Beyond Heroes and Villains

Investigating the nature of good guys and bad guys in fiction and real life

The Avengers Teach Psychology: Class Assemble!

What can "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" teach anybody about psychology?


Marvel's The Avengers (2012 motion picture).
The Avengers, Marvel Entertainment’s superhero team-up that has broken box office records as if Captain America had told it, “Movie, smash,” pulls together a cast of characters with personalities as colorful as their costumes or gamma-radiated skin. Stan Lee and many other talented creators over the years have bestowed upon us one amazing creation after another, known for both superhuman powers and human foibles. This diverse assembly of complex characters offers a wealth of examples for those of us who’d teach our fellow comic book fans some psychology by drawing from stories they know.

10. Agent Coulson: “His first name is Agent.” More than a joke expressing Tony Stark’s aversion to humanizing his representative from S.H.I.E.L.D., the line reflects Coulson’s aspirations. He likes being an agent for good. Hero worship has determined his life’s course. He gazes upon heroes as positive role models, those demonstrating values, attitudes, and behavior worth emulating. By helping Nick Fury implement his Avengers Initiative, Coulson spends his days searching for heroes. When he happens upon people like Iron Man and Thor, he patiently works with each, no more offended by Tony Stark’s insults than by those of a child because he sees these men as heroes in the making. Instinctively, he recognizes that they’re both progressing along the archetypal path Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey. While neither measures up to Captain America, the standard by which Coulson judges heroism itself, he’s optimistic about the progress they shall make. While trying to live up to a hero’s ideals, Phil Coulson probably never realizes how great a hero he himself is.

Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) helps bring his hero up to date on 21st century complexities.
Marvel's The Avengers (2012 motion picture).
9. Maria Hill: Tough-minded, by-the-book Maria Hill’s contentious relationship with Nick Fury makes her the perfect foil for the senior spymaster, questioning Fury’s judgment when he defies the World Security Council. Actor Samuel L. Jackson has speculated, “I think for a while she was the eyes and ears of the Council, hanging around in S.H.I.E.L.D., telling them what I was doing and not doing, and we brought her around.” Her law and order mentality suggests that she subscribes to one level of conventional morality. When outlining his theory on the stages of moral reasoning, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg asserted that most people mature from preconventional morality of early childhood, when one’s sense of right and wrong hinges on reward, punishment, and self-interest, into the conventional, judging what’s right according to society’s views and conventions. Learning to respect Nick Fury’s differing views and to ignore one Council directive herself suggests that despite her generally rigid outlook, Maria Hill can exhibit more advanced postconventional morality by understanding that “right” is relative and that when rules fail to serve the higher purpose behind them, they must bend.

SHIELD Director Nick (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) don't always see eye to eye.
Marvel's The Avengers (2012 motion picture).
8. Nick Fury: The director of S.H.I.E.L.D. turns out to be quite the manipulator. He’s not subtle about it. He says whatever he feels he must, unburdened by regret over juggling truth and trickery, for the sake of the greater good. Usually he’s truthful, unreservedly frank because he likes to cut through the niceties, which may be why he tells some outright lies when he chooses to mislead. Frank-minded Fury lacks the silver tongue that Thor's adoptive brother displays when Loki manipulates gods and giants in the Thor motion picture. Machiavellianism, the readiness to deceive and manipulate others to achieve one’s own goals, reflects attitude toward manipulation more than manipulative ability. Cynical regarding the better nature of others and self-assured that they personally know best, “high Machs” take a more detached, calculating approach when dealing with others, willing to cut people deeply in order to achieve their goals. Many fans cling to that fact while hoping has Fury lied about who died at one point in The Avengers.

