Marvel and DC Comics have seen a lot of remakes of original superhero comics recently. This is not an increased interest in superheroes, but merely a renewal of classic superheroes for avid fans. All kinds of people have identified with superheroes for a long time and the movie industry just tries to keep up and spice up classics with modern twists.
The ways people identify with superheroes are fascinating. How can someone relate to a guy bitten by a radioactive spider or a guy who becomes a green monster when he is angry? Clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg wrote in Smithsonian magazine that it isn’t the super powers that are so relatable, but that which makes them heroes in the eyes of society.
“I think origin stories show us not how to become super, but how to be heroes, choosing altruism over the pursuit of wealth and power,” Rosenberg said. He points out three life-altering experiences readers relate to: trauma, destiny and chance. Many heroes rose out of situations of loss, oppression and loneliness. What moves fans is the way these heroes overcome their adversity or choose to be heroic over pursuing selfish ends.
“Comic book writers could have chosen not to endow their characters with origin stories,” Rosenberg said. “But those writers were keen observers of human nature ... They tap into our capacity for empathy.”
In certain places, fans empathize with one particular hero; look at cultures of poverty, rural or urban, regardless of race. Walmarts in poorer areas cannot keep their superhero T-shirts in stock. (I know because it has taken me forever to find a Walmart with a particular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt in stock. I’ll keep you posted.) A young kid I used to tutor scolded me for using different superhero stickers. When I used a Batman and a Spider man sticker on something, he told me “not to cheat on my hero.” I thought he just had an endearing obsession with Spider man, but this concept of loyalty to a specific hero is particularly common in areas suffering from trauma, oppression or injustice.
A lot of heroes are upper- class or hold white collar jobs, but many have experienced adversity or trauma to which a large audience can relate. Comic writers in the 1960s especially connected with the idea of empathy; they created characters like Hulk and Spider man who were ridiculed and misunderstood outsiders with obvious weaknesses. To see a character who had undergone loss or social rejection rise above and return victorious with a lot to offer the community offers hope. Being decked out in paraphernalia of one particular hero increases the feeling of closeness and empathy.
The psychotherapist Lawrence Rubin wrote a book on using superheroes in counseling with children. Contributing writer to the book, Robert Porter, said play therapy allows children to “work through their feelings of strength or weakness and ... to compare superheroes’ qualities with those of their ideal selves.” Poverty is a good example because it is a class made up of many cultures that continually undergoes more trauma, loss and oppression than most others. However, this empathy can be felt by a wider fan base as well.
After reading about all of this, I started to think about my superhero preferences. Iron Man has always been my favorite. I love the first movie’s political conflict, but after thinking about it more, there are a lot of ways I can relate to Iron Man. I am not nearly as smart or as rich, but the way Tony Stark goes from being self-consumed to having some sort of reality wake-up call and fighting injustice has always grabbed my interest. A middle class-girl finds a self-absorbed hero more relatable than others? Maybe there is some validity to this.
Psychologists have done studies on superheroes and audience empathy, but you may think my observations are circumstantial or exaggerated. Start looking around and examine which superheroes you like the best, and you may see the validity of identifying with superheroes more personally. Observe how much Walmart brand superhero paraphernalia exists in an inner city school, for example. There is a reason these comics, cartoons and movies have been popular for decades across all kinds of consumer dynamics. And don’t let anyone catch you cheating on your hero.