Why Do People Like Superheroes? Don't Ask a Psychologist

Our Superheroes, Ourselves botches its analysis, but its brain-expert authors unintentionally shed light on the allure of seeing superior beings bring order to the world.
man of steel berlatsky 650.jpg
WB

Comics Journal writer Tom Crippen titled an essay about Superman "The Big Dumb Dream." It's funny because it's true: Superman, and the superheroes that followed him, are, as dreams go, big and dumb. There's a kind of genius to that bigness and dumbness. If people like strong, powerful heroes, why not create a hero who is exponentially stronger and more powerful than any hero ever seen before? But the genius is also the genius of the lowest-common-denominator panderer. Siegel and Shuster, Superman's creators, figured out exactly what big, dumb thing the public wanted--and the rest is history.

Why does the public want that big, dumb thing, though? That's a worthwhile question, and one you would think that a book titled Our Superheroes, Ourselves might set itself to answer. Edited by Robin S. Rosenberg, the volume is, as the intro says, "a collection of essays by noted psychologists in which the authors apply their knowledge of psychology to our relationship to superheroes, and to the extent to which superheroes' psychological nature reflects human nature."

This seems like a reasonable approach and a reasonable goal. And yet, somewhere along the way, most of the essays in the book go wrong. Whether criticizing superhero narratives or extolling them, the psychologists here seem to have trouble articulating why they're focused on superheroes in particular, rather than on pop culture in general, or even on something else entirely. For example, Peter J. Jordan argues that the classic '60s Marvel superhero comics are worthy of serious consideration because they presented characters whose emotions are variable depending on the situation they find themselves in--which may well explain why Marvel Comics are better than DC Comics of the same period, but doesn't exactly make a compelling case for artistic depth on any other metric. Similarly, Gary N. Burns and Megan B. Morris praise superhero stories for providing their protagonists with somewhat realistic, stressful work lives... but surely lots of other media do that too. Why pay attention to superheroes, then? The big dumb dream, for all its bigness, comes across here as oddly elusive.

In part the problem may be a matter of distance: Though many of the psychologists say that they're superhero fans, the nerd knowledge on display is often a bit shaky. (The Watchmen, for example, are not a superhero team, and mentioning Stan Lee as the architect of the Marvel age without also referencing Jack Kirby is a big faux pas.) But I think some problems also stem from the way that psychology and superheroes are too close to each other. They have preconceptions about power and morality in common, and as a result some of the authors here seem to find it hard to pull back far enough to get perspective on what is unique about superheroes, and whether or why that uniqueness matters.

Ben Saunders gets at the crossover between psychology and superheroes, and at the difficulties it imposes, in his excellent 2011 book about the intersection between religion and superheroes, Do the Gods Wear Capes? (which, in a major oversight, none of the writers here cites). In his chapter on Iron Man, Saunders discusses the 1979 story arc by David Michelinie, Bob Layton, and John Romita Jr., called "Demon in a Bottle" in which Tony Stark struggles with alcoholism. Saunders talks about the storyline in terms of the language and philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous. Tony Stark relies on the technology of the Iron Man suit to solve his problems. He relies on alcohol--which, Saunders said, AA traditionally sees as a "coping mechanism"--to manage emotional and psychological states.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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