We’re living in a post-Thanos-snap society. The audience for superhero movies is larger than ever, and the content is arguably a lot more intense. Yes, Marvel is giving us plenty of comic relief to balance out the fact that Thanos casually destroyed half the universe in the last Avengers film, but it’s hard to deny that the world’s top-grossing superhero content has gotten noticeably darker. A teenage Spider-Man disintegrates in Tony Stark’s arms for Pete’s sake. Despite what might look like increasing violence and darker themes, psychology shows us a surprisingly different take on Marvel movies: they’re actually making us better people.
In a social study outlined in Scientific American, a Michigan psychologist used superhero imagery to explore whether or not they could influence people to act more selflessly. If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking, “well yeah, it probably worked on kids.” Kids are endlessly idealistic after all. Interestingly, the adult participants showed a significant tendency to act in a more prosocial way when exposed to the superhero imagery. (For context, those in the room with superhero posters, rather than posters of bicycles, were more likely to volunteer their time to help someone else out.) Even when presented with just the logo of a superhero, people subliminally reacted in more helpful, selfless way which says something big about the power of superhero stories in the public consciousness.
According to the researcher, Daryl Van Tongeren, it actually makes perfect sense that adults would respond this way. “Most people want to be altruistic,” Van Tongeren told Scientific American, “and so where heroes come in is they’re not close to us. They’re kind of this abstract ideal.” Unlike kids, who may see Captain America as a role model, for instance, adults don’t view superheroes as people “we could actually live up to,” which makes us more likely to engage with them. “They can be a goal toward which we try to orient our behavior,” Van Tongeren said, “without being threatening, because they’re not real.”
In this way, superheroes are the perfect match for our own egos: we can use them as inspiration to do better because they’re just abstract concepts, rather than real people we need to compete with. And that’s a really valuable thing. Oftentimes, stories about self-made individuals that have overcome adversity to make incredible change in the world are just that: incredible. We don’t necessarily align ourselves with them because their circumstances are too extraordinary. But when we watch Iron Man, it is hilariously enough, easier to see ourselves in his shoes because we’ve already suspended some level of disbelief.
So how do we reconcile this aspirational feeling around superhero movies with increasingly serious themes, like large-scale annihilation? Okay – this one is more of a hypothesis, but the answer may have to do with a subtle mirroring of our real circumstances. It’s no secret the current state of the world is one of pretty pronounced divisions and anxiety. And while it might seem like reflecting that darkness in the movies we watch specifically for their escapism would really bum us out, it might also be a much-needed way to sublimate our anxiety.
In psychology, sublimation is all about channeling energy from one thing into a different, usually safer, method of dealing with it. Think taking up boxing to deal with anger issues. In context of the movies, though, seeing the worst-case-scenario actually occur (you know, half the universe getting wiped out) might just work as release. Especially coupled with the idea that there may still be hope – no spoilers, but I feel like there has to be some kind of redemption coming in Endgame – this release of anxiety may actually be a really healthy way for us to cope with real-world problems (and draw some motivation from our favorite kick-ass heroes).
Ultimately, there are a whole lot of benefits to getting involved in superhero hype – even if you think you’re too old for it. The kind of aspirational symbolism, release of anxiety, and even the general nostalgia of seeing all your favorite characters back together is not only healthy, but it’s also likely to help you act just a little more altruistically – even if that means giving a bit of your extra time to help out a friend, rather than, like, seizing the Infinity Gauntlet. Either’s a valid choice.