In spite of whatever standing he currently has in the psychology world, Sigmund Freud’s theories on how the human mind works has been of great influence on the creation of fictional characters. In particular, Freud’s the structural model of the psyche, which he wrote about in his essays “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” and “The Ego and the Id”, has often appeared either directly, or as subtext, in numerous video games, comic books, novels and movies. Mostly his theories appear as symbolism or in the structure for the narrative, but for the purpose of this article we are going to use it as a tool for analysis, as it was originally intended, to see how they relate to some of the most popular super heroes in comic-book culture. Namely how Freud’s theory of the id, the ego, and the super-ego are reflected in the personalities and traits of Batman, Superman, and Marvel’s most popular superheroes.
The most basic part of Freud’s structural model of the psyche is the id. The id is essentially the most instinctual, or animalistic, part of the psyche. Its basic function is to seek out pleasure while avoiding pain, for the purpose of satisfying the unconscious needs of the person. However, the id is a complicated beast that often tries to satisfy contrary impulses that somehow exist side by side. Furthermore, it resides in the darkest part of the human psyche, the subconscious, and is generally seen as the most independent of the three parts of the psyche. This might seem like a stretch, but despite his intelligence and ability to rationalize, I’ve always seen Batman as a character almost completely driven by his id. I know this sounds strange, but here me out.
Let’s start at the beginning. Bruce Wayne’s impetuous for becoming Batman stems from the trauma he experienced when his parents were murdered right in front of him. Throughout all incarnations of the character, not only are his parents’ deaths the most painful and haunting experience that Wayne has endured, but it is also his ultimate motivation for becoming a vigilante. By assuming the Batman persona, Bruce turns his horrible experience into a call to action, which acts as a form of therapy helping him deal with his grief and anger. Wayne’s identity as Batman helps soothe the pain of his parents’ loss, and prevents him from having to witness others befall his fate. In addition, his trauma represents a time that he felt complete weakness, which is only remedied by the strength that Batman possesses. It’s often glossed over that after Wayne’s parents died, he disappeared for a period of time to acquire the strength that would later turn him into the caped crusader. However, although multiple retellings of the story differ on when he started this training, they are all in agreement that while he was acquiring his skills, Bruce Wayne had yet to form the intention of being a vigilante. What this means is that Wayne was driven to become a master of martial arts, acrobatics, escapism, stealth, etc, through unconscious and irrational desires. The majority of skills that Wayne develops during this period are those of defending oneself or escaping from dangerous situations, skills that would have helped him in the moments his parents were shot. This indicates that they were all developed via unconscious mechanisms to help him deal with his trauma, and the feelings of weakness it caused. As such, it was really Bruce’s unconscious response to his id that set him on the road to becoming the Batman.
Ok, not convinced, I don’t blame you, but we’re just scratching the surface. As stated before, the id is the most instinctual and animalistic of the three parts of the psyche, which is a pretty important fact to remember when you are discussing a man that dresses up like a bat. Wayne’s choice to represent himself as a bat represents his desire to prey on the irrational instincts of his enemies, namely the instinct of fear. Throughout all of western civilization and history, the bat has been among the most reviled creatures and feared creatures, despite it being relatively harmless to humans. Bats are a major symbol of fear, and have not only been demonized on their own, but also vicariously as their iconic wings have been added to many fearsome legendary creatures, as the devil, western dragons, gargoyles and even the mighty Cthulhu.
As a basic instinct, fear has its origins in the id, and can be one of the hardest to control without strong mental conditioning. As Batman, Bruce Wayne seeks to take advantage of this fact, making prey out of the fear of petty criminals, while successful taking control of his own.
Still don’t see it? Fine, well there’s a lot of smaller stuff to consider too. Much like the desires of the id, Batman frequently finds himself at odds with contrary desires. Chiefly that he wants to clean-up the criminal element in Gotham, but by being a vigilante, he himself is a criminal. Then there’s the fact that his base of operations is a subterranean hideout called The Batcave, which is similar to how the id resides in the subconscious. In addition, as the id is the most independent part of the psyche, Batman is frequently seen as the most autonomous character among the DC superheroes, sometimes being depicted as non-member of the Justice League, due to his own resignation or because of his inability to trust or work with its other members. There also the fact that Batman operates in a world that more or less possesses the same laws as reality, but he doesn’t seem to be bothered by that fact. As with humans in the real world, Batman could easily be killed by the many dangers his lifestyle throws at him, but his need to be Batman outweighs his respect for reality. Much like the id there is no reasoning with him; Bruce Wayne is willing to sacrifice his life to satisfy his desires as Batman, because it is the only thing that relieves pain he feels for the death of his parents.