7. Hawkeye: The archer Clint Barton bears guilt over treasons he committed under Loki’s magical control. However much the Black Widow assures him it wasn’t really him, he may feel it was. His intellect, skills, traits, and knowledge all went into those actions. His guilt is akin to that which some people suffer over things they’ve done while tortured, brainwashed, somnambulistic (sleepwalking), or impeded by date rape drugs. Not everyone shrugs that guilt away. If Barton dwells on the past, blaming himself for weakness in not asserting his own will, then depression becomes more likely because he cannot un-kill his victims. Obsessing over future implications, worrying what might happen should he lose control again, will shake his confidence and make anxiety more likely than depression. The fact that he’s mulling over these events so soon offers hope for his future well-being. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs less among those who feel the trauma right away. People who numb themselves, who avoid trying to cope, tend to recover poorly. Hawkeye’s prognosis (his therapeutic forecast) looks promising. Achieving some closure by apprehending the villain who violated his mind surely helps.

Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) discuss their respective guilt, the blood on their ledgers.
Marvel's The Avengers (2012 motion picture).
6. Black Widow: Natasha, however, carries guilt over actions she knowingly committed, the blood on her ledger. She seeks redemption. Her pattern for achieving restorative justice is to make amends with the world by racking up good deeds until they outnumber the bad. Redemption, in her perspective, must be earned. Her pragmatic approach to relationships – like claiming debt, not friendship, motivates her to save mind-controlled Barton – has grown over a lifetime spent insulating herself against harsh upbringing and later the dark nature of her assassin activities. For all the things Sigmund Freud got wrong, he and his daughter Anna deserve credit for identifying ego defense mechanisms, the tricks we play on ourselves to protect our self-esteem and shield ourselves from stress. Natasha demonstrates denial (refusing to admit her feelings) and rationalization (inventing rational-seeming explanations for her behavior instead of recognizing the true reasons). When appropriate, these mechanisms help us survive the scary, chaotic world all around, but overusing them could keep Natasha locked in a vicious cycle, forever unable to enjoy intimacy, relationships, and life.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans and body double, right) volunteers for Dr. Erksine's (Stanley Tucci, left) Super Soldier experiment.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011 motion picture).
5. Captain America: Psychologist Alfred Adler, who’d been a sickly child unable to walk until age 4 due to rickets, spent his youth envying his physically fit older brother and concluded during his adulthood that striving for perfection – a.k.a. striving for superiority, the need to overcome our areas of inferiority – motivates all human behavior. A small child wants to catch up with the big kids. Those who don’t catch up might come to accept, deny, misinterpret, or – like young, physically frail Steve Rogers – persist. His talent for art provides some fulfillment through compensation, relishing one’s strengths instead of fretting over weaknesses, but for him, that’s not enough. Repeatedly rejected for enlistment by the U.S. Army when it needs able bodies to fight World War II, Steve volunteers for the high-risk experiment that transforms him, granting him the perfection to which we all supposedly strive. At heart, he’s still that same kid eager to fight the good fight, still guided by the same faith, hope, and patriotism that gave him reassurance that the reality which made him a weakling makes sense in the end.

4. Iron Man: Tony Stark is narcissistic – super-egotistical. He admits it. Whether he’s so full of himself that he qualifies for narcissistic personality disorder is debatable. Many highly successful people display traits others consider narcissistic. Only when these deep-rooted traits are inflexible, unrelenting, and maladaptive, causing personal distress or keeping the egotist from functioning in life, do they constitute NPD. Is he short on empathy? Yes. Is he devoid of it? No. He thinks he’s special and superior, but in many ways, he’s right. Narcissistic grandiosity includes exaggerating achievements and expecting great recognition without achievements to match. His achievements generally match. Injury and time in terrorists’ captivity lead to his posttraumatic growth, reacting to stress by becoming a better, more developed human being, as opposed to PTSD. Many fans wonder whether the movies will seriously depict a different disorder, Tony Stark’s alcoholism. In comic books, Tony’s alcohol dependence, his addiction to drink, nearly kills him. In movies, Tony has engaged in alcohol abuse, drunkenly endangering Iron Man 2 partygoers. How bad his drinking might get remains to be seen.

