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The Morals We Should But Don't Take from Superhero Movies

06/11/2013 05:45 pm 17:45:24 | Updated Aug 12, 2013

Every superhero movie has the same plot: there's a villain and we need a superhero to punch his lights out. We need a man (or woman... but let's be honest, a man -- that whole sexism issue is something else entirely) to step up and use violence to stop an immediate problem.

But alas, the problems of the real world are not as simple as an alien invasion or a super villain.

Superman, Batman, and the Justice League sit around and wait for sirens and bat signals, as if a criminal in the night is the best use of their time. In reality, cancer is rife, thousands fall victim to sexual slavery and famine continues to take the lives of children.

The Green Lantern oath states, "In brightest day, in blackest night, No evil shall escape my sight." However, when Green Lantern just waits around in the Hall of Justice for the next alien invasion, much evil escapes his sight.

Though at times the heroes work on issues like cancer or green energy (see Superman: Doomsday, Iron Man Extremis, or The Avengers film for examples), the thrust of nearly every story focuses on physically battling villains.

Superheroes act like Band-Aids on top of bleeding wounds, rather than actual long-term solutions. In The Dark Knight, Batman realizes Harvey Dent's policies will be more influential than his night charades, and this is why Batman takes the fall for Dent. Batman knows his antics alone can't save Gotham. However, viewers often overlook this and instead focus on Batman's awesome gadgets and karate because, let's be honest, the gadgets in The Dark Knight were ridiculously cool -- like that motorcycle he rides up the wall.

Unfortunately, superhero movies (and their audiences) often simplify our view of the world to an absurd degree. In reality, the villain is a society of subtle sexism, cancer, and poverty. In movies it's a single super-villain. Many comic book nerds hate fairy tales, but superhero stories are the ultimate fairy tales: there's a problem, it is solved with a punch, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Recent research by Professor Daniel Sullivan and colleagues shows that we may crave this type of thinking. People seem to be motivated to believe there is one powerful villain in the world (e.g. the Taliban) that is the source of all evils. The authors argue that, "Perceiving oneself as having powerful enemies, although superficially disagreeable, may serve an important psychological function." Specifically, it may make one feel as if the world is less chaotic. If one's problems stem from a single villain, it is explainable and solvable.

The Wrong Moral: Be Present Focused.

Superhero movies may make us feel good but they may simultaneously teach us the wrong lessons. They teach us to perceive the world in black and white and to give in to a 'present focus' mentality in which we overweigh the importance of dealing with problems we can see and immediately solve.

The present focus mentality is one of the most prevalent psychological biases in human judgment, and action movies in general teach us to embrace it. Instead we should be taking the 'long-term' approach.


The Right Morals: Hope and Social Commentary

As a huge fan of superheroes and comics, I strongly believe the stories do have the right lessons inside them, audiences just tend not to take them away from the movies.

For example, the X-Men films are largely about prejudice (featuring many lines that reference gay rights, "Have you tried not being a mutant?"); Iron Man 3 is about understanding the self, the perils of scientific research, and paranoia, and most Superman movies are about sticking to one's morals. The themes are there, but are often subtle and dwarfed by the irresistibly awesome violence.

However every superhero movie has one theme that is always obvious: hope. In the Man of Steel trailer, Superman even directly states that he wears a symbol of hope on his chest.

Superhero movies give us hope and inspire us to believe that we can do anything. Unfortunately, superhero movies also teach us that the best use of our time is to fight street crime.

Instead, we need to follow the examples of Tony Stark, who works on green energy in The Avengers; Charles Xavier, who works to help troubled children find their way in X-Men; and Kal-El, who tries to cure cancer in the comic Superman: Doomsday.

What's interesting is that in each of the above cases these people do something hard and something super, but not with their superpowers. It is Tony Stark that fixes the environment and builds amazing technology, not the bulletproof Iron Man. It is Charles Xavier who cares for the kids not the superhero identity Professor X; and it is the fragile and frustrated Kal-El who tinkers with cancer not the man of steel.

Superheroes should inspire us on a societal level to believe that we can truly address our underlying problems and that we should not ignore them. The Dark Knight trilogy is all about that idea, that we must stand up to our problems and not ignore them. As Bruce Wayne says, "This city is not beyond saving."

And on a personal level, superheroes can inspire us to be the best version of ourselves: caring, smart, kind, and fearless. We should emulate these super qualities of the heroes not their super actions. That's the right lesson.