Superman is strong enough to move entire planets with ease, but what good does his prodigious strength do against an opponent who attacks psychologically rather than physically? Dr. Manhattan possesses a host of powerful abilities, but yet in Watchmen, it’s a human who achieves what the misanthropic blue superhuman cannot. What good is Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth against someone who yields truth as a weapon and cannot be pummeled into submission?
Superheroes are dominating movies and TV shows, with no sign of slowing down. While I couldn’t be more elated to witness some of my favorite titles and characters become pop culture icons, I also want to see some variety and more depth. For instance, rather than saving a city, world or entire galaxy, what would it look like for an all-powerful superhuman to save people by communicating with them and better understanding them rather than fighting for or protecting them? To get an idea of the possibilities, here are some examples of superhumans who save individual people, all without using physical force.
(trigger/content warning for suicide)
Anyone with a passing familiarity with Marvel Comics’ Deadpool knows that he has earned his reputation as a violent “merc with a mouth.” In a 2016 issue titled “The Never-Ending Struggle,” writer Gerry Duggan gave Deadpool an opponent he couldn’t taunt, slash or shoot: hopelessness.
The story centered on a young woman perched on a rooftop, ready to take one last step. Along comes Deadpool with his usual glib attitude, telling the youth that a building “doesn’t need your wandering soul ghosting the crap out of it.” The antihero then takes her to fight criminals, even on a few crimes, hoping to show her that life is worth living.
What makes this such a standout moment for Deadpool is that he recognizes and honors his limits. He has an accelerated healing factor, mastery of several martial arts and extensive training as an assassin and a mercenary, but he doesn’t have the training or experience necessary to treat mental illness. Rather than hoping an inspiring talk, while a good starting point, is enough to keep the young woman from stepping onto another ledge, Deadpool instead takes her to get help from professionals. How many superheroes have this level of personal awareness? How many of them could benefit from this level of personal awareness?
On the animated DC Comics TV series Young Justice, Black Canary not only trains a team of young superheroes, but she also acts as their counselor. During the episode “Failsafe,” a mission goes south, resulting in the violent deaths of several team members. While the mission turned out to be a telepathic training simulation, the experience of watching each other die left the team with very-real trauma.
Black Canary met with Superboy, Miss Martian, Kid Flash, Artemis, Robin and Aqualad individually to help them work out their lingering emotional and mental turmoil. Besides the trauma of witnessing a teammate/friend/loved one die, some members of the team also experienced a violent death. Robin feels the most responsible, as he was acting as team leader (his first time doing so) during the debacle.
Black Canary helps the young heroes clarify their denial, guilt, misplaced feelings of responsibility, and Miss Martian’s reluctance to use her powers after losing control of her telepathic abilities and putting the team in their unfortunate situation. Had Black Canary not stepped in, who knows how those unresolved issues may have festered and led to very-real tragedies and exacerbated mental health issues. Black Canary’s intervention may have been the thing to inspire Miss Martian to become a high school guidance counselor.
With superhuman strength and durability, flight and accelerated healing, you’d expect Jessica Jones to be suited up on the front lines fighting supervillains. Instead, she works as a private investigator and investigative journalist. Jessica often takes on missing persons cases, which usually spiral into uncovering film noir-esque conspiracies. For instance, in her self-titled 2001-2004 comic book series, Alias, a “simple” case involving a missing sister quickly twists into a thorny knot of complications and intrigue involving a not-so-missing sister, which ties to a client who winds up dead (and isn’t even really the client who originally hired Jessica for the job), which links to the public revelation of Captain America’s secret identity, which connects to manipulating the presidential election. And that’s just one example.
While Jones does occasionally have to get physical during a case, her investigative skills are often enough to uncover the truth and find the missing person, or at least give concerned friends and family closure. Jones once relied on her powers more often during her two attempts at being a superhero: Her four-year stint as Jewel ended after she broke free of The Purple Man’s mind-controlling pheromones, and her week-long term as Knightress ended after she voluntarily revealed her identity to the police so they would let her temporarily shelter kids a henchman had brought to a crime meeting (which is another great example of Jones saving people without physical force).
Netflix’s Luke Cage did a great job of showing how the bulletproof superhero supported Harlem and helped his community how and when he could, a trait lifted straight from the comic book version of the character. As a former inmate, Luke is an advocate for prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation and re-education.
Luke also acted as the leader to the new team of Thunderbolts (the time when they were legitimate good guys). This iteration of the team was made up of rehabilitated prisoners seeking redemption. Being led by a former prisoner-turned-superhero may have given the team the best chance of success, as they could not only learn from an experienced hero, but also from someone who could mentally and emotionally prepare them to save people who may turn away from them rather than thank them upon learning about their past as ex-cons.
Using Superheroes in Therapy
It’s not just superheroes who save people without physical force. Psychology Today breaks down “superhero therapy.” The concept involves therapists studying superhero psychology as a tool to help patients diagnosed with anxiety, depression, PTSD and similar mental health conditions. For example, a patient who desires to develop a healthy self-image could be asked to imagine what Wonder Woman might say or do to help her or him realize valuable traits, accomplishments and efforts that the patient may have overlooked.
Some superheroes have noble hearts that far surpass the herculean strength of their bodies…or minds if they possess psionic abilities. Saving Earth from supervillains and interstellar threats is undoubtedly commendable, but saving individuals can easily prove to be more memorable and just as, if not more so, important.
A world weaver and word wrangler, O’Brian Gunn’s work has been published on Fiction on the Web, Georgia Voice, Cherry Magazine and The Society of Misfit Stories. His writing sirens often lull him to the expansive shores of the speculative, the supernatural, and the superhuman. His first novel, FURIES: Thus Spoke, is currently available from Spaceboy Books. Find him on Twitter @OBrianGunn.