The Appeal of Superheroes

superhero people

By Matt W Sandford, LMHC

Yesterday I was reading some comments to a blog and someone had written some insult to another commenter, which seems to be rather common in these types of online debates. A few lines later someone responded that the person issuing the insult had spelled it wrong. They wrote a thank you to this person for the misspelling, stating that it was a “delicious irony”.

And at first, I too found myself smirking at the humor of this person’s bungle, making them look like the very insult they had attempted to level at someone else. But I continued to contemplate the delight of this second person who had caught the first and had experienced a kind of delicious delight in someone embarrassing themself.

We sure love it when the bad guy gets it, don’t we? Movies and TV and books have been so geared to deliver the bad guy getting his due with just this kind of gusto – drawing us into loathing and anger at their evil and then poignantly delivering a righteous punishment at the end. I can remember watching the movie, The Rock, which came out in 1996, with Nickolas Cage and Sean Connery. What I really remember is how the bad guy gets it. This is a guy who is planning to send a chemical missile into San Francisco. But Cage, in his final battle with the guy, shoves one of the chemical balls into his mouth, not just killing him, but killing him in a gruesome manner. He isn’t simply stopped, and he isn’t simply brought to justice, but he experiences the very same horrible fate that he had planned to deliver to innocents. We’ve witnessed this kind of retribution type justice time and again from Hollywood, and I suspect more so in the last couple decades. It’s not really a new thing, but superheroes seem to be extremely popular as of late.

It got me wondering why is it that we crave this type of thing? Why did the commenter delight in catching this person and in pointing it out so much? There seems to be something here that reflects something true and something Godly, in terms of God’s own desire for justice and making things right. And yet, at the same time there seems to be something wrong here, that somehow the longing for justice has been warped. Because what seems to happen is that the bystander now gloats, now savers the humiliation and pain of the fallen. It has become a “delicious” experience to catch someone in error and expose them and hurt them. There is certainly plenty of TV that is aimed at fulfilling this kind of hunger in the audience. And I propose that it doesn’t satisfy this hunger, but it has fueled and intensified it.

The hunger to deliver the humiliating blow and watch the perpetrator suffer I think has to do with the hurt inside all of us. We have all been taken advantage of, or humiliated, or wronged, or laughed at and belittled, or not believed in or just ignored. Meaning we all know what it feels like to be powerless. That’s the power of superhero stories. They catch us all in the place of our weakness and present a person like us who overcomes their weakness and is able to take on their adversary and put them in their place. That feeds a hunger we all have, to power up on the bully, to not only rise up and be free, but to do back to them what they did to us – to feel superior and rub their nose in it. To truly be…powerful.

God says that we should leave it to him to avenge wrongs.  Maybe the point is not that we shouldn’t care about justice, but that maybe God knows that we will have trouble dispensing it evenly? Maybe he knows we may be drawn into it in such a way that we’ll lose objectivity and become like the evil we want to squash? Maybe he knows that when we experience being overpowered that we will long to regain our power by overpowering someone somewhere.

What do we need?

  • We need to learn to feel our hurts and losses. If we suppress them, we are more likely to act out in revenge and passive aggressive pursuits.
  • We need to connect with safe people who do respect us and acknowledge us. This will spare us from needing to get these things through power and manipulative ways.
  • We need to stay connected to God – being reminded often that he is trustworthy and has our back and that we don’t need to take things into our own hands.

If you would like to schedule a counseling appointment with Matt, call 407-647-7005.

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