In the 21st century, superheroes – those silly little spandex-clad characters that used to be a subject of ridicule and the content of moldy cardboard boxes – have moved beyond the ink stained pages that birthed them, and they have ascended to the pinnacle of popular media. Three of the ten highest grossing movies of all time are superhero movies. Any trip to a department store, mall or internet shop is filled with billions of products advertising brightly-colored characters with capes and masks. While Superman, Batman and Spider-Man have been a part of American culture for decades, the contemporary era has seen formerly B-list characters like Iron Man, Hellboy and Daredevil become household names.
Through film, TV, comics and video games, the superhero genre has transformed into more than just a form of escapism. Films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy have used WWII-era characters to tell stories that deal directly with contemporary political fears, while superheroes like the X-Men are a rallying symbol against racial, sexual and geographic prejudice.
Popular culture has finally accepted comic books as a legitimate form of storytelling. The superhero genre has become monumentally huge.
But why, exactly? What is it about the idea of a “superhero” that appeals so much to people? What is it about this genre that’s taken the cinematic world by storm?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I can describe my own experience.
Let’s flashback to the early nineties – and let me tell you, I was a quiet kid. I’m still introverted today, but the child version of Nicholas Conley was not only introverted, but deathly shy. Anxious around people, uncomfortable about himself, his identity, his body and his voice.
To put it bluntly, when I was young, I didn’t speak. I had a wonderful family, amazing parents and a comfortable lifestyle, but my social anxiety was utterly crippling. Communication, interaction with others, even family members, caused me to snap shut like a clam; I’d retreat into the back of my mind and hide. I was closed off from everyone, because I didn’t feel comfortable being myself. I felt as if I was an alien that had come from a different species. Whereas other kids were able to talk to each other, laugh and joke around, I felt completely closed off and unable to participate. Anytime I was forced into a big social situation, I went deadpan, flat, and I became the social equivalent of a brick. People would look at me, smiling, talking, trying to hug me, and I just didn’t do anything. I couldn’t figure out how to do anything.
Though I had a lot of love from my family and others, it all felt strange and foreign to me. I felt terribly unable to present myself to others. I was scared to talk, but I also felt unable to talk. Everything I said came out wrong and bland, an unfitting representation of myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked myself – the me on the inside – but I didn’t like the flat, shy, awkward me on the outside, and I couldn’t find a way to make these two totally different beings come together.
So, I was silent. I was reserved. But I watched everything, with a deadly sort of intensity. I paid attention to every single clue, every expression, everything that entered into my sphere. I had a far easier time relating to adults than I did with children. I had a very analytic, encyclopedic type of brain that absorbed information like a computer, loved analyzing things (which might explains why my blog posts are so long…) and especially loved learning every single piece of information about anything I found interesting. It wasn’t enough to just know a few things—I had to know everything.
Every day was stressful and anxiety-inducing. I felt like more of an exposed wound than I did a person. Having always been fairly empathic, other people’s emotions struck me as being startlingly intense and hard to handle; due to my intense social awkwardness I didn’t know how to respond to them. I generally wanted to spend most of my time alone.
So, in any case, there was this one VHS tape, featuring a bizarre red and blue character named Spider-Man.
Art by Kaare Andrews.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was. Three, four, somewhere in that range. But I remember this one videotape more vividly than I remember almost anything else. It was an episode of the lesser-known—but underrated!—Spider-Man cartoon from 1981, titled Doctor Doom: Master of the World.
The episode has a rather simple plot, really. The villain, Doctor Doom, places a mind control device onto the President of the United States, and uses similar devices on every other world leader. With every nation on Earth under his control, he has himself elected as the so-called “Master of the World.” However, before his vicious plans can truly get underway, he’s foiled by Spider-Man; that strange, wiry, red-and-blue suited character with the webs and the big white eyes. Spidey outsmarts Doom, turns his robot army against him and saves the day, cracking jokes the whole time.
It’s strange how something as small as a VHS tape from an eighties cartoon can have such a huge impact on a child, an impact that effects the entirety of a person’s life. But it did. It absolutely did, in a way that still amazes me when I look back.
We had a few more VHS tapes from the same series. These episodes featured other villains; the Lizard, the Green Goblin, the Kingpin. All of them were deadly, but in the end, Spider-Man always won through a combination of intelligence, skill and a bit of luck. Watching these cartoons at that young, impressionable age, I found them completely mesmerizing. I began gobbling up tapes from other cartoons of that era, such as The Incredible Hulk and Pryde of the X-Men.
And that’s when it all exploded. Soon, the slew of now-classic 90s cartoons took off—Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men, Spider-Man, The Tick, et cetera—and pretty soon, I became an expert on just about every Marvel and DC superhero that existed. From that point on, I was absolutely obsessed with superheroes, to the point where they occupied my every waking thought. I’d spend long hours reading the comic books, watching the cartoons and playing make-believe games with my younger brother.
But as much as I fell in love with every superhero I learned about, none of them quite eclipsed my adoration for the character who introduced me to all of them in the first place.