When alpha males collide: Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) teases Thor (Chris Hemsworth).
Marvel's The Avengers (2012 motion picture).
3. Thor: The golden-haired Asgardian presents an otherworldly case of arrested development. Spending eons enjoying strength, invulnerability, and youth as an eternal prince gave Thor no reason to mature. Psychologist Erik Erikson noted that as modern society grows privileged and the average lifespan grows longer, the moratorium of youth – that time when young adults prolong the process of making major life decisions and figuring out who they are – keeps taking longer. When the movie Thor starts, he has the ability to grow up but no reason to do so. Odin must strip Thor’s power, position, and immortality, basically taking the car keys and kicking that kid out of the house, to give him his reason. For the first time, Thor must define himself as someone other than the boss’s son. The god must become mortal before the boy can become a man, after which he can become a god again. Centuries-old habits don’t die easily, though, so even after he takes on responsibility, he still has a hot-headed, impulsive streak. He’s not fully grown yet, but he is finally working on it.

2. Hulk: Many comic books depict Bruce Banner and the Hulk as distinctly different entities, in which case Banner might have dissociative identity disorder (the modern name for multiple personality disorder). Sometimes the Hulk body has Bruce Banner’s personality, so it’s not an all-or-nothing physiological change. The movies and TV series, on the other hand, depict the Hulk as a dim-witted manifestation of Bruce’s anger, ruled more by his limbic system (the brain’s basic animal centers of motivation and emotion) than by this scientist’s great intellect. “Hulking out” suppresses his more advanced cognitive functions, inhibiting his brain’s frontal lobes and therefore impeding his judgment, decision making, and impulse control. Whereas others might achieve disinhibition (the loss of restraint and disregard for people’s expectations) by drinking alcohol, Banner drinks gamma radiation. He’s a mean drunk.

The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo + CGI) expresses himself to "puny god" Loki (Tom Hiddleston).
Screen capture from Marvel's The Avengers (2012 motion picture, Australian DVD).
1. Loki: Unlike Steve Rogers who has used compensation to better himself, Loki overcompensates by trying to best others. Why? Because the god of mischief has daddy issues. Alfred Adler, who first studied birth order effects, observed that secondborn children tend to become more competitive, driven by perceptions that the firstborn gets more attention and sets the standard for comparison. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding when and how he entered the family, Loki has been treated consistently like the lesser, younger brother. In the movie Thor, Loki initially stirs trouble only to have some fun and to postpone irresponsible Thor’s ascension to the throne, until Loki learns they’re not blood brothers. He’s adopted. In fact, he’s really a frost giant, “a monster parents tell their children about at night.” The universe has played a trick upon this Trickster (Carl Jung’s term for the mischievous figure found as an archetype, a universal theme, in every culture’s stories). Now Loki has identity issues too: He doesn’t know who he is. Already insecure, he questions whether he’d ever been more to his adoptive father than a hostage or trophy, just as he questions his own nature and history itself. In this full-blown identity crisis, he struggles to recreate his self-concept by experimenting with new roles and behavior. In Thor, he’s deceitful and subtly manipulative, more Machiavellian than Nick Fury, but in The Avengers, he becomes bluntly destructive and reliant on unsubtle magic to make others do what he wills. Once defeated in the mortal realm, having nowhere else to go, Loki accepts his ride back to Asgard, perhaps there to rebuild his sense of self and define new ways of relating to those who raised him.

0. Giant-Man and the Wasp: As the comic books’ only founding Avengers to get left out of the blockbuster motion picture, this size-shifting couple might feel neglected and underappreciated. Only time – and maybe filmmaker Edgar Wright – will tell how they cope.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: How small do the tiniest Avengers feel as the only founding Avengers who got left out of the movie?
Marvel Comics

Author's Note: Thanks go out to @LEGO_SCIENCE for help getting a non-pirated screen capture of the Incredible Hulk making a ragdoll out of Loki.

Travis Langley, Ph.D. is the author of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.

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