In an age when entertainment has become the new religion, and celebrities the new deities, the power for big budget fiction to influence people is staggering. Often, this isn't viewed as a good thing -- and often, that would be correct. However, if we are going to chastise an industry for affecting people negatively, it seems only fair we also give credit where it's due.
In most films (especially in Hollywood), good still triumphs over evil, and we cheer for the protagonist (usually a noble character with strong virtues who helps others). It is these fictional heroes who have become powerful role models for our youth, including this writer. I grew up on a healthy dose of cartoons, movies, video games, and comic books. As I transitioned into adulthood, I became someone very interested in helping people, social services, equality, and volunteer work. When pondering who has inspired me to become the person I am, the usual suspects came to mind: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, etc. However, equally as prominent in influencing my character were the likes of Spider-Man, Batman, Optimus Prime, the X-Men, and Superman. Upon realizing half my list of influential people was fictional, I was struck with a powerful conclusion: Superheroes made me a better man.
As unusual as that sounds, it's not difficult to see why. Superheroes are the pinnacle of good. They can be super powerful, super caring, and super sacrificing. By their nature, they are larger than life. Some of you may be displeased with the idea of raising fictional characters to the same moral importance as real people, but real heroes (firefighters, activists for the oppressed, volunteers) suffer from the very thing that they supposedly have going for them; they actually exist.
No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone occasionally hurts others through less than selfless motives. They also have to endure great sacrifice, punishment, and risk in order to gain credibility. Nelson Mandela, for instance, gained much of his moral authority through his long and unjust imprisonment. Simply put, it is very difficult to be a real life moral exemplar. However, fiction is not bound to the difficulties that break so many people. You can conjure up a heroine who lived through 40 years of hardship and went on to save the world, and her (though fictional) tale, if well-told, still has the power to captivate and inspire us. In the words of Ra al Ghul (Batman's mentor):
"If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal and if they can't stop you, you become something else entirely - a legend." - Batman Begins (2005)
Superheroes can be an ideal. Where else can you find a man with immeasurable wealth who yet also risks his life helping people (Batman)? Or find one with God-like powers who still wishes to lead a humble, honest, and altruistic life (Superman)? Or find a segment of the population that is naturally more powerful, and yet wants to use that power to help others (X-Men)? Superheroes can be what we are not: inhumanly, unrealistically inspiring. They can't have their moral authority removed through scandals or human error because they aren't real, and they only error when intended to do so. Deep beneath the flashy powers, fantastic stories, and elaborate costumes, superheroes touch the very core of what we find noble; using power and strength for good. This is especially true in tales where an unlikely hero must rise up to meet life's expectations (Spider-Man, Frodo Baggins). They find a power they didn't know they had, and deep down we all want to believe we are special. We like to think that when push comes to shove, we are capable of great things. That is the timeless moral centre of superhero tales and their most important impact; they can inspire us to believe we could be heroes, too.
When life gives you lemons, it's rarely a bad idea to ask yourself, "What would Peter Parker do?" Thanks to clever storytellers wrapping a pure sense of morality and good in such a fantastical package, I imagine I will spend the rest of my days aspiring to make the world a better place. Had I only been socialized with real life heroes, I don't think I would have had the attention span to internalize the underlining messages of right and wrong. So the next time you hear someone complaining about the perils of the media, remind them that along with removing the "destructive" influence of television from people, you may also be depriving them of powerful moral icons -- some who are more enduring than real people and who now have a greater influence than many of their religious contemporaries.