Even Superheroes Suffer from Self-Loathing

What can we learn from self-loathing superheroes?

Posted Mar 29, 2011

I've written several times on this blog about self-loathing and feelings of inadequacy (see the bottom of this post for links), but a recent comment from a reader reminded me that superheroes, one of my other passions, often suffer from this too. By looking at two popular superheroes, Green Arrow and Daredevil, we'll see different forms self-loathing can take, which may help nonsuperheroes like us think about our own feelings of inadequacy.

First, take Green Arrow: Oliver Queen, the dashing archer who protects Star City. Traditionally a member of the Justice League of America, Arrow sometimes partners up with Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) to fight crime and tackle social injustice (as they did in the classic 1970s run by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, collected here). He's been romantically involved with (and briefly married to) fellow hero Black Canary, and has been a father (literally or figuratively) to young heroes like Arsenal, Speedy, and Connor Hawke (his biological son and successor as Green Arrow when Ollie was dead—he got better, thanks to Hal Jordan, who was also dead at the time... ah, forget it). A formerly wealthy social crusader with a weakness for women and a knack for making great chili, Ollie currently finds himself protecting the star-shaped enchanted forest that has grown in the middle of Star City after it was destroyed by the villain Prometheus in the Justice League of America: Cry for Justice mini-series.

In a recent issue of his own series (Green Arrow #7, February 2011), he faced the mysterious Lady of the Forest. At one point during an atypically deep discussion, the Lady said to Ollie, "Even you have some faith. In people if nothing else," to which Ollie replied, "People can  fail. Disappoint." The Lady responded, insightfully, "And yet, you only seem to hold that view of yourself." Ollie said, "Maybe I'm just beating them to the punch," to which the Lady said, "Or maybe you feel you don't deserve such people in your life."

The last two lines in particular point to self-loathing on Ollie's part, feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness which he projects onto other people; if he doesn't think he's good enough, he assumes other people feel the same way about him ("maybe I'm just beating them to the punch"). His self-loathing is based on lack of confidence, doubts about his skills (and how he uses them), his purpose in life, and his own character, all reinforced by his failings, especially his recent ones. Since the destruction of Star City, in which his ward Roy Harper's young daughter Lian was killed, he ritually executed Prometheus, the villain responsible. He was soon acquitted in a court of law, but he lost the respect of his fellow heroes (who, including Green Lantern, had crossed similar ethical lines themselves in the Cry for Justice series, discussed in several chapters in the upcoming Green Lantern and Philosophy). In Ollie's mind, much of what he had done in his life, especially recently, went wrong, and as a result he started to doubt himself: his skills, his judgment, and himself as a person, hero, and husband.

Then take Daredevil: blinded as a boy but left with enhanced senses, Matt Murdock fights for the downtrodden of New York's Hell's Kitchen as a passionate lawyer in the courtroom and as the acrobatic martial arts expert Daredevil at night. Abandoned by his mother at a young age, Matt was raised by his father, an aging boxer, who urged Matt to study and make his way in life with his brain rather than his brawn. But after the elder Murdock is murdered by mobsters after refusing to throw a fight in front of his son, Matt swears to fight injustice both as an attorney and as the superhero Daredevil.

Originally written as a swashbuckling, light-hearted adventurer, Frank Miller (who went on to write seminal comics and graphic novels such as The Dark Knight Returns, 300, and Sin City) retooled Daredevil in the 1980s as a tortured soul who faced a gauntlet of tragedies. It was Miller who introduced the character of Elektra, Matt's first and greeatest love, who later became an assassin and was killed by Daredevil's enemy Bullseye. Later, in the classic Daredevil: Born Again, another of Daredevil's enemies, the Kingpin, discovers his real identity and proceeds to destroys Murdock's life piece by piece, breaking him down and forcing him to build himself back up, stronger and more determined than ever. Since then, Murdock has been broken time and time again, having seen his other great love, Karen Page, killed (again by Bullseye), having his secret identity revealed, and thinking that his legal partner and best friend Foggy Nelson was killed while Murdock was in prison.

In the recent Shadowland mini-series, written by Andy Diggle, Daredevil assumes control of the evil organization called the Hand (whom Elektra had once led), only to be possessed by the Beast of the Hand and forced to fight his friends and allies. Oh, and along the way, he also ritually executed Bullseye. (Yes, there's a theme here.) At the end of that series, once freed from the control of the Beast, Matt disappears without a trace, leaving his costume in shreds behind him, and leaves New York City on a "hero's quest" of sorts. In the current miniseries Daredevil: Reborn (also written by Diggle), Matt Murdock finds himself in New Mexico, and just like Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, wherever Murdock goes, bad things happen. (Of course, we wouldn't want to read the stories otherwise, right?)

