Quick! A bully’s about to beat up the person next to you—what do you do?
I’ll make it worse. What if they’re bigger than you? What if they’ve already knocked you down and left you sprawling on the ground? What’s the right move?
If you’re anything like Captain America, you get back on your feet and try again. Even if you haven’t got a prayer, you still make your stand.
And that’s the lesson I’ve been learning from his comics since I was a kid.
It’s been said (recently) that comic book movies don’t “challenge” the audience, but I can’t think of anything less true.
The first “good” comic book movie might have been Donner’s 1977 Superman film, the story of a guy who’s constantly torn between rescuing the helpless and pursuing a relationship, a relationship that makes him feel normal and happy for the first time. The films asks us to consider, which pursuit is more important?
Maybe you can relate to Captain Marvel, who’s been gaslighted all of her life, made to believe she’s less than she really is. When everything’s on the line, she digs down deep to find the inner resources to believe in herself.
Don’t forget Ant-Man, the story of an ex-con who’s working hard to get back into his daughter’s life. When he has an important chance to help people, he realizes doing the right thing might send him back to prison and keep him from ever seeing his kid. What would you do?
Put yourself if the Black Panther’s shoes. Should he help his people stay hidden to ensure their safety, or risk that safety for the benefit of the global community? (I’m just scratching the surface of the challenges raised by that one.)
According to James Gunn, the backbone of the Guardians of the Galaxy films is the idea of lost souls banding together to make their own family, a poignant lesson when so many have grown up in broken homes. Sure, a lot of “important” movies revel in the emotional impact of personal trauma, but how many of these gritty films teach us how to move on by relying on others?
A stuffy critic who owns 1,000 thread count sheets will always scoff at a movie like Shazam! But Shazam shows us how community-building can address our country’s problems, a lesson you won’t learn while staring at incomprehensible art films.
Naturally, not every comic book adaptation has any deep value. (I won’t name names.) But comic book stories have always been asking the big questions and pushing us toward positive change.