The Superhero Phenomenon

Exploring the popularity of this archetype and the profound affect it has on us.

Ever since I was a little kid, I was crazy into superheroes. I was absolutely obsessed with Power Rangers, watching every season I could find and rewatching my favorite episodes and scenes again and again and again. Even now as an adult, I find myself often thinking back and even rewatching different scenes and episodes from that series, no matter how cheesy and cliche I have realized it all is. I was also really into DC tv shows like Batman: The Animated Series, Teen Titans, Justice League, Static Shock, Young Justice, etc., determined to watch as many of them as I could find. But, I was also really into Marvel tv shows like the Spectacular Spiderman, Iron Man: Armored Adventures, X-men: Evolution, Avengers, and any others that I could find.

There was also Nickelodeon as I devoured shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Danny Phantom or other superhero cartoons like Pokemon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Gargoyles, Totally Spies, and Transformers(goodness, I was obsessed with Transformers…). As I got older, I became a fan of live-action shows like The Flash, Arrow, Agents of Shield, and Supergirl while also really enjoying the Marvel Cinematic Universe in all its glory. I even really enjoyed Disney shows and movies like American Dragon Jake Long, Miraculous Ladybug, Kim Possible, Aaron Stone, Big Hero 6, and Wreck-it Ralph. I even enjoyed games like Legend of Zelda and, more recently, Kingdom Hearts(still baffled by how long it took me to get into this considering how much I adore Disney and superheroes).

I read books like Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Harry Potter, and Gallagher Girls as well. In the last few years, I’ve gotten into Anime and loved watching shows like Sailor Moon, The Disastrous Life of Saiki K., Fairytail, and Bleach. Every single one of these are different from one another in some shape or form, yet every one of them focuses on a singular character or team that work to defend and protect the world around them from the evil that rises up, no matter the odds. Pretty much anything that had some storyline of ‘superhero’ was something I wanted to watch and enjoy. With all of this, you would think that I would get tired of the genre and archetype of a superhero, and yet I never have and am always looking for more material.

When I was at University getting my Bachelor’s in History and Minor in English, I ended up having to read a lot of classic stories and myths like the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, Sir Orfeo, Oedipus Rex, etc.. The most interesting part of my college years that pertains to this topic, though, was a class called ‘Themes in Literature’. It was an elective I decided to take for my English Minor and, once I saw the topic title, I grew so excited for the class: Superheroes. For the entire semester, we talked about the influence that the Superhero Archetype has had on the American Culture(because, lets be honest, this country is absolutely obsessed with heroes).

From hero story’s like Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, Davy Crockett, John Henry, and Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans to the creation of Superman, Spiderman, and Batman in the 1930s/40s to modern day storylines like the Marvel Cinematic Universe(I often giggled at the fact that I was literally reading Superman Comic Books for homework). We read Joseph Campbell’s book, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, learning about the particulars of the Hero’s Journey and how that is shown in various literature and media. Overall, the entire class was so fun and interesting and I loved every moment of it.

One thing that I found interesting is that this is not a recent phenomenon; humans have always been obsessed with hero’s as far back as the creation of myths like the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Karuk Myth of Coyote, even the story of the Buddha or Jesus Christ can be seen as part of the hero archetype. Savior, Messiah, Demi-god, God, Hero- no matter the title, their role is often the same. They are to rise above the world around them and destroy the evil that is trapping mankind. But why are we so fascinated by this archetype?

I think it is because of the reality that exists around us. We are all normal people living within a complex world who all wish to be more. We wish to become stronger, to attain power, to gain control of the world around us in some way. Often we can feel powerless and lost in the world we exist in, feeling like we are just another cog in the machine. We may feel trapped by the circumstances of our lives, not able to break out of the chains that bind us whether that is political, financial, familial, etc.. We long for something different, new, and extraordinary and stories often are the gateway to such things. Even more, the Superhero Archetype is a powerful source of such an idea.

The Hero is a character that is often supernatural in some way, wielding powers or skills no one else has. They rise above all that they face, beating the odds time and time again. Rarely do we come across superhero stories where they fail or die- often if such stories do occur, they end up rising from the ashes to win the battle or even are resurrected in some way. The hero always wins; and for people out there who feel like they are losers at the bottom of the totem pole, that is an incredibly enticing idea. Hero’s motivate us, they push us further on through life, someone lifting our spirits and giving us hope and strength.

Even more, the hero is often connected deeply to us. While they are powerful and strong, in the day time they often are just ordinary people with jobs, family’s, and bills to pay. Some of the most popular superhero stories are ‘rags to riches’ ones where the person is ordinary for the most part and, through some trial, gain their power: Spiderman, Static Shock, Captain America, the X:Men, Green Lantern, Hulk, etc.. Even heroes that are born with their powers, though, like Superman and Supergirl have to go through some type of trial in order to access and control their powers such as with the destruction of Krypton and their arrival on Earth.

But there are even other heroes that have no true powers at all, ones that are truly just like us, yet are incredibly popular: Batman and Robin, Iron Man, Black Widow, Daredevil, Hawkeye, and Green Arrow. These one perfectly match us and fill us with motivation; there is nothing special about them, really. They are made of the same material that we all are, yet through their dedication and goals, have managed to become heroes that can stand side by side with the previously mentioned heroes. They inspire us to be like them; to push against the limits that we live within and become something more, that such a thing is possible. And that is an irresistible thing. So, humans fixate and devour superhero after superhero in order to find strength through them, to find hope, to find salvation even. For if heroes can achieve the impossible no matter the odds that are stacked against them, why can’t we with our dedication and determination do the same?