Year 2013 saw a great number of superhero movies at the theaters including Thor 2, Man of Steel, and Iron Man 3. The idea of a superhuman being fighting against incredible odds has deep roots in the subconsciousness of Americans, creating a subculture of its own.
The rise of the superhero the way we know them today in America can be traced back to Action Comics 1 (1938). This comic featured Superman for the first time, although his powers were not quite the same as they are today. For example, early Superman could not fly, but he could jump extraordinarily high. Thus the phrase, “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”
Superman has evolved over the years, as all the early—or “Golden Age”—comic book superheroes and villains have. Pulp magazines from the early 20th century paved the road for comic books and their superheroes and villains.
Characters like “The Shadow,” with his ability to “cloud men’s minds in order to fight crime,” captivated audiences on American radio and then pulp comics in the early 1930s, long before the modern superhero became popular. It has been suggested that Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger were inspired by The Shadow’s dual identity and playboy millionaire alter ego, as well as cape and cowl, according to AskMen.
“I don’t know the reason for this, but people who like superhero stories want their heroes to wear costumes,” said superhero master creator Stan Lee, according to the Archive of American Television. “And if any psychologist or sociologist out there can ever tell me the reason, I would like to know.”
However, there may be a lot more going on in the greater American subconscious than just a surface-level pop culture phenomenon.
Comic books strengthened their hold on America’s interest during and after World War II. According to wiseGEEK, these superheroes mirror soldiers in that they are fighting a greater conflict and attempting to peacefully end a bad situation, all the while trying to maintain an ordinary life. It is possible that Americans relate to that persona—either on a personal or conceptual level.
Current conflicts in the Middle East could be escalating the same military sentiments in Americans that help us relate to superheroes. Writers may have accentuated this sentiment by taking a literal approach in the 2008 film Iron Man, when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is actually kidnapped by Middle Eastern terrorists who need him to build a bomb. This is a modern twist on the original early 1960s story, in which said character is kidnapped by the Vietnamese military.
Additionally, superheroes and the worlds they live in offer people a sense of escape. Not only may people relate to the internal or external conflict suffered by the hero, but they may also immerse themselves in comics and films in order to escape from the stress of their own daily lives.