Although it is often seen as the third part of Freud’s structure of the psyche, I actually want to talk about the super-ego next because it plays an integral role in characterizing the final part, the ego. Essentially, the super-ego seeks the perfection of one’s self, and strives to be completely socially acceptable. It acts in complete opposition to the id, as it helps contain our needs and desires, especially when the conflict with the rules of society. The super-ego also acts as the core of a person’s morality, and has a father-like tendency to cause a person to be highly self-critical when they fail at living up to the standards that they have set for themselves, or society has set for them. As such, I think it’s an easy sell that Superman is a near-perfect analogue of Freud’s depiction of the super-ego.
Basic observations about Superman can reflect his connection to the super-ego. For starters, he is an intensely moral character, often referred to as “the big blue boy scout” by both friends and enemies because of his paragon behavior. He’s also fond of imparting inspirational and heart-felt messages to those who look up to him, giving him the appearance of a respectful father figure. Many people regard Superman to be the perfect superhero, not only because he is an exemplary role-model, but also due to the intensity and multitude of his powers. Superman has an entire suite of powerful abilities that are far beyond those of other superheroes and even super-villains in terms of destructive force. Yet still, Superman is very capable of keeping his various strengths in check, so as to not unintentionally bring unnecessary harm to either his opponents or those around him. Further, Superman has never used his powers or his status as a public figure for great personal gain, instead only using them to benefit the world at large, either as a crime-fighter or as exemplar for the ideal citizen.
So it’s pretty clear that Superman is a great parallel for the super-ego, but what is more interesting is what psychological factors has made him this way. Similar to how Batman’s trauma shaped his reliance on his id, Superman suffers a trauma that appeals to his super-ego. Although, one may think that I am talking about the destruction of the planet Krypton, its worth noting that Superman was a mere infant at the time and had no-knowledge of his parents, his planet, or even what Kryptonian culture was really like, so its destruction didn’t play a role in the development of his psyche for several years. In actuality, the trauma Super-man suffers occurs when, as a teenager, he realizes that he is not human, that Clark Kent is not his true name, and he may very well be the last member of his race. These are some pretty big revelations for him to deal with, as they force a momentary disconnect between Superman and humanity at large. Superman finds himself unable to return to the Kryptionian society he belongs to, but at the same time feels that he may never be fully apart of human society as his true self. Luckily, in some continuities, his answer comes from a prerecorded message from his father, Jor-El, who tells him to use his powers for good and become a guiding force for humanity. The presence of the super-ego utterly pervades this moment, because not only is Superman receiving moral instruction from a father-figure, but he is also being told to become the super-ego of humanity. Following the words of his father, Superman decides to integrate himself into human society by being the model of human morality. As such, being Superman gives him the important role of playing the super-ego for human society, which in turn fulfills his need to feel accepted.
The final part, but arguably the most important part, of Freud’s structure of the psyche is the ego. The ego is where the consciousness resides, although it itself is not completely conscious. Its main function is to separate what is real, and helps us organize our thoughts in context to the world around us. However, its task in doing so is greatly colored by the desires of both the id and the super-ego. The ego is in a constant struggle to satisfy the desires of the id, while also avoiding judgment from the super-ego, generally resorting to defense mechanisms whenever it fails to do so. Because the ego generally is concerned with consciousness and reality, there are actually quite a few superheroes may fit its processes well, but as I just used DC’s top two superheroes to discuss the id and the super-ego, I thought it would be fitting to use Marvel’s top two superheroes for the ego, namely Wolverine and Spider-man.
One of the things that make Wolverine’s an apt analogue to the ego is that he is a character that is unaware of his past. Although the reasoning switches through his incarnations, Wolverine is frequently shown suffering from retrograde amnesia, and is mostly unaware of who he truly is, or what he’s done in the past. Despite this, these things aren’t shown to bother him because of his knowledge of who he is presently. In other words, Wolverine is conscious of himself, but does not know of his past so his consciousness is not complete. Still, this lack of knowledge about himself doesn’t seem to bother Wolverine enough for him to actively seek out answers, as he usually faces more pertinent struggles in his attempts to live alone, and as a member of the X-men. Although Wolverine’s past has a habit of catching up to him, he is usually more focused on dealing with the reality of the present world and finding his place within it, than with getting definitive answers to who he once was.
