It is a most basic human urge, the age-old, universal desire to overcome our limitations, to soar and to unlock superpowers hidden within us. Living out those fantasies is more popular now than ever before.
Nearly every weekend, somewhere in the United States, a convention is held to celebrate comic book superheroes. Thousands turned out for the C2E2 convention in Chicago, which celebrates the culture of superhero comics, artwork and graphic novels. While comic art and writing have long been popular, the genre is undergoing a revival of sorts.
"It's really the golden era of superheroes," said Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Comics, who attended the convention.
There's been an explosion of superhero movies this past decade, featuring classic figures such as Superman, Batman, Spiderman and Iron Man. The recent hit, "Iron Man 2," has grossed more than $200 million since opening earlier this month.
But beyond the fun and the fantasy, at the heart of these stories is something deeper. Superheroes have long provided a window into the human psyche.
"They're empowerment stories, and what's better than that," said screenwriter David Koepp, who wrote "Spiderman," among other scripts about ordinary people who discover they have extraordinary powers. "The golden age of fantasy is often when society is going through a hard time."
As for why now, Koepp said: "I think 9/11 and the souring of the economy have had a lot to do with it, because people want fantasy. They want to escape to a place where they feel a fantasy of success and omnipotence, you're safe and you're protected."
It's no coincidence that our first great comic superhero, Superman, first appeared in an earlier age of deep anxiety -- the Great Depression. He reflected a nation's need to be uplifted. Soon, Americans were in the midst of a wrenching debate over whether to get involved in World War II. Superman and other comic book heroes were drafted to help convince a divided nation that the U.S should enter the war. Superman was even depicted battling Hitler.
"They became cheerleaders for the war effort," said Christopher Knowles, author of "Our Gods Wear Spandex." "These characters were very important, as sort of motivators for the populace."
Knowles said mythic figures have always been an important part of society, dating back centuries. "Superman is really the modern incarnation of Hercules."
In the ancient world, said Knowles, "gladiators would dress up as their favorite god or hero. You would have generals that would pray to a certain god, before they went into battle. So this is something that's very deep within ourselves. It's an impulse, this need to transcend human weakness and immortalize ourselves."
Every culture -- and every religion -- has its mythic heroes. Princeton University professor of religion Elaine Pagels, a leading expert on the history of Christianity author of several books, said even Jesus appeared to be imbued with certain "superpowers."
"He heals people with a touch," said Pagels. "He can raise the dead. ... When people feel vulnerable, they look at Jesus with the superpowers who's going to come in the clouds ... and right all the wrongs. What could be better than a God who could come and do all of that? "