Why I’ll Never Grow Up: The Case for Superheroes and Why they Matter.

The day is Easter Monday. Usually, I would have spent the day at home with my Dad (who is now retired), but today, I ended up working an extra day at the dental office.

On days my Dad and I spend together at home,  we like to watch daytime TV and give live commentary while we watch. The usual routine is Let’s Make a Deal (with the fabulous Wayne Brady) at 10, The View at 11, the News (on CTV, where my Dad worked for 30.5 years) at Noon, and then The Social at 1. Both my Dad and I find comfort in routine, and we also both love getting up to speed on the events of the day/week, or starting up a conversation about really… anything. This is why The View and The Social are continually on our daytime TV roster. It’s a great way for my Dad and I to spend time together, while simultaneously getting fired up about any multitude of things.

Because I was at work today, I wasn’t able to have my usual weekday veg-out with my Dad. So, when I got home and started my usual cruise through Facebook, I saw a particular post pop up on my newsfeed, from The Social’s fanpage. (Sidenote: one of the best parts of The Social is the way that they incorporate social media and public opinions into the program; it allows for a variety of ideas to be presented, and for the audience to be involved.) And because I missed the show today, I’m really not sure where the Girls stand on this topic, so I’ll have to investigate that further, a little bit later.

The part of this post (which was actually a link to an article on TelegraphUK) that initially caught my eye was the title: “No self-respecting adult should buy comics or watch superhero movies”.

I’m sorry WHAT?

Now, the academic in me was screaming “READ IT FIRST BECAUSE YOU DON’T KNOW THAT THE TITLE IS TELLING THE WHOLE STORY”. So I read it. And discovered that the title was saying exactly what the author wanted to convey. It wasn’t just clickbait for views… It wasn’t a thinkpiece about why the mindset evident in the title can wax problematic (which would have been A+), despite the very misleading categorization on the site under “Thinking Man”. Nope. It was genre bashing under the guise of promoting “intelligent” media over what the author calls “dumbed-up dirty burgers for the mind”.  #EW

After reading this article, I feel… I don’t know… Angry? It could be especially so because I just came off a serious Netflix Daredevil binge (you need to watch it) and I’m feeling particularly inclined to vigilantism. It could be because I have a spiritual connection with Peggy Carter. It could be because I don’t like when an entire genre gets written off as lesser, based on ridiculous criteria (trust me, it’s a problem… I know, I’m an Arts graduate). It’s probably a mix of all these things.  And it’s important for me to remember that I am distinctly biased when it comes to topics like this. Anyone who knows me at all will be able to tell you that I am beyond happy to chat about superheroes and their stories, no matter what medium it’s presented in; and multiply that enthusiasm by (at least) ten fold when the conversation happens in an academic context. My former classmates will remember how heated I can get when it comes to defending something I care about. So with this in mind, lets get to it.

At its very core, this article operates from a faulty premise. It is essentially a gatekeeping temper tantrum, a list of reasons why the author is mad that something he doesn’t like (or used to like) is super popular, and how its “definitely not as cool as the super awesome intellectual and interesting things that I’m into!!!!!!! And it never will be because its made for children!!!!! And it’s just a moneymaking scheme!!!! Just because there’s lots of money and famous people involved doesn’t make it good!!!! Superhero movies are ruining the film industry!!!!!” You get the idea. 

The author’s disdain and quite frankly offensive commentary on the superhero genre aside, the article does not succeed in articulating exactly why we need to do away with the love of superheroes when we become adults. The author begins with the assumption that comic books were initially created/intended for a child audience, and because of this, the genre is inherently lesser than what the author considers to be more suitable “adult” entertainment, and that the reason that superhero films are just the worst is because the source material is juvenile; “has preteen in its DNA” as the author puts it. This is problematic for a number of reasons, but chiefly because it assumes that children are incapable of consuming intelligent media, and that the quality of a story and its characters (and its necessity to society) are quantifiable by their intended audience. I know a number of tiny humans who would be very upset by this sentiment. And C.S. Lewis is turning over in his grave.

