When I was a kid I wanted to be Robin: The Boy Wonder. And really, who wouldn't? You get to run with the greatest superhero in the world. You get to say cool stuff like "Holy scapegoats!" You have all these special abilities at your disposal, and no matter how mediocre you appear in everyday life, you know you're better than everybody else.
Therein lies the challenge of mythologies ancient and modern. They reflect our aspirations—what we come to understand as good and true and noble, how we come to understand the world around us to work—but they foster the kind of escapism that takes us out of active engagement of the real world. They inspire us to be heroes, but often enough they make us into something much less.
Nevertheless, superheroes do play an important formative role in our culture. Their films generate incredible revenues; even the box office failures draw name actors and big press. They've held a near-constant presence on television, in theaters and in print for decades, and related merchandising has traveled throughout the world. They are among the first introductions our children get to the concept of heroism, and their stories reflect our own struggles and concerns writ incredibly large.
Case in point: when I was a child I checked a book out from the library repeatedly, based solely on its title: The Kryptonite Kid. The novel, told in the first person, introduces us to an adolescent child in the 1950s who is obsessed with Superman. He fantasizes about what he would do with Superman's powers—how he would rescue all the pretty girls, how he would dispense justice on all the people who mistreated him—until his father decides to put an end to all the silliness. George Reeves, who played Superman on television, had committed suicide, and the boy's father thrusts the newspaper clipping in his son's face shouting "Superman is dead!"
The boy is betrayed by Superman and becomes, in his mind, Superman's nemesis, the Kryptonite Kid. Very little changes—he still fantasizes about the girls he'll save and the people he'll take revenge on. But his god is dead, and he has taken his place. His fantasy takes a more drastic turn toward the end of the book, and he is transformed again, from hero to villain to victim. And his god remains dead.
Perhaps this novel served as a cautionary tale for me, since I never jumped off a building under the illusion that I could fly. But it demonstrates the mythic potency of superheroes for our age. Our gods and heroes throughout history have been larger than life; they've transcended the bounds of time and space, they've defied physics and probability, they've accomplished what we could never hope to accomplish. But in the past century we've demonstrated mastery over space and a growing mastery over time. Compared to all of recorded history we can do virtually anything. We have become our own gods.
For all the good it's done us. We've also witnessed the world's worst century of human violence and seen objective truth and fundamental morality unraveled before our eyes. Whatever we've become, it doesn't feel all that heroic.
In truth, for many people the only solution to the problem of evil is that God is dead—or worse, God is a villain who needs to be brought to justice. Once God is so deconstructed, where do we find our heroes? Answer: we create them. Stories about superheroes are serial case studies in ethics, morality and sociology. How will society treat you if you are different? Watch X-Men and find out. What kind of justice works in a city plagued by violence? Ask Batman or The Punisher. What will happen if I let the people around me know who I really am? Spider-Man has asked himself that very question over and over again. If I could do anything, like Superman, how then should I live?