Out of Left Field: What Is so Compelling About Superheroes?

Why are we so enamored with superheroes? The superhero movie genre remains as popular now as ever before. Although the entertainment market is flooded with super content, we appear nowhere near the super-saturation point. Superman, Captain Marvel, Spiderman, Batman, The Flash, Wonder Woman: Their stories convey familiar narratives. They were born with or acquired some amazing power, enabling them to transcend the rules of nature and physics: strength, speed, flight, agility. Some are capable of bending space and time itself. They are idolized by millions for their abilities to do things others cannot. We continue to devour all the super-ness, in part, because we aspire to be like them.

Full disclosure: when I say “we” I really mean “I.” I dream of being a superhero. When the movie credits roll, I can’t help but ponder: What would my path to superhero-ism look like? What would my superpower be?

I hate to be picky, but I’d prefer some capability other than the gift of flight, given my fear of heights. Aqua-power wouldn’t be my cup of tea since I suffer from the fear of open water. Super strength might be difficult to attain due to my fear of protein shakes. (It’s a rare, yet totally legitimate phobia.) Could speed be my core super-competency? I can type 66 words per minute according to the first free typing speed test I could find on the internet. That’s respectable, but it hardly qualifies as “super.”

Maybe I just need to replicate the classic superhero look? For superheroes, wearing spandex in public is more than tolerable; it’s expected attire. I don’t do spandex, but I once rocked a pair of skinny jeans I accidentally purchased and was too lazy to return. This probably didn’t meet the eligibility requirements for “super.”

Sometimes the powers these characters possess are simply being extremely rich and/or extremely smart and/ or extremely good looking. Strike 1. Strike 2. Strike 3. I perhaps approach “marginal” or “adequate” thresholds for these traits, but definitely not “super.”

I do possess a slightly above-average ability to identify celebrity voice actors of animated characters. My talent manifests itself when I blurt out epiphanies during the middle of a cartoon movie: “Matthew McConaughey! The beetle’s voice is Matthew McConaughey. I figured it out.

You’re welcome, everyone. You can return to enjoying this movie without the bewildering burden of this familiar, yet previously unrecognized voice. I’ll remind you again when the film credits role, confirming Mathew McConaughey is indeed portraying the cartoon beetle.”

While this may be an uncommon skill, it’s not exactly “super.”

The protagonists’ powers in these tales are indeed super cool, super-entertaining and super-alluring. But it’s the second half of that compound word “superhero” that resonates with us on a deeper level: The superpowers may sell, but the heroic deeds compel. We are drawn to the idea that we too can be heroes. There is no need for us to dive into a pool of radioactive spiders. Heroism is not limited to those with transcendent powers and otherworldly aptitude. Anyone can be a hero. Everyone should be a hero. Mentor a vulnerable kid. Serve at the local soup kitchen. Sign up for that mission trip. Heroic opportunities are so abundant, it’s a bit silly even to cite specific examples. The only requirement is to serve others in need. Not because of a bat signal in the sky imploring us to action. But because it’s simply the right thing to do.

The movies frequently portray a reluctant journey from average joe to superhero. Being a hero and doing good is hard. We too are often hesitant to use our unique gifts to benefit humankind. It’s easier to do nothing and let the world fend for itself. In the real world, there isn’t always a bad guy to thwart. Sometimes the greatest battle is against our own apathy and indifference. (Most boring superhero fight-scene ever.) But while inaction is comfortable, it’s also unfulfilling.

We may never hit the saturation point of superhero movies because we will never run out of a need for heroes. Our obsession goes beyond watching attractive characters in tights for two hours. We continue to welcome nagging reminders that there is justice yet to be served in our world, and we are all capable of saving the day. Sometimes we just need reassurance that not all superheroes wear capes. Some of them wear skinny jeans.




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