Thursday, September 30, 2010

Superhero Role Models, Part 2

Today's media superheroes -- including Batman in The Dark Knight and the Hulk in Planet Hulk -- as well as the ''slacker'' characters often portrayed in TV shows and movies offer boys poor role models, says a University of Massachusetts professor who polled hundreds of boys up to age 18 to find out their favorites.

The poll results suggest boys hear two ways to be masculine, says researcher Sharon Lamb, EdD, distinguished professor of mental health at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, who presented the findings Sunday at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting in San Diego.

"One was the superhero image, created as someone who shows their masculinity through power over other people, through exploiting women, showing their wealth, and through sarcasm and superiority," she says.

Superheroes: Bad Role Models for Boys?

It's been over a month since I posted part I of Superhero Role Models. I meant to get back to it sooner, but you wouldn't believe how busy I get with the jobs that actually pay me. Nevermind that, though. Right to work.


Bruce Wayne is the living embodiment of the phrase, "Don't get mad, get even." When Bruce was about 10 years old or so, his parents were gunned down right before his eyes during a robbery in an alley. The Waynes were rich, but apparently they didn't want to blow any of their dough on bodyguards and didn't believe in leaving the theatre by the front door. Bam! Bam! Mom and Dad are just dead.

There are variations on a theme, but generally, Bruce spends the rest of his childhood being raised by the family's kindly butler Alfred. All the while, something is slowly smoldering in the maturing Bruce and a plan takes form. Eventually, he sets himself on a path of education not typically offered by most Ivy League schools and acquires the skill sets and material to let him become the Batman!

This is more than a simple case of revenge. If revenge against one murderer were the answer, all Bruce would have to do is offer a few million to the person who could find and whack the guy who killed his parents and it would be over. No. For Bruce, it will never be over.

So what kind of role model does that make him?

Pretty awful, actually. He's obsessed and keeps on letting himself be obsessed. In a material sense, he's got everything a person could ever want: looks, money, power, and popularity. Other people manage to get past family tragedies. Another person would have channelled all his hurt and anger into developing programs for crime victims and their families, paying for therapy (which Bruce desperately needed as a child and no one seemed to recognize), and lobbying for harsher penalties for repeat offenders. What twists inside a person so badly, that he has to put on a black costume at night and beat the bad guys to a pulp with his fists?

Do you want your little boy to grow up like that? Most parents want their kids to be happy. Bruce is never happy.

What's worse, he spreads his obsession to a succession of young, impressionable teen boys. It would be one thing if Bruce were to contain his pain within himself, put on the costume alone, and take the risks as an individual, but he keeps bringing these kids into it. Depending on which version of the legend you look at, at least one Robin was killed by the Joker and, in a Batman Beyond episode, another Robin was captured, tortured, and brainwashed by the Joker. The poor kid ended up just barely avoiding capping Batman and finally finishing off the Joker. He needed and got years of therapy, but he never put on a cape and mask again. Lucky him.

Batman as a role model for young boys? Forget it. You might as well assign Dracula to run Boys Town (but only at night) or let the Joker himself adopt a few kiddies for fun and games in the chem lab. A freaking F- for Bruce.


He's big. He's strong. He talks like the King James version of the Bible. In the 1960s, the Haight-Ashbury hippies probably loved his hair. Everyone who even dreams of Gold's Gym probably loves his muscles. In next year's movie, Natalie Portman gets to be his girlfriend (Yowza!). But how is he as a role model for kids?

First, some background.

According to the original Marvel Comics canon, Dr Don Blake (with a limp and cane, decades before House) is vacationing in Norway when he falls down a big hole and ends up in a cave. I think this has something to do with him witnessing an alien invasion a few minutes before this incident and feeling kind of freaked out. He loses his cane but finds an old beat up stick to use. Banging it on the ground, it turns into this really big hammer and he turns into Thor.

Apparently, Thor had been a bad boy. Arrogant and snobby and all that (probably what Bruce Wayne would have turned into as a rich family's only child if his parents hadn't been gunned down). His father Odin decides to teach him humility by cursing Thor (minus a few memories) and placing him into the body of whatever hapless sap happened to come upon that stick in a cave. The sap would be Blake.

From this point on, Blake and Thor share a dual identity, with the nice, quiet Blake running his private practice in Manhattan, and Thor showing up whenever some big time menace made the scene.

Thor's history gets really long and complicated from here, but sticking to the basics, both Blake and Thor are really conservative good guys. Thor, with all his thees and thous, comes off like a cosmic cornball, but he's loyal to Daddy Odin, loyal to the Avengers, and believes in honor and justice. Blake, though not nearly as dynamic as his hammer-wielding alter ego, is also essentially a good guy. He's always tried to do the right thing by his girlfriend Jane Foster, even to the point of making her an immortal, but Odin didn't like the idea and stripped her of her immortality and memories of Asgard. Hardly Thor's fault.

