Who’s your favorite superhero? I realize this might be impossible to answer – Marvel and DC Comics alone have thousands of heroes from which to choose. I recently visited the Seattle Museum of Pop Culture, known as MoPOP, where they have an awesome exhibit on the history of Marvel. I left understanding why superheroes are perennially popular and why we need them. I also felt a little more powerful myself.
The Avengers might seem like just a marketing scheme created to take your movie money. They’re more than that. Superheroes like Thor and Black Widow appear in all cultures and throughout time. There are short and tall, black and white, young and old, gay and straight, Muslim and Jewish, European, Asian, and African superheroes. The characters in The Iliad were superheroes to the ancients. In India today, you can buy comics featuring Lord Shiva.
Superheroes change with time, often reflecting our struggles and values. Captain America was created in 1941 to allay our fear of the then-metastasizing Nazis. The most popular Marvel hero at the MoPOP right now is Black Panther. Next year Captain Marvel will be released. Also known as Carol Danvers, Captain Marvel is one of Marvel Comics’ strongest women, a female Air Force officer with superhuman strength and speed.
Heroes change with the times and are metaphors for the real-life challenges we face and our abilities to overcome them. Superhero stories are our own stories.
When I was a kid, Spider-Man was my favorite. I watched him every afternoon at 3 o’clock when I got home from school. Spidey is a nerdy, little kid who can perform amazing feats to keep people safe and to right societal wrongs. Being a little kid who similarly loved science, he seemed like a good role model at the time. Interestingly, Spidey might have helped me. A couple of studies have shown that kids who pretend to be superheroes, like Batman for example, perform better on tasks, compared with those who aren’t pretending. In some ways, this strategy of imagining to have superpowers is an antidote to the impostor syndrome, a common experience of feeling powerless and undeserving of your position or role. By imagining that they have superpowers, children behave commensurately with these beliefs, which can help them develop self-efficacy at a critical period of development.
This strategy can work for adults too. Military men and women will adopt heroes like Punisher for their battalions, surgeons will don Superman scrub caps, and athletes will take nicknames like Batman for their professional personas. It is a strategy our ancient ancestors deployed, imagining they had the power of Hercules going into battle. No doubt, the energizing, empowering emotion we feel when we think of superheroes is why they are still so popular today. It is why you walk with a bit more swagger when you exit the theater of a good hero flick.
So indulge in a little Wonder Woman and Daredevil and Jessica Jones, even after Halloween has passed. When you do, remember they are here because they are us. and one that we need.
Nowadays, I probably relate most to Captain America: Lead a team, help make each team member better. And, yet, looking at Chris Evans, the actor who plays Captain America, it’s clear I need a lot more time at the gym. Or maybe I could just try to get bitten by a spider.
“Can he swing from a thread? Take a look overhead. Hey, there, there goes the Spider-Man!”
Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at email@example.com.