Regardless of the intended audience, these kinds of assumptions are dangerous, especially when paired with the statement that the current superhero media “dumbs-up” (meaning taking something that’s unintelligent and giving it more meaning than it actually has in order to appeal to an adult audience, according to the author) the stories so that we’re all tricked into paying to see these movies at the cinema and buy these books at comic book stores. It just isn’t true… These stories and characters are complex, with flaws, soaring victories and crushing defeats. They carry in them meaning that spans generations and cultures and unnamed differences. They don’t need to be “dumbed-up”. They aren’t silly or dumb to begin with. Even if they were intended for children, beginning to delve into the world of the “Other” is intrinsically important… And it’s never to early to start.  And I’ll unpack this more adequately a little bit later.

Along with the condescension that comes through loud and clear by associating “created for children” with “dumb”, the author excludes (as in does not address at all) the possibility that comic books and graphic novels make complex stories and characters accessible to a wide variety of different people. The author makes the statement near the end of the article that “if you need to shave, you should be reading books where you have to make the pictures in your own head”.

I’m honestly not even sure where I should start with this one. Not only is this statement extremely limiting of the enjoyment that literally millions of people derive from consuming this medium of storytelling, but effectively equates being “grown up” with reading books that have no pictures. There’s a lot wrong with this. I’m not sure that the author has ever really read a graphic novel, but have you seen the art? Watchmen is not a picture book. And the complexity of a story is not limited by the medium its presented in.

What about adults that experience difficulty with reading? Or adults that have learning disabilities who find it easier to identify with a story when they are able to focus on both words and illustrations? Do these people not deserve to experience stories that they enjoy just because they don’t learn the same way that you do? Does it make them less intelligent because they benefit from multiple intelligences being engaged while consuming a story? There’s no hiding the ableism there. Its upsetting, because some of the most intelligent people I know struggle with reading and writing, but find deep enjoyment and connection in comics and graphic novels. A narrative with accompanying pictures does not make it less of a literary classic. So yes, I would say that V for Vendetta is comparable in a literary sense to Lolita. One just expresses commentary on the troubles of living within a tyrranical theocracy, and the other comments on the sexualization and abuse of young girls. The former isn’t lesser, just different.

Now that we’ve established some distinctly troubling aspects of the ideas this article promotes, lets have a look at why these stories matter. Why do we care about superheroes? Why do we continue to tell these stories after decades? What is it about these characters that keep us coming back? Where do the narrative complexities come from? What do they say about us? Like any self-respecting Millenial, I took to Facebook to gather some intel from my friends list in response to some of these questions. The feedback was overwhelmingly helpful, and unsurprisingly insightful… Definitely not bad for a bunch of childish people who like to read picture books and watch stupid superhero movies, right?

The responses were all well thought out and raised some important points. The unequivocal consensus on the answer to “why do superheroes matter?” was that these characters give us something to look up to. In a world where the morality of religion can be divisive and convoluted, superheroes (and other fictional people) step in to provide a standard. As my friend Thomas explained in his comment, they give us hope; hope that a better world can be achieved. And hope that we can be a part of that better world, in spire of our flaws. They inspire us to be better, and encourage us to pick ourselves back up when we fail. They inspire us to use our “powers” for good. They remind us that with privilege comes a responsibility to enact change. They help us to aspire to make the right choice, instead of the easy choice. These characters are complex, with very human feelings (in spite of some of them being inhuman), and very human flaws. As my friend Kyle pointed out, they are representative of both “the best and worst that humans are capable of”. They strive to protect the lesser and bring justice to the oppressed. Sometimes, they get it wrong, just like we do. They make the easy choice. They screw up. They fail. They crash and burn. But it’s all part of their journey. It’s all part of their evolution… Just like we are always growing and evolving. Our ideas about the universe and our place in it are always changing. What doesn’t change is our need to sometimes get away from the challenges that we face in life.

