Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards once said, “I don’t think rock n’ roll should be analyzed or even thought about deeply.”
As much as I admire Mr. Richards as a musician, I can’t say that I agree with him. In fact, as I developed my own thoughts I found myself listening to his band less and less. I just didn’t like the message in the music, I found it inconsistent with my world view, and I didn’t like how it made me feel.
In a similar way to the rock ‘n roll music of my generation, superhero movies have become quite a cultural phenomenon in recent years. They are among the highest-grossing films and have spawned the sale of large quantities of paraphernalia. I often hear, “It’s just entertainment. These films are not meant to be analyzed.”
History is filled with myths of heroes who protect their people. These served the purpose of helping to create social identity and inspiring us to live by higher-order ideals. They modeled wisdom, physical and moral strength, empathy and self-sacrifice. They were larger than life, and they inspired those who learned about them to be their best selves.
Yet today’s superheroes fall far short of teaching us principles which will make our world better. In can even be argued that they present a myth which is simply not true and even one that can be destructive to the well-being of humanity.
First of all, far from affirming that each of us is a superhero in our own way, many current films tell us that to be great, we have to have incredible physical strength, powerful weapons, and we need to embrace violence.
Even today’s action figures model body types which could never be achieved by a healthy human being. Yet we are telling children, our boys especially, that being great means being a muscle-bound weapons specialist. We are idealizing things which should never be ideals, and we need to ask what impact this is having on our young people, both physically and emotionally.
Secondly, many of the films fail to acknowledge a very important truth about the vast majority of people. Psychiatrist and Nazi concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl pointed out, “Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.”
There are no “good guys” and “bad guys” in real life. There are despotic rulers, there are people who are narcissistic and even pathological, but they are few and far between. The reality is that though people can be convinced to do bad things, especially when they are in desperate situations, people are good and deserve to be treated with dignity. If we treat them this way, they will respond in kind. We don’t need to blow people up to make the world a safer place.
The third point is related to the second. Superhero movies tell us that crime is reduced by beating up or shooting up villains. While effective law enforcement is important, criminologists consistently conclude that effective social and educational programs are the most important tools we have in promoting long-term public safety. Most people who populate our prisons are people who had very difficult childhoods and have made poor decisions as a result.
There is indeed something very appealing about action movies, as there is with rock n’ roll. The fact remains, however, that we really do become what we think about, whether we do so mindfully or not. There is therefore great wisdom in simply asking the question, “Is partaking in this entertainment helping me to become the kind of person I want to be?”
In other words, entertainment does need to be analyzed and thought about deeply if we are truly interested in saving the world.