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Yesterday two unrelated events unexpectedly converged and got me thinking….always a dangerous enterprise.

Event 1: It happened to be Free Comic Book Day, an event my 10-year-old son, Skippy, has been waiting for since LAST year. We went as a family to the local comic store, which we visit periodically throughout the year, and all received a free comic book — there were many to choose from and we all chose Marvel Super Heroes. Skippy was outfitted for the event in a new Avengers tee-shirt from Old Navy and afterwards was treated to the big surprise — a trip to see the new Avengers movie at the local cinema. We all had the BEST time and if this film isn’t the equivalent of Star Wars for this generation of kids, I don’t know what is.

Event 2: It also happened to be Cinco de Mayo, which we celebrated with a fiesta dinner with friends at their home. While there, I was introduced to and chatted with a woman who is also a high school English teacher, though at a private academy where students must test in and are exceptionally brilliant. Somehow during the conversation, my son’s tee-shirt was noticed and I mentioned the comics and The Avengers and … was met with a completely blank look. This woman affected to know nothing AT ALL and merely said to me, “What is that? Some kind of super…thing… or something…?”, persisting all the while in a horrifically blank stare. Now this woman seemed nice enough and I’d like to believe that this was not the insulting slight I was beginning to perceive it to be — that she knew all about the comics and the film, but that it was all beneath her notice and completely devoid of any intellectual value. How could you NOT know, assuming you do live here and not in a cave in the Antarctic? I mean, my husband and I haven’t had television for over 20 years now, and while we missed out on the whole Seinfeld, ER, and Friends crazes, we did know about them…..sooooo…what was really behind the woman’s feigned ignorance?

The fact that this woman might have been silently calling me on the carpet for allowing my son to stoop so low as to be exposed to things that couldn’t possibly have any redeeming value in her eyes got me thinking, and not for the first time, of the potent and powerful message the right super heroes can send to a young mind, and in fact, to all of us, if we’re open to listen. I was unable and unprepared to articulate any of this in my conversation last night, but next time, I’ll be better prepared with an adequate defense for why I allow my son to read comics and watch his favorite characters coming to life on the big screen or in various animated series. (Note: This is not an endorsement of the comic genre as a whole, nor am I suggesting all of the superhero-comic-to-film-efforts are appropriate for young children. Obviously, extreme prudence is required and parents must vigilantly supervise what their children see and read. However, there is a unique value in certain niche characters and series that cannot, in my opinion, be denied).

Super Heroes teach us:

1. What it means to live with, embrace, and work with perpetual weakness;

2. Weakness is not only a strength, but a gift, because it teaches humility;

3. Temptation to power and the drive to feed the ego is a constant battle, even for the best of men;

4. Compassion for the weak, vulnerable, and defenseless among us is an essential character trait of a hero, as are bravery, courage, perseverance, and teamwork;

5. There are things worth making deep sacrifices for, even to the sacrificing of one’s life, including the defeat of evil, freedom from tyranny, the ideals of one’s country, oppression and brutality, and saving one’s friends and loved ones. Super heroes revive the nobility of martyrdom in a world which has lost its faith;

6. That each individual is possessed of unique gifts, some of which don’t always count for much in the eyes of society or those in power, but with which the individual is particularly charged — as a debt of honor  — with perfecting and using for the greater good;

7. Gifts used to serve self end in disastrous consequences — it is often this “school of hard knocks” which a super hero needs to experience before he or she can be ready to use their gifts to help others and perhaps atone for the wrongs they have done through their pride and self-serving ambition;

8. About evil in its many guises, another reality and truth which a world without faith is apt to forget exists. Shakespeare reminds us in King Lear that the Devil is of noble birth — he is a gentleman. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of the super hero, where evil is often masterfully disguised and played out under subterfuge, blending carefully, attractively, and seemingly innocuously into the surroundings, ready to strike when least expected;

9. Evil within is ultimately manifested without — one becomes what one is on the inside.

10. That if one is still alive on this earth, even after experiencing the most traumatic and painful events, then that means one has a purpose to fulfill and a reason for being and one must persevere in hope until that is achieved.

The Ultimate Lesson

The ultimate lesson the super heroes have the ability to teach, perhaps without intending to, is a spiritual one. Yes, you read that right — a spiritual lesson. Cap’s line in the new movie when he’s told the bad guy is a “god’ is confident and quite clear: “There’s only one God, m’am, and I’m certain He doesn’t dress like that.” If you know anything about Steve Rogers/Captain America, you’ll know this statement is quite in keeping with his character and it points to a larger truth in the genre, (perhaps especially with the Marvel characters, whom we are partial to in this house) and that is that while not every super hero believes in God or even has any direct faith at all, every super hero believes in something higher than himself, a higher power,  a greater good which points towards truth. In general, they operate in the realm of natural law in terms of morals. To read or watch the super heroes is not to be preached at. But it is to encounter characters with very real moral struggles and weaknesses in constant pursuit of goodness and truth — and this truth is not relative. Watching them wrestle with these dilemmas and the influence of clear and present evil helps us examine how we handle our own moral crises and why. It forces us to ask what we believe and to question if how we live reflects those beliefs, or if we are living a lie.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels between the great line that Stan Lee (via Voltaire) wrote for Spider Man — “With great power comes great responsibility”  — and Jesus’ words in Matthew 13:12 — “To whom much is given, much will be asked.”

I rest my case…..

But come to think of it, the Avengers and the X-Men and the Green Lantern Corps don’t need me, or anyone else, to defend them. Their stories — both in words and actions — speak for themselves.

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