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On Superheroes

2012 May 29
by Julie Clawson

My children have discovered superheroes.

They’ve always known about superheroes of course, but over the past few months they have jumped fully into the world. So we’ve been watching the movies, reading comic books, and listening to my trivia-obsessed daughter repeat all the details from entries in her X-Men or Justice League encyclopedias. I am even sewing capes for my son’s superhero birthday party in a couple of weeks.

So with all that said, I have a confession to make – I’m honestly really conflicted about the whole superhero thing. Oh, I too loved superheroes as a kid and like any good child of the 80’s I ran around my neighborhood in my Wonder Woman underoos. But while I love the idea of heroes working to help make the world a better place, there is just too much baggage that comes along with the genre for me to be comfortable with it. It is hard to get past the imperialist propaganda of Superman or Captain America out there fighting for “truth, justice, and the American Way.” It is even harder to accept as heroes the billionaire, playboy, philanthropist types who essentially must work to save the world from the fallout of their own participation in the military industrial complex and finance schemes. And while I recognize that more recent comics explore the complex ethics and struggles these conflicts present, that’s not the story my children are discovering.

But beyond those philosophical issues, my biggest struggle with superheroes is the portrayal of violence as the answer to everything. Even the characters that try to resist violence always end up facing a bad guy so evil that they have no choice but to respond with violence. Any commitment to peacemaking is cast as essentially choosing to side with evil. And on a visceral level, this is what the audience wants from this genre. It comforts people to have the world cast as good versus evil where the good guy is stronger and can beat the bad guy in the end. People want the solution to all the world’s problems to be as simple as the Hulk shutting up Loki’s endless prattling by smashing him back and forth into the floor. Who cares what Loki was actually saying (or that it sounded eerily similar to what a lot of theologians and politicians are saying these days), it’s funnier and more cathartic to have him beat into a pulp through mindless anger.

This issue arose with my seven year old daughter recently when after seeing The Avengers she asked me what “avengers” meant. I told her that to avenge means to get back at someone, to hurt someone because they hurt you or something you care about. Since this of course conflicts with everything we (and her school) are trying to teach her about how to respond to others, I asked her if she thought avenging wrongs was a good thing or not. After agreeing that it was wrong to avenge, she commented that it seemed like “The Avengers” was a bad name for that group of superheroes. She said that they don’t avenge as much as protect, so they should really be called “The Protectors.” She then told me that I need to email the people who created it and tell them they got the name wrong (cuz in her mind why wouldn’t Marvel and Stan Lee listen to her mommy?). So despite the violence “The Protectors” use, I at least got to discuss with her the impulse behind that violence – distinguishing defense from revenge and rage.

That conversation then led to another discussion a few days later about a t-shirt I was wearing (shown here). She asked about the symbols and I explained what they were and how each of them worked. I then asked her which would she choose. Interestingly, she immediately ruled out Excalibur and the lightsaber since those are only used for fighting others. She then had a hard time choosing from the remaining “magic wands” of Gandalf’s staff, the Elder Wand, and the Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver. The potential to alter and fix the world held far more appeal than simply fighting the evil it contains.

I think it is that impulse to do good in the world that attracts my kids to superheroes, but I remain conflicted with how the genre portrays building a better world as being simply the need to defeat absolute evil. There are demons that need to be fought in our world today (and all too often they look more like Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne than Loki or the Green Goblin), but the superheroes we need are those willing to work to fix problems and not simply those that avenge and destroy. It might not be as sexy or entertaining as blowing things up or smashing arrogant gods, but those are the hero traits I’d prefer my kids to be admiring.

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. May 29, 2012

    I have a large cut out of Superman in my office and my son’s name is Clark . . . my wife, however, has consistently ruled out the Superman tattoo idea – but really, I’m not weird.

    I enjoyed this post. A couple of years ago I presented a paper at a conference entitled, “G.I. Joe and Bearded Lady Jesus” which explored how the images presented to children in the U.S. of superheroes and other action figures are heroic, macho, etc. but the images of Christ tend to be of an emaciated and effeminate Jesus who would never be able to compete with the powerful Avengers or Super Friends. It seems to me that there is a double edge dilemma here. On the one hand, we want to illustrate the power, might, and supremacy of Christ (the old “God is bigger than the boogie man message), while at the same time highlighting the fact that power, might, and supremacy look differently in the almighty hands of a subversive Savior. I think most parents too quickly gloss over the messages these very common childhood obsessions send their children. It hit me when my son began to constantly ask whether “he is a good guy or a bad guy” – I could see that his exposure to superheroes had helped him divide the world simplistically into good and evil.

    I would add a caveat that I think illustrates a turning tide (which you allude to). In the graphic novel (which I have not read, but have been recommended) The Red Son, Superman’s space ship lands in Soviet Russia, and it considers the Superman saga if told from the perspective.

    And then there was this: http://theologicalvacillation.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/superman-not-an-american/ . . . last spring Superman renounces his American citizenship which caused quite a stir on the Internet, but I think provided a great opportunity for discussion (at least with kids a bit older than yours and mine) about the implications and rationale for this.

    Not sure what it all means, but I think it is worth noting – and furthering the discussion. Thanks again for the post.

    BTW, just bought your ebook on The Hunger Games. Preaching a sermon on the book this Sunday – I’m looking forward to your perspective.

  2. June 11, 2012

    It is so excellent that you can have these conversations with your children and help them to begin to critically think about the message these superhero stories and movies convey. I regret that I have not been more proactive in such conversations with my two, who as teenagers are both avid superhero fans. My teenage daughter is very passionate about fantasy and a huge fan of JRR Tolkein. As she matures, she’s more open to conversations about what these stories tell us and, inspired by your article, I think I shall begin to explore more with her and her brother what they like about these stories and the role of violence within them.

    Unfortunately it is not just the superhero stories that portray violence as the answer. Our own government has set a poor example in this area for a long time…

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