The Psychology of Superheroes


Robin Rosenberg grew up with superhero comics. Later she shared them with her children, and after becoming a clinical psychologist, she studied them through the lens of psychology and discovered that “superhero stories are about morality and loyalty, about self-doubt and conviction of beliefs. I also saw that, like any good fiction, the sagas of superheroes bring us out of ourselves and connect us with something larger than ourselves, something more universal.”

Rosenberg published “We Need a Hero” in the current Smithsonian Magazine  The article inspired me to read The Psychology of Superheroes a collection of essays that Rosenberg edited in 2008 on what makes these caped crusaders tick.

Sometimes it seems that superheroes can’t get no satisfaction, but is that accurate?  Not according to the opening essay in the collection, “The Positive Psychology of Superheroes,” by Christopher Peterson and Nansook Park.  “One of the defining features of a superhero is an over-riding mission to serve the larger world and to defend it.  In this sense, superheroes have profoundly meaningful lives.”   

Peterson and Park assert that meaning is more important than pleasure in leading a satisfying life. That’s a good thing, because with a few exceptions, superheroes are challenged on the relationship front.  I’ve always thought it’s the flaws embodied in the secret identities of Clark Kent and Peter Parker that bonds us to these characters.  In one sense, they’re just like us, and their stories suggest that we too may choose the highroad.

Though superpowers isolate them from others, sometimes superheroes band together with superior results, according to the second essay in the collection, “The Benefits of a Group,” by Dr. Wind Goodfriend. This article may shed some light on why The Justice League of America functions more efficiently than your team at work or committees at church.

Another topic discussed in the book is the question of nurture vs. nature in the development of superhero psychology.  Superman may have his powers through genetics, how did he come to use them for altruistic rather than narrow and selfish ends?  Did he inherit those qualities too, or were they a result of his wholesome upbringing on a farm in America’s heartland?  What would have happened if his pod had landed in New York City?

Good and evil are usually clearly drawn in superhero stories, but not always. In “Anti-Heroism in the Continuum of Good and Evil,” Dr. Michael Spivey and Steve Knowlton discuss the ambiguous, gray-zone nature of super anti-heroes and sympathetic villains (think of Darth Vader and Gollum).  Each of the 18 essays in The Psychology of Superheroes addresses some facet of the super-psyche that you may or may not have wondered about.

Humans have relished hero tales for millennia.  Superman joined the ranks 75 years ago, and if you’ve been to the cineplex lately, you know that his saga is going to continue this summer.  The trailer for Man of Steel 2013 zeroes in on Clark’s inner struggles to understand who he is and why he is here.  Earlier incarnations of Superman did not live in a world of such moral ambiguity and mistrust of the government, themes which place this telling squarely in the 21st century.

As The Psychology of Superheroes makes clear, what we really admire is not the superpowers but the hero, the one who overcomes their doubts and demons and then acts to make the world a better place. This book is a fascinating read in its own right and will whet your appetite for the new movie.  It will give you some new perspectives on movies you’ve seen in the past as well as the comic books that once inspired some of us to run around wearing capes made out of bedsheets.

Notes on Superman and The Superman Song

It doesn’t take much reflection on superheroes (see my previous Batman post) to remember Superman.  For me, he always brings to mind a strange, funny, and poignant song by The Crash Test Dummies from their 1991 debut album, “The Ghosts That Haunt Me.”

What the song underscores is an intuition that has shaped my approach to characters in fiction:  they need to be larger than life but flawed and human too.  Though the plot needs super-strength, without his kryptonite allergy, the guy in the cape would be pretty boring.  Besides, it’s Clark Kent who we bond with.  Holding tight to his geek persona, in the days before geeks were cool, Clark sacrificed his hopes for human happiness out of dedication to a public that could never be allowed to know who to thank.  If you like stories of unrequited love and hopeless triads, Superman, Lois, and alter-ego, Clark, had it going decades before Twilight.

