Superheroes, Magic, and Kids

I spend a lot of time around boys aged 3-7. My own son is 5 1/2. Among this demographic, I see a lot of superhero t-shirts, hoodies, backpacks, toys, capes, etc and hear a lot of superhero talk. In my house we go very light on branded items and superhero images. In some very important ways, even the Powerpuff Girls, a cartoon I’m a fan of myself and for my kids, falls into the superhero category.

When one of the other five year olds in my son’s weekly karate class asked why he couldn’t do the new move correctly right away, I noticed that he was wearing a superhero t-shirt. “How can we learn a move?” asked Sensei. Another little boy shouted out, “Practice!” Practice and perseverance is something that all kids learn over time, and it seems like about 5 years old is when the lessons begin to set in. Yet even adults never master this lesson, which admittedly is a lifetime’s work. Do super heroes and pop-culture, wand-waving magicians and witches diminish this lesson, by depicting people who don’t have a choice about their powers or don’t have to work at them?

In general, I think pretending to be a superhero is part of healthy imaginative development. Who doesn’t want to fly, save people, or fight the monsters? Small children discovering their own autonomy and becoming cognizant of their own powerlessness in the world need play and images that help them feel powerful.

By Nicholas Gemini via Wikimedia Commons

Superheroes have been around for most of the 20th century. Knights existed before then. Now superheroes are far more mainstream than they were when I was a child. I was aware of them – and even watched the first few Superman movies with rapt attention! – but they just weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now.

I’m starting to wonder if the ubiquity of heroes that are innately born with exceptional powers (Superman, Powerpuff Girls) and/or exceptional privileges (Batman, Iron Man) might be problematic. I wonder how this parallels with Harry Potter and other magical literature. I wonder how these tropes are influencing our understanding – and my kids’ understanding – of magical practice.*

In the case of Superman we have a seemingly perfect man. He is born with his powers and is always Good and Just. He doesn’t need to work on his powers, he just has them. Batman is a far more morally grey character and his ‘powers’ aren’t physically innate, but, like Iron Man, the brains and finances that allow him to develop the technology to be a super hero are inherited. There is no hope for the 99%. We all need people to emulate, but in these stories I see a Jesus-like saviour and the 1% that swoop in save us. What happens when we get dependent on others to save us? The comic Kingdom Come addresses this very point: people are no longer trying to save themselves and each other; they’re waiting for the super heroes to come to the rescue.

In the fantasy world, Harry Potter fares a bit better. We get to watch magical children grow and develop their skills. What I find worrying is the split between the witch world and the muggle world. You are either born with magic or not.

Now, most Traditional Witches will say that some are either ‘witch born’ or not. I am agnostic on this point thus far. But I have experienced that some people are more natural ‘instruments’ or have an innate calling for certain paths. Like opera singing, this also applies to magic. But the idea that one is either blatantly magical or not just doesn’t hold up in my experience. Most people can develop whatever amount of skill they have, if for no other purpose than their own enjoyment. The world is not split along Magical or Mundane lines; why should people be dramatically different?

I choose to believe that witchcraft is both innate AND developed. This is what my experience, plus my understanding of the lore, tells me. What I fear is that people will take the above examples to an extreme: that one is born super or not super, or that greatness is something that is conferred upon a person – that I get saved externally, or made magical externally. I spoke ever so briefly about this last example in my recent post on being a student. I spent too many years waiting for the teacher that would bring out my greatness, when all along I had my own greatness to foster. I want my kids to know that anything worth learning takes practice (handwriting, reading, martial arts, magic).

Most people who delve into Paganism or magic(k) learn quickly that ‘powers’ come over time and with work. Even those that have demonstrable innate gifts (seeing spirits, trancing, psychic skills, etc) have to learn to control and hone their skills. Successful people in any field know that they have to put in their “10,000 hours” to achieve greatness.

I think all of us want to believe that there is something Different and Special about us as individuals, that we might be singled out by something beautiful (maybe by a vampire in Forks, WA?), that we might rise above the limits of our humanity. But it is the very limits of our humanity that stretch and expand as we dive into the practices and practice of the magical life. Each of us bring our own nuances of personality and talents to similar skills, like divination, possession, or casting a circle.

One of the theological points I feel most strongly about is “we save ourselves and each other.” We each of us are superheros at some point in our lives. We grab the lifeline that some one has thrown us and we dig deep into our courage and integrity, pulling ourselves out and up with our own strength. We combine our forces (or stockpiles) and find refuge from the zombies. I reach out to the gods and spirits, and they reach back. No one Great Being is going to swoop in and save our day. How can I teach my kids they can be the superhero of their own lives? By modeling the practice of my skills and reaching out to save myself and others.

We are each of us superheroes in the making.


