Men and Heroes
What happens to a boy's love of comic book heroes when he grows into a man?
Posted Apr 07, 2019
Just as it’s hard for adults to admit having leftover fantasies from childhood, it can be hard for a man to admit he still looks for heroes and still wants to be one. But for most men it is true. Men need someone they can look up to and men crave being looked up to.
What is the source of this need for heroes and the need to be a hero? It might be tempting to dismiss it as a symptom of some immaturity in the adult male, or a weakness of ego, or a need to be stroked. I’m sure that there are individual cases where that is true. But when it seems to be true across the board (with the obvious caveat that it’s not 100% true), I like to try to understand the higher purpose behind the phenomenon. This stems from my basic belief that none of us are defective, and if nearly everyone has the same desire or need that can otherwise be puzzling, there must be a deeper reason behind it.
I think at the deepest level, there is in many men a striving for that which is larger than life, for the outsized, the unusual. At its most basic it’s a need to break boundaries and expand the existing norms. There is an admiration for those who succeed in doing this: those who break the boundaries of the static and the known and show us what else is possible. Many men will be drawn to different types of heroes based upon who they are as men and where they are in their life cycle. A young, physically oriented man may hero worship a sports star. An older, established man may hero worship a spiritually evolved individual.
There is simultaneous need to be recognized for having achieved something unusual in some arena, usually in one’s profession. Even if it’s a very narrow niche in the man’s profession, it’s still important. A welder may like to be known for how he welds aluminum, a bus driver takes pride in having the record for most miles driven without an accident, a surgeon takes pride in being the most sought after for a particular kind of surgery. These are external validations that their professional DNA is unfolding along its optimal path, that they are succeeding in being of service to the world. This is one of the reasons behind plaques and award banquets: to both recognize those who are exemplary as well as inspire others to achieve. This is also true for women; for many men, the professional looms large in their sense of personal identity, so this need for recognition is particularly strong.
This barely concealed need for recognition is hinted at in many of the hero tales: they are usually disguised as normal individuals, such as Clark Kent (who in reality is Superman) or Bruce Wayne (who by night is Batman). Clark Kent's Superman outfit is worn underneath his daytime clothes. This symbolizes a hunger many men feel: while on the surface he lives a mundane life of work and responsibilities, underneath he is clothed in hero's garb, ready to explode into the larger mythology that lurks in his genes.
David Gilmore, a professor of anthropology who studied what it means "to be a man" in cultures throughout the world1, describes how a man has to construct his identity, to reprove it time and time again. Who better to use as a role model for this process than a hero, one who towers above all others?
1. Gilmore, D. (1990). Manhood in the Making. New Haven: Yale University Press.