The response to Squelchtoad’s thought experiment has been delayed until tomorrow (I got a little snowed under by Udacity). I’ve been doing a number of replies in the comments of that post, and I’ll have something more coherent for you tomorrow. To tide you over, I’ve got a couple quick thoughts on a defense of superhero movies written by the guy playing Loki in the Avengers. Quoth he:
[S]uperhero films offer a shared, faithless, modern mythology, through which these truths can be explored. In our increasingly secular society, with so many disparate gods and different faiths, superhero films present a unique canvas upon which our shared hopes, dreams and apocalyptic nightmares can be projected and played out. Ancient societies had anthropomorphic gods: a huge pantheon expanding into centuries of dynastic drama; fathers and sons, martyred heroes, star-crossed lovers, the deaths of kings – stories that taught us of the danger of hubris and the primacy of humility. It’s the everyday stuff of every man’s life, and we love it. It sounds cliched, but superheroes can be lonely, vain, arrogant and proud. Often they overcome these human frailties for the greater good. The possibility of redemption is right around the corner, but we have to earn it.
I’m already looking forward to Avengers (the duct tape I need for my costume arrived this week) and I like a lot of what Loki is saying here. It can be a struggle to find a set of shared cultural references when you want to thrash out ethics with someone. You need some kind of vernacular so your abstract philosophical discussions don’t become totally unmoored.
Because of my age, I’ve mostly had this experience with Harry Potter. Everyone I went to school with read the books, so asking someone whether they thought Snape would turn out all right in the the end was a guaranteed conversation starter. Because of the moral dimensions of the story, it was a particularly helpful philosophical lingua franca, but I’m broadly in agreement with Richard Feynmann that “Everything is interesting if you look closely enough.” (Though some works may currently be beyond the reach of even James Cameron’s meaning-seeking submersibles).
In a pluralistic society, Loki is correct that we don’t have many shared references to draw on, so we should be more attentive to the opportunities for conversation sparked by blockbusters. In high school, I used the recaps on Television without Pity to be able to keep up with conversations, because even if I didn’t like the show in question, I was probably interested in some of the questions it raised. There’s plenty of use in recruiting other people to read and watch other works, but we can do a lot with the tools that are available.
Recommended reading: First year teacher Ferny talks about the extent to which his job as a social studies teacher is just as much about cultural literacy as it is about historical fact.