The Inescapable Lure of Superheroes

July 28, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT

JULIA KELLER, NewsHour Essayist: I like to think of myself as a fairly sophisticated person. I’ve read my share of Shakespeare. In a pinch, I can quote portions of “Paradise Lost.” I often stroll through the corridors of the Art Institute of Chicago, where many masterpieces hang their hats.

Yet I must confess: I’m a sucker for Superman. I am hopelessly enamored of Batman. I love Spiderman, and Green Lantern, and the Fantastic Four, and Wonder Woman.

In fact, you would be very hard-pressed to find a costumed crime-fighter sporting a colorful back story with whom I am not heedlessly and passionately in love.

Now that summer is in full swing, movie theaters are crackling with action-crammed blockbusters featuring larger-than-life heroes, “Iron Man,” and “Hellboy,” and “The Incredible Hulk,” and “Hancock,” and the latest Batman iteration, ‘The Dark Knight.’

Some ascribe the volume and popularity of these films to escapism, which strikes me as a cultural copout. Escapism? Please. You can escape with a nap, or a novel, or a cold beer. It doesn’t take a superhero.

No, there is a deeper reason why we are so drawn, generation after generation, comic book by comic book, movie after movie to these large and unlikely characters who fight diabolical criminals and who generally fight a few inner demons, as well.

The lure of the superhero comes down to a single word: loneliness.

CHRISTIAN BALE, Actor, “Batman”: People are dying, Alfred. What would you have me do?

MICHAEL CAINE, Actor, “Alfred”: Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make.

JULIA KELLER: That’s right. Superheroes are lonely. They are singular, unique. Because of their marvelous and astonishing powers, they don’t fit in anywhere. Those who know Superman’s biography know that the only place in which he truly feels comfortable is his fortress of solitude.

Most love affairs with comic book characters begin in adolescence. And has there ever been a teenager who did not crave, deep in her or his hormone-roiled and massively misunderstood soul, a place such as Superman’s fortress of solitude, a place well beyond the world’s grubby reach, a place such as Batman’s bat cave, a monastic cell that vibrates not with a Gregorian chant, but with the steady hum from a sleek array of computers?

TELEVISION REPORTER: Hancock’s latest act of so-called heroics has once again enraged city officials.

WOMAN: I can smell that liquor on your breath.

WILL SMITH, Actor, “Hancock”: Because I’ve been drinking.

JULIA KELLER: Even in a movie such as “Hancock,” which stars Will Smith as a slovenly superhero with a soiled cap and a bad attitude, there is a special realm all his own. It’s a squalid trailer on a mountaintop. It’s remote from the world. It’s a place where he can kick back, unwind, and, for a cherished interval, not feel like a freak.

The true magic of the superhero lies in the secret hideout. It’s what you and I sought in a tree house, in the basement, in that crumbling and deserted old place at the end of the block, promising cobwebs and solace. It’s where you go when you want to keep the world at arm’s length.

As Robert Frost once wrote, “I’d like to get away from Earth awhile and then come back and begin over.”

As regular folks, we can’t leap tall buildings at a single bound or outwit the Joker, but most of us know so very well what it feels like to be lonely and misunderstood.

There is nothing superficial about superheroes. They captivate so profoundly because they, too, sometimes need to relax in a private space where nobody’s looking, nobody’s judging, where being ordinary is the most extraordinary thing of all.

MICHAEL CAINE: Know your limits, Master Wayne.

CHRISTIAN BALE: Batman has no limits.

MICHAEL CAINE: Well, you do, sir.

JULIA KELLER: I’m Julia Keller.