In her recent essay for On Parenting, Tricia Mirchandani articulates her concerns about finding relatable and human role models for her son outside the world of superhero capes and comic books. Just as she doesn’t want her daughter only emulating “old-fashioned princesses,” she worries that her son is too often getting the message from superheroes that he must be “intimidating, stoic, or domineering” to be a man.
Mirchandani argues that children should draw inspiration from a broad cast of characters as they figure out the person they want to be. I agree with that, but I also believe that superheroes can teach our boys and girls some very human lessons about using their gifts to create a better world.
Take Spider-Man for instance. In the various iterations of his origin story, Spider-Man attains his powers but first uses them selfishly, choosing not to stop a thief when he easily could have. The thief then kills Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, a transformational moment that instills within Spider-Man not only a sense of obligation to use his powers to protect people but also a tragic understanding of what can happen when those who have the ability to stand up do not.
With great power, he learns, comes great responsibility.
This sense of duty and sacrifice is something I want to instill in my son. In fighting crime and protecting others, there are personal costs and dangers in what Spider-Man does, but he presses forward in part out of a belief that he must put his gifts to good use.
While the genre is vast and diverse, this is a lesson I believe many superhero comics teach very well. Being a hero is not about being stoic or domineering — it’s about having a sound moral compass and not letting fear, greed or societal pressures move you from your path. It’s about standing up for what’s right, even when it’s unpopular. It’s about applying your gifts to something beyond yourself.
I hope my son can apply these values to his life as he grows up. For him, it’ll be about not letting the awkward kid get picked on at lunch or being kind when other people won’t be. It’ll be about not cheating or taking short cuts, even when it’s easy, even when he thinks no one will find out.
When I think about my son, I often think about the challenging and uncertain world I’m sending him into, and I hope he’ll be an agent for good in everything he does, big and small. In that sense, I find I have something in common with Jor-El, Superman’s father, and the feelings he had for his son as he sent him to Earth.
In the 1978 Superman movie, Marlon Brando’s Jor-El tells his son — who’s called Kal-El on his home planet of Krypton — that he should live among the people of Earth and “discover where your strength and your power are needed.”
Superman would be special, Jor-El knew, and his gifts should not be used for selfish reasons but for the good of many. While he’s not faster than a speeding bullet, I hope my son, like Superman, finds what makes him special and how he can best help others.
“They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way,” Jor-El said. “For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you: my only son.”
This world is a complicated place, and the line between right and wrong will never be as clear as I want it to be. My son is going to need a lot of help in figuring out how to be a man, and I hope he learns from lots of people — his parents, teachers, grandparents, coaches and his friends — about how to do that.
But there’s a lot he can learn from the superheroes in the comic books he hasn’t yet read. This includes that he can change his world for the better, and that he might not need a cape to do it.
Bobby McMahon is a writer and reporter in the Washington D.C. area. He writes about parenting, pop culture and other worthwhile endeavors. Find Bobby on Twitter @bobfrankpat.
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