You really can't blame the guy for anything. There are probably times when he lost his temper and flew off the handle, but if you ever wanted someone to have your back, it would be Thor.

Honor, justice, and fighting evil as Thor and helping the sick and injured and pulling down a six figure income as an M.D. in Manhattan as Don Blake. For role model material, he gets an A+.


Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry. I'm sure you recognized this tagline from the Incredible Hulk TV series. Starting with original canon, shy, withdrawn super-brainy Government scientist Dr. Robert Bruce Banner invents the Gamma Bomb and, back in the day when above-ground nuclear tests were legal, he arranges to have it test detonated out in the middle of some forsaken desert.

The problem is thick-headed Rick Jones, some footloose teenager with more time than sense, happened to drive out onto the test range on a bet and was just seconds away from being blasted into radioactive atoms. Bruce sees Rick outside and orders the countdown be stopped, but he didn't count on a lousy Commie spy being in the bunker, too. The spy, seeing an opportunity to get rid of Banner (moron..kidnap him for his secrets, don't kill him) and somehow access his research, makes sure the countdown doesn't stop.

Why Banner didn't think he had all the time in the world is beyond me, but he runs out onto the testing range, screaming like a madman, and manages to get Rick to safety just in time. The bomb does off and instead of killing Banner instantly or killing him by radiation poisoning or by inducing cancer, the gamma blast gives Banner the ability to turn into a raging green (gray on the cover of issue 1) behemoth called "the Hulk".

Again, lots and lots of history, but underneath it all, I say Banner has an authority problem. Think about it. Brainy, nerdy guy in the early 1960s when it certainly wasn't popular to be nerdy. Having tough Army officers with the collective IQ of a barrel cactus telling him what to do. I bet he couldn't wait to figure out a way to trash the nearest Army base and get his revenge. The Hulk was just a means to an end. Victim of radiation poisoning, my butt!

Whenever Banner gets in a jam he can't think his way out of, he turns into the Hulk and overcomes the problem by brute force. Want to teach that lesson to your 14 year old? Didn't think so.

To be fair, Banner didn't ask for what happened to him but, most scientists would have turned themselves over to the medical profession and had geniuses like Reed Richards, Henry Pym, and Tony Stark figure out a cure rather than going on the run (OK, he was probably afraid of a Government conspiracy...who wouldn't be?).

Role model material? I'll be generous and give him a D. You don't want kids yelling "Hulk Smash!" and then trying to break out of the house through a wall when they get mad because they don't want to do their homework.

The Flash

I know what you're thinking, but we're not talking about guys in cheap raincoats who don't wear pants. I'm talking about a police scientist (today, we'd call him a Crime Scene Investigator) who gets a ton of chemicals spilled all over him thanks to a freak lightning strike, resulting in Barry Allen gaining the ability to access something called the speed force, which enables him to, among other things, run faster than the speed of light.

Pretty cool.

1960s canon dictates that Barry Allen be squeaky clean, have a cool girlfriend named Iris (another reporter), a job, and be a nice guy. Heck, when Allen was first introduced, he even had a crewcut.

Barry started out as the classic nerd, always slow, methodical, and occasionally forgetful, but heck, he's a cop. When he discovers he has super powers, he does what anyone in his position would do (especially in the comic book world). He makes a costume with a mask and becomes a superhero.

In Barry's case, he had a little help. He was reading a comic book about the Golden Age Flash (Jay Garrick) right before the accident, so it's not like the idea to become a costumed hero was particularly inventive.

Flash remains a hero in the classic sense throughout his career and even gets to marry his girlfriend. All is well, until one of his arch villains, the Reverse Flash, kills Iris. Eventually the Flash (but not Barry) goes on trial for the murder of his wife's killer, but the whole thing is a setup by another villain named Abra Kadabra (some of these names are over the edge). Barry solves the mystery, clears his name, and even reunited with dead Iris, since her spirit ended up in the 30th century and was given a new body (Don't takes too long to explain).

The next problem was that the Flash ends up dead, but he dies heroically. It goes on and on, but the complicated history isn't the point of this analysis. What we see is a guy who never stops being a hero, even in the face of death. He never stops loving his wife, he takes her lonely nephew under his wing (a guy named Wally West), and..need I go on?

I can't find a problem with this guy. He's gone through hell and back and still comes out smelling like a rose. The Flash also gets an A+ as a role model.

That's it for this round. It seems, based on this group, that you're either a really good superhero role model or a really bad one.

If you have any suggestions or comments about future superhero role models or you think I've been unfair to the ones I've reviewed so far, let me know.

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