Humans are fascinated by power. We seek personal power in many forms, such as in wealth, physical and mental strength. However, we are not just interested in power for our own gain, but we are also fascinated by others who wield it.
When thinking of aliens, one typically envisions a species much more technologically and culturally advanced than our own. We tend to imagine them as the ones who will visit and communicate with us, rather than the converse. We even visualise them as having the power to destroy our species and planet – a fact that both terrifies and intrigues us. Perhaps this explains our attraction to aliens. We see them as beings that can wield power beyond the capabilities of mortal humans.
Our fascination for superheroes and their villainous counterparts therefore comes as no surprise. They can perform feats that we could only dream of, inspiring the imaginations of both children and adults alike. The popularity of Marvel and DC is a testament to this – we never tire of seeing superheroes, new or old, on the big screen.
But I would argue that power is not the main reason we are so attracted to these figures. Instead, it is their humanity that fascinates us most. There is a reason that dei ex machina are frowned upon in literature – an all-powerful intervention by an unseen force for the greater good is not what intrigues us. Instead, it is the villain who is convinced to change sides, the hero who learns the importance of protecting those dear to them. Power is undoubtedly a concept that intrigues us, but it means nothing without the presence of flaws within the characters who wield it.
Humans are social creatures, and we take pleasure in identifying with others. Aliens are fascinating to us because they represent an outer force that we could perhaps relate to and communicate with. Superheroes struggle with problems just as we do, dealing with issues of loss, self-esteem, change and more. We enjoy being reassured that true power comes from inside a person. The hero cannot beat the villain without discovering something important about themselves and others around them, despite all their otherworldly abilities.
“In many ways these gods resemble modern superheroes –
they are extremely powerful, but flawed just like us”
By a similar construct, we are also fascinated by ancient religions and stories involving pantheons of gods. In many ways these gods resemble modern superheroes – they are extremely powerful, but flawed just like us, which makes them very human. Gods were laughed at and cheered on by the ancient listeners, as they are to this day by a modern audience. While we find their powers intriguing, we are more interested in how people with human psychologies would use them, perhaps far more fascinating to us than a faceless and all-powerful deity, who will invariably use their powers for good. Instead, we see gods in both modern and ancient stories use their powers for mortal pleasures, such as sex, self-validation, and revenge.
If Achilles put aside his anger and fought in the Trojan war from the beginning, there would be no story to tell. Instead, his human emotions and psychology have immortalised the brilliant tales of the Iliad and its aftermath in the Odyssey. We want to see Achilles succeed in overcoming his emotions and therefore make the right decisions – not make the right choices from the beginning. Of course, his power fascinates us, but it is the withholding of it that is just so intriguing.
Maybe it is this concept of the withholding of inestimable power that we find so intriguing about aliens. Why have they chosen to not make contact with us? If they arrive, will we be able to communicate with them rationally? We imagine that aliens have the capacity to destroy us all, but we would like to think there will be something in their moral system that will stop them from doing so. We typically imagine them as human-like in appearance, and we hope that their personalities are human-like too.
Power is something that endlessly intrigues us, but it means little to us when not considered in conjunction with the human psyche. A perfectly good and moral person with limitless power would not make for a great story that we can relate to and look forward to. Instead, we want to see flawed beings that are similar to us. We want to see how they struggle against emotional and physical torments despite their great power. It comforts us to know that true power is found within ourselves – and that if we keep on trying, good will eventually prevail.