Should we still ‘marvel’ at comic book heroes?

An expected 200,000 fans will be flooding into San Diego over the next few days for the annual Comic-Con. With comic book based movies saturating the film market, is it time to ask: do these idolised superheroes display the character and virtues we hold in high regard for society?

Over the past ten years, the comic book genre has experienced an unprecedented surge in popularity. Though always popular with a collection of hard-core fans, in 2017 comic books saw the largest recorded sales since 1997. With online platforms for reading and comic book publishers developing their comic books into movie franchises, their popularity has never been higher. Marvel have demonstrated this with their adaption of the Avengers franchise, grossing over $2 billion worldwide.

The majority of these films are easy to watch, family friendly, fun and full of state of the art CGI which appeals to young children and adults alike. Watching heroes save the universe over and over again whilst using superhero powers can give the viewer a sense of real escapism. When we sit down with our large popcorn or nachos we expect to see our favourite heroes struggle against all odds, but to eventually defeat the villain. Is this form of escapism just what we need in a world where turmoil seems to overwhelm news columns? Or is there a deeper attraction hidden within the subtext of these books or films? If so, could this be character and virtue at play?

Due to the astronomical number of comic book characters, it is impossible to make judgements on all of them.  However, if we look closely at the most popular comic book adaptations to film, then a pattern does emerge.  All of these superheroes epitomise what the Jubilee Centre entitles performance virtues; resilience, determination and motivation.  Such performance virtues are also present, and in most cases more prominent, in the villains depicted throughout comic books. So what is the difference between them? To be truly virtuous these virtues must be rooted in the intellectual, moral and civic virtues. This is how and where our heroes standout.  The judgement, reflection, courage, compassion and service these superheroes display is what ultimately leads to their virtuous actions.

When these stories are explored in more depth, what’s truly evident is that all of the world’s mightiest heroes continually face dilemmas – most notably, knowing the right thing to do, at the right time, in the right amount and for the right reason. The Greek philosopher Aristotle refers to this as phronesis (known more commonly as practical wisdom). Like all virtues, phronesis develops throughout your life but can be exemplified throughout the comic book genre especially when looking at one of the most popular heroes in print and film: Spider-Man. He initially uses his powers for the vice of revenge but upon reflection realises the moral and civic connotations that having such powers could bring. At the beginning of his superhero journey he is just a teenager and we see his character develop throughout his story arch.

As an avid follower of the comic book genre I can only hope that the thousands of fans attending the current Comic-Con convention, and the millions of other fans around the world, ‘marvel’ at these superheroes not only because of their extraordinarily feats of strength or speed, but because of their character, for it is this which ultimately enables them to enact the heroic and virtuous acts that we are so enthralled by.

This blog was originally published on the University of Birmingham College of Social Sciences Blog.

Michael Fullard is a Research Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

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