Does Batman really just need a hug? Does Wonder Woman genuinely feel like “one of the guys?” Is Wolverine suffering from erectile disfunction? These might be the questions a reader or avid comic book fan anticipates being answered when they pick up The Psychology of Superheroes. Unfortunately, they probably won’t get the answers to these. The text swings back and forth between understanding the motivations and states of mind of well-known superheroes (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man) and supervillains (Magneto, Bizzaro, Lex Luthor) while trying to extrapolate larger meanings from the superhero narratives.
The final product is a selection of essays by writers who play hypothetical psychologists to these fictional characters. Often, writers use comic continuity to provide an inroad into character motivations and actions; however, it lacks bite and sophistication. The work as a whole comes across as though the editor and authors wanted to cash in on the recent comic book craze while showing off their wit and intellect. So, while one writer might analyze Superman through approaches such as the birth-order theory, another one waxes poetic about Batman’s aggressive and destructive nature. Since some draw solely from comics while others use the films, and some draw from both (and more), it lacks consistency. For a clearer overall effect, it would have been useful to stick to one particular narrative of each superhero and extrapolate from that. Otherwise, the collection feels to be all over the place. Some focus on specific superheroes, while others just take in vague concepts of superheroes.
The other problem with The Psychology of Superheroes is that the analyses by the authors don’t seem to work or prove unconvincing. Assessing the “positive psychology” of Spider-man or the levels of insanity in Arkam Asylum never really renders deeper insight into the characters but ends up being the writer’s own means of showing off. William J. Ickes’ “Mind Reading Superheroes: Fiction and Fact” discredits actual telepathy and discusses primarily how “everyday-telepathy” (subtle body-language reading) works. The article, like much of the book, baits readers with the promise of discussing superheroes but then switches to topics that don’t really fulfill the expectations.
However, the book can at times be interesting - or at least amusing. Some essays expand the ways of understanding how comic writers (and other writers of superhero narratives) can alter, shift, and interpret the same characters for different ends. Under what context might we see Magneto become a good (or at least less villainous) guy?
By far, it’s not the best book out there trying to deal sophistically with superheroes and how we as a culture deal with them. Often it’s too literal-minded for a genre that is a bit more fantastic. In the end, though, it can prove enjoyable to those who might like the idea of getting different angles on the superhero of their choice.