Why Are We Fascinated By Supervillians?
Posing the question is much like asking why evil itself intrigues us, but there’s much more to our continued interest in supervillains than meets the eye. Not only do Lex Luthor, Dracula and the Red Skull run unconstrained by conventional morality, they exist outside the limits of reality itself. Their evil, even at its most realistic, retains a touch of the unreal.
But is our fascination with fantastic fiends healthy? It’s a question that’s bubbled beneath the surface of the public consciousness ever since a masked gunman — who reportedly identified himself as Batman’s nemesis the Joker after police apprehended him — went on a shooting spree at a Colorado screening of The Dark Knight Rises last week. From a psychological perspective, views vary on what drives our enduring interest in superhuman bad guys.
Shadow confrontation: Psychiatrist Carl Jung believed we need to confront and understand our own hidden nature to grow as human beings. Healthy confrontation with our shadow selves can unearth new strengths (e.g., Bruce Wayne creating his Dark Knight persona to fight crime), whereas unhealthy attempts at confrontation may involve dwelling on or unleashing the worst parts of ourselves (as the Joker tries to get Batman and Harvey Dent to do in The Dark Knight).
Wish fulfillment: Sigmund Freud viewed human nature as inherently antisocial, biologically driven by the undisciplined ID’s pleasure principle to get what we want when we want it — born to be bad but held back by society. Even if the psyche fully develops its ego (source of self-control) and superego (conscience), Freudians say the id still dwells underneath, and it wishes for many selfish things — so it would love to be supervillainous.
Hierarchy of needs: Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow held that people who haven’t met their most basic needs will have difficulty maturing. If starved for food, you’re unlikely to feel secure. If starved for love and companionship, you’ll have trouble building self-esteem. People who dwell on their deficits may envy and resent others who have more than they do. Some people who are unable to overcome social shortcomings fantasize about obtaining any means, good or bad, to satisfy every need and greed.
Conditioning: Ivan Pavlov would say we can learn to associate supervillains with other things we value — like entertainment, strength, freedom or the heroes themselves. Behaviorist B.F. Skinner would likely argue that we can find it reinforcing to watch or read about supervillains, but without knowing what’s reinforcing about them, that’s a bit like saying it’s rewarding because it’s rewarding.
Our Motivations for Seeking Out Supervillains
Throughout history, humans have been captivated by stories of heroes facing off against superhuman foes. But what specific rewards, needs, wishes and dark dreams do supervillains satisfy?
Freedom: Superpowered characters enjoy freedoms the rest of us don’t. Nobody can arrest Superman unless he lets them (at least not without kryptonite handcuffs). As much time as supervillains spend locked up, they seem to escape as often as they please, to run unconstrained by rules and regulations. Cosplayers who dress like Wonder Woman and Captain America can’t do any crazy thing that crosses their minds without seeming to mock and insult our heroes, whereas those dressed as villains get to go wild. Supervillainy feels liberating.
Power: Maybe you envy the power these evil characters wield. While that’s also a reason to adore superheroes, good guys don’t ache to dominate. Stories like Watchmen and Kingdom Come show how heroes become menaces when they try to take over. So when dreaming of superpowers, maybe you relate to characters who dream of power as well, from the Scarecrow (who controls individuals’ fears) to Doctor Doom (who’s perpetually out to dominate the world).
Payback: Batman not only protects the innocent, he inflicts pain upon the wicked and instills in them the fear they’d create in others. A child who feels bullied wants protection and might want the bullies to suffer in kind. Batman only goes so far. But the Punisher — driven more by revenge than justice, and more interested in killing mobsters than in saving victims — seems less heroic. The part of a person that wants payback might appreciate villains’ frequent schemes for revenge.
Blaming victims: Psychologist Melvin Lerner observed the just-world phenomenon, a common tendency to assume victims must deserve to be victims rather than believe bad things happen to good people. The worse the tragedy is, the worse we tend to think the victim must be, so when Hannibal Lecter mutilates and eats not only a person who offended him but also his victim’s spouse, human nature motivates us to think the worst of that relative as well.
Better villain equals better hero: A hero only appears as heroic as the challenge he or she must overcome. Great heroes require great villains: Without criminals, Batman has nobody to hit and Superman’s a flying rescue worker searching for people to save from wrecks and natural disasters. Without supercriminals, the world’s finest heroes seem like overpowered brutes nabbing thugs unworthy of them. Through myths, legends and lore across time, we have needed heroes who rise to the occasion, overcome great odds and take down giants.
Facing our fears: Instead of dreading the darkness, you might reduce that dread by shining a light and seeing what’s out there. Fiction can help us feel empowered and enlightened without literally traipsing into mob hangouts and poorly lit alleyways. Watching a gangster point a gun at Bruce Wayne’s head in Batman Begins is as close as most of us want to get.
Exploring the unknown: Our need to challenge the unknown has driven the human race to cover the globe. This powerful curiosity makes us wonder about everything that baffles us, including the world’s worst fiends. Knowledge is power, or at least feels like it. Learning more about Ted Bundy and the Unabomber helps us feel less vulnerable to others who’d commit similar deeds. When gritty details repulse us, exploring evil through the filter of fiction can help us contemplate humanity’s worst without turning away or dwelling almost voyeuristically on real human tragedy. Even when the fiction is about improbable people doing impossible things, the story’s fantastic nature reassures us that this cannot happen — and therefore we don’t have to turn away.