The Super-Selfie: What Superheroes Say About Us

by Brian Peterson, Ph.D.

I teach a college seminar on superheroes. There; I said it. I teach about superheroes. Reading this, you are probably thinking one of three things:

2. Well, that’s different.
3. “If I found out my kid took a course in college and read comic books in class, I’d want my money back!” (Yes, this is an actual quote from a former colleague.)

My fascination with superheroes and supervillains is longstanding, but it’s not focused on the testosterone-fueled environment in which they exist. While crashes, explosions and frenzied mixed martial arts battles may offer great cinematic fare (hence response #1), that’s not what holds my attention. Instead, I’ve always marveled (no pun intended) at the way superhero stories mimic social themes, and the way they represent our attempts to rationalize what needs to happen to create a better world. In short, superhero stories tell us about… us.

In my course on superheroes and social change at Central College, I have focused on superhero origin stories, the nature of good and evil, whether “normal” individuals can be “super” and how to create social change. In doing so, I’ve discovered several key themes that consistently arise throughout the discourse.

Good and evil aren’t as easy to define as we think.

In graphic novels and superhero stories, it’s supposed to be clear who the hero is and who the villain is. The hero is an agent of social welfare, and the villain is an agent of chaos. The hero, while always pressured and tormented by the villain, ultimately wins in the end. A closer look, however, demonstrates something different: the hero may not always be good, and the villain may not always be bad.

A good origin story helps the reader understand why individuals behave as they do. In Spiderman, Peter Parker inherits a mantra from his Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s Peter’s creed through his days as the web-slinging Spiderman, viewing his bite from a radioactive spider as a gift that must be repaid to society. Batman, on the other hand, is motivated toward vengeance. He wants to instill fear in the criminals of Gotham, bringing them to justice, with the hope that he can assuage his anger and guilt over his parents’ deaths. Spiderman stops criminals; Batman hurts them. Both are trying to rid the world of evil, but they go about it in starkly different ways. Are their results similar? Maybe. And while we may appreciate what they both do, we can’t always condone the actions of someone who inflicts pain on others — even if it is to rid the world of crime.

In contrast, Batman’s nemesis, Ra’s al Ghul, is an excellent example of a “sympathetic villain:” [1] someone who does bad things for (possibly) the right reasons. With such a person, we may deplore his actions but (silently) applaud — or at least, understand — the goal. In the Batman canon, Ra’s is, at his core, an environmentalist. He is a true believer in Malthusian economics, despite having lived centuries before Malthus arrived. Ra’s wants to protect the world from overpopulation, preserving natural resources as much as possible. In Death and the Maidens, responding to a question from Batman about what he wants, Ra’s says, “Many things, Detective. A pristine world, for a start. An end to hunger. An end to disease. An end to crime.”[2] Ra’s has laudable goals, doesn’t he? However, he aims to accomplish this not by engaging in policy conversations with heads of state, or by working with non-governmental organizations on resource usage, but rather by… killing people.

How far-fetched is this? Ra’s lives the metaphor of Garrett Hardin’s lifeboat[3], in which the world is a lifeboat able to sustain only so many people — and far fewer than the number currently in the water. How great a leap is this from the actions of radical environmental groups who disable whaling ships or oil tankers in the name of environmental preservation[4][5], or from a population reduction organization who indicate in their vision statement that Earth’s resources may only be sufficient to satisfy two billion people at a European standard of living[6]? Ra’s shows us that being good (or evil) is complicated, and sometimes it may be rational to do evil things to achieve good ends. A sympathetic villain shines a harsh light on all of us — how many of us have done something of which we aren’t proud because we thought it was “for the best?”

Superheroes may be sitting beside you, and you just don’t know it.

Superman was from another planet with a red sun. Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider. Ironman is the brainchild of intelligence and justice. Can anyone be a superhero, or does something magical have to happen first?

In M. Night Shyamalan’s highly underrated movie Unbreakable[7], Elijah Price explains to David Dunne that superpowers may be just normal powers exaggerated to an extreme level. Abilities exist along a spectrum: in terms of vision some cannot see at all, many have less than 20/20 vision and require eyeglasses, most people see fine unaided, and a few have better than 20/20 vision. Price’s argument boils down to this: if it is possible for some people to have no vision at all (at one end of a bell curve, for example), why is it impossible to consider that some people may have extremely fine vision (at the other end of the spectrum)? If that’s possible, then it’s not out of bounds to think about “super vision.”

In a more popular example, Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter and Olympic champion, has been described as “the fastest man alive.” What if he were idealized as someone who runs through his hometown, chasing down criminals and making his fellow citizens safer? It would make a good story and wouldn’t be far from DC’s The Flash, even without any exaggeration of his powers. There may be more superheroes in the world than we imagine.

Superheroes give us confidence to be the people we want to be.

