To kick off my film school experience back in 2012, all of the students and the staff of the school went to see The Dark Knight Rises at the theatre. On our way back from the theatre, we started talking about why superhero films are so popular, and it made me think why we are drawn to these larger than life characters.
I am sure there are many reasons people go to see caped heroes on the silver screen; escapism, fun, spectacle, identifying with characters that feel like outcasts and misfits…
I wanted to dig deeper than that.
I once watched a video of a professor giving a presentation on the significance of heroes in wild west literature. He spoke of how people seem to have a fascination with characters that take matters of doing the right thing into their own hands and save us all from evil. He then went on to explain how he believed that these characters even have inspired and shaped America as a nation.
The western genre was the most popular genre of the first half of the 20th century much like superhero movies are today.
As I was watching the interview, I realized that the prominence and influence of this type of character must have carried on into comic books and superhero movies.
These types of characters exist in many forms of art and literature spanning hundreds even thousands of years and many cultures, not just the American.
In superhero movies these types of characters take center stage.
During The Great Depression of the 1930’s, the first superhero (as we know them) was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
He is an alien, brought up in the heartland of America, has godlike powers and stands up for truth and justice.
His name is Superman.
The Great Depression caused a loss of hope in the lives of many, and I believe one of the reasons why comics featuring Superman became so popular during this time was the hope this man embodies.
He is a character that willingly uses his great power to protect the public and sacrifices himself and his desires for the greater good. Superman became the archetype on which pretty much all other superheroes were created or modeled.
One of my favorite quotes from a superhero movie is from Spider-Man 2. Peter Parker is passing by Aunt May’s house and sees the neighbor’s kid helping her move a few things.
Aunt May tells Peter that the kid wants to be like Spider-Man. This is during a time in which Peter has given up being Spider-Man and it is one of a few key moments that makes him realise that he must embrace his heroic duty once again.
“Lord knows, kids like Henry need a hero. Courageous, self-sacrificing people. Setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer.“
I believe one of the reasons we need heroes is because we need someone to look up to; someone who can teach us to be courageous and self-sacrificing in the face of adversity. Someone who brings us hope when we have none. Someone who can inspire us to live virtuous lives.
These stories, at their best, affirm, teach and inspire.
I also believe that we are drawn to superheroes, because there are times where we need someone to save us.
Some people believe that mankind is able to solve it’s problems entirely by its own prowess and will.
I don’t actually think mankind can save itself. I believe that we are so drawn to these selfless, god-like characters, because we need a hero.
Whether you agree with that statement or not, you cannot deny that there are seasons of our lives where we need others to save us to and to help us stay alive.
Think of the first couple of years of your life; you were a helpless being entirely dependent on your parents for your survival. It is a completely natural and unavoidable part of your life. It is by design, and I think this carries into the rest of your life, as well.
My point is that we are drawn to superheroes or heroic characters in general because we have a natural and innate desire to be saved and to become more like the hero who saves us.
In the first half of the 20th century these heroes wore boots and stetson hats, rode horses like the wind blew and knew how to use a six shooter.
Today they wear masks and coloured tights.
I don’t think we will get tired of hearing stories of caped heroes who come to our rescue any time soon, and if we do, they will just appear in a different form, in a different costume.