Bad news, lovers of classic tales of good vs. evil: Pop culture’s beloved superheroes are actually less heroic than they might appear, according to a counterintuitive new study.
While everyone expects a superhero to throw down a kick or a punch, researchers from Penn State University College of Medicine determined superheroes are doing more than that — they’re engaging in far more violent acts than the super-villain they face.
The research team analyzed 10 superhero-based films (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and X-men: Apocalypse, among them) and compiled the specific acts and types of violence portrayed by the movie’s antagonists and protagonists.
23 acts of violence per hour
On Monday at the American Academy of Pediatrics 2018 National Conference & Exhibition, the study authors announced that superheroes tallied an average of 23 acts of violence per hour while villains tallied 18 violent acts per hour.
“Good guys are performing more violent acts”
“This study found that the protagonists, or good guys, are performing more violent acts per hour than the antagonists, or bad guys,” the study’s principal investigator John Muller tells Inverse. “As many kids look up to the good guys as role models and emulate what they do, it is important that they are understanding why characters may be performing these acts of violence.”
Muller, a M.D. candidate at Penn State College of Medicine, recommends that pediatric health care providers educate families to the violence depicted in superhero films and to the potential dangers that may occur when children attempt to emulate these “perceived heroes.”
Muller also recommends that families co-view these movies and actively discuss the themes related to violence, conflict resolution, and respecting one another’s individuality.
“We do not necessarily believe that this is the fault of superhero movies, especially because they are generally rated appropriately,” Muller explains. “We believe that by active co-viewing and facilitating discussion, children will be able to better understand the violence, why it was performed, and what could have been done instead.”
168 acts of murder
Specifically, Muller and his colleagues determined that the most common acts of violence committed by superheroes were fighting, followed by the use of a lethal weapon, destruction of property, murder, and a combination of bullying, intimidation, and torture. Meanwhile, villains were most likely to use a lethal weapon, an act followed by fighting, bullying and torture, the destruction of property, and murder. Overall, the superheroes committed 168 acts of murder while the villains committed 93.
Male characters were also found to commit more acts of violence than female characters — the men performed 34 per hour while the women engaged in 7 per hour. Muller notes that, while he wasn’t surprised by this finding, he was surprised by the protagonist versus antagonist findings.
“I knew the protagonists performed a lot of violence just from watching previous movies; however, I did not expect there to be a significantly greater rate of violence,” he explains.
Overall studies have been mixed when it comes to the effect violence has on the psyche of viewers. According to the American Psychological Association, children who see violence on television might become less sensitive to the pain of others, more fearful of the world around them, and more likely to engage aggressively.
Meanwhile, a 2014 study following adults found that the only people who acted more aggressive after violent movies were more aggressive to begin with.
Here, Muller and his colleagues emphasize that the potential dangers of violent superhero films are largely the risk of kids attempting to replicate what they see their heroes do. As for the study itself, a manuscript is being written and will be submitted to a journal soon.
Purpose: Superhero-based films have become an incredibly popular genre. A recently published study found that the number of negative themes depicted in superhero-based films, especially acts of violence, outweighs the number of positive themes. Superheroes depicted in film are often viewed by children and adolescents as “the good guy,” and therefore may be influenced by their portrayal of risk-taking behaviors and acts of violence. Similarly, young girls may be influenced by the behaviors of female superhero characters depicted in film. The objective of this study was to describe acts of violence portrayed in a select number of superhero-based films, stratified by protagonist/antagonist characters and gender. Methods: We conducted a content analysis study examining superhero-based films released during 2015 and 2016 as identified by boxofficemojo.com. A data collection tool, listing specific acts of violence, was developed by the study investigators to quantify types of violence portrayed in each film. Prior to data collection, each major film character was classified as either a protagonist (“good guy”) or antagonist (“bad guy”). Each film was independently viewed and scored by 5 reviewers. Data analysis included quantifying specific acts of violence (mean events per hour), then stratified by protagonist/antagonist and gender. Results: A total of 10 superhero-based films were analyzed. The average number of violent acts associated with protagonist and antagonist characters for all included films was 22.7 (95% CI: 16.8-30.7) and 17.5 (95% CI: 13.9-21.9) mean events per hour, respectively (p=0.019 with adjustment for significant reviewer variability). The most common acts of violence associated with protagonists for all included films were: “fighting” (1021 total acts), “use of a lethal weapon” (659), “destruction of property” (199), “murder” (168), and “bullying/intimidation/torture” (144). The most common acts of violence associated with antagonists for all included films were: “use of a lethal weapon” (604 total acts), “fighting” (599), “bullying/intimidation/torture” (237), “destruction of property” (191), and “murder” (93). The average number of violent acts associated with male and female characters for all included films was 33.6 (95% CI: 27.3-41.4) and 6.5 (95% CI: 3.9-11.0) mean events per hour, respectively.