and over again.
The power of ‘The Rescuer’ is not just felt on an individual level, but across society as a whole, which makes it one of the most influential factors in the superhero’s consistent popularity. Just look at Batman, Superman and all the characters of comics’ ‘Golden Age’ (1938-1949). They were created at the time of world wars and failing economies, and the more recent surge of Superhero blockbuster films has followed wars in the Middle East, 9/11 and a general increase in global terrorism.
How can superheroes help us with everyday struggles? Is it only about escapism?
Historically, escapism has been a massive factor in how superheroes help us with everyday struggles. Comics’ Golden Age (1938-1949) provided us with flawless beings, both physically and psychologically, and often from alien worlds that we can use our imagination to get lost in. However, a number of psychologists and academics have written about the introduction of the Silver Age (1960s-1990s) of comics. This is characterised by the increase in flawed heroes, characters who, aside from their powers, could be just like us. They face the same struggles of vulnerability, trauma, anxiety, loss etc.
Now, rather than escaping into the fight against an alien world, we can see how our flawed heroes are tackling the problems we all face. Moral dilemmas, grief, what to do when faced with (what seems like) no-win situations, and how we can succeed even if when we are struggling with our own mental health.
Why is super strength such a dominant concept in mainstream superheroes?
In my professional opinion, the dominance of super-strength relates to the idea that the popularity of superheroes is rooted in an individual and societal need to be rescued.
The brain’s reaction to a perceived threat is ‘fight, flight or freeze’. Running, or flying, from a problem, comes with feelings of shame, guilt, weakness, and is often perceived as failure. Fighting, however, is often associated with strength, bravery, and power, winning and domination. Therefore, super strength is the quickest way for us to feel and experience being saved, be it from an abuser, a bully or war and invasion.
Why do you think so many superheroes have such traumatic pasts — deaths of loved ones, in particular?
Superheroes are given a traumatic past because we need to see that the challenges and stresses of life cannot prevent us from becoming a better version of ourselves. The pain of loss and trauma can be transformed into a new life, or to work towards a higher purpose.
Given the increasing popularity in ‘origin’ stories, I would argue that many of us have an increasing need to immerse ourselves in, and identify with, the most challenging and traumatic elements of our superhero’s past. This connection and familiarity with a character’s journey makes their rise to superhero status all the more powerful, and we can begin to imagine how we might overcome and rise from our own traumatic experiences.
Are superheroes great role models for kids?
Generally, superheroes are a great role model for children. Their stories provide an example of morality and the greater good, how sacrifices are often a part of success (e.g. Superman, Spider-Man, Dare-Devil etc.), the need for self-discipline, responsibility, and often the importance of teamwork (Avengers, Justice League, Guardians of the Galaxy, Fantastic Four etc.). Furthermore, the flawed nature of more recent superheroes, allows children to identify with these characters and realise that even superpowers can’t prevent the challenges we all face in life.
However, it is extremely important to highlight that all children are different, and come from different cultures, families and life experiences. Therefore, they will interpret films, books and all media based on their own early experiences and the behaviour of the adults in their life. For example, if you have experienced physical abuse, you may only see that superheroes get want through aggressive and violent behaviour. Therefore, caregivers, teachers and family have a responsibility to think about how they use superheroes to facilitate a child’s development.
There is something undeniably special about superheroes, and the psychology behind them is fascinating. What might seem a trivial past-time for kids might actually be helping them to persevere during trying times, or turning them into the solid, dependable adults they’ll one day be. But our love for superheroes doesn’t die during adulthood — we need them now as we needed them then, to be our anchors and to remind us what really matters.
About the Author: Samantha Lyon is a content marketer, lover of superhero movies and owner of Yet Another Mummy Blog, where she interviews psychologists, writes about parenting issues and geeks out about SEO and content.