In New Mexico, Matt happens upon a guns-for-drugs deal, which he proceeds to bust up as only Matt can, in classic Daredevil style (though out of costume). After Matt rigs the truck full of weapons to drive into a lake, the enigmatic leader of the operation appears: the Calavera. He asks Matt why he is interfering, given that there is little chance of escape, and Matt simply responds, "Don't think I had a choice. Those guns would be used to kill innocent people. I thought I could turn my back, walk away, but... I guess that's just not who I am."

The Calavera, however, is not impressed. "Such vanity," he says, "the nobility of heroic self-sacrifice appeals to your ego," implying that heroism is not altruistic or a matter of duty or virtue for Matt, but simply a way to satisfy his own desires for self-validation (however noble these desires may be). "But," he continues, "I think you are lying to yourself. Answering a deeper need," hinting at something more pathological.

Next he asks Matt what he is afraid of. Of course, being the Man with No Fear, he says "nothing." But little does he know that the Calavera has the ability to reveal "what lies within your heart." And what lies within Matt Murdock's heart is tragedy: the recent events of Shadowland, the murder of Bullseye, the deaths of Elektra and Karen Page, as well as the mental and emotional damage done to his ex-wife Milla Donovan by another villain while she was married to Murdock. After showing him all of this, the Calavera tells Matt, "You wear your guilt like a mask, to hide you from the world. But you cannot escape the judgment of your conscience. After what you have done... what you have caused to be done... you want to die."

Matt protests, saying "no, no," but there would seem to be more than a bit of truth in the Calavera's words. Even if Matt does not have a death wish per se, he does feel incredible guilt and remorse over what has happened to those he loves (or loved). We can argue endlessly about the moral responsibility he bears for these events, but all that matters is that, for some reason, Matt does feel responsible for these things, and that is what seems to make his self-loathing different in character than Green Arrow's. Where Ollie's self-loathing is based on feelings of inadequacy, Matt's is grounded in guilt and responsibility. Whereas Ollie does not feel good enough (despite his braggadocio and womanizing), Matt has always had confidence in his abilities, but is all the more tortured by what he has done with them--or, more precisely, what he has failed to prevent. He couldn't save Elektra, Karen, or Milla; he wasn't strong enough to resist the mental control of the Beast of the Hand during Shadowland; and so forth. Lump all this together with his Catholic guilt, and you have the classic self-loathing person by way of responsibility and guilt. He doesn't feel he deserves to live, and so he is more than willing (if not wanting) to die in the cause of justice.

This series could very well have been titled Redemption (if the title hadn't already been taken by David Hine's excellent 2005 mini-series Daredevil: Redemption). And as I've explained in my earlier posts here, the self-loathing person cannot be redeemed by reassurances and validations from others; rather, it must come from within. Matt Murdock has to find a way to go on, hopefully by realizing that the one sure way he can redeem himself for what he feels he has done is to continue his life as a hero. There is no redemption to be gained from giving up; perhaps that is what he has learned in this series.

We don't have to be superheroes to be self-loathing, of course, but we can learn from them. From the examples of Green Arrow and Daredevil in particular, we learn that self-loathing can take at least two different forms: lack of confidence in oneself (which is a result of poor self-evaluation) and feelings of guilt (which can be the result of an inflated sense of responsibility). (Of course, these two can often combine as well; Green Arrow obviously feels responsible for the tragedy in Star City, for example, as well as his failed marriage.) Identifying the type of one's self-loathing can help the sufferer start a process of honest reflection (with or without a therapist) tailored to his or her specific problem. One could ask Green Arrow, perhaps the world's greatest archer and a skilled hand-to-hand fighter, when he lost confidence in himself and how he thinks he could get it back. One could ask Daredevil, who carries the burden of the world on his shoudlers, why he assumes responsibility for so many things for which no one else would hold him responsible.

And one could ask any person with feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing—or the person can ask himself or herself—"in what way do you hate yourself?" The more a person understands his or her self-loathing, the bette prepared he or she is to start to address it. Facing it, addressing it, and fighting it, despite all the barriers the self-loathing person puts up against it—now that's heroic.

----------

This post was adapted from posts about Green Arrow and Daredevil at The Comics Professor, with more character background added, some of the more obsessive comics details left out, and more commentary about self-loathing added.

----------

For previous posts about self-loathing on this blog, see the following:

When You Feel You're Not Good Enough for Somebody... (April 25, 2010)

Loving Yourself—How Important Is It? (April 29, 2010)

Self-Loathing and the Paradox of Selfless Love (August 31, 2010)

Don't Project Your Feelings of Inadquacy onto Others (December 30, 2010)

Self-Loathing People Fear the Fragility of Their Relationships (February 18, 2011)

Can Self-Compassion Help the Self-Loathing Person? (March 5, 2011)

----------

You can follow me on Twitter and also at the following blogs: Economics and Ethics, The Comics Professor, and The Literary Table.