The Psychology of Superheroes


I recently bought a Smart TV, because my son hit the old plasma hard enough it started smoking, but on the upside I discovered Netflix! I’ve binge watched 2 seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, and I hunger for more. Not to mention my giddy anticipation of the Defenders, my absorption of all big screen Avengers, Thor and Captain America flicks … and can I just say ‘Wonder Woman’!

How come this hardcore Game of Thrones-reading, Heinlein-quoting, Shakespeare-analyzing intellectual loves superheroes so much? My husband and writing partner has asked me this question many times as I drag him to yet another X-men movie on our limited date nights. I’ve put some thought into—PhD-wielding, intellectual level thought—and here’s my answer.

Who doesn’t want to be a superhero!?

It’s Freudian wish fulfilment psychology at its simplest. Who hasn’t had a dream of flying like Superman or throwing cars? (Maybe the recurring car throwing dreams are just mine, representing my repressed hatred of traffic).

As the world gets bigger, faster and crazier, we all feel like we need superpowers to deal with it.

I’m a child prodigy/former scientist/author/full-time manager/mum and the last two parts of that list alone have earned me the ‘superwoman’ title from my colleagues. Yet even I want more power moawhahaha…! (evil laugh)

Could I please have Wolverine’s regenerative capacity, Superman’s powers, and Wonder Woman’s cool factor? Ninja-fighting martial arts skills like Daredevil would be a great bonus.

Let’s say I have all that—and you can picture your own heady mix of skills—what would I (or you) do?

This is where the really cool part of superhero shows today come in. They get existential. With ultimate power comes … ultimate responsibility? Ultimate corruption?

All of a sudden we’re going from throwing cars to dealing with soul-wrenching issues of good and evil.

How many times have you been frustrated by Superman’s unwillingness to just smash the bad guy before he discovers kryptonite? I know I cheered when Jean Grey blasted Apocalypse … but she’s one of the darker characters. Is she good Jean Grey or the destructive Phoenix? Is she hero or villain?

I think I loved Daredevil the most of my recent Netflix binge (not that I didn’t LOVE David Tennant in Jessica Jones) but it’s Matt Murdoch’s, Karen’s and Elektra’s internal battles with good and evil that really caught my attention.

What would I do?

It would be so easy to kill the bad guys without remorse, to be Elektra. But she’s a bit bat shit. You cheer Karen’s reaction when all her loved ones are threatened … but the way she looked at herself in the mirror afterward. Could you look yourself in the eyes? And if you could, what would you see in there? Angel or demon?

I love Daredevil and Superman because they wrestle with evil not only externally but internally. As viewers, we can ask the question—is it more evil to let bad guys harm other people? I wanted to throw my popcorn at Matt whenever he balked, but then the concept of ‘the loss of a good soul to darkness being more terrible than the death of an evil soul’ or something like that really got to me, and I’m not Catholic.

Can we really save the world? Look at the state of it. It’s so big … so crazy … the corruption and inequity…

Even if we had superpowers enough to go everywhere and stop every injustice, how many would die? Would we become callused to it all? Would we even be a hero anymore?

In reality, perhaps all we can do is look into our own hearts, minds and souls and save that. Save ourselves.

If we create one more good person … If everyone in the world looked at themselves and asked hard, heroic questions … And chose to be a good person … Then we’d be getting somewhere.



Thanks for reading! More posts on books, film, and writing can be found on my website at Lorel Clayton Author.

2 thoughts on “The Psychology of Superheroes

  1. This is a great article. I view Superman as boring at best (a two dimensional ‘good’ character) or evil that is willing to do good, but not really go as far as needed do that people fire and suffer needlessly from his inaction.

    I love the question of scope to the level of impact that we have: self, direct interactions, local, national, planetary.

    I side with Carlin on the notion that what sort of ego do we have to think that any individual is going to “save the planet”? So when it all shakes out is the only one that we can save truly ourselves? Good topic for conversation!

    My podcast at releases a Marvel Superhero weekly podcast where our players play the role of super “heroes” and struggle with this line of questioning ever episode. We just released or 100th episode and I am going to encourage all of our listeners and players to read this article.

    If I may, I would like top being this topic up for one of our “Behind the Masks” episodes where we discuss topics like this… Would that be ok?

    Loved the article and hope this spawns lots of conversation!

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