What do your favorite superheroes say about you? Superhero literature — and really the speculative fiction genre as a whole — are a genre rooted in escapism. Superheroes are a way of conceiving of the world as we’d wish it to be, but in a roundabout sense. While a utopian novel may define our perfect world, superhero works define the one-man struggle to make a perfect world. Have you ever heard somebody say ‘man, if I were in charge…’. That is the defining idea behind super hero works: one person trying to change the world dramatically by sculpting it to their personal ethos. It is my opinion that our favorite superhero works indicate (to some degree) how we see the world.
The year is 2000, and I am just entering puberty. My body is completely out of control, and I resent it. Worse, everybody else seems to be handling it more gracefully than I am. The boys all have 6-inch growth spurts, the beginnings of muscles, and deepening voices. I already have issues with looking different from everybody I know (discussed at length here), and while everybody around me is growing into mini-adults, my voice is cracking and squeaking, with no further signs of adulthood, as I stay under 5′ and under 100 pounds. I remember hearing stories of people teased for going through puberty, but my experience is much the reverse.
What books dominate my imagination? Redwall had been the series of books I plowed through, but I’m currently caught up in the Animorphs series, about a series of teenagers who discover an alien plot to take over the world, which only they can stop (via their newfound ability to turn into other animals).
Is it surprising that while my own body is rebelling, I am fantasizing about being able to change my body at will, about adventures by animals?
A few years later, puberty is in full swing, and I am left a young, awkward boy whose life is defined by school, having few friends and a general lack of romantic success. I never really got over the previous awkwardness I suffered from, and it has come to define my life through academic pursuits, and I have found a role model in The Amazing Spiderman. Why? Because he grapples with the same things I do. All superheroes have issues, but Spiderman’s are so…relatable. Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) are billionaires, and run their companies by day, but Peter Parker (Spiderman)? His biggest problem is not having enough time. What does he have to be doing? Homework. Science. Attending his friend Mary Jane’s plays so he can turn her from a friend into a lover (we can unpack the problematic nature of that idea at a later point).
By my senior year of high school, awkward and mopey has been replaced by rage at the world, and I am drawn to Batman and Rorschach, those ultimate vigilantes who dole out justice as they see fit, as only they can get right. I, of course, am a megalomaniacal teenager who hates the world and thinks it would be better remade as I saw fit.
And now, as a successful adult, I find myself most kindred spirit to Iron Man, the successful businessman playboy genius. I’ve spent enough time becoming an adult that I no longer need to prove myself, I know how to talk to people (and women), and I’ve come to see the world in the cynically adult way: what can you do for me and what can I get from you?
What strikes me as interesting (or perhaps uninteresting) is how many of these comics seem about teenagers. The Hulk feels like a puberty analogy. Maybe it takes a little juvenility to be enthralled by such a world? Maybe teenagers are the most escapist, because high school is hard and when you graduate to real life and feel valued, you spend less time caught up in the intricacies of a fantastical world?
I suggest that our favorite superheroes say a lot about the way we see ourselves. I am drawn to Spiderman and Iron Man most of all because they are scientists, and intelligent people, and on top of that, they resemble the insecure and secure aspects of my personality, respectively. My interest in Batman and Rorschach, on the other hand, represent my impotent rage at the structure of society, and my empathy with recent portrayals of The Hulk is simple: I grapple with the use of science to modify the human body (although I tend to come down in support of, not against it).
On the other hand, I find superheroes such as Captain America and Thor distasteful, as their ‘virtue’ comes across much more as nationalism than a reasoned position, and I find Superman boring because SUPERMAN IS BORING SERIOUSLY HOW IS THAT SOMETHING PEOPLE WANT TO ENGAGE WITH?
Funny. Going hand in hand with your point, I find Captain America in the new movie to be more relatable; he certainly represents nationalism to some extent, but to me he more strongly represents a relentless idealism. He’s the kind of aw-shucks nice guy that you might want to have as your next door neighbor, minus the part where he’s targeted by supervillains, etc.
Superman is very similar, except that he gets by without any of the nationalist trappings (notwithstanding America’s claims on him as an American superhero).