Aug 17 2010

At first glance, this superhero “research” looks shamelessly incompetent

In a ScienceDaily article:

Watching superheroes beat up villains may not be the best image for boys to see if society wants to promote kinder, less stereotypical male behaviors, according to psychologists…

“There is a big difference in the movie superhero of today and the comic book superhero of yesterday,” said psychologist Sharon Lamb, PhD, distinguished professor of mental health at University of Massachusetts-Boston. “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.

My initial impression is that this is so luridly off-base I don’t know where to begin.


In particular, I’d like to take issue with “[the typical superhero] is aggressive, sarcastic and rarely speaks to the virtue of doing good for humanity.”  Except for the Punisher and perhaps Spawn, I can’t think of any superhero movies over the past ~20 years that fit that description.  One of the unique traits of the superhero subgenre of action is that morals tend to play a larger role than in other action stories, not less.   How often does a typical Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steven Segal character discuss why he’s there to beat the hell out of people?  In contrast, the moral code of a superhero usually comes up pretty prominently.

  • Superman: “Truth, justice and the American way all that stuff”
  • Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility”
  • X-Men: tolerance and understanding (see Xavier’s justification for founding his academy)
  • Batman: the desirability of law/order over anarchy/chaos.
  • Ironman: making war obsolete (and also sharing technological progress with the world)

I think the virtue of doing good for humanity plays a much larger role in these works than in most works aimed at, ahem, middle-aged women like Sharon Lamb.  (Twilight? Sex and the City? Anything on the CW?)  Indeed, one of the recurring complaints about the new Sex and the City movie was how utterly self-absorbed its characters are.  According to reviews, one of the major objectives of the characters was escaping the Middle East without suffering the indignity of going on a second-class flight.  (Perish the thought!) Careful, ladies, you’ll set a bad example for the audience.

In short, this “research” looks considerably less grounded in reality than Seduction of the Innocent.

17 responses so far

17 Responses to “At first glance, this superhero “research” looks shamelessly incompetent”

  1. Trollon 17 Aug 2010 at 10:29 am

    To a SLIGHT extent I think they have a point; but superhero movies and chick flicks aren’t the only offenders here.

  2. Wingson 17 Aug 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Considering I know several boys who quite like superheroes and aren’t “superheroes or slackers” to quote the article (well, P’s about as desensitized to violence as possible, but I think that’s the video games’ fault, not the superheroes) , it seems kinda stereotypical.

    Note that they’re only discussing how superheroes affect boys. Aren’t they going to write a follow up showing that superheroes make girls want to dress in stripperific outfits and fight crime? I demand equal rights! XD

    – Wings

  3. Loysquaredon 17 Aug 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Maybe that’s because they’re being set in a vigilante-like enviroment in which it’s utterly necessary to bend/brake the law to obtain justice/world peace, lol. And in the outlaw world, you betta’ talk the talk, and walk the walk.
    More often than not, Batman is seen as one of the bad guys. You’ve got to admit, he’s twisted! But considering the decay of Gotham City and it’s corrupted judicial system, you wouldn’t blame him. If you want something get done, better do it yourself. And talk about “between a rock and a hard place”, Ironman is inmediately perceived as an anti-patriotic egomaniac when he refuses to give the intel of his technology to the US government. This case is funny, because they get tangled in their own mess of laws, and perhaps even the human rights.

  4. Koryon 18 Aug 2010 at 7:16 am

    Don’t forget the message of self control in the Incredible Hulk (I will miss Ed Norton)

    Here is a novel thought, rather than lump all superhero movies together, lets operate with the understanding that there are ones more appropriate for the younger audience. (Spiderman, X-men)

    And some that have much more nuanced morality (Batman)

    As a parent AND a nerd who wants to encourage nerd-dom in his younglings, I can say from experience, you just need to exercise a little parental oversight.

    This kids are alright. Really, they are.

    Can’t wait for the Avengers movie, not that its pertinent to the discussion, I just needed to add that in.

  5. B. Macon 18 Aug 2010 at 8:18 am

    Hello, Kory. I love your South Park-style avatar (although I don’t think it shows up here, sadly).



    “As a parent AND a nerd who wants to encourage nerd-dom in his younglings, I can say from experience, you just need to exercise a little parental oversight.” Agreed! There are many movies (superhero and others) that just are not appropriate for kids. For example, The Incredibles*, Kickass, Punisher, Daredevil or Elektra.

    *I have no idea how Incredibles got a PG.
    People got sucked into jet engines. (Also, the movie played it for laughs).
    –The murder angle was pretty explicit.
    –The scene where Mr. Incredible discovers the skeletal remains of one of the murdered superheroes was pretty morbid.
    –Kids got shot at. This isn’t terribly serious, but the last time I’ve seen a gun even pointed at a kid on-camera in a PG movie was ET.

    That said, I think Pixar’s willingness to treat kids maturely is generally a plus. They don’t do Dreamworks-style fart jokes.

  6. Wingson 18 Aug 2010 at 9:58 am

    Point for Pixar, as I’ve never found any of their movies condescending or “dumbed-down” toward viewers. I can easily say that Toy Story 3 was one of the best movies I saw this year, if not the best*.

    – Wings

    * Because Inception’s epicality is being a worthy competitor and I haven’t seen Scott Pilgrim versus the World yet.

