TCS Daily

With Great Power...

By Jon Haber - December 21, 2004 12:00 AM

My five year old has taken to wearing a cape to kindergarten over the last few weeks.

While my wife and I struggled to come up with a name for this child years ago, we have recently been informed that the name we finally chose is actually his secret identity. His real name is "Lightning Rod," defender of the playground and scourge of crime at the counting and snack tables.

As a parent, I must, of course, express requisite concern that he does not take from the comics the lesson that fighting is a way to solve all problems. But secretly, I could not be more proud of E..., whoops I mean "Lightning Rod."

In years past, it was the legends of the Knights of the Round Table, or swashbuckling tales like The Three Musketeers that taught children lessons of loyalty, chivalry and the responsibility that comes with strength. Today, these stories, if they are touched on at all, focus largely on hardware (castles, swords, livestock) and software (how the nobles and common people lived) of specific eras.

While that's all well and good (and certainly an improvement over memorizing the date of the Battle of Hastings), there seems to be only one place these days where it is axiomatic that the strong must protect the weak, and that is in the pages of comic books.

It's no accident that one of the few lucid political debates to be triggered by the movies this year came from the animated blockbuster The Incredibles whose cartoon protagonists (with more life to them than any flesh-and-blood actor in epics like Alexander or Troy) challenged one of the innate contradictions of egalitarian philosophies, notably if everyone is special, then doesn't that mean no one is?

Thinking back on both volumes of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, what stuck with many audience members was not the stylized violence (as entertaining as that was), but David Carradine's exegesis on Superman at the end of Volume II where he wonders whether by creating bumbling Clark Kent as a secret identity, Superman was secretly making a commentary on what he thought of the human race. Whether one agrees with Bill/Tarantino or not on the subject of the Man of Steel, he certainly brought up a more interesting challenge than appears in two hours of philosophical claptrap in Dustin Hoffman's recent I [Heart Shape] Huckabees.

Having stopped reading comic books myself in the early 1980s, I understand that my commentary does not take into account our current post-modern era where comics have been used to explore the darker reaches of life (as in American Splendor) or to make commentary on superhero myths themselves (as in Batman's reincarnation as The Dark Knight).

Yet with all of the attempts to turn the goofy men and women in tights of old into brooding, morally ambiguous creatures, the hundreds of millions who flocked to see Spiderman 2 could not escape the underlying ideology that pervades the superhero mythos, regardless of how lightly or darkly it is painted: that (in the words of the Spiderman credo) with great power, comes great responsibility.

Jon Haber has worked as a film writer for the Boston Globe and movie reviewer at WBUR in Boston. He now runs SkillCheck, Inc., a software publisher in Burlington Massachusetts, and occasionally finds time to write about the intersection of politics, film and culture.


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