Even more poignant than fiction was the life of Christopher Reeve (1952-2004), one many actors – and I think the best – who played the Man of Steel.

Reeve as Superman

Reeve became a paraplegic in 1995, after a spinal injury suffered when he was thrown from a horse. For the rest of his life, he lobbied on behalf of spinal-cord injury treatment and stem-cell research. In overcoming the kind of loss that is most people’s worst nightmare, Reeve found the steel of courage in the depths of his human misfortune.

Reeve after his injury

Just like Clark Kent, in the last years of his life, Christopher Reeve lived a selfless life, dedicated to other people’s good.

The Crash Test Dummies had a similar intuition about Superman several year’s before Reeve’s accident, one both deeper and richer than what the word, “superhero” generally implies:

Folks said his family were all dead
Their planet crumbled but Superman, he forced himself
To carry on, forget Krypton, and keep going.

Superman never made any money
For saving the world from Solomon Grundy
And sometimes I despair the world will never see
Another man like him

Holy Pathology, Batman!

Batman, originally Bat-man or The Batman, first appeared in Detective Comics #27, in May, 1939, the creation of artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger. Popular from the start, Batman had his own comic by 1940.

The Caped Crusader joined the screen actor’s guild in the 60’s, with a campy TV show that altered some of my speech patterns forever (Observe the title of this post, Robin).

When the show ended, so did much of Batman’s popularity. In 1969,writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams tried to return Batman to his roots as  “grim avenger of the night.”  Beginning with Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, several big budget movie series have portrayed Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego in a dark and dangerous world – it’s always night in Gotham City.

Batman Begins, 2005

As if this intrepid crime fighter didn’t have enough on his plate, some are raising questions about his mental health.  And when you think about it – what’s with the addiction to danger, the cape, the muscle suit, and probably lifts in the shoes? His car says size matters, but he can’t hang onto a girlfriend. His deepest relationship is with his butler.  He’s certainly stuck in black and white thinking – people are good or bad, nowhere a shade of gray.  Maybe he hasn’t worked through all of his childhood issues. Maybe he should ask his doctor about anti-depressants.  Or viagra.  Join an online dating service and settle down as a hedge-fund manager, like a respectable member of the 1%.

But no, says psychologist, Robin Rosenberg, author of What’s the Matter with Batman?  The boy’s all right.

In a recent NPR interview, Rosenberg, who blogs about superheroes for Psychology Today, said: “Bruce Wayne is a really clever man who has both high intelligence and high EQ, emotional quotient.”

Rosenberg turns the spotlight on us, asking why we assume there is something wrong with Batman.  “People who are truly selfless, who have given so much of themselves, are confusing to most of us. And I think some of us, in cynical moments, say, ‘There must be something the matter with someone who would do that.'”

I’d modify her words to say that nowadays, we think a selfless billionaire is weird.  Nothing new about this sentiment.  In 1939, the year Batman emerged, Woody Guthrie wrote “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd.”

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

Change “fountain pen” to “computer” and the statement rings as true as it did 73 years ago.  The biggest difference now, as the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, comes out this Friday, is that most of us probably find it even harder to believe a super-rich man could be our friend.

In a post on the Psychology Today superhero blog, Robin Rosenberg wrote:  “The stories of superheroes and heroes resonate with us because they tap into some essential truths about human nature, about our yearnings and aspirations, our demons and dilemmas, our fears and our frustrations.”

Superheroes are archetypes.  They’ve been present in our stories for millennia – only the outfits and details change.  Heracles didn’t need to change clothes in a phone booth, because he didn’t work at The Daily Planet.

Heroes and superheroes are a secular expression of something everyone knows when they wake at the hour of the wolf – without a Higher Power, or higher powers, we’re screwed.  There’s nothing accidental about the number of superhero movies so far this year.  And some of them are a lot of fun!

Enjoy this new incarnation of The Caped Crusader!