do they need a troubled past

Do all superheroes need a troubled past?

With Daredevil due to debut on Netflix this week, we will get another origin tale of someone rising from a difficult background to be the saviour of a city. Do they all need to come from a difficult past? Surely a difficult past should lead to being a super villain not a hero. Let’s have a quick look at the usual suspects and what psychological problems they face.

Bruce Wayne – Let’s try to forget the current tv series Gotham and try to concentrate on what we know. Rich kid Bruce Wayne witnesses the horrible murder of both parents on a walk home from the theatre. He uses the family wealth to train and kit himself out as the caped crusader, Batman. As Batman he dishes out vengeance to the criminal population of Gotham city one villain at a time. With only Alfred, his butler as an authority figure growing up, Bruce has many issues. His relationship with Robin in the comics is both a desire for a comrade or sibling, and a protegé. Because Bruce has severe commitment issues the likelihood of him having a serious relationship or a child is low, anyone he is interested in has a tendency to get killed by the joker or be a cat burglar. Robin is both the brother he didn’t have growing up and his surrogate child. The fact that he doesn’t kill the criminals could be viewed as kind, but the main reason is his desire to inflict pain. He channels his inner pain and forces it on the criminals. Without parents Bruce’s main problem is lack of consequence. Being the Batman, he doesn’t realise that by ridding Gotham of normal criminals, he is directly responsible for the growth of the villains. If there is a masked avenger stalking he streets, then masked villains are only a step behind. Therefore Gotham is stuck in a perpetual circle of violence. Would it be better off without Batman?

Required reading – The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.

Clark Kent – Alien child lands on earth and is brought up by humble childless family. When he becomes aware of the destruction of his home planet he dons the Superman mantle and protects earth. Coming from an alien planet is bad enough, but having powers, which makes humans feel like insects you could crush is another. It is a testament to the Kent’s that Clark didn’t become supreme ruler of earth. Unlike Bruce Wayne, Clark has a strong family upbringing and is initially leading a normal life in Smallville, if you believe the series. Only when he starts discovering his origin story do things start to go wrong. He learns his whole race have been wiped out and soon after that dons the costume and begins saving Metropolis. Like Bruce Wayne the emergence of the costumed hero leads to the prominence of Lex Luthor. While not in a costume his level of villainy reaches new heights because he is forced to come up with ever more devious schemes to counter the threat of superman. Being the only survivor of his race leads to other problems. He views the people of earth as his flock who need saving. Sometimes people don’t appreciate his help. The movie Hancock has it’s faults but does an excellent job of highlighting the main issues that someone with super-strength would face, Clark Kent by contrast has the typical sheltered child response to relationships, falling in love with the first option he meets, Lois Lane. Superman must also have a loneliness issue. As Clark he can have friends and a relationship but as Superman he only has his fortress of solitude to fall back to. It’s lonely at the top especially when you are the last of your kind.

Required reading – Kingdom come, Earth One – Original Superman Movies

Charles Xavier and Magneto 

For the purposes of this one I am leaving Magneto as the character name so we can look at both the comic and the film versions. These two play out in a more familiar, realistic way. Magneto has the most troubled background. Despite small differences in film and comic, his origin centres around being in a concentration camp and a holocaust survivor. Being exposed to the cruelties and most evil of the human race, has led naturally to Magneto being a super villain. He hates humans and will do anything to establish his race of mutants as the dominant society. By contrast Professor X has had an easy upbringing. Born into a rich family, smart and kind natured, he has learned to forgive the humans for their atrocities. The debates between the two show that because they have each other as a support system they can be emotionally stable. Neither have the problems associated with the other superheroes. They both carry on along their chosen paths with sanity. Despite the actions of Magneto being extreme, they are done with a reasoned mind.

Required Reading – Any X-men origin story – The X-men Films

Matt Murdock – Now we come to the star of the new Netflix series Daredevil. Murdock ticks all the necessary boxes to be a superhero. Mother – dead. Raised by his boxer father, Mat was encouraged to study instead of follow the same path. One day he saves a blind man from getting run over and ends up blind himself from a chemical spill. The cruel irony of it. Just as he is learning to overcome his disability, his father gets killed by some dodgy fighting promoters. All this is bound to give you some issues. As the self-styled ‘man without fear’ Daredevil fights crime in his home of Hells Kitchen, tangling with the Kingpin amongst others.

Without spoiling the series anymore, Daredevil is very much in keeping with the superhero tradition. I haven’t even went into Spiderman, Ironman, Captain America, The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin, etc. Whether you are a super villain or hero, you seem to need to have had tragedy in your life or come from a broken home. What does this say about the people who read these stories? Do they identify with the heroes or the villains? Growing up I always seemed to favour the bad guys. Is it because I identified with them or was it the fact that thy are more believable? I know that if I was in Bruce Wayne’s situation, I would be dispatching justice with a bit more lethality than the caped crusader.


  1. I have grown increasingly disenchanted with the cliche of the hero with the troubled past/conflicted nature/etc. I wasn’t quite sure what it was, and so I just chalked it up to it being overdone. But you actually may have hit the nail on the head for me: they are often tough to “believe.” People scoff at the do-gooder boy scout heroes like classic Captain America and Superman et al, but I can believe that men with those types of personalities who found themselves with super powers would turn into world-saving superheroes. But for a character as broken as Bruce Wayne or Wolverine or the other endless array of those characters, it seems tougher to swallow. It’s ironic because people tend to favor those types of heroes BECAUSE they find them more interesting and believable when I almost feel the opposite.


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