  7. Mr. Crowleyon 18 Aug 2010 at 1:05 pm

    If anything older comics are less realistic then modern comics, everything was perfect and nothing bad happened besides maybe lex destroying a section of metropolis, which always was fixed before next months issue, also modern comics attempt to portray heroes in a more realistic light with consequences to actions.

  8. Koryon 19 Aug 2010 at 6:18 am

    I can appreciate pixar’s willingness to be more mature than dreamworks, and I think the general quality of their animation, textures, etc. is superior.

    I detested the incredibles for a whole other reason. I felt the movie browbeat us into the notion that “normals” or “mundanes” or “muggles” whatever the movie called them existed only to be a burden to those with super powers. Its a wonderful subject to explore, but in a kids movie it seemed very ham fisted and entirely one sided. I felt like I was watching atlas shrugged for tots, minus of course the obnoxious 40 page monologues, horrific portrayals of “intimacy,” and dialog that would make George Lucas cringe. At least in the incredibles the characters were rendered in 3 dimensions.

    that being said, a much better discussion of humans vs. superhumans can be found pretty much throughout X-men, or in the Civil War arc in Marvel, and of course The Watchmen. Again, probably not at the same audience level as the Incredibles.

  9. B. Macon 19 Aug 2010 at 8:34 am

    “I think the general quality of their animation, textures, etc. is superior.” I think that’s hard to dispute. Their graphics people are some of the best not just in their industry, but ANY industry. (It helps that pretty much all of their movies have a vast budget).

    “I felt the movie browbeat us into the notion that “normals” or “mundanes” or “muggles” whatever the movie called them existed only to be a burden to those with super powers.” The closest thing to a significant unpowered character that I can think of was Edna the fashion designer, and even she was 100% used to working with superheroes. I feel that Heroes really struggled with this, too. There were at least 20 recurring characters on the show, and maybe ONE of them (Mrs. Benett) was neither superpowered nor a secret agent. I’m inclined to count Ando, too, even though he was briefly superpowered.

  10. Wingson 19 Aug 2010 at 10:01 am

    “I felt the movie browbeat us into the notion that “normals” or “mundanes” or “muggles” whatever the movie called them existed only to be a burden to those with super powers.”

    On the topic of superhero movies:

    One of the things that disappointed me about Sky High was that in the end *spoiler* the main character acquired not one but two superpowers. I was kinda hoping that Will would remain without powers, thus proving that powers don’t matter for superheroes (This theme was prevalent in the movie, what with the kids with “useless” sidekick powers), because he just took out the main villain without any.

    …What? it could have worked!

    – Wings

  11. B. Macon 19 Aug 2010 at 5:47 pm

    I was surprised that they had the protagonist develop superpowers. On the plus side, it was unexpected.

  12. hopefulon 21 Aug 2010 at 12:15 pm

    I was shocked when in Smallvill on the CW that they had introduced a sexual relationship betwene Lois and Clark. That deeply troubled me, in my mind Clark or Superman was supposed to be above temptenations like that.

  13. B. Macon 21 Aug 2010 at 12:42 pm

    “I was shocked when in Smallvill on the CW that they had introduced a sexual relationship betwene Lois and Clark.” Hmm? I think there was PG-13 romancing in The New Adventures of Lois and Clark (and implied sex), too, but I don’t remember it being particularly distasteful. TV really pushes the envelope nowadays.

  14. Ragged Boyon 21 Aug 2010 at 1:37 pm

    ” That deeply troubled me, in my mind Clark or Superman was supposed to be above temptenations like that.”

    He’s only human, well, Kryptonian actually. Nonetheless, he is just as much a human as you, minus the superpowers, and we all give in to temptations sooner or later. I respect that they even made the Man of Steel that human considering he has no other outstanding flaws.

  15. Lighting Manon 21 Aug 2010 at 2:40 pm

    Plus, he knocked Lois up out of wedlock and ran away from the baby momma drama in Superman Returns, which I don’t blame anyone for forgetting, given the fact that it was terrible.

    I’ve always wanted to see a graphic novel or perhaps just a storyline in Superman comics where it dealt directly with his religious feelings and views. I’ve always felt “The Nail” and “Another Nail” (Elseworld novels in which Superman was adopted by Amish parents and raised in seclusion) as really missing a great opportunity to explore the character, by not really having him face the ramifications of the revelation of his origins in any big way. I can’t really even remembering it being handled by the ever-popular Superman pastiche type characters that are so popular for series or novels examining issues such as that.

  16. B. Macon 21 Aug 2010 at 3:16 pm

    Have you seen Adherents’ page on Superman? They’ve compiled a LOT of information about religion in comic books.



    I think he takes the Martian Manhunter to church in a Christmas-themed episode of Justice League. I don’t remember what he said about his beliefs there, but I bet they kept it to general platitudes about faith and redemption. I think that’s the industry-standard way of handling religion without alienating too many readers.

    (For example, instead of using just a Bible to repel vampires, a hero might use whatever mattered most to his worldview, perhaps even some stuff that isn’t actually religious, like a wallet or badge or a science text or a flag. If I did a vampire in SN, I’d have his security confiscate all of the above from the characters, and then Agent Orange would disprove the vampire’s existence with Twilight. Everybody knows vampires aren’t dangerous 😉 ).



    For more details on his religious views, I’d recommend reading Superman issues 209-215.

  17. Lighting Manon 22 Aug 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Oooh, thanks, great links. They look very interesting, and I’ll definitely have to check out those issues, thanks.

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