Video games, comic books, and superheroes, in general, are seeping into every crevice of the Pop Culture landscape. An estimated 150,000+ attendees of this year’s San Diego Comic-Con will have an estimated $140 million positive impact on the economy. Still not convinced? Maybe the $1.5 billion box office income of 2012’s Avengers movie or the well over $1 billion estimated income of the Black Panther will help you see that it’s easy to see those superheroes are extremely popular. As previously said, the popularity goes well beyond the movies; and is seeping all over the Pop Culture landscape. So why do we need superheroes? What is the draw to invest so much of our time, money, and emotions into these superheroes? Why do these superheroes and even villains receive so much idolization; becoming role models to children and adults alike? Why do hardcore fans stick around after the increase in popularity and commercialism of the industry?
The term ‘superhero’ was not used until 1917 and was very popular during the Golden Age of Comics (the 1930s). The current Modern Age of comics brought about more psychologically complex characters, as well as a larger audience base. Many have claimed that superheroes are an integral part of American society; and despite some otherworldly aspects, comics are a reflection of our world. During World War II, Marvel famously showed Captain America punching Hitler in the face. Then years later (after finding out that President Obama collected Spider-Man comics), Marvel put Obama on the cover of their The Amazing Spider-Man issue No 583 where ‘Spidey meets the President’. Continuing to address and be on the forefront of social issues, in 1992 Marvel revealed Northstar to be a homosexual. Comic books and superheroes writers seem to mirror our lives, which in turn makes them even more relatable.
So we have established that the evolution of comics and superheroes themselves sometimes reflect the events that are happening around us as well as address the societal problems that our world is facing; but what about our idolizing relationship to a superhero? As we read comics, especially the young audience, we not only increase our ability to read and understand more complex works; but we develop emotions and morals. Take, for example, Tony Stark. Despite Tony’s celebrity status and the ultra-powerful Iron Man suit…he is a broken character. Throughout the years of Iron Man comics, the Tony Stark/Iron Man character has had to deal with insecurities due to his broken relationship with his father, has suffered from alcoholism, exhibited signs of PTSD, suffered panic attacks and even bouts of paranoia. This flawed character, much like many other comic book superheroes, help us see the human qualities and make us look at ourselves. But like fairytales and children stories, superhero stories serve a didactic purpose. Most superheroes teach the reader how to succeed in life. Whether that success is to better the world around them and defeat evil villains or just by demonstrating exemplary behavior. On the basic level, they educate readers between right and wrong.
When we are little, most of us pretend to be law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, cowboys, or someone in the armed forces. The same principles that cause us to look up to those people are the same reasons they pretend to be Iron Man, Batman, Spider-Man, or Superman. These superheroes are larger-than-life, epic characters that do anything to take away evil and make things right. We admire paramedics, Marines, firemen, etc. because they help save us in our times of need. The psychological theory called terror management theory proposes that people’s fear of death strengthens their allegiance to certain cultural values. For example, during times that we witness evil and death, a typical response would be for us to think more about the fragility of life and it leads us to value heroes even more. Heroes also fulfill our need for fairness and lawfulness, which is sometimes lost in our normal everyday lives. In the 1950s Superman TV show always spoke of Superman’s never-ending quest for “truth, justice, and the American way”. They bring us hope.
While video game characters, comic books, and superheroes of all types are exaggerated examples of what traits we hope to exhibit, they fill a purpose. We admire the masked superhero. Prosocial behavior has a positive impact on the readers/players. We sometimes find ourselves escaping the setbacks and failings that we are experiencing in our own lives, and we are living vicariously through these characters. Sometimes these characters help us face real adversity in our lives. Giving us the courage and inspiring us to overcome health problems, failures, or even just the everyday challenges that we find. Heroes lift us up on a personal level by allowing us to compare and contrast the traits that they portray; and allow us to personify the best parts of their personalities, ethical commitments, and moral traits.
My son, Daniel, may have said it best when he said that when he’s watching a good movie or playing video games that he can forget about stressors, homework or chores; and just be lost in that character’s world. The characters that we play, watch, read, cosplay, or enjoy are sometimes flawed souls with admirable intentions. Just like normal life, we can be flawed and be successful. We can have complex backstories and have different motivations. We will continue to love and idolize these characters because we see a little bit of ourselves in them…or maybe we see something that we want to add to our own story.