Playing Superhero

There’s a scene near the end of the new Captain America movie, sickness in which a group of kids are pretending to be Capt and the Howling Commandos. We see the kids run down the street and around the corner, decease off to vanquish the bad guys and save the day.

There’s something about childhood and imagination that we have lost as adults. And given the post from yesterday about the mythic nature of superheroes and the role that comic books have played in our culture, site I thought it was time to reflect on how we played superheroes as kids.

My friend Shane is the biggest DC comics fan I know. He knows more about Batman and Superman than everybody else in the universe. Here is his story of playing superhero, in his own words:

Like many kids I would tie a towel around my neck and pretend it was a cape. I’d run around the house, saving the cat from imaginary ne’er-do-wells and pretending the coat rack was a villian in need of a sword fight. I was a huge fan of the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies and was always quoting them, much to my parents dismay. I’d “rescue” the cat and say “Don’t worry miss, I’ve got you!” but much to my dismay the cat never replied “You’ve got me? Who’s got you!?!”

I would also take the Lego blocks I had and would build sets for my Kenner “Super Powers” figures to smash, bash, and demolish while trying to conquer evil and restore peace to the good citizens of the city.

When I look back now I can’t help but be somewhat embarrased about my acting out superheroic fantasies. At the same time I realize that those times I pretended had a strong impact on building character. I would ask myself “what would Superman do” and try to act accordingly. Would he put others before himself, would he save the damsel or go after the villian? What did it mean to fight for “truth and justice”?

Unknowingly I was building a part of my lifelong moral character. I was teaching myself right from wrong, how to act ethically, why others matter, and other important life lessons and all the primary colored heroes served as my moral guides. They taught me to always do what’s right, to push on even when it hurts and that all life, even the lives of my arch nemesis, have innate value.

I also realize now that I was acting out stories that have been played out for millenia. Sure, in the past the stories may have been created around Hector and Achilles, or Arthur and Lancelot as opposed to Batman and Robin, but the narrative has stayed the same: there’s good and there’s evil and at the end of the day the good guys win, get the girl and ride off into the sunset while the bad guys see their plans foiled and are defeated… at least for now.

Perhaps that why I lament the current vogue of heroes wanting vengeance, seeking personal vendettas and generally not looking beyond themselves until the story says so. I miss the stories where the hero knew what had to be done and did it despite personal cost or the need for some self epiphany about the path of self-sacrifice.

I also realize that my attraction to the idea of Superman was because of my childhood belief in God and Jesus Christ. It’s been said many times that Superman is Jesus in a big red cape, and while I won’t go into that further (there are enough websites covering that already!) but I will that it’s a fairly good metaphor. Perhaps that’s why, of all superheroes, Superman has become part of collective conciousness. He, like Christ, is an ideal, what we wish we were, what we wish we could be if the right circumstances came together.

I may be getting too old for pretending to be a superhero and my villians have changed from those with ray guns and robots to those with debts and deadlines but the lessons I learned from pretending to be the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight have stayed with me: always do what’s right, push on even when it hurts and to always fight a never-ending battle for truth and justice.

I even sometimes do it with a towel wrapped around my neck.

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Your turn: What is your fondest memory of playing superhero as a kid?

  • Ally

    The thing that amazes me with kids is how much gets picked up regardless of exposure… Like I’m quite certain I ran around with a towel as a cape at least a few times, but I didn’t watch or read about any kind of superheros as a child…

    Then again, I also didn’t watch any Star Trek as a child, and yet I used a hair comb thingy as a seeing visor, and also thought that the money from the offering plates must be “beamed” up to God from the back room that they took them to (well we’re “giving money to God” so it has to get up there to him somehow, right?)

    (though I suspect there must have been a Reading Rainbow episode that followed our friend LaVar to the set or something… because seriously, neither of my parents are Star Trek people, and I was an only child who rarely had a babysitter, and mostly watch Mister Rogers, Reading Rainbow and Mister Wizard’s World, with a few other random PBS shows of the 80s thrown in that I have trouble finding anyone else who remembers, lol)

  • I pretended to be one of the ninja turtles on the playground. I was always imagining that out of nowhere the school would suddenly be in ultimate peril and myself and maybe a few friends would mutate into the green fab four. I was always Donatello, and looking back I think I just really wanted go show people that I could be counted on – and maybe also I wanted to be impressive.

  • For me, it was the Marvel Superheroes role-playing game (ah, the 80s, glory days of table-top RPGs). I and one of my brothers were nearly equal in our obsession, and whatever money I made at my part-time job that didn’t go to comics or sci-fi books went to game gear. My favorite part was creating new characters with interesting combinations of powers, personalities, costumes, elaborate backstories, etc. I had entire binders filled with my creations. The only problem was that I wasn’t nearly as creative when it came to designing the adventures, so most of my plots ended up being something like “You’re out on patrol one day, and you hear an explosion. Deathblow the Diabolical is robbing the bank.”

    But, to this day, playing superhero has warped my mind. Even now, as I type this, part of me is thinking “My coffee mug is now empty. If I had telekinesis, I could get a refill without leaving the computer. If I was invulnerable, I could drink it without waiting for it to cool. If I could generate heat like the Human Torch, my coffee would never go cold. If I had magical abilities like Dr Strange, I could have a neverending cup of coffee and not need refills.”

    I guess I need to go get more coffee now. Up, up and away!