AS YOU SIT IN the semi-darkness of a movie theater and watch Spider-Man swing through the triumphs and tragedies of his life, you cheer when he succeeds and wince when he hits a bumpy spot in his life.
We identify with Spidey and other superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. We feel that, if we were bitten by a radioactive spider like Peter Parker was, then like him, we would wield our superhuman powers wisely, despite the hardships that might entail.
Now, if I told you that I was going to put on a mask and go out and beat up people who were doing the wrong thing (by my own personal standards), but that you shouldn't be concerned because I know just how much force to apply, you'd think I was crazy or a criminal, or both.
Fortunately, we live in a society where vigilantism is regarded as aberrant behavior. When we read about vigilante "justice," a shudder goes through us and we think about how a society where that goes on is a society out of control, one we're grateful we don't live in. Memories of our own society's instances of vigilantism make us recoil in disgust.
But we love Spider-Man. We admire Superman. We hold Wonder Woman up as a role model for our daughters. And what are they if not vigilantes? Isn't that strange?
Ever since I started working professionally creating superhero stories as a writer and editor at Marvel Comics, this disconnect has fascinated me. It's one of the things that led me to write a book about superheroes and what they tell us about ourselves. Everybody loves superheroes. The fact that what they do on a daily basis is, at the very least, illegal, seems irrelevant to us. Why do they get a free pass?
The reasons must be that the fantasies they embody appeal to basic needs in us. There are the fun aspects of superheroes, of course. Who wouldn't love to swing on a web line above the streets of New York like Spider-Man? Who wouldn't want to fly to the moon and back in an afternoon as Superman could?
But there are darker elements of the fantasies. Superheroes' origins are often based on some traumatic event. Superman is the sole survivor of a doomed planet. Spider-Man let a burglar go, and the criminal went on to murder his uncle.
These tragedies make them sympathetic. We think about the injustices done to us and those we love, and we fantasize revenge. Then we see how the superheroes deal with their own tragedies. They channel their anger into good deeds to make the world a better place. Their intentions are good, as we hope ours would be.
Then there's their behavior. Superheroes know how to use just enough force and violence to capture the bad guys. The superheroes we all know and love don't kill, don't brutalize. The heroes reach into themselves and transcend their own worst impulses. They eat their cake and have it, too, much as we'd all like to do. They take the law into their own hands, but they do it wisely.
We tend to see superheroes as loving authority figures, using force for the common good. We like the idea of someone using force wisely. It's why we vote for our elected leaders, isn't it? We try to pick the candidate we think will use force the most wisely.
So, while we may not want to read too much into simple action-adventure stories, we shouldn't dismiss them as kid's stuff, either - not when movies such as Spider-Man 2 are breaking box-office records.
A society creates heroes that reflect its own needs and desires, and superheroes, as our own modern mythology, are no exception. Their gaudy costumes and fantastic powers may actually enable us to, through them, more easily wrestle with our own deeper psychological issues than if they inhabited a more realistic world.
And they sure look cool flying above the city, don't they?
Danny Fingeroth was the editorial director of Marvel Comics' Spider-Man line and is the author of Superman On the Couch.