The Psychological Reason We Like Watching Superheroes Fight
Next month, we’ll get to see Iron Man and the Hulk throw down with one another in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Next year, we get both Batman versus Superman AND Iron Man versus Captain America in “Dawn of Justice” and “Captain America: Civil War,” respectively. And it’s only gonna get even more complicated from there as more superheroes are given their turn in the spotlight — and their chance to fight each other for it, too.
Clashes between heroes aren’t just a staple of summer blockbusters — they’re also ridiculously common in the comic book world, where you’d be hard pressed to find any two characters in both the Marvel or DC Universe who haven’t gone up against each other at least once. But why is the superhero genre so preoccupied with picking fights between its heavy hitters?
To get to the bottom of this phenomenon, we spoke with Dr. Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist who specializes in explaining how superheroes relate to our own psyches. To her, the reason we love these kinds of struggles can be broken down in a lot of different ways.
“For the audience of superhero stories, I think there’s a segment that really likes the action. I think you need to have action, which means a fight,” Dr. Rosenberg told MTV News over the phone. “Somebody needs to be fighting, and ideally the fighting should serve the story. So it is my opinion that it’s kind of boring to watch superhero-on-villain fights all the time — especially with really uber-superheroes like Superman or Thor, where you know the odds are so high that they’re gonna win anyway.”
“It’s about trying to make it emotionally interesting,” she added. “And so what could be more interesting than a conflict among heroes?… When you’re familiar with the superheroes, and their issues, that it’s just really fun when their issues come out in a fight.”
In particular, Dr. Rosenberg cited “The Avengers” as striking an interesting balance between all of its characters, most of whom had already been featured in their own movies.
“Most of us root for the good guy or the good gal, and so when you see two of them against each other and you know them, and their shtick… It was just fun,” she told us. “Because you have all these alpha males, you know, or an alpha female, [who are] used to being the top dog, and then you put them together. And that’s true, that happens in real life.”
She noted that seeing superheroes go at it with one another satiates our desire for a particular kind of drama that we don’t get to witness for ourselves — such as the relationships between corporate giants or political leaders. “In that sense I think it’s like being a voyeur to the equivalent real-life situation that we often don’t have the privilege of observing. “You know, how often do we get to see the top dogs together kind of duking it out?”
“We all just love to read what Scott Rudin says about Angelia Jolie,” she added, referring to the recent Sony hacks as an example of our cultural obsession with high-level voyeurism. “So I think the appeal is fascinating. It’s really fascinating to watch. ”
And, of course, it’s fun to speculate about which hero is more likely to win. “Fanboys and fangirls often do have that usual, you know, ’if you had a match up who would win?’” she said.
So looking at the “Batman V Superman” trailer from Friday, who does Dr. Rosenberg think is more likely to win?
“Batman isn’t afraid to go dirty, so to speak — although not as dirty as other superheroes — versus Superman being a boy scout. So morally it might be sort of interesting. Because as many comic book writers have said, a superhero’s story is only good as sort of the villain in it and what they bring out in the superhero,” she told MTV News.
Of course, we’re guessing that despite Batman’s interest in seeing Superman bleed, he won’t end up being the film’s central villain and the two will have to join forces at some point… but in the meantime, it’ll be fun to watch them fight it out.