It’s Wolverine’s struggle to find his place in the world that really makes him a good parallel for the ego, because it is a demonstration of his conflict between his own animalistic and human qualities. Much like how the ego must find a realistic balance between the id and the super-ego, Wolverine is trying to find a balance between his animalistic tendencies, or his social needs as a human being. Its clear that X-men mean a lot to Wolverine because they give him a social outlet and a purpose in his life which he needs to validate himself as a human, but they also impose social restrictions upon him that irritate his nature as an animal. Often Wolverine is unable to fully contain his animal instincts while around his fellow X-men, leading him to act aggressively or even violently while in their presence. This is a clear example of the defense mechanism of regression, which is a temporary or long term reversion of the ego to a less developed state, i.e. acting childishly, or wildly. In response to these outbursts, Wolverine usually abandons the team for a while, usually retreating to the seclusion of the wilds, so he can express his animal nature until he has them under his control again. This process represents Wolverine’s desire to not only control the needs of his id, but also to satisfy them as well. Wolverine recognizes that there is a beast inside of him, but he chooses not to let it overwhelm him, unlike his rival Sabretooth.
Of course, anyone who knows Spider-man will realize that his sense of self-consciousness is a key part of his character. Whether from his comedic monologues while web-slinging or the agony he displays over his failures in his personal life, Spider-man regularly shows himself as a character that is well aware of his own struggle to satisfy his personal desires in the context of reality. However, whereas Wolverine is a character that has trouble controlling his id, Spider-man’s key aspect as an analogue for the ego is the conflict he has with his super-ego. Like most superheroes Spider-man’s chief goal is to use his powers in socially responsible ways, as referenced in his motto “with great power comes great responsibility”. However, unlike most superheroes his will to do good is motivated almost entirely by the sense of guilt he feels for not having done enough to prevent his Uncle Ben’s death. Peter Parker blames himself for the death of his Uncle Ben, because he had an opportunity to stop his killer beforehand, and in response to the guilt he feels, he has resolves to become a socially responsible crime fighter as penance. This is a prime example of how the super-ego can punish the ego, as Parker’s super-ego is using the feeling of guilt to motivate him to act socially responsible. His feelings of guilt have caused Parker to attempt being a model citizen by using his powers to aid his world, often with the price of causing him sacrifice much of his personal life due to his service.
It should be noted that Peter Parker, may not even like being Spider-man that much. In several story-arcs he often feels relieved when he loses his powers, because it also means a loss of his responsibilities to society. You can’t really blame him either. Despite his self-sacrifice, Spider-man is usually treated with intense cynicism from the very authorities he is trying to help, and is heavily criticized by the media of his world. Worse still, his Spider-man persona very often causes those he cares for most to be put into immediate danger, ironically contradicting his major reason for doing it in the first place. However, even when he fails to protect the ones he loves, such as Gwen Stacy, he usually chalks it up to him not trying hard enough, and soldiers on through the process with a new resolve. This too is a reflection of how the Super-ego punishes the ego, as it is an example of the use of its use of inferiority to prompt Spider-man to put even more energy into his self-appointed social-service. Parker’s story is one of someone who tries to satisfy the needs of his id, but completely fails due to the domination of his super-ego. Despite watching his life continuously crumble around him, he feels morally unable to abandon his duties as Spider-man, revealing how crucial it is for the ego to balance the needs of the id and the compulsions of the super-ego to prevent psychological, mental, and even physical tragedies.
To put it briefly, I hope all this has shown how Freud’s structural model of the psyche has helped characterize some of the most popular superheroes in comic-books, while also giving them internal conflicts that serve to make them interesting. On their own, these characters are incredibly fascinating, but finding what makes them tick gives them adds layers of depth and dimension making them seem like real people, rather that creations of fiction. At very least, discussing the psychological motivations and failing of one’s favorite superheroes and could cause their fans to be slightly more introspective about why one likes them in the first place.