Monday, March 1, 2010

Why Are Superheroes All the Rage?

When talking about superheroes, I sometimes get asked why I think that superheroes have become so popular and part of the mainstream culture. As part of my answer, I list the impact of 9/11 on the American psyche—and perhaps on the psyche of people in other countries: That 9/11 led Americans to feel acutely vulnerable—on our soil—in a way we hadn’t before.

In the aftermath of 9/11, I hypothesized, we began to yearn for larger-than-life protection from the ever-present concerns about threats to safety. Superhero stories fulfill that yearning, at least temporarily. (I include the television show 24 in this category, although Jack Bauer is neither from another planet nor a mutant—that we know of. He is a superhero in that: (1) he has the superabilities of being able to keep going in the face of inordinate amounts of pain, and without being a psychopath he is able to inflict pain on others without, apparently, much of an emotional cost; and (2) he is portrayed as acting heroically, against impossible odds, repeatedly making enormous personal sacrifices to save others. I could go on about this, but it’s a tangent to the topic of this blog post.)

To support my hypothesis, I point to the phenomenal success of (super)heroic shows and film that aired soon after 9/11:

  • 24 (first aired 11/6/2001),
  • Smallville (first aired 10/16/2001), and,
  • the first Spiderman film (released May, 2002).

My view is that our affinity for superheroes generalizes to all things super--even to the use of the adjective or prefix, super. I wanted to collect some data to support this hypothesis. I predicted that the use of the prefix super (e.g., Super Jumbo, super quiz, super transit) increased after 9/11. So, I did a Google News Archive Search for the term super* from 1937 to 2010. The results are below (and here in your browser).

This set of data doesn't seem to support my hypothesis. However, if you look at the data more closely (in your browser, looking at each decade in detail), you may notice, as I did, that there is always a huge spike in January of each year. I investigated further—turns out those were articles on the Super Bowl. Looking closely at the decade by decade data, there are also spikes related to Super Tuesday, super collider, and Super Mario. So, I tailored my search to omit results that included bowl, Tuesday, collider, and Mario. The results are below (and you can peruse them yourself in more detail by clicking here.)

Okay, looks good for my hypothesis. I then examined the decade 2000-2009 in more detail, as you can see below (and here in your browser). Sure enough, my hypothesis was correct, although the month-by-month bar graph suggests that it took about a year or two for the use of the term to increase reliably and persistently.

Unfortunately, this Google News Archive Search doesn’t provide numerical data, but it at least provide confirmation of a trend, and of my hypothesis. For more information about Google New Archives Search, click here.


  1. Hi, Robin - FYI, Newsarama commented on this post (

  2. Interesting angle but it feels like a stretch.

    I don't think people went to see Spider-Man in 2002 and Batman Begins in 2005 because of their yearning for larger-than-life protection. They went to these and other, more recent superhero films because of the quality of the movies (ie, storyline, directing, special effects).

    You don't have to go as far back as 9/11 to find people who yearn for larger-than-life protection: ask the survivors of New Orleans after Hurrican Katrina, Haiti, and now Chile.

  3. Cool post! Loved hearing your take on it.

    I'm not convinced about the post 9/11 argument. The superhero tradition dates back to the 60's (when the term was coined, according to wikipedia), if not even earlier. I suspect if you look back through cultural history, you'll find evidence of "superheroes" everywhere, even if they weren't branded that way. Folkloric "magical" beings who would save people with their gifts, I'm sure you could find evidence. For some definition of "superhero," you could even argue some religious stories - about Achilles being a demi-God defending Troy in the Greek tradition, for instance - featured superheroes. But even recently in America, before the big Marvel/DC explosion, there were popular things like Thunderbirds, the Avengers, James Bond, and other larger than life figures who used their talents and skills for greater good. Only more recently has this tradition been re-appropriated to the flavor of mutants, the formula of Marvel/DC, and the brand of "Superheroes." I think a branding approach may have changed recently, but the popularity of these kinds of stories long pre-dates 9/11.