Looking back, I fully understand. As much as I loved (and still love) every superhero, there was just something about Spider-Man that spoke to me on a level that other superheroes didn’t. Something that, even today, I still connect to in exactly the same way. There’s something both perfect and perfectly flawed about the character. On one hand, he’s edgy and tormented; his motif, powers and costume—and particularity those big white bug-eyes—have a certain bizarre creepiness to them that can’t be denied, and Peter Parker’s back story is terribly tragic.
But at the same time, there’s a fascinating duality to the character. Instead of simply being dark and gritty, there’s also something loveable—and almost cuddly, in a way—about Spider-Man. The playful sense of humor, his messed up personal life, the inherent optimism that the character maintains despite his painful lot in life…
It wasn’t just that he was likeable to me as a kid, he was inspirational.
Of course, as a young boy, I loved superheroes because they were inspirational. Here I was, this scrawny and self-conscious little kid, and these guys were what I wanted to be. Strong, powerful, confident, able to do great things.
But what separated Spider-Man, I suppose, is that he was actually like me. Peter Parker was a weirdo, like I was. When trapped in his “real” identity as Peter Parker, he was a nerdy, shy, socially awkward, self-conscious misfit—but then, in one fell swoop, he could put on that wonderful, face-covering, Steve Ditko-designed mask and become the person he truly was on the inside: Spider-Man, the cocky, brave, wisecracking hero who always saved the day. Unlike most other heroes, Spidey could mess up sometimes. He got sick, didn’t always get the girl, wasn’t always celebrated by the general public, but he was free.
Art by John Romita Jr.
In the same way that I felt trapped within my own shy and fragile identity, Peter Parker was also trapped. But unlike me, Peter had an outlet. By becoming Spider-Man, he could cast aside his skin – the flawed and inaccurate perception that others had of him – and then, with the aid of that red mask, he could publicly reveal himself to the world.
Understanding the character better as an adult, I now see that as one of the fundamental keys to Peter Parker’s character development. Unlike most other superheroes, who assume a fictitious costumed identity in order to fight crime, Peter Parker did the reverse. By assuming that identity, by becoming another person, Peter actually sheds his worries, doubt and self-consciousness. By becoming Spider-Man, Peter Parker becomes himself. And by seeing Spider-Man’s example, the younger me was inspired to realize that hey, maybe I can be myself, too.
Instead of hiding behind my “mask” of indifference, I could bring myself out into the open and be who I was. I could be comfortable in myself, and be proud of myself.
On top of that, the example that superheroes gave me as a child – these selfless, heroic figures who sacrificed their lives for the good of others – has never ceased to inspire me. In my life, I’ve always been passionate about helping others in any way that I can. Giving blood, working at jobs that support the less fortunate, showing understanding to people when they need it the most, these are the things I care about the most deeply.
And today, as an adult, I’m no longer shy. I’m certainly introverted, which isn’t a bad thing, but there’s barely a trace of shyness or self-consciousness left in me. I’m extremely comfortable in my own skin.
Now, it’d be silly to give all the credit for my life to a fictional character. As I said before, I was lucky enough to be born into an amazingly strong, close-knit family. But superheroes were certainly one of my biggest influences when I grew up, and it’d be a lie not to credit them with helping establish the idealism and moral code that is so fundamental to my life today.
And I suspect that, in this regard, I’m not unique. I was born into a generation that grew up with superheroes, and the kids that read comic books, fantasy, horror and science fiction novels are now at the forefront of the entertainment industry.
The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).
See, this is the reason that superheroes are so huge these days. This is why they matter.
On one hand, they are the contemporary equivalents of ancient mythological gods. Superheroes are larger than life figures, more powerful than we are, able to achieve the great things that we can’t. But on the other hand, since Stan Lee and his league of Marvel artists revolutionized the genre in the 1960s, superheroes are also flawed human beings, real people who must overcome their problems so that the world can remain safe from alien invasions, criminal masterminds and extradimensional demons.
Every major superhero holds a unique appeal. Sure, Spider-Man is the quiet, self-conscious outsider who opens up and dedicates himself to helping others. But Batman is the intense, focused intellectual with near-superhuman devotion toward a single goal. Iron Man is the inventor, the clever scientist, the mechanic who loves creating new things, taking them apart and seeing how they fit back together. Bruce Banner is the pent-up, repressed victim of a painful childhood who finally releases himself in a torrential green wave of emotion. The X-Men are the repressed minorities of the world, the victims of prejudice and unfair judgment, people who instead of lashing out, fight for peaceful coexistence with the same ones who judge them so harshly. Daredevil is the victim of a disability, who instead of allowing that disability to rule his life, instead learns to accept it and uses it to make himself a better person. Idealistic heroes like Superman and Captain America are the good, pure, salt-of-the-earth people, the backbone of society, the people who instead of allowing the immoralities of the world to knock them out and pervert them, strive to make it better.
Superheroes have taken ahold of society because they hold a truly universal appeal. They appeal to the children they inspire, or the child inside us that thrills at their colorful adventures and hijinks. They appeal to adults, as their stories become a vehicle for the discussion of important social issues, problems and moral debates. Like the best escapism, the best superhero stories don’t just take us away from our problems. They also bring us back, make us think, and inspire us to lead better lives.
Modern myths? Living legends? Inspirations of both children and adults? Great, edgy stories? Yes, all that and more.
For those who prefer white backgrounds, this post also appears on Medium.com. Enjoy!