Superheroes, like all things Disney, Dr. Seuss and “Star Wars,” are in America’s pop culture DNA. Images of Batman, Spider-Man and their muscle-bound peers inundate us on clothing, grocery store shelves and every manner of electronic screens.
My wife and I did a decent job of screening influences as our boys Evan (who is almost 7) and Sean (who is almost 5) have journeyed through stories, books, television and movies. We tried to shield them from commercials, violence and elements more interested in slapstick than education. But as the boys have begun their education, they have been exposed to a much wider pool of myths and entertainment properties than we have introduced at home.
As a voracious and enthusiastic consumer of pop culture, I am keenly aware of the benefits and drawbacks of entertainment and escapism. But I am sure I was nowhere near as critical and questioning at a young age as our sons are. I watched Superman fly, The Cat in the Hat clean up a house in 30 seconds, and 4,000 sharpshooting stormtroopers miss while shooting at Luke Skywalker from a distance of seven feet, all without deconstructing the mechanics of the story logic.
Evan, by contrast, seems to be carefully considering each scene of every story, examining it for holes and flaws like an appraiser studying what he expects to be a fake diamond.
Recently, I showed Evan two episodes of the 1970s “Super Friends” show, that silly but fun series in which DC Comics stars Supes, Bats, Wonder Woman and their pals battle the Legion of Doom, led by Lex Luthor, Sinestro, Gorilla Grodd and Riddler.
Evan is far more familiar with the “The Super Hero Squad Show,” a Marvel Comics show in which The Avengers are depicted in friendly little kid versions. I have always been a DC guy, devouring Batman and Joker stories, but Evan seems far more interested in the Marvel worlds of Spider-Man, Hulk and Iron Man. I thought a few “Super Friends” episodes might draw him into the DC stories.
As we watched an episode in which the Legion of Doom used manufactured global warming to make the Earth open for a Venusian invasion, Evan asked a string of impatient questions, something he does not do when watching “The Super Hero Squad. Show”
We are spending a lot of time with Evan working on teamwork, teaching him the importance of doing his individual best while contributing to a larger cause. As we watched the Legion of Doom plot and scheme to take down the Super Friends, Evan made a few astute observations.
“Daddy, the bad guys are working together and being a team while the good guys are doing everything on their own and not together. Does that mean the bad guys deserve to win?”
“No,” I said. “The good guys are working together for the same cause, just in different parts of the world. The bad guys are weak and mean, so they need to team up to be evil. They’re like the New York Yankees.”
Evan watched a few more scenes, then said, “How come Wonder Woman is wearing a swimsuit to fight the bad guys?”
“That’s not a bathing suit,” I said, then hesitated, “That’s a, um, that’s a … well, it looks like a swimsuit, but it’s her uniform.”
“The girls in X-Men wear real uniforms, not swimsuits,” Evan said.
“Well, Wonder Woman is an Amazon from an island, so maybe it’s hot there all the time. Let’s just watch,” I said.
In the story, a scene showed Superman, Batman and Robin running for what seemed like miles in that slightly jerky, ’70s animation.
Evan watched, but said, “Why is Superman running forever when he can fly?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe he doesn’t want Batman and Robin to fall behind.”
“Can’t he carry them and fly?” Evan asked.
“He could, but isn’t it cooler to see the good guys rushing to action?” I said.
“Daddy, why does Superman need Batman?” Evan asked. “Superman is Superman and Batman doesn’t have any powers.”
“Batman is a detective and very smart,” I said. “He always helps, even without superpowers, which is what makes him cool.”
On screen, Flash’s enemy Captain Cold froze the Brooklyn Bridge with his freeze ray.
“Daddy,” Evan asked, “Is Captain Cold the same guy as Batman’s bad guy Mr. Freeze?”
“No,” I said. “They’re completely different bad guys.”
“How?” Evan asked. “They both use ice and freeze rays.”
I thought about it.
“I’m not that familiar with Captain Cold, but he’s not Mr. Freeze,” I said.
In the show, Mr. Freeze — I mean, Captain Cold — froze a New York building, intending to topple it and watch it smash into pieces. Flash used his super speed to run around the Brooklyn Bridge, taking its suspension cables to lasso the building so it would not fall over.
“See, that was cool,” I said.
“But if the bridge cables are wrapped around the building, what’s holding up the bridge?” Evan asked.
“He must have left some cables on it,” I said.
So, Evan will probably go back to watching The Avengers in “The Super Hero Squad Show,” as he chooses which myths and entertainments he favors. But “Super Friends” stuck with him, for later in the day, we had another conversation.
“Daddy, why are there no black Super Friends?” Evan asked.
“Well, that’s a good question,” I said. “When I was growing up, people who made TV shows and movies did not always include everybody in their shows. Today, we try to do a better job of remembering to be sensitive to include all people.”
Evan was quiet, then asked, “Is that why there were no gay Super Friends? Was Robin gay?”
“Why would you ask if Robin is gay?” I said.
“I don’t know,” Evan said.
“Evan,” I said, “It’s not intelligent to think that about someone just because of the clothes they wear or how they talk or act. It can be hurtful to someone to label them. You don’t want people to think things about you before they get to know you. And if someone is gay, you know that doesn’t ever mean we think less of them just for that.”
“I know, Daddy. Daddy, was Aquaman gay?”