Superman, Batman, and the Avengers offer a psychologically complex Superhero Saturday

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In this age of DVDs and on-demand viewing options—not to mention the shrinking number of revival houses—the chance to see an old favourite on the big screen is becoming increasingly difficult.

That changes this Friday, however, when Cineplex’s annual Great Digital Film Festival rolls into Vancouver’s Scotiabank Theatre and Langley’s Colossus Cinemas.

From January 31 to February 6, moviegoers will be treated to a series of 21 fan favourites, all priced at $6 or less per film. And with science fiction (including Logan’s Run [1976] Planet of the Apes [1968], and the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica), comedy, anime, and even a couple of James Bond outings, there’s something for just about every taste.

Headlining the festival, however, is Superhero Saturday (February 1). With a full day of programming, moviegoers will be able to trace the evolution of the modern superhero movie, with the innocent fun of 1978’s Superman through the moody Batman (1989) and the even moodier The Dark Knight (2008). For a good dose of post-9/11 escapism, there’s Spider-Man (2002), while Ironman (2008) and The Avengers (2012) typify the ascendency of the Marvel Comics brand.

It’ll be a blast, for sure, but for those with a keen eye, it’ll also be something of a window into modern North American culture.

Between Batman’s angst, the humor and foibles of the Marvel characters, and even Superman’s battle for truth, justice, and the American Way, it’s clear that these movies aren’t just for kids, and they’re not merely light-hearted entertainment. In their modern form, Superheroes are a mirror of—and a surrogate for—our hopes and desires.

“It’s an aspirational model about self-sacrifice and doing the right thing when the right thing is really hard,” says Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist who writes and speaks on the psychological implications of superheroes. “They make these very tough choices, despite the personal costs, and we want kids to learn that message. But we as adults, I think, need reminding of it all the time.”

It’s a reminder that obviously resonates, especially with the modern idea of superheroes as flawed and emotionally vulnerable.

“The power makes them godlike, but the modern struggle makes them like us,” Rosenberg continues, on the line from her office in the San Francisco Bay Area. “We allow our superheroes to be fallible and imperfect, and make mistakes. We really do allow them to be human.”

While Rosenberg cites a number of elements which can account for the recent surge in superhero movies—a collective need for safety and protection after 9/11, as well as the revolution in computer-generated imagery—she notes that it’s really psychological sophistication that goes to the root of the genre’s popularity.

“We grew up with these characters and as we all age, and can handle psychological complexity, we wanted the characters to be able to handle it too,” Rosenberg says. “All of us have strengths and weaknesses, and what’s a weakness in one context can be a strength in another. It’s really about figuring out how to use your gifts and address your vulnerabilities in a way that’s meaningful and helpful both to yourself and other people.”

It’s a serious theme, but in the modern superhero genre it’s one that’s often handled with enough humour, fun, and adventure to appeal to kids and adults alike.

Just the ticket, it would seem, for our own complex psyches. 

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