Humanities meets The Hulk: What superheroes can teach us

One of this summer’s most anticipated movies, “The Avengers,” is out already. This special-effect-heavy, all-star take on the Marvel superheroes was written and directed by geek god Joss Whedon.

Why do people love superheroes — not just the Marvel kind, but also characters by J.R.R. Tolkien or J.K. Rowling? “All superhero stories have one thing in common,” says Craig Franson, assistant professor of English at LaSalle University. “They’re all about wish fulfillment. But it’s a mistake to lump them all together as though they’re all the same thing.”

Take Iron Man, one of the Avengers, for instance. “Iron Man is a weapons system with real human intelligence — he’s like a high-tech weapon with a heart,” Franson says. “The wish fulfillment says something about our perceptions today of government, industry and the military.”

This is typical of comic books and graphic novels over the last 20 years or so, Franson says. “They’ve become a very complex art form. That diversity has started filtering into how these stories are told in TV shows and films.”

Their complexity makes them a legitimate subject for academic study. “In the literary criticism class I teach, we spend the second half of the semester on ‘Watchmen,'” he says, referencing the graphic novel by Alan Moore. “Students quickly realize there’s a lot of rich material there — psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, Marxism.”

Andrew Dolan of LaSalle’s Religion Department also studies superheroes. He says: “Superheroes are usually not accountable to anyone but themselves. However, unlike those with unchecked power in the real world, superheroes actually adhere to a moral code that proscribes exploitation or abuse of those without power. All-too-frequent news of corruption among government and church leaders helps create a vacuum for heroes, if only in our imagination.”

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