During this ongoing pandemic, yours truly was participating in the social media trend of a “30 Day Film Challenge” where participants refer to one film each day under a specific category, such as “the first film that you remember watching.” When I arrived on Day 10, the category was “Your Favorite Superhero Film“—and I hit a wall. Each day was pretty easy, or I did not take it as seriously. The Superhero film genre has hit an all-time high, with one (Avengers: Endgame) even setting the box office record for any movie ever made. We, as a film community, have started to think Superhero films matter more now than ever. I oddly thought this question was more serious than it probably needed to be.
This decision was difficult—there have been numerous films that could fall under this category, and I also started to think about what makes viewers enjoy themselves so much during these films. No matter your gender, sex, race, or ethnicity, there is a superhero film that you attach yourself to. Before early Thursday night screenings became a thing, many viewers would attend the midnight screenings dressed up for the newest movie in a connected superhero universe or as billionaire vigilantes. After leaving the theater, we spent months on end debating who or which is the best! “Who is the best Batman?” or the “MCU vs DCEU” debate. These conversations transcend the fandoms and even reach those who are not connected to social media and pop culture. Everyone has their favorite representation of a character or their favorite superhero—but why?
Superheroes are meant to inspire. They represent someone we are not, or someone that can do things that we can’t. They can provide an escape into a world where someone is there for us even when our protectors or our medical and social institutions have let us down. Anger and sadness are commonplace emotions felt throughout our society because of the regular injustices we see or even experience ourselves: unjust murders because of racial tensions and prejudices; governments’ inability or flat out refusal to act; betrayal by those we loved or considered friends; our world is full of struggles that seem to find you no matter your background or social status.
People want to believe in the existence of fictional figures like Superman or Supergirl—someone they could depend on to save them when the humans who are supposed to either can’t or won’t. We want a person like Steve Rogers (Captain America) to do what the rest of us aren’t courageous enough to do and take a stand when it’s not convenient to do so. We want someone that brave enough to say, “I can do this all day.” Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are told that real life superheroes exist in our healthcare facilities, in our schools, and at other times, in the military and police. We are constantly shown and told how “not all superheroes wear capes.” But what happens when that’s not enough? Numerous times in history people who are in a position to help choose not to act. People who are recognized as “ordinary” heroes might let down those looking up to them and expecting them to be there or to be there for them. Superheroes serve a purpose in filling this void.
Clinical psychologist, Robin Rosenberg wrote, “[superhero stories help us in] finding meaning in loss and trauma, discovering our strengths and using them for a good purpose.” She stated that “superheroes undergo three types of life-altering experiences that we can relate to:”
Trauma; such as the one that young Bruce Wayne goes through. He makes a promise to his murdered parents to fight against the crime in Gotham City. Rosenburg states that this is directly applicable to a lot of real life scenarios. Her past research has shown that many people experience growth “after a trauma and resolve to help others, even becoming social activists.”
Destiny; similar to that of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She’s a normal teenager who discovers she’s the “Chosen One” to fight demons. She has to be the one who does not have a normal life and will take on this burden. Sometimes we are thrown into scenarios that we may not have predicted but we have to adapt and push through anyway.
Rosenberg’s last type of experience is similar to what Spider-Man goes through. When he initially gets his powers, he uses it for selfish reasons until his beloved Uncle Ben is killed. This type of experience is similar to the first, but instead of the trauma defining the hero, it’s the choice that matters. No matter whether ‘your’ Spider-Man is Peter Parker, Miles Morales, or Peter Porker, this choice exists. They could stay wrestling for money to pay rent; they could stay home and be a normal kid instead of saving the multiverse. The choice to do what is right versus what is easy is a choice that we, as humans, make every day. Rosenberg states that, “[superheroes] inspire us and provide models of coping with adversity, finding meaning in loss and trauma, discovering our strengths and using them for good purpose” (link). We want to attach ourselves to these characters; we want to see them in ourselves; we want to see those with fantastical abilities are still imperfect and relatable, and we are comforted by seeing them struggle with ordinary problems and still do the right thing in the end.
Recent research from Kyoto University in Japan shows that this “choice” can happen even before we learn how to speak. Their study had preverbal infants shown short animations in which one character purposely bumps into another. They then showed the infants a third character who could either prevent it from happening or not do anything at all. The infants consistently wanted the third character to help and prevent the pain. This study showed that even though they could not speak they recognized what heroism was and wanted it to happen.
“Six-month-old infants are still in an early developmental stage, and most will not yet be able to talk. Nevertheless they can already understand the power dynamics between these different characters, suggesting that recognizing heroism is perhaps an innate ability.”David Bulter – “Preverbal infants affirm third-party interventions that protect victims from aggressors” (link to article)
This idea is then touched on again in the television show What Would You Do? People are shown how ordinary people behave when they are confronted with dilemmas that require them either to take action or to stand by and mind their own business. Each scenario has the viewer hoping for the regular people to step in and stop whatever the situation is. We all want to be that person who does what’s right even when it’s not easy. Data suggests that feelings are one of the stronger reasons why audience members connect to certain heroes (link). Personally, I attach myself to stories of people and characters who have gone through trauma and stand up to those who are wrong. As Batman, Daredevil and the X-Men deal with their respective issues, I cope with what I have gone through and deal with my own conflicts.
In the past, and still now today, society often sees comics and comic book movies as only enjoyed by children or “nerds.” With Black Panther becoming the highest-grossing solo superhero film of all time, Avengers: Endgame becoming the highest-grossing film of all time, and a multitude of films winning Academy Awards for both their performances and their technical aspects, this is clearly not true. More people enjoy these characters outside of children and “nerds” than ever before. There are films that are clearly made more for children than older crowds, but there are just as many that are for adults and have many more important themes. Superheroes have become the modern-day mythology that tackles issues, from the struggles of high school to mental illnesses. No matter which superhero you attach yourself to, or when you attach yourself to them, there is no denying the effect that they have on our lives.
Which superhero do you identify with the most? Or which superhero has inspired you the most? Let me know down in the comments section below!