Have you ever noticed that superheroes tend to be followed by other, “normal,” people? Captain America has his Howling Commandos; Wonder Woman, in her 2017 breakthrough movie[8], has her band of Allied outcasts. People become brave when bravery is shown; people are more willing to do good things when goodness is shown. In the recent movie, Wonder Woman leads the way through No Man’s Land to beat back the Germans, who have held the Allies in their present position for a year. In doing so, she gives renewed hope to the soldiers and additional strength to fight on. They follow her through battle, knowing she will help them persevere.

In another ground-breaking example, set in the latest Ms. Marvel[9] story arc, Kamala Khan, a female, Pakistani-American, Muslim high school student from New Jersey, explains that it’s her sincerest desire to be a superhero, because if she has superpowers like Captain Marvel then all her wildest dreams will come true. She learns, though, “maybe putting on a costume doesn’t make you brave. Maybe it’s something else[10].” In fact, she learns, “[she’s] not here to be a watered-down version of some other hero… [she’s] here to be the best version of KAMALA[11].” Sometimes people need permission to be the kind of person they think they are called to be, especially when that desire doesn’t really meet with societal expectations. Superheroes, as exemplars of what is good, can offer that permission.

Superhero stories mimic social movements.

As Ms. Marvel understands that she’s not here to be a “watered-down version of some other hero,” she underscores the role that feminism has played in society. Female superheroes have, in large part, been conceived as derivative characters to male heroes: Batgirl to Batman, Supergirl to Superman, She-Hulk to The Incredible Hulk. While Wonder Woman has been a notable exception, there were very few non-derivative examples in the early days of superheroes. Madrid[12] goes so far as to argue that, “female identities were opposites of heroic personas, which, the reader had to assume, were their real natures… [while the] male costumed identity was the fictional invention.” In other words, social conventions were such that in the early days, women had to don a mask to be what they wanted to be, while men donned the mask to hide what they were.” That sounds like a story that women everywhere can tell.

Female heroes have been slowly given larger roles but always were checked by their male writers: Wonder Woman was invited to join the Justice League with her male superhero peers — but as the secretary for the organization. Over time, female heroes have been written with more and more independence, were granted powers for themselves and were written by females who understand the need for their heroes to no longer be subordinate to other men — or women. The modern incarnation of Wonder Woman, whether in Greg Rucka’s[13] comic book series, or in the 2017 movie, shows that women can show people how to live for the common good — and that fighting criminals is no longer an end in itself, as it may be for some male heroes (see, for example, Batman), but rather to achieve a good society. In the movie, Wonder Woman confronts and modifies her naive belief that humanity is naturally good, finally understanding that humans must be shown how to be good and not to give in to their baser impulses.

Could you be a superhero?

One of the last essays I ask students to write in my seminar answers the prompt, “Is there a superhero in you?” Very few students confess to being bitten by a radioactive spider, so they don’t consider themselves superhero material. Instead, they often draw a distinction between being superheroes and “super heroes:” normal people who does the best they can in whatever they do. It’s Ms. Marvel being the best Kamala Khan she can be, or Wonder Woman showing others how to live good lives, freed from war and evil. But in saying that, those same students are moving in the direction of superheroes — showing others how to do good, not for themselves, but for the sake of society. That’s the value of superheroes in our world — and it’s my response to those who would have chosen response #3 at the beginning. Superheroes show us how to be the best versions of ourselves, with no embarrassment or hesitation. Living for others rather than ourselves, we become superheroes…and the change we wish to see in others.

Brian Peterson is associate dean of curriculum and faculty development at Central College, where he has also taught economics, served as class dean and mentored Central’s honors students.

At Central College, curiosity is encouraged and exploration expected. This post is intended to stimulate vigorous, open inquiry, and opinions expressed belong to the author.

[1] Spivey, Michael and Steven Knowlton (2008). “Anti-heroism in the Continuum of Good and Evil.” In The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration, ed. By Robin S. Rosenberg. Benballa Books: Dallas.

[2] Rucka, G. and K. Janson (2003). Batman: Death and the Maidens. DC Comics, New York. P. 38

[3] Hardin, G. (1968). “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 13 (Dec). Vol. 162, Issue 3859, pp. 1243–1248



[6] World Population Balance.

[7] Shyamalan, M., (Director), (2001). Unbreakable [Motion picture on DVD]. Touchstone Home Video.

[8] Jenkins, P (2017). Wonder Woman [Motion Picture]. Warner Bros.

[9] Wilson, G. W. (2014) Ms. Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal. Marvel Worldwide, Inc. p. 19

[10] Ibid.. p. 36

[11] Ibid. p. 95

[12] Madrid, M. (2009). The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines. Exterminating Angel Press. P. 5

[13] Rucka, G. and J.G. Jones (2016). Wonder Woman: Volume 1. DC Comics, New York.