Why Do We Love Superheroes?

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The mythology of reason is far more problematic philosophically than mythologizing man’s origins.  It says that reason is a faculty that springs from nowhere, but that reason also rules everything around it.  It says that the universe is irrational and unreasoning, but that we can divine scientific principles nonetheless.  The mythology of reason is full of internal contradictions and oxymoronic concepts.

The mythology of reason is confusing and nonsensical.  And human beings don’t like that which is confusing and nonsensical.  We’d rather have clarity.

Unfortunately, traditional mythology – the attempt to use reason to discern our origins and purposes — has been relegated to certain select segments of the popular culture.  It has been removed from our politics.  No longer can we say with certainty that Osama Bin Laden is evil – evil, says the left, is a myth, meaning that it is useless.

But we like our myths.  We believe in good and evil.  We believe in right and wrong.  And so we buy comic books.  We watch superhero movies.  We cheer good, and we boo evil.  We wish that good were always cloaked with total strength, and evil garbed in the robes of villainy.  There’s a certain comfort to knowing exactly where Superman came from, knowing precisely the limits of his powers.  There is nothing random in the superhero world.  That’s why we like it.  We root for Superman, for Batman, for Thor because we want to be them, to live in their world – and we hope that in a moral if not a physical sense, their world resembles our own.

Which brings us to our second need: hope.  In today’s world, we are constantly told that there is no hope of rooting out evil.  We are lectured about the use of force against evil by pusillanimous liberals, and criticized for fighting for good.

In the superhero world, there are no such conundrums.

In a certain way, then, the superhero world is true to real morality: it has heroes and villains, treachery and valor.  We still need our superheroes, even in so puny a form as film gods – with the decline of traditional religion and the rise of alternative moralities, superheroes have become the cultural moral touchstones for many people.

In fact, we need our superheroes now more than ever.  That’s why we’ve seen so many of them all over our screens recently.  We feel a sense of impotence and confusion from our politicians – the inability to identify and fight evil.  We looked for a superhero president, and instead got a namby-pamby in the White House.  No wonder we seek relief.

“Do you swear to guard the lives of the innocent and preserve the peace?” Thor’s father asks him.  “I swear,” answers Thor.  We can only make the same oath if we believe in the terms: innocence and guilt, good and evil.  It may be mythology.  But it is that same mythology that has preserved Western civilization for thousands of years, and which will enable us to continue on for thousands more.

Ben Shapiro is an attorney and writer and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, and author of the upcoming book “Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How The Left Took Over Your TV” from Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.

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  • Raymond in DC

    "We can only make the same oath if we believe in the terms: innocence and guilt, good and evil. It may be mythology. But it is that same mythology that has preserved Western civilization for thousands of years".

    Comic book heroes did not emerge in a world of "moral equivalence", but one that could tell the difference between good and evil, in that Western civilization still cognizant of its Judeo-Christian heritage. It's not surprising, therefore, that Superman who fought for "truth, justice, and the American way" was the creation of two Jewish sons of immigrants, and soon after emerging was fighting Nazis. In this world, evil is not deemed a "social construct".

    I should note in passing that the TV series Smallville ends its ten-season run tonight with Clark Kent *finally* assuming his heroic persona.

    • Brtce Armstrong

      "Soon after emerging was fighting Nazis"?


  • tanstaafl

    Comic books also preserve the notion of "noblisse oblige". We expect our superheros, no matter how "godlike" and powerful to protect those weaker than they are. Superheros are always saving mankind from the plots and plan of Supervillians, who are always trying to die and/or make us suffer.

    It is the eternal battle between sociopaths and the guardians of our human society.

  • AL__

    You want to see a superhero?: http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=075_1305230780

  • Conservative Pagan

    Fun fact… there are actually a lot of pagans and for once i find it a little irritating that there is a movie based on a comic based on a religion where all the gods names are mispronounced and Heimdallur is an african american, i still don't feel at all like beheading anyone.

    Imagine what would happen if you would make a movie where Mohammad were an inuit. And the funny thing, Islam is a religion of peace, while norse paganism is actually a religion of war, the only way to get to valhalla is to be a exceptional warrior.

  • ADM

    In my opinion, the current obsession with comic book superheroes reflects an inability to appreciate genuine human heroism and adult behavior. It also reflects a cultural reality in which gender neutrality trumps everything else: most traditional, real-life heroes have been men. Men overwhelmingly take on dangerous jobs in the real world. To acknowledge this, to recognize masculinity, would produce such a backlash from the usual suspects as to make it a pointless undertaking for Hollywood, even if they were so inclined to do so. The result, we are reduced to comic book characters who, by definition are outside of reality. The message: heroes are not real; they're silly and childish and we grow beyond them.

    It is also false to speak of a "mythology of reason" and include either communism or fascism in it. Both were amongst the most consciously irrational political movements in human history.

    • Questions

      Absurd. Did you see Tony Scott's movie of last fall, "Unstoppable?" Or Andrew Davis' "The Guardian?" (2006) or Ron Howard's "Backdraft" (1991). These are but a tiny handful of many real-men movies that you claim Hollywood isn't willing to make, and have in fact been made.

  • Jim

    People want to be saved from this mess but they are too lazy to jump in and help. So they pray for some invincible being to do it for them.

  • RobertPinkerton

    I have posted distinctly sour on this topic in the comment columns of previous articles. Such entities as "super-'heroes'" exist at a point beyond my capacity to suspend disbelief and extend make-believe "belief." A "super-'hero'" is a secularized soter (saviour) or eleutherios ("deliverer"), a deus ex machina "solution" to problems.

  • Chiggles

    The reference is to Superman, not Thor. The Avengers were formed in 1962. Captain America was not the founder but joined after he was found in a hunk of ice (flash frozen in 1945) and thawed out.

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