From Comic Book to Catharsis
By Neil Landau
There’s a historical pattern around the popularity of the superhero—he or she is most needed during dark times in the real world. In Captain America: The First Avenger, when Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) visits the US troops to boost morale, it’s more than mere fiction; it’s art imitating life. Sales of comic books actually increased during the Second World War. Service men and women needed such stories of bravery and triumph as an inspiration, to which they could also escape. Comics were portable, easy to share and inexpensive. The Golden Age of Comics began during the Great Depression, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that the game-changing movie for our current generation of superheroes, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, was released in 2008—the same year that saw the worst global economic crisis since the 1930s. We needed a hero; 2008 also happened to be the year that President Obama was first elected into office.
The Dark Knight paved the way for the superhero shows and movies we’re still watching, a decade later. Of course, it wasn’t the first edgy, darker iteration of the comic book superhero—Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series and Tim Burton’s version of Batman had started to push the boundaries, together with the X-Men franchise, which focuses on the persecution and genocide of minority “mutant” superheroes. But it is Nolan’s Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) who crosses that line: he’s not just heroic but deeply flawed. He resorts to violence to get answers out of The Joker (Heath Ledger). The Dark Knight sacrifices his own legacy and reputation, branding himself as a remorseless outcast, all in the service of the people of his beloved city, Gotham. The decision leaves him tortured and alone. No longer are superheroes just flirting with the shadows; they now have neuroses, real problems and live in the shadows.
According to Freud, neurosis is “an ineffectual coping strategy caused by emotions from past experience which overwhelm or interfere with current experience.”[i] A neurotic individual has previously experienced tremendous psychic pain (usually in childhood), but has been unable to process it; he or she may not even recall the original trauma. As a coping mechanism, the individual has unconsciously suppressed this unbearable pain, which now manifests itself in the present as a nervous symptom (depression, anxiety, negative thinking, drug abuse, etc.). Perversely, the superhero’s being humanized and psychological complexity means that he/she has also become easier for us to relate to. And though they are grounded superheroes, just like the strongest protagonist heroes, they are somehow still able to transcend and deliver us to the light. In times of increased frustration with reality—Trump, Brexit, persistent wars and crises—we don’t just need our superheroes to entertain us in a bout of escapism. We need them to save us.
As the first movie based on a comic book that grossed over $1 billion at the global box office, many studios wanted to emulate the success of The Dark Knight. DC and Marvel have continued with a plethora of shows and movies, on an array of platforms, both live-action and animation. TV has long embraced the supernatural, but the current arena is more than genre, fantasy or unreality: Now, we have superheroes in the world of “normal” TV. Lead characters appear to be more average. In a naturalistic world, fantastical things happen. In Legion, a troubled young man who’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia discovers tremendous powers—but is it all in his imagination? His brain is so drug-addled after constant medication (and addiction), it’s initially hard to tell.
The latest crop of live-action television superheroes experience pain, can get hurt and are far from invincible, as well as having psychological, sometimes existential problems. Comic books are published in installments; these new live action superheroes and their alter egos have issues of their own. Many wear capes, masks and hoods and appear to be confident, but they’re actually vulnerable and filled with neuroses. And so are their villains: Protagonist and antagonist are equally complex, no longer wholly good or bad. It’s a cause-and-effect relationship. Plus, TV gives us time for both hero and villain to grow as we get to know them. While The Joker in The Dark Knight was given limited backstory due to time constraints (he’s also an unreliable narrator as a result of his traumatic scars from childhood), TV series give us room over multiple episodes and seasons to richly construct the villain’s perspective. Both hero and villain develop, in some ways, on parallel tracks. What’s even more relatable now is how vulnerable superheroes are, even though they seem invincible—they experience the same fear, guilt, doubt, anger, sadness and insecurities that we all do. They gradually overcome their issues and find catharsis. And herein lies the key: When we watch deeply humanized superheroes prevail, despite all odds, we somehow feel as if we can take on the world, too.
Although DC and Marvel, the two comic book powerhouses, dominate the superhero arena, there’s nothing to stop us writers from developing our own, distinct, original superheroes. You might even be so lucky as to write for one of the comic book giants’ shows—or even a movie: Nicole Perlman, while taking part in a Marvel Screenwriters Program in 2009, was given the opportunity to write a script based on any of the properties Marvel owned. She ended up writing the wildly successful Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Whether creating original material or writing on an existing show, having a nuanced understanding of the psychology of the superhero helps when formulating our characters.
