Stereotypes and generalizations can be ignorant and hurtful, however sometimes they can be useful to describe a common aspect of a populace from a sociological or psychological point of view. Take today's topic. Yes, many women love superheroes or will otherwise be able to relate to the points I will describe, just as there are many men who won't find much commonality and couldn't care less. Whatever. I am a man, I love superheroes, my boys love superheroes, and I'm sure many male readers will be able to identify with me. Let's break down this phenomenon.
First, what makes a superhero super? There is usually something special or different about him. Sometimes it takes the form of powers above and beyond that of normal human ability. For example, super strength or speed, being able to fly or create fire, being able to breathe under water, etc. These powers can be innate, like being born on an alien planet and delivered to earth (Superman), they can be introduced via a scientific experiment gone awry (Dr. Manhattan), they can can be based on genetic mutation (X-Men), or other causes. Rarely, albeit validly, the superhero is fully human, but has made himself into a superhero via physical or mental development and invention (Batman - my personal favorite).
What makes a superhero a hero? This can be just as interesting as - or more interesting than - the super abilities themselves. Personally characters like Superman are boring to me because they choose to be heroes out of some unspoken righteousness. More often there is a single, poignant, defining moment in the character's life that has molded his purpose. Peter Parker's uncle was killed by a criminal that he had the opportunity to stop but didn't, and the resultant guilt was a catalyst driving him to become the hero Spider-Man. Batman's parents were similarly killed when he was a child, and he later vowed to rid Gotham of crime and be the city's protector. Without some powerful, internal conviction, these characters would not have a reason to dedicate themselves to heroic deeds. The deeds themselves are often perilous and involve life-and-death scenarios where the hero puts the needs of others before his own personal safety.
So how does this relate to the male psyche? Why do we feel "pumped" after we leave a superhero (or most any action) movie, and for a short while daydream of being that character? Is it simply a matter of feeling strong, powerful, youthful or virile? Is that why we work out at the gym, or even why we sometimes take up a martial art or boxing? Is it all testosterone-induced ego? A little, perhaps, but I think that's short-sighted of the underlying desire.
The real reason lies behind why we put in extra hours on the job, why many of us are so focused and driven to attain perfection in a particular task or trade, and why we get frustrated when we don't feel respected by our family or friends. It's the reason several wars have been fought, but also why important advances in science and medicine have been achieved. It is, quite simply, that a man needs to feel like he has made an impact on his environment, that he can make a difference - that his life has purpose. Nothing is as depressing to a man than the thought that he does not have a purpose to exist - to not matter, to be undervalued, that the world is just going to keep on spinning and no one will remember or care whether he has ever set foot upon it.
Superheroes have a cause - a purpose for their existence and a role in society that is looked up to. They are usually admired and appreciated, but even if they are terrifying, they are still respected. They represent potency and meaning, strength and resilience. They achieve and complete, act with bravery, conviction and (usually) compassion. These are the traits that define a man's man, a "super" man. I think I will recant my previous comment on Superman and his boring righteousness. No, he is what we can only dream to become.
And our obsession with super-villains? Our attraction to the dark and unbound? Well, that can be a topic all by itself...