Who Are More Violent, Superheroes Or Villains? A New Study Has A Surprising Answer

The study warns that children who watch this genre of movies may imitate the violent behavior of their favorite "good guys."

Marvel's Iron Man.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images

The study warns that children who watch this genre of movies may imitate the violent behavior of their favorite "good guys."

When we go to the movies to see the latest superhero action flick, we tend to think we’re seeing characters who are going to be better than the villains they’re battling. A new study on those movies, however, suggests that superheroes actually engage in more violence than their adversaries.

The study, presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics at their National Conference and Exhibition on Friday, looked at 10 superhero genre films from the years 2015 and 2016, according to reporting from CNN. Those films included Batman: The Killing Joke, Batman v. Superman, Fantastic Four, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Suicide Squad, Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, Ant-Man, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.

Overall, “good guys” engaged in violent behavior — such as fighting, use of a weapon, and even bullying or torture — 2,191 times. “Bad guys,” the study discovered, were less likely to be “bad” at all, using violence on 1,724 occasions.

“Protagonists were performing 22.7 violent events per hour, while the antagonists, or bad guys, were performing 17.5 events per hour,” said John Muller, the lead researcher on the study and a medical student at Penn State College of Medicine.

“This is important because so many kids are looking up to these superheroes as positive role models and people they want to act like,” Muller said, emphasizing the importance of his team’s research.

Importantly, the study included at least two movies that had “anti-heroes,” characters who are technically “good guys” but don’t always do things “by the book.” One of those two movies included a whole team of anti-heroes.

Also of note was how the study revealed that female characters tended to be less violent than male characters. A male character, hero or villain, was five times more likely to use violence in some way on the screen than a female character was, the study discovered.

Muller also cautioned against reading too much into his findings — it’s not so much that “good guys” are bad now, but that perhaps their violent actions were done in order to do something good, like protecting a city or saving a person’s life.

At the same time, however, these movies seem to have a profound impact on shaping children’s attitudes. Another study published in 2017 found that preschoolers and kindergartners who watched superhero movies tended to act more aggressively down the road, according to a report from Pacific Standard.

“Preschoolers who were highly engaged with superheroes were more likely to be physically and relationally aggressive one year later, even after controlling for initial levels of physical and relational aggression, and their exposure to other aggressive media,” that study concluded.