At this writing, there are a number of live-action, superhero series and movies, so here’s the lowdown on a few of the distinct issues that today’s superheroes—and a couple of unique characters who appear in dramas—experience. As the lines between TV and cinema continue to blur, along with the shrinking window between theatrical release and TV premiere, I’m including both movie and TV superheroes here.
- “I’m not who I thought I was”: Wonder Woman, Legion, Deadpool, Doctor Strange
Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) has been brought up believing a myth about human existence and her own identity; David/Legion (Dan Stevens) has been led to believe he’s schizophrenic as an explanation for his behavior. Wade/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) is knowingly obnoxious but comes to realize that when it counts, he unexpectedly has some propensity for good. Physically, he’s been acutely disfigured in an experiment and struggles to come to terms with his appearance and how he’s perceived by others. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses his practice as a world-class neurosurgeon after a horrific car crash damages his hands; his anger, desperation and arrogance cause him to lose his one true love as well as his money. These characters go through a crisis/confusion/dilemma when they realize that everything in their world up to now has been a prelude, and going forward their lives will change forever. They overcome personal crises to emerge as heroes; in a coming-of-age tale, Wonder Woman rises to the occasion to stop a world war.
- “I’m orphaned and won’t rest till I find meaning/uncover the truth”: Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Supergirl, The Flash, Bruce Wayne (Gotham), Iron Fist, Superman, Legion, multiple characters on X-Men, The Flash, Peter Quill/Star Lord (Guardians of the Galaxy)—and more
Sometimes adopted, sometimes with a guardian, sometimes solo, these characters have suffered the immense tragedy of the loss of their parents, perhaps their whole family or entire planet, at an early age. Their pain defines them and their quest for the truth—seeking the perpetrators/seeking understanding about what happened—leads to complications along the way, and sometimes their pursuit puts both loved ones and themselves in danger. Gradually, with or without answers, they heal and start to learn what’s most important: Love.
- “I’m in denial”: Luke Cage, Bruce Banner/Hulk, Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Clark Kent/Superman
Like us, superheroes shy away from tough decisions and their truth. Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers movies) both want quiet lives and do their best to pretend they don’t have any special abilities. Luke has the chance to help prevent serious crime but shies away from it, until he can no longer bear to stand by and do nothing. When Dr. Banner is first enlisted in The Avengers, the mild-mannered scientist intends to stay in the lab; of course, he ends up overcoming his denial when Hulk’s physical might is needed. Young Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Carmen Bicondova) is at first just concerned with solo survival in Gotham, uninterested in helping others until she later demonstrates her bravery. Even Zack Snyder’s latest iteration of Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) hides his abilities for most of his life, preferring to pretend they don’t exist and moving on when people discover they do. Again, when it counts, he gradually emerges as his true self, even though being feared by many pains him.
- “I must avenge my father’s/mother’s/parents’/friend’s/lover’s death”: Arrow, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, The Punisher
Feeling hollow after losing those who are important to them, these superheroes feel that if they kill the villain, their pain and suffering will be eased. Sometimes they feel guilt, which fuels them but drives their neuroses deeper. Of course, vengeance is not the answer: Slowly, they heal with time and the love of those around them.
- “I don’t have faith in my abilities”: Supergirl, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Kara Zor-El/Kara Danvers/Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) doubts herself, having spent most of her life trying to fit in—and like her cousin Superman, initially she too pretends her powers don’t exist. Neurotic and insecure even when she puts on that outfit and cloak, she may look strong and poised, but starts out her superhero life making rookie mistakes just like you and me. Quake/Daisy/Skye (Chloe Bennet) in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is confused and frightened by her newly discovered powers—and it doesn’t help that others around start to fear her. As both superheroes begin to master their abilities, they grow in confidence and the virtuous circle means their abilities also, in turn, flourish.
- “I have intimacy issues”: Batman, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, The Flash
Like Batman in The Dark Knight, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) lost her family as a child and was unable to save them; now she has intimacy issues and pushes people away. Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and Barry Allen/The Flash (Grant Gustin) also lost parents and avoid getting too close to romantic prospects. They’re monumentally scared of getting their hearts broken—or endangering those they love. Despite their impressive powers, today’s superheroes have typically human hearts.
