Project Superhero: Superheroes for All Ages

Superheroes, heroes, and real life can inspire us all.

Posted Dec 05, 2014

E. Paul Zehr is the author of several books (Becoming Batman, Inventing Iron Man, and Project Superhero) that all look at the reality of how a person can become a larger than life hero. Professor, author, and martial artist at the University of Victoria, Dr. Zehr is passionate about the popularization of science using superheroes as foils for human achievement and ability. You can read his posts on his own Psychology Today blog, "Black Belt Brain."

Q. How can superheroes, heroes, and real life inspire us all?

A. I am a neuroscientist with a passion for communicating science. I’m involved in many public communication activities helping to put science in the hands of those who need it most—which is every single one of us—and I use superheroes to do it. As a scientist, I cannot shake the weight of the words of Carl Sagan (1934 –1996) who wrote that “. . . almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster . . . sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces”. A clearer call for superheroic intervention there could not be!

Q. You've written several books on the psychology and neuroscience of superheroes. What do these have to do with real life? 

A. My first two books Becoming Batman (2008) and Inventing Iron Man (2011) were aimed at a general adult audience with no particular science training. The approach I took in these books was to explore the science of the human body through the lens afforded by those heroes. The skills and abilities of Batman, Iron Man, and Batgirl are fantastic for underlining the marvels of physiology, neuroscience, and biomedical engineering. Superheroes are fantastic for showing us the extremes to which many of our abilities can be taken, and of course also showing us where they cannot go.

A few years ago I started to think about writing specifically for a younger age group—and for girls in particular. So, in my latest book Project Superhero I use Batgirl as an inspirational figure for my female protagonist, 13-year-old Jessie. This is my first book that directly combines fiction and non-fiction. In thinking about how to translate my approach to a younger age group I spent more time reflecting on what superheroes represent in our culture as seen through Jessie’s eyes.

The societal concept of superheroes has really been around forever. I think the inspiring role that superheroes can play goes right back to antiquity. Icarus, Mercury, Prometheus, Thor, Odin, Hercules, and so many other mythological characters served as figures to inspire by their strengths and to guide by their weaknesses.

Q. Why superheroes?

A. Superheroes continue to appeal and attract us real and mortal humans in that we can use the fantasy of the superhero as inspiration to free ourselves from the many false limitations we all acquire as we move through our lives. These limitations weigh us down, constrain our actions and prevent us from achieving more. They prevent us from being all we could truly become—from finding our inner superhero.

As Jessie tells us in her diary entries over the course of her Grade 8 year in Project Superhero, we are always capable of doing more than we think. In our daily lives we have to only put some superhero lessons learned into play and refuse to be limited by fear of failure. Jessie begins to appreciate the link between the ideal of the superhero and the reality of heroism—heroes run towards danger. It truly is inspiring to recognize that real heroes get through uncomfortable scenarios precisely because they know in advance that it will be difficult but they do it anyway.

Q. What lessons can a person learn from fictional superheroes and real heroes?

A. Jessie and I learned a lot about the relationships between superheroes, heroes, and achievement from all those interviews with real-life people. Her “Top 10 list of things she learned” resonates with all of us:

  • “I don’t think you have to have superpowers to achieve amazing things; we can all do amazing things if we believe in ourselves!” —Jessica Watson, at age 16 sailed solo, nonstop, and unassisted around the world;
  • “Do you ever defeat fears or do you just get used to them?? Well, I guess a little of both. There is no substitute for training and the other side of that is there is really no substitute for actually doing.” —Mike Bruen, retired NYPD Sergeant at Ground Zero for 9/11;
  • “I have a real live superhero and that is my mom. She is superhuman to me!” —Clara Hughes, Olympic medalist in summer and winter games;
  • “You should never go to a place of ‘a girl wouldn’t say that!’ Anyone, of any race, of any sex, can do or say anything. How they behave is based on their past experiences and their current sense of self.” —Bryan Q. Miller, writer for Smallville and Batgirl;
  • “What’s best for us is who we are. Each of our challenges is unique and we are uniquely qualified to live our lives our ‘best.’”—Kelly Sue DeConnick, writer for Captain Marvel and Avengers Assemble;
  • “I believe that you should always go after your dreams, no matter how high or how hard they seem—that just makes you try harder!”—Hayley Wickenheiser, Olympic gold medalist and World Champion;
  • “Today I look around and I see many real women superheroes! I hope we keep adding more and more women to our list of superheroes.”—Yuriko Romer, documentary film maker;
  • “We have to trust ourselves.” —Christie Nicholson, journalist.
  • “We did so much training so we could respond to things we could control if something did happen”—Nicole Stott, NASA astronaut who spent more than 3 months on the International Space Station and sent the first tweet from space;

Q. After all that, what conclusion do you and Jessie reach?

A. At the end of Jessie’s “Top 10 List of Things I Learned”, she concludes there really is a superhero in all of us. It is up to each of us—regardless of our age—to find that spirit of Batgirl, that inkling of Iron Man, or that bit of Batman we all have inside and put it to good use.