You aren’t strong enough.
You’re a freak.
No one will understand.
You can’t make a difference.
That’s not for you.
I’ve heard those phrases in my head. So have many of our favorite superheroes. These words are the voice of the inner critic. The inner critic apparently wants the best version of our favorite superheroes to stay under wraps, hidden away behind the veneer of some mild-mannered alter ego. It’s the kind of internal conflict that made the characters of the late Stan Lee so appealing to us. We enjoy reading the exploits of these characters because in their doubts and weaknesses they become relatable to us. As they overcome their internal struggles, we are inspired to hope that we may overcome them, too.
I’d like to be a superhero. I imagine being the kind of person who swoops into situations of peril and brings safety and wellness. I bet we could all get onboard with being that type of person — the type who helps friends in need and makes the world a better place.
But, deep down, I have my doubts about whether I’m really capable of doing that kind of stuff… I hear the voice of the inner critic: I’m a bit too messed up. There’s nothing all that spectacular about me. I’m not superhero material.
These are the kinds of characters Stan Lee created. He told stories about superheroes who have doubts and neuroses, too. All of his characters--from Spider-Man to the Hulk to Black Panther —deal with some kind of inner critic that tells them they are too messed up, too weak, or too weird to be a force for good in the world. Sometimes the voice of the inner critic is given an echo in the voices surrounding Lee’s characters — especially in cases like the mutants in the X-Men. We have a tendency to hear echoes of the inner critic from outside of ourselves, as well.
Stan Lee came from modest beginnings to become one of the entertainment industry’s most influential figures. He was born in Manhattan in 1922, the son of occasionally-employed Romanian immigrants. Stan started working in comic books in 1939, earning $8 a week. He settled into a job as a copywriter for the company that eventually became Marvel, using several pseudonyms in order to give the impression that Marvel had a whole staff or writers. During the 1960’s, the characters he created and co-created grew in both depth and popularity. Much of the appeal came in the relatability of superhero characters who expressed the same insecurities and neuroses felt by most people.
In later years, Stan Lee became well-known for making movie cameos. In one such cameo — a scene in 1995’s “Mallrats” — Stan admits that the characters he created were a reflection of himself. Though the scene is scripted to fit that movie’s storyline (and may not be a totally accurate reflection of reality), Stan declared it to be his favorite cameo. The thoughts reflected reveal some of Stan’s personal feelings. In the cameo, Stan describes how a character like the Hulk reflects his own feelings of emotional instability. While Dr. Doom portrays his desire to hide his true self behind a toughened exterior. These are certainly feelings to which many of us can relate. Who has not covered up a part of their personality for fear of rejection by others?
I once heard it expressed that our greatest fear is to be fully known and ultimately rejected. As protection, we keep parts of ourselves from being fully known. That is a conflict readily identifiable in Stan Lee’s characters. They are afraid of revealing their true selves, but feel a longing to do so. What’s so inspiring about Stan Lee’s work is that once his characters become fully known — from their super powers to their idiosyncrasies — they become something to celebrate. They express our deepest longing to reveal our full selves and be celebrated for it.
Though Stan professed a kind of agnosticism in his religious beliefs, his message of personal empowerment echoes some core Christian beliefs — particularly those stated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5: 14-16, we find Jesus speaking to those who are not considered the top of the socio-economic ladder. Yet his message is very empowering, as we hear him tell the crowd “you are the light of the world… Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” [Emphasis mine.]
The power of Jesus’ message is in the encouragement to let ourselves be seen. We may not be completely perfect, but we are the light of the world. It’s in overcoming our self-doubt and insecurities that we allow a greater story to be told — that’s how we inspire others. The stories Stan Lee created help remind us of this relatable, yet empowering message.
Perhaps what Stan Lee truly helped us to realize isn’t just that superheroes have a human side, complete with insecurity and neuroses… But that all of us who live with doubt, neuroses, or try to hide part of who we are can actually be heroes!
Ryan Dunn is the author. He lives with his wife, son, and pack of furry sidekicks in Nashville, TN. Ryan is an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church.