The Problem with Superheroes

Superheroes have an iconic status in world culture. They are easily one of the highest grossing films/ series / comics whenever they are released. It is no wonder, then, that they are constantly recycled and reused over and over especially in the summer months. They do this to target the much desired ” teenage boy” audience, which will most likely see a movie more than once and buy any of the surrounding merchandise.
What is it that makes these super Men so enticing? Is it their otherworldly powers, their ability to judge good and evil and to change the world? Is it the cool effects? Is it the ordinary boy becoming something great at great cost to himself and others?
The hero myth is hardly a new concept. It is an archetype which shows up in Ancient myths, and in literature. These are the new Perseus, and little if anything has changed about their type. Despite people arguing on originality, few if any superheroes can boast that claim.
There is, however, a much more negative side effect of perpetuating the hero myth. While we all know that these movies are harmless fun, it begs the question what is the unconscious message we are sending to young teens. Let’s examine some of the values which super hero movies promote :

Promoting Good and Evil Stereotype

The hero generally speaking – although conflicted and at times selfish ( depending on which super hero you are talking about) is always fighting ” the bad guy” . In the past, the American government would fight the evil governments by using the heroes for their claim. Now, usually, they fight aliens…but is not aliens a symbol of immigrants/ races/diversity?

We know little of the villain’s good qualities. They are there simply for our hero to fight against.
Sure that’s fine but what message are we sending? That the world is divided between ” them” and ” us” .
Noticeably, the majority of superheroes are white, young, good looking , etc. The people they interact with have similar characteristics. They rarely, if ever, interact with anyone different from them other than to fight against them. Furthermore, most of the action usually takes place in the United States. When they are out to ” save the world” most of them talk mainly to the American government, as if any other government ceases to matter or be of importance.

Promoting Violence as a Solution to Any Problem

Notice how most super heroes rarely try to use peacekeeping strategies to solve problems. Sure, it would make a pretty boring movie. But what are we teaching kids? We are embracing a notion that most things are solved by violence, and most of the times it is done by destroying innocent bystanders, probably innocent hired soldiers, and property destruction…just so you stop one guy.
Sure, that one guy was going to destroy the earth, and really one heroe must defend us as the movie argues… But really, some of the violence makes little sense at all. Take the recent Avengers film. So…the aliens go in and try to destroy the earth… why exactly? What logical reason did they have ? It seems to me, that most villains love chaos for chaos sake. They have no real reason for destruction other than absolute hate and violence ( and sometimes revenge).
Not only that, we rarely see the city and the people reconstruct itself after a violent event. We rarely, if ever, see superheroes engaged in any real exchange with any of the little people to help heal the violent outcome they caused. All they do is ” save the world” and go back to their lives without any regard to what, if anything, happened after they did this. It seems a lot like the framework used for most white burden oriented charities, where we rarely think of the long term effects of a problem.

Women Objectification and Misgony

We need to stop thinking in terms of using people as commodities

There are very little superheroes that are women. Those that are, usually have to use their sexuality to help save the world . Most of the time, women are in skin-tight outfits with Amazonian figures. Very rarely are they are as strong as the men. At one point or another, they succumb to their femininity once they fall in love which makes them weak. ( and, at times, leads to death or disappearance). Aside from buffy, who arguably is not a super hero, women rarely get starring roles in these films. The reason is not surprising. This kind of power structure rarely is equated with women.
Furthermore, most of the male superheroes rarely are faithful to women. They usually are emotionally unavailable, and are rarely good boyfriend material. They are so busy saving the world they rarely give any time to the women who are calmly waiting at home for them ( usually without much to do for themselves). Some of the women are in need of a rescue and seem unable to do anything for themselves without the men ” saving them” .


Reinforcing Strength as Power

The concept of competition and power

This goes back to some of the previous points, but we are suggesting that the only power that one must have is by force, by strength and by forcing a set point of view over others.

Lack of Spirituality
Few people realize that the term ” superman” actually has it’s origins from Nietzsche . Nietzsche’s response to spiritual allegory was to suggest that human beings are weakened by human emotions and our associations of God. In order to become free of this weakness, we must shed all spirituality, our sense of goodness and become a superman. We must rid ourselves of guilt and thus be entirely free. We must expose ourselves to our true selves, which is all our desires and expressions. We become ” superman” and embrace our individualism, at the cost of anything or anyone else.

The superman is someone who in discovering himself (306) also discovers that it is in his best interests to reject any outside notions about values, trusting rather what he finds within himself. He creates his own good and evil, based on that which helps him to succeed or fail. In this way good is something which helps one to realize his potential and evil is whatever hampers or stands in the way of this effort. Since to Nietzsche everything in the world, including good and evil, is transitory (228) everything is being continually reinvented. The superman embraces this idea of change which to him appears evident, he understands the fact that since there is nothing in the world which is permanent whatever exists must eventually be overcome by something else which comes along. Seeing himself and his values in the same light he knows that these aspects must also be overcome by something stronger if not by him than by someone or something else. So in order to keep up with the times he continuously reinvents himself over and over always building something stronger, more powerful, on top of what went before. The superman therefore is the ideal of someone who has mastered the practice of overcoming himself.

None of this is necessarily bad, but it begs the question : Are these what superheroes symbolize?

At times, superheroes do exert a sense of goodness as they appear to help others, yet within this is some rooted narcissism from the feeling of being superior to others. They are better than others…literally. Not only does this foster a sense of competition and Survival of the Fittest, it also gives an unrealistic expectation that one has to be in power to create significant change. Very rarely do superheroes operate by working as a team, for their ultimate goal is to engage in things by themselves. They hone their skills by being better than everyone else, and see other superheroes as threats to this. While some might sacrifice themselves and show true altruism very rarely do they do things without ulterior motive. By doing this we teach people that you can only help others by being a ” superhero” , and regular people cannot help others. It’s best to leave it to the expert who are a far more superior race. In a way, it creates a sense that changing negative situations, serving others is a quality that cannot be found within regular people.

This seemingly does not promote a sense of collective worth, of promoting diversity, and of creating unity.


Lack of a Family Structure

Ever notice how most of the superheroes very rarely have parents? Most of them grew up as orphans, with a thirst for revenge/ justice based on this. They grew up thinking the world is a dark place that needs defending. Pretty messed up thing for kids to idolize right?

Look, I am not saying superheroes are bad. Most of the time it’s harmless fun. But we should be careful of internalizing these values ,and try to see it for what it is : fiction. But here’s what I think superheroes should be redefined as : Everyday, regular people using their own innate gifts and spiritual virtues ( like generosity, love, kindness) to the good of others. Working together to create significant change to those around us. How about having the individual, the community and the institutions becoming super heroes and changing the world in the process? It seems odd, but it’s entirely possible.

Building Capacity by having everyone involved in the process makes everyone a super hero!
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11 thoughts on “The Problem with Superheroes

  1. Would you be interested in letting me re-print this provocative essay in a miscellany anthology I am working on? Email me: editor@markwollacott.com to talk more about it and my project as a whole or find the “Iconoblast Writers Group” on LinkedIn.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post. It made me think of when I was watching all the destruction in the last Transformers movie, I wondered to myself how long would it take to rebuild everything. But in that case, since the heroes were machines, they would probably help in the clean up efforts.

    1. A happy coincidence 🙂 It was some illustrations I did for a seminar I went to and I am glad I can at least use it in the blog.

  3. Be likely to have placed the remote far away from either you or your partners reach.
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    programming, and trailers. It must be noted that Seth Mac – Farlane’s “Family Guy” find the least intellectually gifted character, Chris, since the someone to be engaged with the controlling female with Down syndrome.

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