My friends also made sure to bring up the point that these stories frequently (read: almost always) address issues that are present in our own world. Many of these stories address issues of class, poverty, race, religion, with the hero being at odds with villains that oppress and abuse. Comic books and their movie/television adaptations make the commentary on these kinds of issues accessible to a diverse group of people, some of whom may not have come into contact with fictional commentary like this, otherwise. This can be especially seen in narratives like the first season of Netflix/Marvel’s Daredevil. The villain is an illusive business man who has his fingers in several different types of crime, and exploits the poverty stricken people of Hell’s Kitchen for political and financial gain. Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson stand up for the little guy, even when Matt isn’t beating up badguys as Daredevil. They make their living providing legal services for people who truly need it, proving the moral centre of the story to be using one’s privilege and skills to protect and lift up those who need it. Captain America was developed by Jewish writers as a means of reconciling their Jewish identities with their American ones, in the wake of WWII.

Marginalized people find solace in these stories, that they frequently do not find in the real world. My friend Matt made the incredible point that these superhero stories have proved to be especially meaningful for him as a gay man. He explained, “…the queer community has always used super heroes as a staple analogy to showcase somebody using their differences, uniqueness or what makes them “othered” within society to overcome barriers and make their uniqueness their strength. Superheroes are almost always marginalized for their differences in comparison to the majority of society and a lot of queer people can identify with that kind of ideology”. The same could be said for people of colour. It is the colour of their skin and their culture that makes them othered, but it is also what makes them unique and in that way, powerful. It is imperative that marginalized people are able to see themselves in the stories that they love. While there is still a great deal more work to do in the comic industry in regards to LGBTQ+ and POC representation, it is so important to realize how meaningful these stories are to people who are experiencing oppression. We have more POC and LGBTQ+ superheroes now than we ever have.

Many of my friends brought up the point that superheroes and their stories (all of fiction, really) allow for an “escape” from our own world. Now, it could easily be argued that using fiction for escapism is a negative thing, that we should be able to face our own problems head on, and not run away from them. But because there is so much to be learned from these stories, the escape that they provide is entirely imperative to our survival. As we have unpacked above, the themes of these stories find their basis in real life; real life where frequently the bad guys win and the good guys lose. Real life, where things are sometimes terrifying, and we feel helpless and alone. We see ourselves in these characters, and can apply lessons learned to our own challenges. When I’m feeling defeated and useless, I can turn to Peggy Carter or to Diana Prince, and ask “what can be done?” and “how would they face this monster?”. And I can be encouraged by their stories, bringing them to reality in my own life. Problems sometimes seem smaller when we see our heroes facing them… and overcoming them. What’s great about these stories, is that we can be encouraged also by our heroes’ failings. They continued on when hope was lost and victory was a far away dream; so can I. They show us that the bad guys can be beaten, even if you don’t win the first time.

They also allow us to reexamine how we draw our moral boundaries; how would I react when faced with a particular decision? How would I continue on after a tragedy? Are decisions really as black and white as we make them out to be? The answer is sometimes they are, and sometimes they are not. And superhero stories allow us to explore these possibilities. Throughout the plethora of heroes, anti-heroes, and vigilantes that we have to choose from, there are characters on every point in the morality spectrum. Many fall into the grey area between ultimate moral standing (like Superman, [until Zack Snyder got a hold of him, but that’s a story for another day], or Wonder Woman, or Captain America) and ultimate moral ambiguity (like the Punisher or Deadpool, and sometimes even Wolverine). They call us to examine the intent of even the good guys. Are they truly using their powers to allow good to prevail over evil? Or are they soaked up in their own self righteousness that they are doing more harm than good? Are the bad guys right but just going about it the wrong way? Again, this is such a useful tool for us to use when examining ourselves. And as we examine these characters, it becomes evident that they are reflective of their time, and change as political and social climates change. They are what we need them to be… Much like Robin Hood and King Arthur have been for different generations, making them important into even the academic sphere.

