It’s no big secret that modern cinema corrupts the minds of youth more than it did in the past. At least, that’s been a general consensus as films have, with each subsequent generation, seemingly become more violent, sexual, cynical and otherwise “immoral” to the puritanical parental types out there. The latest (continued?) concern is with superhero movies, according to a Telegraph article that surprisingly avoids mentioning “Kick-Ass.” UMass professor Dr. Sharon Lamb spoke out about the genre’s dangers at the recent Convention of the American Psychological Association, claiming current superhero characters are bad role models for young boys. Following a study in which she and her co-authors surveyed males aged 4 to 18, she had this to say:
“Today’s superhero is too much like an action hero who participates in non-stop violence; he’s aggressive, sarcastic and rarely speaks to the virtue of doing good for humanity.
“When not in superhero costume, these men, like Ironman, exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns.”
The comic book heroes of the past did fight criminals, she said, “but these were heroes boys could look up to and learn from because outside of their costumes, they were real people with real problems and many vulnerabilities,” she said.
Two of the characters Lamb cites as being more positive are Superman and Green Lantern, both of whom are heading to the big screen in the next few years, as is Captain America, who I imagine will be portrayed with favorable traits. Meanwhile, the only popular movie heroes I see as being questionable role models in terms of Lamb’s study are the similar playboy millionaires Iron Man/Tony Stark and Batman/Bruce Wayne, though neither character’s goals are as selfish as this report makes them out to be. As for stuff like “Kick-Ass,” “Hancock” and “Watchmen,” kids probably shouldn’t see them until they’re familiar enough with the concepts of satire and genre deconstruction.
As far as really popular movies targeted at young viewers go, I tend to see more good than bad with the superhero image, even in the past ten years, especially with younger characters. Here is a handful of positive role models on the big screen within this time:
1. Spider-Man – Except for his minor and embarrassing trip to a darker side in “Spider-Man 3,” which was partly influenced by an alien symbiote, geek-turned-wall-crawler Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is typically so goody goody and well-intentioned that he’s the closest thing to giving Clark Kent competition in the nice-guy department. He has strong family values, tries to be a loyal friend and continually reminds the audience of the responsibility to do good with the power you’ve been given. Maybe if other modern heroes had someone like Aunt May to give them wisdom, there’d be more like him.
2. Will Stronghold – Michael Angarano, who was one of my top choices to take over the role of Spider-Man, stars in the underrated “Sky High,” as a Peter Parker-like teen struggling with being the initially power-less son of two of the world’s most famous superheroes (played by Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston). After discovering that he does indeed have super traits he lets the subsequent new power and popularity go to his head in a kind of “Teen Wolf”/”Can’t Buy Me Love”-sort of way. But when the girl of his dreams (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” dream girl Mary Elizabeth Winstead) turns out to be a super villain, he snaps out of his selfishness and confesses that powers can corrupt people into being jerks, as happened to him. And if you’re looking for a good superhero role model for girls, look to Stronghold’s friend and ultimate love interest, Layla (Danielle Panabaker).
3. Mr. Incredible – Another member of a super family, the animated patriarch of Pixar’s “The Incredibles” is a bit of a coward and liar at first, but overall he’s as great a father and husband as he is a great strongman. He certainly would never cheat on his wife, and after strangling women almost to death he’s sure to give them a big hug. Ignoring the above scene’s isolated questionability, though, this movie is cited over and over again as preaching wholesome family values and teaching kids about the strength of the family unit.
4. Iceman – One of the most celebrated scenes in “X2: X-Men United” involves Bobby “Iceman” Drake (Shawn Ashmore) confessing to his parents that he’s a mutant. Even if it weren’t an obvious allegory for coming out as homosexual, the scene would simply be about a kid accepting himself as different and being brave enough to express himself to his family. Some psychologists argue that in general the “X-Men” series contradicts the above scene by overall giving the message that marginalized groups should try to fit into society over attempting to get them to be more tolerant, but singled out, the young Iceman should be accepted as being
5. Harry Potter – Don’t try to say he’s not a superhero. He’s got powers, he’s a defender against evil and he has many other traits comparable to the costumed crusader-type, including sidekicks and means of flight and an exclusive arch-nemesis. Although many parents view the character as promoting witchcraft and therefore oppose the idea of him being a good role model, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has long been celebrated by psychologists for being “adventuresome, tolerant of a lot of negativism directed his way,” but “not aggressive, arrogant or clinically depressed” and that even his consistent subversion of authority is okay because it’s done to save lives.