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The Art of Self-Actualization in Superhero Cinema

[The following essay contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Wolverine, and Avengers: Endgame; you have been warned!]

Near the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming, the titular amateur superhero finds himself literally buried alive, trapped and suffocating beneath tons of rubble. For a fleeting instant, his composure crumbles, causing him to regress back into the frightened teenager that he truly is. Desperately, he cries out for help; quickly realizing that none of his allies can answer his pleas, however, he instead catches his breath, tenses his muscles, and begins pushing up against the crushing burden on his shoulders. “Come on, Spider-Man!” he repeats with increasing resolve and conviction—until finally, the heavy chunks of concrete fall away like mere styrofoam.

Comic book adaptations are absolutely packed with such crowd-pleasing moments of triumph. In James Mangold’s The Wolverine, for example, minor antagonist Shingen Yashida plunges his katana into Logan’s gut—only for the formerly reluctant hero to effortlessly yank it back out. “What kind of monster are you?” the dumbstruck villain demands.

“I’m The Wolverine,” Logan venomously replies before swiftly slaying his foe, acknowledging that his berserker rage can, in fact, serve a greater purpose.

A decidedly more heartbreaking variation on the same formula occurs in Avengers: Endgame, when Tony Stark snatches the Infinity Stones from Thanos. Although he is painfully aware that snapping his fingers and ending the Mad Titan’s reign of terror will cost him his life, he still acts without hesitation—but not before dropping one last cheesy one-liner: “I. Am. Iron Man.”

Scenes like these illuminate the deeper thematic significance of the “dual identity” trope. For these characters, embracing an alter-ego represents a form of self-actualization; ironically enough, concealing their vulnerabilities, insecurities, and fears behind code names and colorful costumes also reveals their inner-strength, allowing them to achieve—and, in some cases, even exceed—their full potential. Because ultimately, they are defined not by their fantastic superpowers… but rather by how they decide to use them. 

“I am Spider-Man.”  

“I am Wolverine.”  

“I am Iron Man.” 

All three are heroes because they choose to use their abilities responsibly—just like we are capable of choosing to use our more natural, mundane talents in order to serve the greater good.

What a stirringly beautiful call to action!

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