Psychologist Travis Langley on ‘Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology’


CapAmerIronMan CoverPsychology professor Travis Langley, PhD, is the editor of several works on popular culture and psychology, including The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead and Star Wars Psychology: Dark Side of the Mind. In the following interview, we discuss his newest book, Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology: a look at the deep issues lurking beneath the surface of the popular movie Captain America: Civil War, and the Marvel storyline that inspired it, Civil War. Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Books-a-Million, Powells, and other great book retailers.

UNBOUND WORLDS: How on Earth did you get all of these people together? Is it difficult to find behavioral science professionals who are also interested in stuff like comic books and movies?

TL: Most of them, either I found them through their blogs or we met at conventions and then I got them to join me on convention panels. So I’d already seen that they know their popular culture, they know their psychology, and they know how to bring them together in ways that are original, interesting, and understandable for a general audience. It’s not hard to find behavioral science professionals who are interested in comics and movies. The trick is to find the ones who’ll interest our readers.

UW: I’m wondering what your idea was when you first conceived of this project and how things evolved from there, presuming they did at all.

TL: My first book, Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight, became an immediate success—and four years later, it still does well every single week. My second book was going to be about Star Trek, but then my original publisher sold that entire division and no new book deals were happening at the time. That hurt. I had a hit on my hands but nowhere to do the next one, not at that time. In the end, that worked out because it gave me time to get to know other psychology professionals who also wanted to talk and write about these kinds of things, and it gave us all a few years to form the ideas that we would then have ready for several books. Star Trek Psychology: The Mental Frontier is finally on its way.

In a way, I was working on Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology before any of these other books, even before Batman and Psychology. Ten years ago, the first Comic-Con presentation I ever made was about Marvel Comics’ Civil War storyline. In the story, Captain America and Iron Man lead armies of superheroes in a sometimes-contrived fight over a superhero registration act. Cap believes superheroes need the freedom to do the right thing when it’s necessary regardless of what any politicians might think, and Iron Man believes superheroes need regulation. I compared that to the freedom vs. security that psychologist Erich Fromm called “the basic human dilemma.”

UW: I noticed that the contributors took a holistic approach to examining Captain America and Iron Man. There are contributions examining their personalities, the effects of trauma, so much more. People who enjoyed Captain America: Civil War will love this, but anyone fascinated by the psychology of superheroes will as well. Was that a goal?

TL: It’s always a goal. These characters are so much bigger than any one story about them. I’m interested in the characters. I’m interested in people, in human nature. We can use psychology to analyze the characters and their stories, and at the same time use the characters and stories to understand real psychology. I hope for all of these books to have a timeless quality so that maybe they ring true just as much ten, twenty years from now. We have things to say about people and how fascinating human nature really is.

Captain America and Iron Man are popular for some of the same reasons Batman is: They’re very human characters. Their origins are believable. We relate to them as human beings, we understand their motives, and we feel for them. Unlike most superheroes, who have unreal powers and probably got them through no choice of their own, these guys choose to become larger-than-life figures.

UW: Finding a balance between freedom and security isn’t just something societies struggle with, is it? We all grapple with the question as individuals, too, right? Is this kind of thing contextual? Evolutionarily hardwired? Walking out on a job without another one lined up can be an existential threat, but so could choosing to hunt alone in saber-tooth cat territory. Are these just the same problem viewed through different lenses?

TL: Maybe it’s evolutionarily hardwired. It’s logical but would be difficult to prove. Circumstances alone may be enough to explain. There are practical reasons for us to want freedom and practical reasons for us to want security. And these can go together. The toddler whose parent watches out and provides a sense of safety without dominating can feel greater liberty to explore and try new things, because that parent is there to catch and protect if the child wanders too far. When you’re a parent, you have a monumental task of walking the fine line between allowing too much freedom and not allowing enough. You will make mistakes because the needs differ with every situation and they differ over time. It is an eternal struggle. There’s no solution that will “fix” the conflict any more than there’s a solution that will “fix” the need to eat.

UW: Fromm went pretty deep into exploring freedom and security, as did a lot of the later generation of existential psychologists. If I recall correctly, he believed that being free of an authority like the state–or a mutant registration act, in our case–was only one step of the emancipation of the individual. Without replacing it with something, that freedom could become a threat. Captain America doesn’t want total anarchy, and Iron Man doesn’t want a repressive regime. They’re both looking at different ways of handling the same problem: What to do with the freedom from norms that is part and parcel of being a superhero. Do you have any thoughts on that?

TL: The superhero first appeared as a rebel hero, someone ready and able to do the things the authorities can’t or won’t do. When we distrust the system, like the public did during the days of the 1920s and 1930s gangsters, we want rebels to step up and do the right thing regardless of the rules. When we trust the system, like the public tried to do during the 1950s, we distrust the rebels, and it works the other way around: When the rebels become the ones who scare us, like they did for some people in the 1950s, then people become more eager to trust the system because that’s what the alternative seems to be. When loss of liberty scares us, as happened before the Revolutionary War and for a lot of people during the 1960s, we fight the system. When loss of safety is what scares us though, as happened after 9/11, we allow a lot of freedoms to get whittled away so that we might feel more secure. And it was in that climate that authors Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis first conceived the comic book version of Marvel’s Civil War.

Ultimately, superheroes are about hope. We hope for someone to help, for someone to be willing and able to do the right thing, and we hope that we ourselves can become willing and able should the need arise.

More About Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology:

Freedom vs. security: that is the dilemma explored in the latest entry in the popular psychology series—and two iconic superheroes come to completely opposite conclusions. This provocative collection of 10 essays, edited by acclaimed pop culture writer Travis Langley and with a foreword by the legendary Stan Lee, examines the complex psychological and political choices made by Captain America and Iron Man in the wake of a civil war. Why do they see things so differently? What are their motivations? Who is right? Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology analyzes the polar sides of this debate—national security vs. individual freedoms —exploring how trauma shaped these heroic characters, what it takes to become a superhero, and what role gender plays in one’s ability to resolve conflicts—along with questions of morality, leadership, and teamwork. Fans will find thought-provoking psychological material to discuss for hours.

More About Dr. Langley:
Psychology Today carries his blog, “Beyond Heroes and Villains,” and he is one of 10 most popular psychologists on Twitter with over 100,000 followers: @superherologist. You can also keep up with Travis and the rest of the book’s contributors through