Why the obsession with Superheroes?

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Superheroes have been dragging crowds into cinemas for a good few years now and even today it seems they are defying usual trends with supernatural strength. While the Wild West is struggling to be revived Spiderman, Batman and the X-Men have leapt from the confines of television, put on shiny new skin-tights and repeatedly hit audiences in the face sequel after sequel.

Whether you’re a fan or not, there is more of this fool-hardy heroism to look forward to. Strangely enough, the three most admired superheroes are all due to be played by British actors; Andrew Garfield is all set to be the new Spiderman, Christian Bale is currently resuming his role in Christopher Nolan’s star-studded sequel to The Dark Night and The Tudor’s Henry Cavill will wear the cape in Man of Steel. All of these films are due to blow us away in 2012.

But are we blown away by superheroes? The number of men in colourful costumes has, without a doubt, gone beyond the ridiculous; now it seems Hollywood is scraping the barrel of real-world fantasy. This Summer we are supposed to look forward to the Green Lantern, Captain America, Thor, Transformers as well as all the X-Men and I’m not including the superhero films that have already been released this year.

It’ fair to say that most people in Britain are not American, deeply into Norse mythology, robots,or even comic books so why exactly are we still being sold these far-fetched fables? And more importantly, why are we still buying tickets? Even in the wake of great parodies such as Kick-Ass, the movie-machine refuses to stop churning out this ridiculous, over-the-top heroism.

Clearly, something about these superhuman beings appeals to a mass audience. Devoted younger fans are understandable but what is in it for full-grown adults? Perhaps superheroes are more political and socially relevant than many realise. Faced with natural and human instability, it is comforting for all to entertain stories of personable heroes who appear from nowhere to save the day. Could it be that our pressing world situations increase our requirement for a hero? The Iron Man films feel very topical in this respect. The battle of superior technology and the inclusion of terrorists as bad guys in the first film is obviously influenced by post-911 attitudes and the extreme capitalism and machoism of Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, reveals a conscious awareness of domestic and foreign policy in the West. If this is the case, it seems crucial that we are aware of the political undertones that might influence popular films.

It might also be said that superheroes enable an exaggerated look into human identity and morality. The viewer rarely escapes some kind of moral lesson. Remember “with great power comes great responsibility”? But the common theme of internal struggle, central to the superhero storyline, is not an original feature. Well over a hundred years before Spiderman and Venom battled for Peter Parker’s mortal soul, the internal fight of good versus evil was embodied by psychologist Sigmund Freud’s proposition of the Super-Ego and Id.

Even before, philosophers have documented the fight against sensual gratification and obedience to higher guidance. We might even see the flamboyant genre as pointing to religious belief; the films rely upon a Christ-like figure who is both human and divine  and whose immediate intervention is required for perfect peace and happiness. This is most obvious in the original Superman films.

So what is the superhero film all about? Is seems fitting to wonder what lies beneath the mask and question it’s source of power. If they are an attempt at making the news more bearable, putting a positive spin on the world’s most difficult situations, we should question the ethics of this. Do superheroes bring dangers as well as benefits? If superhero films are philosophical enquiries into the human soul,  what exactly do they reveal? And what about the idea of a superhero is so appealing and yet unsatisfying that we have to produce more and more?

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