Super-Hero / Super-Ego

Theorized by Freud, to the best of my understanding, the superego is the internalization of the voice of the parents and other authority figures – the easy way to think about it for me is that any thought with a “should” in it is the voice of the superego.

If the id is the origin (per Freud) of basic urges and desires, and the home of “primitive” feelings like rage and fear and grief, the superego is the parental, civilizing voice of “this is how we behave in public” and “I should do my taxes early this year.” In theory, the two exist in a relatively fruitful tension – without the id, life would be all about taxes, and without the superego we wouldn’t be able to function in society, and would wind up in a prison or a mental institution; more forceful, remedial training (in theory) on how to follow the rules of adult society and behave.

Which brings us to the Super-Hero, specifically the superhero movie, featuring a protagonist with superhuman attributes and abilities, who is tasked, on some level, with fixing things – saving the world, banishing bad guys and aliens, stopping natural disasters.

Conventional wisdom on the topic of the superhero movie seems to be that it satisfies some kind of widespread societal fantasy to have super-powers, to be the only one who can save everybody, to be special and important – just a slightly exaggerated version of the desire to be a movie star or a professional athlete. And it’s usually associated, not incorrectly I think, with the adolescent stage of development, when kids are growing and changing, insecure and grandiose. But I think there’s more to it than that.

On some level, the movie superhero plays out the role of the parent for the world at large – sacrificing themselves and their own needs in order to keep everyone safe and everything in balance. With great power comes great responsibility, as everyone has heard a million times, via Peter Parker’s grandfather or whoever.

The superhero, once they realize their powers and accept their role, IS that voice of the parent, the “should” voice, keeping the monsters of the id at bay. Once the origin story is complete, the superhero is no longer an adolescent, they’re a fully functioning adult trying to save the world, per their grown-up duty, and keep normal mortals safe from harm.

I think that the endless parade of superhero movies that we seem to be stuck with isn’t about a fantasy for power per se – after the initial fooling around and discovering their capabilities, the powers themselves stop being particularly interesting to either the protagonist or the audience. I think what the audience, teen and adult alike, is really drawn to is the simple idea of actual adults being in charge of things, hashing out the details, keeping us safe.

Perhaps kids go to superhero movies because they fantasize about having super powers, but adults go because we fantasize about being saved, about somebody being in charge who actually has our best interests at heart. We already have all the super powers we’re going to get – we can drive, operate power tools, and navigate the world with relative ease compared to a toddler. What we want, I think, is for somebody else with real power to come along and take care of us.

These movies let us have it both ways: we can identify with the struggle of the protagonist – a powerful adult, though still conflicted, out in the world trying to do good and help people – but we’re allowed to let ourselves off the hook of actually emulating that behavior because we don’t have those cool powers or equipment. We can relate emotionally without the bother of a sense of shared responsibility – we get to have our cake and eat it too.

If somebody with special powers were taking care of us in the real world, we wouldn’t have to take care of ourselves and each other, which isn’t working out so well at the moment.

We all have the internal voice of the superego telling us what we should be doing, in our own lives, and for the world as a whole, a voice which can be uncomfortable or downright unbearable at times. But for the most part, societally, we’re doing a great job of ignoring that voice in our day-to-day lives. The voice of the superego is louder than ever, and we’re more entrenched than ever in our habits and comforts.

The Super-Hero provides a handy, regular respite from the Super-Ego by embodying that voice out in the (movie) world, the powerful parent figure who struggles and sacrifices for us, who rescues us. In a way, the more baroque and confusing these movies become, the better, because they’re more successful at evoking in the audience the confused, passive state of a helpless child, observing a nearly incomprehensible world on the verge of destruction from our comfy theater seats – which more and more resemble those deluxe strollers and car seats, come to think of it…

Authority is usually presented, in these movies, as a representative of an ineffectual and/or clueless bureaucracy – the president who waits tersely in some underground bunker with a finger on the button that could unleash warheads, for example. And, the heroes themselves are often given some attributes of immaturity, such as impulsiveness, indecisiveness, authority issues. This complicates and partially obscures the metaphor of the adult-child relationship, making us think that we’re rooting for the adolescent against the parental figures, when in fact the reverse is true – we, the audience, are the innocent bystanders, the ineffectual ones who must be parented by the superhero/ego.

These days, in the real world, the voice of the superego seems to be getting louder and more urgent every day – on basically every issue, from income inequality to privilege to sexism to discrimination to climate change to peak oil to global politics. Everyone seems upset about everything. Something SHOULD be done. Something MUST be done. And yet… nobody seems to be able to do much of anything, at least not on a significant scale, besides adding to the cumulative superego roar of angry grievance.

We need a hero. Ideally a super hero. But here in the real world, none seem to be forthcoming. Fortunately, for $12 we can escape into the dark and spend a couple of hours away from the superego, in the company of larger-than-life superheroes. Now, in 3D!

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