Live Like Legends: The Allure of the Superhero

by Stephanie Tom

Like most people who procrastinate, I enjoy taking Buzzfeed quizzes. I enjoy the brief moment of imagining other scenarios that I exist in—besides the one where I have yet to do my problem set for statistics. It’s a thrill of a pseudo-science—despite knowing perfectly well that these quizzes are arbitrary, compiled at the whim of an anonymous Buzzfeed staffer or community member, I enjoy seeing what others can glean about my personality from the mundane choices I make about the color of nail polish I prefer or what my favorite season is.

My favorite quiz genres are the deterministic ones, asking me “Which Iconic Pig from Pop Culture Are You?” (Olivia) or “Which Combination of Disney Princesses Are You Externally and Internally?” (Mulan and Cinderella, respectively). Among them, there are pages upon pages of superhero and comic-themed ones. Variances of “Which DC Superhero Are You?” or “Which Marvel Character Are You?” often accompanied by videos of the actors from the most recent Marvel movie taking the same quiz linked underneath. As a casual fan, I too enjoy taking these quizzes alongside the cast members modeling said superheroes.

Why does the concept of superheroes fascinate us anyways? What about The Avengers captivated the minds of multiple generations in 2012 when it was released? Why has the lore of Superman and Batman lived on for close to a hundred years now? How have supers come to dominate global box offices and work their ways into the upper tiers of film legend?

I believe in a range of reasons for this. There is, of course, the appeal of nostalgia, and how, for older generations, it is a fond memory. For younger comic enthusiasts, it is the excitement of seeing your childhood come back to life in a new way, growing and changing with the times side by side with you. Sitting beneath the simple nostalgia perhaps lies a deeper belief, that there can still be good in the world and in yourself.

Heroes emphasize doing the right thing and being a noble character, a good person whether or not someone can attribute a good deed to you. Of course, to be considered a hero, you must have a good nature on the norm, but you also must be humble enough, self-sacrificing, and giving enough to separate the good deeds you do from the person you are. In a world that has grown increasingly fraught with danger and rife with selfishness, we long to cling to some semblance of hope that there is still an inherent goodness in people, and that there are enough people who choose to consciously live up to that goodwill.

As much as we love the drama of a villain, and how they often tend to represent the most extreme emotions that we can relate to as humans—love, hate, obsession, rage, envy—villains are far too volatile. They are a mirror of who we would be at our worst. Many villains cannot separate their actions from themselves, turning into the physical embodiments of the darkest versions of who they are. Look no further than the Joker, from Batman, who wears his “Clown Prince of Crime” moniker in his physical appearance; to Lex Luthor from Superman lore, who uses his platform as an ordinary billionaire industrialist to fight a never ending personal, public, and political war against Superman. Villains, when written in the best way, can exemplify the danger of embodying the most selfish and destructive versions of the people we could be.

Unlike villains, heroes are able to detach themselves from those dark moments. Superheroes often undergo difficult trials and transformations, often as part of their backstory, before donning the cape or cowl or as part of their character arc. Yet one of the most powerful optimisms they embody is the ability to be stronger than our base instincts, and to reason with the moral self. They serve as ideological role models, and give us hope that despite negative emotions or moments of weakness, we are strong because we choose to be.

I suppose that’s why we’re curious enough to take Buzzfeed quizzes after all. Not that I actually need to know “Which Batman Character Matches Your Personality?” (Batgirl) or that I expect to learn something deep and insightful when I click “Which Combination of a Marvel Superhero and Secret Identity Are You?” (Wanda Maximoff and The Hulk, apparently), but I delight in knowing that, even if on a shallow level, I have the potential to grow and learn as my favorite superheroes do.

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