*I am not an expert in the comics or books I am talking about. By all means, go into detail in the comments, but I hope the larger ideas here hold, even if my understanding of certain points is weak. There are also so many retconned storylines and subplots that I can’t keep up. I’m sure there’s some issue somewhere to disprove one of my notions, but on the whole I don’t think I’m misrepresenting any of the characters mentioned in this post.

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  • dunesen

    On the issue of practice the real problem isn’t superhero stories, it’s The Karate Kid. By which I mean movies like Karate Kid, that revolve prominently around a character learning a skill, always cut corners by going to a montage which shows them getting just a little bit better in every cut. As if improvement or mastery of a skill is a steady climb upward, without any plateaus or backsliding or roadblocks. It’s created this idea that if you’re not improving at something immediately you’re just not cut out for it.

    • Ha! I had forgotten the montage.

      I am not saying that superheros are BAD. I actually think that they are a positive vehicle for imaginative play (I actually said that in the post). But I’m thinking about the cumulative effects of all of these narratives on young minds and spirits.

      • dunesen

        I don’t know how you view coincidences/serendipity, but early last week I ordered some DVDs online and now this morning I’m watching Amadeus. Strikes me as a suitable summation of your concern here, Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart’s innate talent.

        Just wanted to mention that.

        • Oh, I love that movie! I haven’t seen it in ages. Mozart may be my favorite composer of all time. Hm, think I’ll put some Mozart on now…… *totally lost track of your point as I swoon over Mozart*

          • dunesen

            And someone else in the comments has raised the idea of being called by a divine being, which also ties into the movie…

      • wodentoad

        To show the whole of a character’s movement from no-skill to hero which could take place over weeks, months, even years, would take more time than most people can spend in a movie. Some–many in fact–of the montages show them failing after early success, because we all go through that, and it’s reflecting that growth that gives the audience something to connect to on a personal level.

        I’m surprised you give Harry Potter a pass, because of all the super heroes that you mention, he was born with magic that protected him from harm, but never had to struggle with Parsletongue or flying a broom, both necessary to his defeating the bad guy, and he never struggled with passing his classes, a struggle we muggles have frequently. He is a Mary Sue.

        For flawed characters, how is Achilles’ hubris any different or more valid than Tony Stark/Iron Man’s?

        • Wanna know why I didn’t go into Harry Potter more in depth? Shhhhh….. don’t tell anyone…… I’ve only read the first two books and seen the first movie. That’s why I only mentioned the muggle vs magical world.

          I don’t think the gods (many of them, not all) are very much different from superheros. It surprises me not one bit that Thor is a superhero in a comic book series. But sadly, the gods are not as ubiquitous in modern childhood’s arena as the comic book characters are.

          • wodentoad

            So, in effect, you’re begging the question. You are making assertions on subject matter “Superheroes are X” without much knowledge of the topic? “I don’t know anything about super heroes.”

            This brings to mind your non sequitor about the children in a martial arts class. I can only assume by the way it was phrased that his bossiness is related to the superhero on his shirt? If I read that wrong, please correct me.

          • I am absolutely begging the question, but I’m not making assertions. I am working out my ideas. I make no claims that my ideas about superheroes are fully worked out. I’m wondering out loud. It’s my blog, I get to do that.

            The kid in the t-shirt wasn’t bossy. And it’s not a non-sequitur, as the the post is about superheroes and kids.

          • Sunweaver

            But there are some built-in biases and assumptions in the way the question is asked. You state that “we go very light on branded items and superhero images,” which indicates a pre-existing bias against those things. You give a negative example of an assumed influence (the boy who gets frustrated that he can’t instantly do a move who happens to be wearing a superhero shirt) without considering what portion of the other children might also be interested in superheroes. Is there a kid who is working extra hard because she wants to be awesome like the Black Widow? The example of positive influence you give is weak, “vehicle for imaginitive play,” and then you ask what the cumulative effects are. The implication is that the cumulative effects are negative.

            Wondering out loud is fine, but this is not an unbiased inquiry. I don’t feel like everybody’s gotta like everything and if you want to not like superheroes, that’s fine. I bought my one year old a couple of Avengers sippy cups and my coffee cup this morning has Wonder Woman on it. My bias is pretty obviously the other direction, but I tend to be pretty honest with myself about that.

            (I hope you don’t feel I’m attacking you. That’s not my intention. I’m passionately disagreeing, but certainly not attacking. I’ve spent a lot of time on these ideas and have some strong feelings about them.)

          • I didn’t mean to be particularly negative, and I don’t think I was. I think I was being balanced – I was wondering if there was a connection between the superhero idea and the instantaneous gratification of powers – mostly among children. I never said it was direct co-relation; I wondered.

