Everybody knows that Superheroes are good examples that motivate us to be brave, do good and fight evil. Their super human abilities, wit, strength and abilities, impress and inspire us to be the best version of ourselves.
However, since the Silver Age of Superheroes, we’ve seen the worst of these super beings who despite their ability to save the world cannot seem to save themselves from their own personal entangled struggles. We see Tony Starks, Ironman struggle with alcoholism; Aquaman refusing to take his position as King of Atlantis due to poor self-esteem; and of course, Bruce Banner struggling with his angry alter ego the uncontrollable Hulk. Many other heroes struggle with mental conditions due to their past experiences: Spiderman suffers from catastrophic grief; Jessica Jones crumbles with anxiety and Ant Man dissociates to different personalities in the comic book version. Yet, despite these crippling limitations, Superheroes fight on. Perhaps, it is these negative attributes that can help us better relate and identify ourselves and our problems.
So how can a seemingly messed up character like Ironman, Thor or Jean Gray help us in any positive manner?
Every superhero has his or her own personality, trait and abilities that is distinctive and unique. Some superheroes, whether it’s their origin story, personality or predicaments would resonate more with us than others. We may identify more with Superman or Batman if in our lives we have different roles to play and are expected to behave differently in different social settings. We may find affinity with the X-men if we feel left out and ostracized by certain groups of people. Superheroes present multi-layered metaphors that present us with seeds of self-understanding, identity formation and solutions to problems. As we watch these flawed superheroes learn from their personal issues and emerge from their adversities, we too can learn to reframe our own life experiences and emerge as heroes rather than as failures.
Despite the imperfections of our superhero, one thing remains consistent. We can count on them to keep their moral compass and choose the decisions that is aligned to their calling. This is the predominant difference between a hero and a villain. Another significant character trait that most if not all Superhero has is that of empathy. For many of the superheroes, the empathy arises as a result of their own troubled past, which motivate and enhance their desire to do what is right and save people. Empathy is the capacity to feel and share states with other people and is strongly liked with mirror neurons. Professor Christian Keyser, a prominent psychologist explains that people who get very involved with fictional characters are more empathetic in everyday lives. Their mirror neurons, the neurons that trigger empathetic emotions and activate helping behavior, are triggered much more in these individuals. For those individuals who may habitually resist experiencing emotions, to avoid or reduce painful emotions, exposure to relevant stories may induce self-change. (Paulhus, Fridhandler, & Hayes, 1997). When people experience emotions in a piece of fiction, it allows them to assimilate and understand the emotions more fully hence re-experiencing their own past situations and come to terms with it.(Scheff, 1979)
Nonetheless, even from a less Freudian perspective, research has shown that good fiction stories of any kind would allow us to live vicariously through the character and the situation, such that it allows us to either escape or engage emotionally.
A more compelling reason to look to superheroes would be to emulate their profound understanding and usage of their superpowers and strengths. Rosenberg in ‘Our Superheroes Ourselves’ states that “People are best able to succeed when they know their strengths and are able to capitalise on them and also know the internal vulnerabilities they bring to a situation and how they can control those vulnerabilities”.
We don’t have the strength of Thor or the advance weaponry of Ironman but we all have Character Strength. Focussing and nurturing our Character Strengths can provide us with the substance to which we overcome our weaknesses, relational issues and sow the seed to which we solve our problems. Captain Marvel realised that her true strength is really in the person of Carol Danvers, the grit and resilience that she had build up since a child.
Look here for your Character Strength.
Social roles and work life
Ordinary living in our present world presents a myriad of complex situations and its concomitant expectations, and Superheroes are not spared from it. As a reflection of our times, Superheroes face the same work pressures and stressor, wrestle with the same relational challengers and everyday issues as we do. Hence, we see Captain America struggling with self-directed pressure to perform at his job and Supergirl having to put up with the excessive demands of her lady boss Cat Grant. Often, Superheroes experience role conflict. Role theory is a social psychological theory that proposes that we act out socially and personally defined set of roles. Role conflict emerges when there is disagreement between two or more of our roles. Hence, we witness Batman agonising to keep his role as the crime fighter for Gotham City and his love interest Rachel. In the initial years, Supergirl struggled with role ambiguity as she arrived on earth 24 year later, only to find her sole objective eradicated, as her baby cousin Karl whom she was sent to protect had become Superman.
As we play witness to our Superhero struggle with, clarify and resolve reel life relationships and situations, we are presented with a looking glass into our own relationships and situations. According to Dr Gary Solomon, psychologist and author of Cinematherapy books, as movies allow us to watch from a third persons perspective, we are able to suspend our judgement and defenses while allowing us to hear and see things which we might not have been willing or unable to acknowledge.
Movies are a reflection of our times, just as myths and legends are a reflection of life lived in a bygone era. They embody our lived experiences and represent humanities attempt to find answers to the problems and dilemma of that time. X-men movies portray themes of prejudice and institutionalized discrimination which despite the advancement of many societies, still exist in this age. In the origin story of Aquamen (2018), Orm, King of Atlantis and Arthur’s half-brother, attempts to unite Atlantis and attack the surface world for harming the oceans. This theme resonates with our times, as ocean pollution is killing aquatic life, diminishing food resources and causing irreparable damage to our planet at an exorbitant rate.
How does reel life help us
‘Stories of superheroes, …can inspire us by providing metaphors for overcoming obstacles, defeating enemies- both internal and external…’ ( Rosenberg, 2013, Our Superheroes ourselves)
Yet as we are awed by the amazing feats of superheroes, we can sometimes feel inadequate in making any difference. Perhaps the cliched quote from Spiderman should only apply to superheroes, that ‘with great powers comes great responsibilities’. Certainly, only those with extraordinary inhuman abilities should be expected to display that level of courage and perform those incredible deeds to save the world. However, the rest of us with limited strength and often questionable abilities needn’t feel ineffectual. To be a hero to someone, we only need to extend our hand to that person who is teetering just a step behind us and along the same journey.
Is there someone on your same journey that you can encourage today?