When 9-year-old Lena Mangum plays superheroes with her sisters, she always chooses the character of Scarlet Witch, the Avenger who manipulates probability through hexes.
How often does she play superheroes?
“Often,” she said, proudly displaying her bin of plastic figurines.
Often seems to be the theme for superheroes these days, with Hollywood rolling out blockbuster superhero movies in rapid succession. About a half-dozen superhero-themed movies have been scheduled for this year, including “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” which opens this weekend.
Two other superhero movies are slated for late May. Like sandals and lemonade stands, these movies have become the gateways to summer, and the multimillion-dollar economic tent poles that prop up the movie industry.
For someone like Lena, the new batch of stories never gets old.
“Princess movies, I get bored with them,” Lena said. "With superhero movies, I don't get bored.”
Besides, she pointed out, “If you put a superhero and a princess against each other, in my opinion, the superhero will win.”
Of course, Lena isn’t alone in her obsession with superheroes. Many have parented or babysat that child: the one who slept in his Batman outfit for three weeks straight or the one who turned her bath towel into a cape and tried to fly down the stairs.
From the masked villain to the caped crusader, superheroes are now as entrenched in childhood culture as peanut butter and jelly. But what effect do these films, stories and characters have on those who have come to adore them, particularly children?
Ask most kids what they like about superheroes, and they’ll say it outright: the power. The power to fly (with or without a cape), bend iron bars, bend minds, scale walls, throw cars, shoot fire or ice or webs, read minds and fight with the skill and agility of a kung fu master.
Yet while the power alone is cool, some say it’s not what turns these heroes super in the eyes of adults and kids alike.
“The superpower part of heroes is very minor on the spectrum of what touches people about superheroes,” said Justin Martin, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, who has done research in the area of superheroes.
It’s the pursuit of justice that makes superheroes universally beloved, he said.
“Justice is a common principle we all agree on,” Martin said. “Those are things that shine when we look at superheroes: self-sacrifice and hope in the face of insurmountable odds.”
As Martin sees it, each superhero’s unique origin story provides a powerful impetus for change.
For example, take Peter Parker, the awkward teenager who receives superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. As Spider-Man, he initially uses his powers for personal gain. It is only after a tragic accident that he changes his purpose and the famous Spider-Man maxim sinks in: “With great power comes great responsibility."
In that vein, Martin believes superheroes can be a great moral-teaching tool for parents. In a research project Martin did several years ago, he cited evidence that kids who believe in a just world are more likely to succeed in school, trust their teachers and find learning a positive experience.
In a world that seems increasingly filled with terror, Martin said, the superhero story becomes all the more desired. Superheroes can be one of many tools to help instill belief in that just world.
“Superheroes fill a void,” Martin said. “They are a reminder that even when things seem their darkest, there’s hope over the horizon. People want to see more of that as a reminder that there is such thing as self-sacrifice.”
Martin said this belief can have a trickle-down effect on kids and adults, hopefully serving as a catalyst for change on a micro-level. Batman rescuing Gotham City from the evil Joker is one thing; people helping a neighbor on the street, learning empathy and making positive connections with those around them makes the superhero narrative a personal one.
It was this idea of using superheroes on a more individual, accessible level that caused Martin to develop his own comic book company, R-Squared Comicz, in 2009.
His first series, titled “Lightweitz,” uses the superhero theme to tell stories from a Christian worldview, something he saw lacking in the traditional comics he loved so much.
Martin wanted a comic that introduced teenagers to more interpersonal superpowers, such as discerning between truth and lies or manipulating emotions.
The rollout has been slow, but Martin said he is looking forward to expanding the series in the near future. He sees his comics, as well as other Christian and values-based comics, as filling a void while also dispelling the myth of religious dogma.
“A lot of problems that we deal with on a more local, national or global level have their origin in the interpersonal dynamic,” Martin said. “Spiritual and secular, if we treated each other better, certain things in the world would change.”
The greater good
The broad ability of superheroes to appeal to and connect with kids has seeped not only into small comic book startups but also into the classroom.
Researcher and scholar Bill Jenson has found success in using the superhero theme to create social skills training for students with autism.
A defining characteristic of autistic kids is their challenge with relating socially with their peers, yet finding a program that resonates with kids is not easy. From his research, Jenson, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Utah, found that adult talking heads just didn't work. Simply teaching the social skills wasn’t enough.
Inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point,” Jenson realized what he and his colleagues needed was a sticky factor, “like the jingle or song you can’t get out of your head in the shower,” he said.
That sticky factor was superheroes.
Developed by Jenson and his graduate students, Superheroes Social Skills is a multimedia program that uses characters such as Initiator Man and Scooter, a robot, to teach a series of 18 lessons to students on the autism spectrum.
The results, analyzed in multiple studies, have been extremely effective, he said.
“We’ve gone on playgrounds after we’ve taught the social skills to see the kids in action,” Jenson said. “That’s when it pays off. That’s why we use the stickiness factors.”
The dark side of superheroes
While using superheroes to teach social skills is a powerful tool, there is a dark side to superheroes.
One of the largest criticisms is the violence, something that Jenson was careful not to include in the development of his social skills training.
It’s the thing that makes him most uneasy about the superheroes of today. Students with autism use social stories to model behavior, and when that behavior is violent, it sends the wrong message.
“I’ve seen the modeling of aggression, and that sets me back," Jenson said. "If that superhero is hitting and kicking people, that is an unrealistic set of values for kids."
Many superhero fans contend that with traditional superhero stories, the superheroes only use violence as a last resort, but the latest iterations of superhero movies run like one long battle.
For Adam Mangum, Lena's father and a lifelong comic book and superhero fan, not all superhero stories are created equal.
“There has to be consequences," he said. "Some of the violence is for pure entertainment. It doesn’t really serve any purpose.”
Which is why, when it comes to the more graphically violent movies, Mangum doesn’t have much interest, and they’re not shows he’ll let his kids watch. If he’s not sure about the content, he’ll preview the movie before showing it to his children, but he also looks at each of his kids individually. What affects them can vary widely, and that’s where parents need to use discretion to know what’s best, he said.
The other big criticism of superheroes is lack of diversity, especially when it comes to females. When females are portrayed, they’re often in tight or revealing clothing.
But Mangum contends that in the Golden Age of comics, it didn’t start out that way.
“If you go back, the original women were dressed similar to men,” he said. “Black Widow is dressed in a full body-armor suit. Then they went backward.”
The female characters of the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, Mangum said, wore little clothing and took on fringe roles in the stories.
Mangum said that is changing, both in the comics and on the big screen.
“The women come off strong, authoritative and just as competent as men,” he said.
A father of four girls, Mangum said he wouldn’t feel comfortable putting the modern stories in front of his daughters if there hadn’t been the shift.
“I feel good when my daughter watches these (movies) and comes away saying, ‘My favorite is Scarlet Witch’ because of her moral arc," he said. "It tells me they’re doing a better job.”
That’s a relief to Mangum because enjoying the superhero world with his girls is one of his favorite things.
“In my dad’s generation, you put away childish things,” he said. “In our generation, people have stayed connected to the things that brought us joy when we were younger, so we don’t just pay the bills and go to work.”
And, he added, “The best part is watching my kids get into it as much as I do.”