            My bias against branded items is less against subject matter and more about branding itself. I have a HUGE bias against marketing to children, cheap plastic crap, the accumulation of worthless stuff, and toys that remove imagination by forcing kids to use them in only one or two ways.

            I find it interesting that you assume I don’t like superheroes. I never said that, and in fact, quite like them a lot. Your inference does not mean I implied. I don’t feel attacked, just confused.

  • emonyna .

    Kids read far less into comics/books/movies than adults. Or maybe less literally. If they are Superman fans, sure they will have their playing moments where they pretend to be him, being able to fly and stuff, but they don’t for a moment imagine they need to be born with these powers to be great. They will stand up to bullies whether or not they have powers because they learned it was the right thing to do. I grew up watching the Batman series, and never once did I think I needed to be born with money or be incredibly smart to be a hero. (I even thought that as a little kid I could be just as awesome…)

    • I agree that kids don’t read as much into things as adults. And I don’t think that superheroes are bad models on their own. What I find interesting is the huge surge in superhero narratives. Add in shows like American Idol (that don’t often reveal the years of work these singers have put in before being ‘picked out of the crowd’) and certain vampire narratives and so on, and I wonder what the cumulative effects are.

      • Sunweaver

        These things have been around since the ’30’s, if you’re just counting modern comics. Throw in ancient myths (Achilles, Theseus, Herakles, Odysseus) and that’s thousands of years of superheroes and I will eat my hat if Herakles isn’t a superhero.
        (Super)heroes have inspired generations upon generations to do better and to be better. The cumulative effect is civilization. (I was going to say Western civilization, but then remembered stories like the Monkey King and other stories from the near and far east.)
        There may be more obvious marketing, but these stories are ubiquitous and have been throughout history.

  • Ken

    I have found myself wishing to be chosen by some God or Goddess. Imbued with some power and tasked with the will of that deity, I would have a clear cut purpose.
    I think this comes from superheroes, especially when some way to make normal people super (like Captain America) is involved.
    Since I started to manage my own physical fitness, I have determined that we must be our own force of change.
    Fortunately, I was a big Star Wars fan as a kid and I think the struggles Luke faced to become a Jedi were more realistic than many modern heroes.
    I think I will try to use that 10000 hour figure as a sort of bench mark of learning something. If one spends 3 hours a day learning something it should take less than 2 months.

    • I too occasionally long for some Great Divine Imbuing of Purpose. Some people are given that, others have to find it themselves.

  • Sunweaver

    My nephew, a 1st grader, wants to be like Tony Stark, so he’s putting that energy into learning about math, science, programming, circuitry, and finance. I met a man who owns a business chemically analyzing nutritional supplements who was inspired by Reed Richards (Fantastic Four). This goes far beyond “vehicle for imaginative play.”

    These narratives often go much deeper than just “person who has powers saves the day.” There are difficult moral questions, complex interpersonal relationships, and social issues present in these narratives that can be used as teaching moments. And kids pick up on more of that than we realize. Especially in the Marvel Universe, the pursuit of science for good and teamwork are the primary factors in success (see also: Iron Man 3, The Avengers). The superpowers are almost secondary– a substrate in which the real story can grow.

    edited for formatting

    • Those opening examples are excellent! Definitely positive inspirations. I don’t think superheroes are necessarily any more or less complicated or problematic than taking on gods as role models – or even other humans! Gandhi and MLK Jr are very complex and problematic!

      It does seem that Marvel has more nuance than the DC universe, but I’m not particularly clued in on which hero goes with which universe.

      • Sunweaver

        It’s worth looking into. These are our modern myths, so they reflect who we are at any given time. There’s a great deal of complexity to explore in the way these stories are told and, as with any story, we don’t just give our kids the narrative. We talk about that story and explore those ideas together.

        Even a younger kid can understand “Okay, how did the Avengers beat the bad guy? They had to work together. Could they have done it without working together?” So you’re helping them notice those themes and ideas. Older kids will be able to more easily pick up on the ways these stories reflect upon current events (see also: the first Iron Man movie). I’m looking forward to the next Captain America movie particularly because I want to see how they use that framework to reflect some morally grey goings-on in our government. Cap is the moral compass of the Avengers, so how does a person like that deal with these issues?

        I do want to see the hero save the day because that’s what heroes do. But I’m not waiting to be saved by them. I’m working to be them. Maybe I’m not super, but they remind me that I have my own strengths to cultivate.

        • Your last paragraph is my point exactly!

          On a personal note, I am *loving* (and hating) the Marvel movie franchise. I have a love/hate relationship with Thor. I adored the first Iron Man movie but the second two have suuuuuuuucked – even though I will follow Robert Downey Jr to the ends of the earth. And yes, I actually want to see the next Capt America movie for the very reason you point out.