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Why Are Superheroes so Popular?

Updated on March 19, 2014

Some reasons for the popularity are obvious

Two female fans dressed as comic book characters Zatanna and a member of the Sinestro Corps at the August 31, 2011 midnight signing of Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1 by creators Jim Lee and Geoff Johns, as part of "The New 52",
Two female fans dressed as comic book characters Zatanna and a member of the Sinestro Corps at the August 31, 2011 midnight signing of Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1 by creators Jim Lee and Geoff Johns, as part of "The New 52", | Source

Why So Popular?

Superman, Iron-Man, Wolverine. Our culture seems to have an endless appetite for superheroes. Commonly they are dismissed as purely escapist juvenile literature but is that all they are? Is their more to the love of these characters than adolescent power fantasies of the fans? How is it that so many of these characters have endured so many revisions and retellings over the decades? Why are some of them required to adhere to a black and white moral code but others allowed to exist in shades of gray?

Cultural Archetypes?

In the afterward for the novelization Batman: Knightfall Denis O'Neil proposed the idea that most of the superheroes of our day are, in fact, the modern embodiment of much older archetypes in our culture. He makes a quite convincing case, pointing out the parallels between Superman and Achilles among others. Not every superhero exactly fits this template. Although one might draw parallels between Wolverine and Enkidu from the Gilgamesh epic, the majority of the X-Men have no such mythic parallels. However, the X-men as a group do fit an archetype, the collective one of adolescent angst and alienation. So, O'Neil does seem to have a point. Although, not all the archetypes are ancient. Captain America, for instance, could be considered Uncle Sam in fighting shape, though the latter is just over a century older than the former. Both are embodiments of national pride and identity that were embodied in the sovereign under monarchies. Some modern characters don't change the names from the ancient counterparts or they are even supposed to be the same characters. The modern comic and movie Thor is actually written as the extra-dimensional being the ancient Norse worshiped. So, are the modern superheroes all just modern versions of our ancient myths, joined by a few new characters and shorn of most of their religious context? This is certainly part of what they are and may explain their staying power. The creators of today's characters have tapped into concepts with over a thousand years worth of track record.

Real Heroes dress like fictional ones for fun run

 U.S. Service members dressed as superheroes assigned to Combined Team Uruzgan pose at the end of the 5K Super Hero Fun Run June 7, 2013, at Multinational Base Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan.
U.S. Service members dressed as superheroes assigned to Combined Team Uruzgan pose at the end of the 5K Super Hero Fun Run June 7, 2013, at Multinational Base Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan. | Source

How they have changed over the decades

Without their original religious context, what appeal do these character archetypes have? The aforementioned adolescent power fantasies are one appeal. Another is the sex appeal factor of the illustrations. Yet, increasingly, they are attracting older fans. Are the older fans just people reliving their youth or who haven't grown up? That may be some of it. However, the comics of today are quite different from those that first spawned superheroes. Back in the 1930s and 40's a comic book was longer and would usually contain several self contained stories, which tended to be rather simple. Today, the individual issues are much shorter but a story will span several issues (possibly in multiple comics) and the stories are more complex. Modern comic book stories actually have as much complexity as a typical soap opera, if not more. In fact, comparison to soap operas are quite appropriate. Both they and superhero comics tend toward over the top drama, including convoluted character relationships, feuds and returns from the grave. At one point, the tendency of comic characters to resurrect was so great that the editorial staff at Marvel comics reportedly had the motto, “Only Bucky stays dead.” Supposedly, the advent of the character Winter Soldier caused that motto to change to, “Only Uncle Ben stays dead.” This type of storytelling obviously has appeal outside of the adolescent stereotypical superhero fan. Perhaps the common storytelling elements today’s comics share with soap operas also explain increases in the female fan base or it could just be that women today are less shy about ogling depictions of the male leads. Whether the more complex stories told of superheroes today raises their stories from the level of pure escapism or not, all depends on the type of stories being told.

More than escapism, sometimes

Science fiction is well known for slipping allegory about modern issues into their stories. Weak as the science involved often is, superhero stories are a form of science fiction or at least science fantasy. Do superhero stories include allegory? In many cases, they never seem to stop. “X-men” and it's spin offs, for example, include an almost incessant drumbeat of comparison between the fictitious anti mutant prejudice and every sort of real world bigotry. Every version of Superman's origin is a story of a refugee gaining acceptance. Spider-man has even featured an anti drug message, at governmental request, at one point. Marvel comics paticularly tends to be on the bold side of including political allegory in their stories. Whether it be Captain America changing his name during certain administrations (Nomad and The Captain) or their “Civil War” crossover. Not that every superhero story includes allegory. Nor is it required. There's something to be said for getting away from real world problems every so often.

High expectations

On the other hand, many fans seem to have rather high expectations of some characters conduct in these stories. When Superman Returns featured an illegitimate child fathered with Lois Lane there was some fan criticism, as their was for the sex scene in Superman 2. No doubt, the latter may have been fueled by parents who had expected the film to be more family friendly. The former though, came in an era when out of wedlock children were more common and seemed fueled by higher expectations of a superhero than of the neighbors. Curiously, Batman, both in the comics and films, has a much looser romantic life but gets less criticism. What is the difference between the two? A possibility is different fan expectations due to their differing power levels. Superman has incredible powers but Batman is an ordinary human, with considerable training and cool gadgets. The audience aware of the adage that “Power corrupts,” may expect a more powerful hero to be more above all forms of corruption to remain a hero. So Superman must remain such a boyscout that he's not even allowed to cheat at cards with his x-ray vision, while the mere mortal Batman enjoys an occasional fling with Catwoman. On the other hand, any character in the genre who doesn't adhere to a policy against killing risks falling into the anti-hero category. There was criticism for Man of Steel showing Superman kill Zod, even though he was given no choice and the emotional anguish caused was clearly shown. However, in X-Men Origins: Wolverine the title character who runs close to, if not in, the anti-hero category kills people but has the redeeming quality of refusing to kill innocents.

Rise of the superhero novel?

Where will they go next?

Allegory, political commentary, mythic archetypes, are these the hallmarks of immature escapist literature? There is at least the potential for more in superhero comics and films than many critics realize. Unlike some other characters most superheroes are not owned by their creators but by corporate entities that frequently change writing, editorial and art staff. As a result the depth of the storytelling can change with shifting staff or managerial whim. On the one hand, this permits a character who has grown stale to be revitalized by introducing new creative talent. On the other, corporate ownership can prohibit telling stories that are “too experimental” With the rise of web-comics, including superhero comics, and independent authors novels about them, it will be interesting to see where the superhero genre goes.

Comic creators

Comic book creators Jim Lee (left) and Geoff Johns (right) at a May 11, 2012 signing at Midtown Comics Downtown in Lower Manhattan for Justice League Vol. 1: Origin,
Comic book creators Jim Lee (left) and Geoff Johns (right) at a May 11, 2012 signing at Midtown Comics Downtown in Lower Manhattan for Justice League Vol. 1: Origin, | Source

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    • loganappenfeller profile image

      Logan 

      4 years ago from Topeka, KS

      I believe that the love that we have for superheroes stems from our desire to move beyond our human limitations. Who wouldn't want to feel the freedom and rush that superhuman abilities would have to offer?

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject!

    • raymondphilippe profile image

      Raymond Philippe 

      4 years ago from The Netherlands

      That was a good question you anwered. You did a good job into explaining that. Voted up.

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