These Aren’t Your Father’s Superheroes

Dr. Fredric Wertham

The Golden Age comics that Dr. Fredric Wertham blamed as a cause of juvenile delinquency in the 1950s look pretty good to one contemporary psychologist who feels the superheroes in today’s movies set a horrible example:

“There is a big difference in the movie superhero of today and the comic book superhero of yesterday,” said psychologist Sharon Lamb of the University of Massachusetts-Boston, according to a press release from the American Psychological Association. “Today’s superhero is too much like an action hero who participates in non-stop violence; he’s aggressive, sarcastic and rarely speaks to the virtue of doing good for humanity. When not in superhero costume, these men, like Ironman, exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns.”

Dr. Sharon Lamb

I agree with Dr. Lamb that these are characteristic of the hero in Iron Man 2 — except that more needs to be said. All these excesses were his downfall, 

costing him public adulation and the respect of his friends. Tony Stark/Iron Man had to overcome them to continue functioning as a superhero. I’m surprised Dr. Lamb doesn’t approve that example of moral consequences and redemption.

Her co-authored book, Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes, published in 2009, sounds as if it might be interesting, because the first sentence on its publicity website is certainly true:

Boys are besieged by images and messages from marketers and the media that encourage slacking over studying; competition over teamwork; power over empowerment; and being cool over being oneself.

[Thanks to David Klaus for the story.]

4 thoughts on “These Aren’t Your Father’s Superheroes

  1. I haven’t seen Iron Man 2, having been sufficiently bored by Iron Man 1, but whether a critic like Dr. Lamb should approve a tale of moral consequences and redemption depends on whether it really is one, or if it wallows in the exploitation and flaunt, and only tacks on the consequences and redemption as an epilogue.

    You know, shady publishers used to get away with packaging their dirty books as educational by sticking little prefaces at the beginning that said, “This is a cautionary tale. Don’t do this stuff.”

  2. My favourite superhero has, for a long time, been the Batman depicted in the Warner Bros. cartoons of some 15 years ago. The character can’t quite be called “non-violent” but he is clearly in the stampe of old comic book heroes who vow not to never kill anyone, hate guns, and have a deep reverence for the redeemability of anyone, however villainous. And yet, Batman carries is off without seeming square or naive.

    Contast that to the current Batman cartoons, though. They are much more black & white, ironically. While many of the villains in the previous series were distrubed personalities you could empathize with, and their crimes morally ambivalent, the present series of Batman cartoons is full of villains who have no ambiguities. They are evil because they are evil — like the Taliban or pointy-headed Liberals… I don’t care very much for the new series.

    And then there are the recent Batman movies, with the life-size dummy in the Batsuit who rages and snarls and is much more like Wolverine… or maybe The Punisher. The idealism has practically sunk out of sight, leaving us instead with a blistering study of evil as enacted by The Joker.

    Long ago I observed that it is easier and perhaps more fun to imagine Evil than Good. It is certainly done more often.

  3. Think I’ll have to agree with Dr. Lamb based on what’s presented here. Comics these days are printed without the Comics Code Authority that was in full force in my youth in the 70s. Most comics are aimed at the adult audience, but are purchased by both young reader and adults. While I enjoy these comics, I something wonder how this adult take on super-heroes are effecting young readers.
    I also wonder if and when backlash from parents will happen. I think parents would be shocked at some of the material in today’s comics that their kids are reading. Think it’s only a matter of time before we get into another Seduction of the Innocent phase.

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