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The Power of Hope in the Superhero Genre

Sharing my sense of humor, my 12-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Dad, I need to talk to a superhero expert about something, but you’ll do.”

As I admired her winking savagery, she continued, “My friends and I have been talking. What’s up with the love of villains and all the dark superhero stuff? Don’t they know that kids need role models to look up to and heroes that give us hope and set an example for doing the right thing?”

My daughter and her friends have seen what we’ve seen in the superhero genre. There are as many or more anti-heroes and dark deconstructionists tales as there are noble heroes in the superhero genre. A hero exhibiting what’s good and standing up to villains should be an obvious storyline for the genre, yet more often than not we get our Jokers and Punishers.

Take The Boys for example. I haven’t watched it but I’ve been pitched the show by friends: “Hey, man, you have to watch The Boys! It’s about the most sick and twisted thing you’ll watch on TV!”

So why then would I want to watch something like that?

I’m looking for heroes to inspire me, not disappoint me. Maybe I’m like my 12-year-old daughter and her friends. This is a problem according to Alan Moore. He recently did a rare interview and said this:

“I haven’t seen a superhero movie since the first Tim Burton Batman film. They have blighted cinema, and also blighted culture to a degree. Several years ago I said I thought it was a really worrying sign, that hundreds of thousands of adults were queuing up to see characters that were created 50 years ago to entertain 12-year-old boys. That seemed to speak to some kind of longing to escape from the complexities of the modern world, and go back to a nostalgic, remembered childhood. That seemed dangerous, it was infantilizing the population.”

So, I’ve been infantilized, apparently. But I don’t want to be defensive. I understand Moore’s rationale. I’m not Pollyanna, I’m a human living in two thousand and twenty, the year of our Lord. I know full well there are complexities in our world, certainly challenges, and more than enough suffering. And full disclosure: Alan Moore called it, I do long to escape it.

But my longing is a wish for something better for my daughter. I want her to live in a world that is more just, not more cynical. I want her to live in a world that is more peaceful, not more violent. I want her to live in a world that is more caring, not more self-centered.

And perhaps my daughter and her friends understand something that has been lost on the writers of The Boys. They know that kids need role models to look up to and heroes that give them hope and set an example for doing the right thing.

Perhaps a real hero on TV today is Ted Lasso, the title character from the new Apple TV+ show. Ted Lasso greets the world as if it is full of possibilities. He sees every stranger as a future friend.

Sure, that’s lost on us. Cynicism has set its gnarly claws in our hearts and souls and it very well be too late for us. But it’s not too late for my daughter and her friends.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? So much of the genre is written and produced for adult males who are awash in cynicism and violence, who have lost so much hope already that they are content with wallowing in more despair.

Sadly, a dark deconstructionist superhero genre works well with adult males because it portrays anti-heroes in callous and petty ways, which act as a mirror that can serve to justify the callous and petty behavior they see in themselves.

My daughter called me out. I’m not a superhero expert. But I do vividly recall reading comics when I was a boy. My first comic was Amazing Spider-Man #200, bought only because I had enough change to get it off the drug store spinner rack and I liked the colorful cover.

That was nearly four decades ago and I’m still not over the phrase, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Comics can teach you things. That is the stuff of a good comic book. Comics can hang you on the edge of your seat or even make you laugh. Comics can make you cry. Comics can teach a nerdy little kid raised by a single mother to aspire to be a hero.

Now, as I’m watching through the Marvel movies in order with my daughter, I’m holding out hope that all heroes won’t be deconstructed. We have enough media for cynical adult males. We need some stuff that still gives hope to 12-year-old girls and her friends.


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