Science Explains The True Power Of Superheroes

Science Explains The True Power Of Superheroes
Image: Warner Bros.

“What Would Wonder Woman Do?” – it’s a question I ask myself in some of the more stressful situations I find myself in.

Far from being ridiculous, the true power of superheroes and what they can teach us about responding to crisis situations is a lesson worth learning.

Katie Cox, PhD candidate at the Australian National University , delivered her paper exploring just this at the 2018 Literary Studies Convention at the University from 3-7 July.

Cox is doing her doctoral project on the influence of national security in Marvel’s Iron Man and its sequels, which is possibly the coolest thing to be a doctor of, ever. But why?

“Since 9/11 there’s been this real sense of constant and imminent crisis in the world,” Cox said.

“There’s always something terrible happening, there’s always a sense that something terrible is about to happen and that can be really fatiguing.”

As Cox explains, superheroes know what that feels like.

“They’re this big, visible genre that takes on this problem in a really interesting way. On the one hand they’re relatable, they’re fun – the Marvel universe particularly uses a lot of humour – but they also deal with the drama of it, because crisis constantly wears them down.”

Cox believes the superhero genre and film more broadly can be a useful way for people to engage with the issue of living in a world beset by crisis.

Superheroes really perform the emergency logic that we see in political rhetoric, Cox says. There’s this idea that exceptional times call for exceptional measures, and exceptional measures will work and then the emergency will end – and we’ll go back to normal.

“Obviously, if you look at the war on terror for instance that doesn’t always actually work as intended, but in the world of superheroes it does,” Cox says.

There is also an important element of escapism. There’s an idea of escapism being a bad thing – but Cox says it isn’t at all, performing a “really important” psychological function. taking a break to watch something fuhn – where everything works out in the end – is good for you.

But even though it’s reassuring when heroes save the day, we still can’t get away from the fact that crises keep repeating. That’s important, because it reflects the crisis fatigue we’re experiencing in the real world.

“Superheroes can’t save us from that, but they can forecast the consequences of living in constant crisis.”