Monday, June 9, 2014

What Superheroes Teach Us About Good and Evil

When little Braden Denton, just five years old, lost his battle with a brain tumor recently, his heartbreaking story and unconventional funeral – with pallbearers dressed as superheroes – stirred a bit of media and internet interest. It’s a terrible loss when a child full of life is taken so young, but perhaps there is an inspiring lesson to be gleaned from Braden’s story.

Like countless other kids, Braden idolized superheroes. “He was a huge Spiderman fan,” said his mother, but he eventually had to move on to other super idols as well “because he had all the [Spiderman] toys. So really, he liked every superhero.” They paid their respects at his funeral when the pallbearers came in full costume as Thor, Batman, the Hulk, Iron Man, Spiderman, and Superman – not exactly the usual decorum for such an occasion, but a fitting tribute to a boy whose joy and inspiration in his short time on earth came from his fascination with these fictional heroes.

Braden’s young uncle Corey – “Thor” for the funeral – said, “It was hard, but I did it for him. We went to the Superman movie and he was dressed up as Superman. I watched all the [Iron Man movies] with him.”

Children come into the world basically as little animals that need to be civilized. They have to be taught manners, given moral instruction, and presented with inspiring examples of virtuous behavior like courage and service to others. Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t have a lot to offer young people in terms of heroic paragons. We no longer share with our children the myths of ancient heroes. Our TV entertainment is littered with morally conflicted anti-heroes in fare that is too adult for kids anyway. The role models we celebrate now are pop culture figures such as professional athletes or American Idol winners rather than, say, soldiers or firefighters who literally put their lives on the line for others.

That leaves superheroes and their villains as the clearest, albeit fictional, exemplars of the eternal conflict between Good and Evil. Children (and not only boys anymore) find tales of superheroes compelling not merely because of the cool costumes or the awesome powers, but because, as this report states, “through [superhero] play they can feel brave, fearless, in control of their world, outside of ordinary, and just plain good.” Some are concerned that an obsession with superheroes may lead to actual violence down the line, but researchers have found the opposite to be true. It actually benefits children in many ways, including boosting their self-confidence. Jeff Greenberg, a social psychology professor at the University of Arizona, points out that “By identifying with the culture’s heroes and superheroes, children can begin to feel like they are aligning with what is good and can develop their own agency, power, and value in the world.”

A Florida woman named Cynthia Falardeau, for example, says of her son, “Sometimes Wyatt says that he gets bullied and superheroes give him the confidence to stand up, and tell the teacher.” Wyatt himself explains that superheroes “have super powers, strength, and they are brave. They always do the right things. They battle against evil. Superheroes give you strength!”

As children at play we were like Wyatt or Braden – lionhearted. But as we get older and life seems to become more morally tangled, we become jaded and the edge of our idealism and courage often grows dull.

Ms. Falardeau says of her son’s superhero fantasies, “I think he is learning that everyone is capable of being extraordinary.” I suspect Braden Denton, proud to dress up as Superman in the movie theater, learned the same thing. Perhaps his brief life can be a reminder to all of us to live as if we had never lost that childhood fearlessness, that moral clarity, and that sense of our own extraordinary power.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/7/14)