The Psychology of Super-Heroes

by Samuel Marlow. Published 18th June 2013

I really (no, seriously!) should be watching submissions for the Electric Lantern Festival, but I have watched over 10 hours of films today, and my brain has turned to mush!

So Man of Steel is storming the box office and seems to be a huge success commercially, though critics have been slightly more cautious. With a film festival to programme by Monday there is no chance I will see it until next week, so this isn’t a review, more a discussion of super-heroes (it contains a hyphen, Marvel, you don’t own that!) in pop culture in general. More specifically what they "mean" to their audiences. And a conclusion that may surprise you!

Man of Steel

I've written on several occasions about super-heroes and more than one script about a character (super-powered or not) that could be, broadly speaking, put into the super-hero genre of stories. Part of the reason I keep revisiting the archetypes is that I still can't work out if I find the idea of super-heroes wonderful or despicable.

Put simply, I would be suspicious of any 10-year-old boy who didn't want to be a super-hero, but I'd be even more suspicious of a 30-year-old who still did.


It's no secret that most (if not all) super-heroes are power fantasies of some description or another. In the same way a gun, sword, lightsabre or magic wand can project the owner's will and, to a greater or lesser extent, protect the owner from attack, the super-hero has internalised that power. Yes, Bruce Wayne is an "ordinary man", but he has an iron will to make his body greater than that of most people, and (as far as I understand) Tony Stark's Iron Man suit wouldn't work without his arc-reactor heart.

For a child, I don't think power fantasies are a bad thing. They are entirely understandable, in fact. Kids have little power, either physically or in terms of influence. They can be picked up, pushed down, sent to bed, deprived of PlayStation privileges, and so on. No wonder they dream of being able to control their environment, resist the will of others and impose their own.

Bruce Lee

When it comes to adults, however, this gets a bit more blurred. As kids I imagine most of us fantasised about being able to beat up twenty guys without breaking a sweat. Action heroes like Bruce Lee and the myths of their almost super-human abilities were de rigueur on the school playground, as was the studious ranking of various fictional characters. "Who would win in a fight between Wolverine and a Jedi? Can a lightsabre blade cut through adamantium?" As an adolescent, stronger was better.

In my later teens and twenties, though, my tastes shifted towards the more nuanced characters. Batman's psychological torment, moral ambiguity and relative frailty was more appealing than cocky, invulnerable characters. Watchmen was an eye-opener. "Yes," I thought, "this is what these characters would be like in real life!" Super-heroes were no longer pure to me, but reminders of something faintly embarrassing.


In the last few years I have had an increasingly uneasy feeling about the way modern manhood has looked at super-heroes. I was disappointed to find the level of adoration for Rorschach in Snyder's Watchmen film. While undeniably an interesting character I feel most people had missed the point. To me the optimistic ineffectualness of the second Nite Owl was far more recognisable. Last year I went with a group of friends to see Avengers Assemble. Entertaining enough, but I was disturbed by the number of men (most of whom were older than I was) who would cheer at demonstrations of mindless brute force from the heroes.

I began to realise that my power fantasies lay in a different direction. I don't fantasise about beating up twenty goons in a bar, I'm just glad I don't have to. I fantasise (thus far effectively) about not needing to. This is why my heart sank when Yoda pulled out his little green lightsabre in Revenge of the Sith and started dispatching clones. "No, Yoda!" I wanted to shout at the screen. "You should be above this!" The Jedis' powers were philosophical, discrete. Their victories moral and restrained. Their physical powers were a last resort and it was a failure each time they had to call on them.

Yoda kills ClonesYoda's a murderer...?!

Something happened last autumn, though, to soften my feelings on the matter. While visiting my brother in Brighton I nosed round Dave's Comics in North Laine. While I was there a small boy (I would guess only four or five years old) came wandering in his own. I looked up to see if he was lost and spotted his dad hurrying in after him. The boy pointed up to a poster of Spider-Man on the wall. "Spider-Man!" he told his dad.

"Oh, wow!" his dad indulged. "And what does Spider-Man say?" To which they both recited together, "With great power comes great responsibility..." After wondering how many catch-phrases are so closely associated with their characters it occurred to me that, for all the complexity of Watchmen, the fascist leanings of Frank Miller's Batman, you couldn't show them to a four year old.


For all Spider-Man's potency, it is inextricably linked to an equally potent morality - defend those weaker than you (sometimes from people stronger than you), and don't abuse your power. It's easy for us as critical, film-literate and world-weary adults to bemoan the "childishness" of characters like Superman, but I think we may have missed a fundamental point. To complain Superman is childish is like complaining Sesame Street is childish. They are childish - they are meant for children. There is no harm in us enjoying them as well, but I felt a horrible pang of guilt that, in Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and the current fashion for darker characters, we were robbing this little kid of his heroes.

Batman and Joker

Young kids especially aren't good at ambivalence. You've gots your good guys, and you've gots your bad guys. It is difficult for them to feel two things about the one thing at once. Even in Star Wars Darth Vader wasn't one man who did good and bad things. He was a good man who became a bad man and, through love, was turned back into a good man. So to have a hero who does good things for bad reasons just wouldn't work.

Fundamentally, these are no longer our heroes, and I think kids have better understanding of them than we do. Characters like Spider-Man are archetypal in the truest sense. They are mild kings, unifying the masculine qualities of strength and leadership with the feminine qualities of kindness and understanding. They are good people who protect the weak from the strong. Where a child sees a morality to aspire to, adults get a vicarious thrill of punishment. Yes, Bettelheim devotees, there are punishment fantasies aplenty in kids' little brains, but I like to think they find outlet in other fantasies.

After all, the super-hero who protects innocents from harm, stops the villain and forgives him, I feel must ring true with the parent on some very deep level - the parent controls the child’s violent outbursts, but does not punish or hate afterwards. While having a particularly heated debate with someone about why super-heroes work in fiction, but vigilantes can’t in reality I said, "But in comics and films, super-heroes aren’t there to punish the villain, they are there to stop the villain from hurting innocent people. They prevent rather than punish."

Batman Baby Doll

If we look at the villains of these stories it is surprising how many of them aren’t "bad" in the traditional sense. Almost all of them had something bad happen to them. The hero’s job is to stop the wronged villain hurting others, while showing sympathy and understanding for the villain’s hurt-feelings.

I would, in a sense, argue that the child identifies more with the villain’s violent impulses, and takes comfort in knowing the hero is strong enough to control them.

In this way I think the super-hero serves as both an figure to aspire to, as well as a benign parent. It is particularly hopeful that these models of just parental power spring from characters who had some pretty messed-up childhoods - Bruce Wayne’s parents murdered, Superman’s parents abandoning him to save him, Spider-Man’s parents missing.

So before we go and make any more super-heroes "darker and edgier" maybe we should give a little thought to who their target audience is and what they get from it. There’s nothing wrong with having powerful characters performing fabulous deeds, but let’s take a moment to wonder who’s heroes we are messing with, and what we are denying younger audiences.

Incidentally, if you want any ready-made, Hollywood, I have a few you could use for a modest fee!


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