I have an abiding love of superheroes. I’m from the generation of kids that grew up on the Spider-man movies with Toby Maguire. I loved those movies as a kid, though I admit that the third one ruined the whole thing for me. But then there was Batman Begins and the dark, grittiness that series brought to my consciousness of superheroes. For some reason, despite reboots and the wonderful turn of Christopher Reeve, Superman never really was on my radar. I found him a little too goody-goody for my taste. I always loved the tortured and haunted Batman more.
Now we have Ironman, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers and a re-reboot of the Fantastic Four. More kids than ever will grow up with the idea of superheroes and the lessons they teach. But as an adult who is looking at having kids myself, I’ve been considering those lessons and what can be learned. I want to know what superheroes can teach us about leading a good life.
I’ve also been reading Batman comics and Superman comics after a trip to the library, which explains a lot of this. Sure, I start out sounding smart, but really I’m just a nerdy little fanboy.
What is a good life to a superhero? That’s a good place to start. All these masked heroes with secret identities and a startling lack of personal life are trying to live their lives in accordance with a code, but what code and to what end? What kind of life do they want?
Well there’s always a tension between the life they want and the life they think is necessary and worthwhile. Take my favorite, Batman, for instance. He would like to have a nice, quiet, normal life. You can see that desire in the Christopher Nolan films, but it is also present in the comics as well. The desire to have his parents back is omnipresent and heartbreaking because it can never happen. But why it can never happen is the key. It can never happen because Batman has a purpose to his life: to make things better for others.
I’ve always likes the idea of sacrifice that superheroes present. It is very often just as painful and hard as a sacrificial life is in real life. There is always loneliness, exhaustion, doubt and a whole host of other problems that the protagonist has to face. That, more than any other part of the superhero genre, is what is real in a wholly unrealistic world.
I’ve always had a thing for exceptional lives. I was raised with the examples of saints, after all. Saints and superheroes share a lot in common. The sacrifice, the desire for something different, the ultimate victory over not just an enemy, but their own self-doubt. I think the real difference, though, is in the portrayal. Superheroes are always allowed to be flawed. Saints have flaws, but those flaws get replaced eventually by a speciallness, by saintliness akin to divinity. I’m not saying there is something wrong with saints, but I think the fact that sainthood involves being made better than human is an issue.
Superheroes don’t get that kind of ending. They are always flawed, they are never better than human. In fact, their humanity is one of the most important traits a superhero can have. Superman is a great example. He’s not human. His alien nature gives him physical superiority, but in his heart and mind he is so wonderfully human that you can’t help but identify with him, love him and admire him. At his core, he wants a normal human life.
So there’s always this struggle for superheroes between the life that all their readers’ have and the one they have to lead. It’s the old “secret identity” problem, but more importantly it’s a way to look at what role identity plays in your life. The X-Men were originally read by many as a metaphor for being gay, an identity that still has issues surrounding it today. This is how writer Peter David describes it:
My source for this is the gay newspaper The Blade, which stated that many readers equated mutation in X-Men with homosexuality. I’m not entirely sure why this would be. After all, within the Marvel universe, parents live in fear that their children might be mutants; mutants are subject to loathing, misunderstanding and disdain; the mutant characters come to a realization of their actual “persuasion” sometime around their early teens; mutants have been persecuted by religious zealots; and in many cases, mutants are forced to hide their true nature for fear of upsetting those around them who do not display similar tendencies. Gays, on the other hand, are…
You see the issue here. But X-Men and other superhero identities don’t just resonate with the LGBT community. They resonate with everyone because we all have secret parts of ourselves.
You know that thing about you that no one knows until they step right into it and you have to admit, “Actually, I’m X.” Whatever X is, I know that many of us (more than perhaps I think) have that kind of experience. Everyone, gay, straight, bi, Christian, Muslim, black, white, atheist, nerd or cool kid, have had some experience of “coming out.” It is a universal experience. Except superheroes. By and large, superheroes have to keep their hidden identities secret. They have no choice. It’s not just about their own good, but the good and safety of others.
Superheroes have a lot to teach us about living a good life and those lessons are often far more complex than we think they are. A good life isn’t just about beating up bad guys and saving the world. It’s about being flawed and still doing what you think is right. It is about being lonely in order to do that right thing. Sometimes it’s about hiding the deepest parts of yourself in order to protect yourself and others. Most importantly, however, anyone can do these things and that is what superheroes really teach us.
Why do you think kids want to be superheroes? Because they’re strong? Because they’re cool? Because of the cape? Yes, yes and yes. But those kids grow up to be adults and they take the lessons they learned with them. Unlike some people, I did not grow up with comic books, which is truly unfortunate because comic books and graphic novels are where most of the real meat is about superheroes. And the reason those books are still popular with adults and young adults is because of the lessons that they were learning as little kids. Lessons like how to do what is right and how to live a good life as a human being.