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.
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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.

Saunders argues that in the comic the armor and the drink are presented as a single problem. And the solution to that problem is, according to Saunders, "to acknowledge that the fantasies of radical independence--absolute power, total control, complete self-reliance--are just that: fantasies... Tony Stark must accept that his sense of self cannot be sustained in isolation." Saunders links this to the philosophy of AA, which, he says, does not insist that the addict acknowledge God so much as it insists that the addict admits that he himself (or she herself) is not God. Alcohol, like armor--or superpowers--is a way to grasp control. It's a tool, a technology. And that act of grasping can pull a shell around you.

In some sense, as Saunders says, the therapeutic, psychological model of AA is an alternative to this fantasy of power. It punctures the big dumb dream of godhood; it tells you that you're not Superman, and you can't control the world. This syncs with David A. Pizarro and Roy Baumeister's characterization of superhero narratives as "moral pornography" in Our Superheroes, Ourselves -- the stories allow for a continual, controlled hit of moral certainty, just as pornography (they argue) allows for a repetitious, varied array of sex partners.

Superheroes are fiction, whereas psychology has pretensions to reality and efficacy, but they're still both building suits of armor.

But Saunders (and Pizarro and Baumeister as well) seems to overlook the extent to which the super-technology of control is native not just to superheroes but to psychology as well. Yes, AA encourages adherents to give up one attempt at attaining control. But the way it does that is through offering a 12-step system--for controlling the release of control. AA is its own kind of super-technology. It's a mechanism for regulating the soul--as is psychology in general, from lofty academic discipline to self-help piffle. Superheroes are more blatantly hubristic in their dreams of improbable powers--but then, superheroes are avowedly fiction, whereas psychology has pretensions to reality and efficacy. They're two different technologies, but they're still both building suits of armor.

You can see this throughout Our Superheroes, Ourselves, whether in Pizarro and Baumeister's satisfyingly teleological evolutionary psych explanations (we are programmed for moral evaluation, ergo, underwear outside the pants) or in Travis Langley's description of his survey project in which he asks people to rate the personality types of their favorite superheroes and supervillains. That survey seems remarkably pointless... but, of course, the point is precisely the rating and categorizing itself. You read the essay for the same reason you read a superhero comic--to see an authority carefully put everything in order.

As Saunders shows, not all superhero narratives are quite so simple--and certainly all psychology isn't. Still, though some of them blithely retail it while others struggle and question it, there are few superhero narratives or psychological studies that don't circle around this vision of control. It's in that sense perhaps that both are, as Lawrence C. Rubin suggests here, mythologies of modernity. If the big dumb dream of our ancestors was that there were gods, our current big dumb dream seems to be that there aren't, and that we don't need them because we've taken their place .

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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