Perhaps one of the most important points to explore here is the fact that these heroes and their stories fulfill what is called ‘The Hero’s Journey’ or ‘The Hero’s Monomyth’. Now why does this matter? What is it about this narrative formula that makes these stories so special? It was one of my professors from university that encouraged me to explore this point; being a professor of History and Medieval Studies, it did not surprise me at all that she would bring it up. Throughout history (specifically in the medieval period) stories that have gripped generations and continued on to reach new ones, even hundreds of years later, follow the formula described by Joseph Campbell in what he calls ‘The Hero’s Journey’. Our hero is uncomfortable in the ordinary world; there is something that makes them “other”, and sets them at odds with the society surrounding them. There is something extraordinary about them; they have a destiny that is bigger than their circumstances. Somehow they come to the realization of this destiny, and embark on an adventure to fulfill it. They encounter challenges, allies and enemies, all culminating in a final decision to accept the call of their destiny.

Countless medieval narratives ascribe to this formula: King Arthur (and many if not all of the tales of his Knights), Robin Hood, etc. The trope stretches back even farther, into ancient mythologies from several different cultures, including but certainly not limited to the Greeks and Romans. These stories are meaningful even now in the 21st century, with big Hollywood studios continuing to release new adaptations of the stories for new audiences. The Hero’s Journey is also strikingly evident in other more modern stories, including superhero narratives, that take cues from their medieval, classical, and even ancient predecessors: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, A Song of Ice and Fire, The 100, The Hunger Games, Spiderman, Superman, Batman… the list goes on. It’s also a trope that’s deeply present in cultural and religious stories. Take a look at the life of Christ and see how it holds up next to the formula. You may be surprised at how many similarities that story has with other hero narratives… or how many similarities other hero narratives have with religious ones.

There is something innately human about the way these stories progress; the hero often refuses to take up the call to adventure, whether it be because of fear, or some other reason. But then, something happens that makes their destiny come alive for them; sometimes it’s finding their place within a group of other heroes, sometimes its the advice of a mentor that pushes them closer to the precipice of living out their fate. Every time we participate in a narrative that follows this formula, we take the journey with the character… We grow with them. We escape into their adventure, grow and change with the hero, and then we come back to the Ordinary World, better than we were when we left it. These stories force us to ask questions. They subvert tropes and even the formula, challenging us to think outside the box. They make us look at ourselves and our world more critically, and imagine the world in a more complex way. And even when the protagonists ascribe to a more ambiguous morality, or make mistakes, they help us see the timber in our own eye, through watching the characters pull the splinters from their own.

Finally, they are just plain fun! They make us laugh. They make us cry. They have us rooting for the little guy, and feeling the crush of defeat when they fall. They provide hours of entertainment. The art is beautiful. The choreography of fight scenes is incredible. The costuming is outstanding, a lot of the time. They fill us with wonder, and make us feel like we ourselves can be heroes, too.

Are there problems with the genre? Absolutely. Are women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, and other marginalized people underrepresented and frequently mistreated within the genre? You betcha. Are misogyny and racism rampant in complaints about new comic books? It’s embarrassingly true. Are there really rude gatekeeping fanboys who spoil the party for everyone else? Of course there are. But these are the issues we need to be addressing when critiquing comic books and their film/TV adaptations. We need to be assessing how we can make this genre, that millions of people love, better… And how we can make it a safer place for everyone to enjoy these stories, not discounting a whole genre based on the sentiment that it may have been originally intended for a younger audience, and that other more “adult” movies and TV are more suitable for adults to consume.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think I’ll be growing up anytime soon, if it means pretending I don’t like superhero literature. And yeah. It’s literature. Just like Lolita.

Photo credit: bm23tvreviews.com

 

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