Kids love superheroes. Aside from the obvious visual appeal of billowing capes and colorful costumes, they love the concept of a divine protector, a guardian with authority beyond that of their parents, the certainty that justice will triumph.
For children, the world is an intimidating place. They get glimpses of how cruel it can be when they encounter the thugs in the sandpit, when they get shoved off the swing and taste blood. The dynamic of the playpark is strangely similar to a prison yard; it’s a place where the strong and snatchy thrive, where the parents are often blissfully unaware of how much of an asshole their little angel actually is.
But in a cruel and chaotic universe, superheroes inspire hope, confidence, and a sense of responsibility. When a child dresses up as a caped crusader, they are enacting a power fantasy in which they can right the many wrongs they see in the world, and finally teach the bully in the sandpit a lasting lesson before his simpering mom can offer him another sugar-coated word of encouragement.
And the first superhero children are introduced to, is likely to be Buzz Lightyear, because you’re going to want to show them how awesome Toy Story is. Buzz was the first superhero my eldest encountered, and the deluded action figure sparked an obsession. On Christmas morning, his pair of Buzz Lightyear pajamas were valued far higher than the actual toy itself, because he didn’t so much want to play with Buzz – he wanted to be Buzz. This led to regular sessions of adorable roleplay around the house, and a surprising surge in confidence.
These days, having watched Toy Story more times than I ever thought humanly possible, I’m starting to think that Buzz might be the greatest superhero of them all, at least to children. And that’s because his narrative arc perfectly mirrors the tumultuous journey of childhood – it’s not a simple power fantasy. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Buzz Lightyear’s story isn’t an ascent to power, it’s a dramatic dismantling of ego. Buzz has no origin story; he’s instantly a superhero, the center of attention the second he’s unwrapped from his box. Not only do Andy’s toys practically worship Buzz, he is actually under the impression that he is a real superhero, one responsible for defending the entire galaxy.
Buzz genuinely believes that he is the most important person in the universe, and almost every individual in his social circle treats him that way. Almost like a baby, in a sense. But Buzz’s blissful bubble is broken when Woody, blinded by envy, semi-accidentally pushes him from a window. From there, Buzz descends into the unknown, into the real world, where he is nothing more than a piece of plastic.
In the ensuing journey back to Andy’s house, Buzz constantly ignores the red flags that are pointing toward the true nature of his reality. There comes a point, however, where the delusion is finally shattered – Buzz plummets to the floor after boldly attempting to fly out of a window. As an insult to injury, and further proof that his body is cheap Chinese plastic rather than flesh, his arm painlessly breaks off once he hits the ground.
At this point in the movie, Buzz (understandably) undergoes a complete psychological breakdown. He laments to Woody that all of his memories are completely false. He’s gone from intergalactic superhero to a child’s plaything; it’s difficult to imagine a steeper plummet. It’s quite intense for a kid’s film, when you think about it.
Eventually, Woody helps Buzz come to term with his existence. He’s not the center of the universe anymore, but that’s fine – he can live a fulfilling life, regardless. He’s never going to save the world, but he can make the people close to him happy.
We all go a similar revelation as we grow up. Or least, we should do.
In the sequel, Toy Story 2, the depth of Buzz’s insignificance is really hammered into him, as he walks down the aisle of a toy store and sees shelves filled with hundreds of Buzz Lightyear figurines, all completely identical, all under the exact same superhero delusion that he once was.
They all have the same buttons, the laser, the retractable wings. The things that make him interesting and unique in his social circle are frighteningly common in the wider world. Hell, an imposter Buzz even manages to replace him, and none of his friends even notice the difference.
So, when Buzz finally catches up to Woody, who is caught up in his own ego after realizing he is a valuable antique, Buzz can relate. Woody wants to live the rest of his life in a glass case, being admired by strangers, but Buzz knows that this road doesn’t lead to happiness. He understands what Woody is feeling, and convinces him that the inflated sense of self-importance is artificial.
Buzz has learned that the only thing that really differentiates him from countless other plastic clones is his personal life experience, which is utterly unique to him, and him alone.
Again, all of us go through something similar, perhaps upon leaving high school and entering college, university, or the job market.
We all get to the point where we realize we’re just another guy or girl, another face in the crowd. We’re not supernaturally talented or destined for success. We’re not special. But our individual perspective and life experience make us all unique.
It’s pretty heavy stuff for a kid’s animation starring sentient action figures. But then again, the films have been playing nonstop at my house for months now, so I may be reading a little too much into things.