- “I can’t control myself—and it’s dangerous”: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Legion, Homeland, Hulk
They may later learn to master their powers, but when Quake or Legion’s emotions first spiral out of control—whether through fear, anger, sadness or otherwise—these superheroes unleash raw energy that threatens the lives of anyone nearby. It scares others, not to mention themselves, until they learn to develop control. In the Avenger films, Dr. Bruce Banner still struggles to master the anger which fuels his alter ego, Hulk, but maintains the ability to instantly become “The Big Guy” when circumstances warrant it.
On Homeland, CIA agent Carrie (Claire Danes) is somewhat a superhero in reverse: When she goes off her bipolar medication, she devolves into manic episodes in which she possesses incredible recall and insight, enabling her to deduce patterns and prove beyond paranoia that she’s onto something meaningful. When Carrie is in her “supermind,” she’s dazzlingly astute, and it’s exciting for the audience to watch even though we know it’s dangerous for her to be off her meds.
- “I need to prove something”: Agent Carter; Legends of Tomorrow; Spider-Man
Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) wants to continue her work as the brave secret agent who we were first impressed by in Captain America: The First Avenger. But in post-war New York in the 1940s, she encounters a workplace rife with sexism and ageism. Agent Carter constantly has to prove herself, even though she shouldn’t have to—she’s more competent than the men she works with. They see it as a threat and try to squash her ability by assigning her to frustrating secretarial duties. Peggy is not naturally a neurotic, but such undermining is enough to bring about new neurosis.
The team brought together by time-traveling Time Master Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) in Legends of Tomorrow is falsely told that they are known as “legends” in the future, and together they will stop a tremendous evil from overcoming the world. When they discover the truth—that Hunter selected them merely because their lives have minimal impact upon the course of history, meaning that enlisting them will likely avoid complications in the space-time continuum—they need to decide whether to go back to their lives, or take a gamble and help. Several in the group feel that in their own era, they haven’t achieved enough. It feels relatable that they want to do something meaningful with their lives and prove that their existence does matter. Meanwhile, Spider-Man: Homecoming has Peter Parker (Tom Holland) desperate to join the Avengers and prove to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that he’s ready, despite his tender age of 15. As Parker’s investigations into a series of crimes spiral out of control, he eventually finds the inner strength, maturity and clemency to confront it. It’s an uplifting message for those of us even beyond our teens.
- “I’m haunted by something”: Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, Arrow, The Flash, Man of Steel, Daredevil, Legends of Tomorrow, Punisher
All frequently experience flashbacks to their troubled, damaging—yet defining—pasts. They come to realize that if they want to move forward (and they do), they need to grow, evolve and take action.
- “I’m an addict”: Jessica Jones, Mr. Robot, Legion
Although Elliot Alderson/Mr. Robot (Rami Malek) is not a comic book superhero, he possesses some superhuman traits. He is a genius, whose cyber hacking ability allows him to take down an entire conglomerate, despite its sophisticated safeguards against cyber attack. However, Elliot is addicted to morphine, as well as having dissociative personality disorder. Both Elliot and Jessica Jones—an alcoholic—are held back by their addictions. David/Legion takes drugs to temporarily escape (or so he thinks) his difficult existence. The drugs and alcohol may mask their pain and suffering, but always temporarily, as the healing must come from within.
The classic Greek hero is a reluctant hero, as are all of our neurotic superheroes. Although some are initially reluctant, others shy away from being a “hero”—they do what they do because it’s the right thing to do. Even when they face tough decisions and are caught between two wrongs, they strive for the greater good. They rise to the occasion instead of hanging up the cape. Through their journey and catharsis, we learn, grow and develop with them. There’s sometimes joy along the way, such as when the Runaways discover their newfound powers, or Spider-Man tests his awesome new suit (shrewdly voiced by Jennifer Connelly). And when our superheroes find love.
Against all odds, as Diana/Wonder Woman defeats a nemesis, we feel the thrill and rush of power somehow transferred to us as viewers. Moved by her fearlessness, which is ultimately fueled by her love for Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), we’re encouraged—perhaps not to engage in one-on-one combat, but to harness our own powers and face our own deepest fears. To do the best we can. To transcend for others. It’s not about me, Doctor Strange learns as he loses the demanding mentor he has grown to love.
We are all one tribe, the groundbreaking Black Panther (2018) posits.
The more humanized the superhero,
the more powerful the catharsis.
[i] Christian Nordqvist, “Neuroticism and Neurosis Explained,” MedicalNewsToday.com, December 1, 2016.