UND Filmmakers and Professors Take On Superheroes

Document Type

News Article

Publication Date


Campus Unit

College of Arts & Sciences


Muscles bulging, a dark figure skulks these city streets, stalking criminals, fighting for justice, and doing it all in spandex and a mask. This is probably what we think of when we imagine a generic superhero. For the 6th Annual UND Moviemaking Camp for Youth, sixteen area kids were asked to add to create their own superhero films, writing, casting, filming and editing—all in less than two weeks.

Seeing the films, it’s clear each participant interprets the subject differently, bringing their own creative spark to the genre. Whether its two boys saving the world from a computer virus, or a superhero who gets his power from a magic doughnut, the filmmakers found a fresh way to showcase their creativity.

For young adults, superheroes have an obvious appeal, but what do these comic book characters say about us, and why are we so drawn to them now?

Superhero Mythology

Superhero films have seen major increases in popularity in the last decade. Between 2000 and 2010, 71 films were released by American studios, a 223 percent increase over the previous decade. In the summer of 2011, studios released five major superhero films, all based on popular comic book series, including: The Green Hornet, Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, and Captain America: The First Avenger. And there may be good reason for this. As tumultuous as the last decade has been, the idea of having a hero to fight on our behalf may be what we're looking for.

According to Marcus Weaver-Hightower, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Foundations and Research, one doesn’t outgrow superhero mythology. “There’s something for everyone in superheroes, from the very young like my three-year-old son, to the very old. My son likes superheroes because they’re cool. They have powers. They can do things. They have a certain efficacy in the world that he doesn’t have,” says Weaver-Hightower. “He likes to fanticize about what it would be like to fly, or shoot beams out of his eyes…and to be powerful in a world in which he’s not all that powerful.”

According to Brett Ommen, an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, superheroes play an important role in our culture as part of our modern mythology. “Myths in general help us socialize, help us learn what’s right and what’s wrong, what we share with other people collectively.... The United States doesn’t have an old mythology…. What makes comic books unique is their modern lesson about how to socialize. They give us a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong and I think that’s why so many kids are drawn to them."

Further, the structure of that mythology has changed over time. Gone are the days when a principled hero in primary colors was enough to carry the genre. "Given that comic books serve as a sort of contemporary myth," says Ommen, "as our society becomes increasingly diverse, and begins privileging a variety of identities over the singular identity--as we shift from a nation that would rally around a singular figure like a Captain America or a Superman, and move through the 1960s and 1970s, all that cultural change--similarly comic books start to develop a variety of identities."

According to Ommen, that diversification of content and characterization continues. "We replace these singular characters with a band of characters who cover the range, so you get The Avengers who have Captain America, but you also have Iron Man, who relies on technology and wealth to develop his superpowers than being an agent of the government. Along with him comes the ingenuitive Incredible Hulk, who uses his skill as a scientist—we’re starting to cover all of society's segments, rather than having one that everyone rallies around. Everyone gets their own comic book. You end up with comic characters that are increasingly particular to a segment of society."s

Beyond capes and spandex, superheroes also pose ethical dilemmas for their audience. "I like superheroes because there’s a certain kind of vicarious wish fulfillment for me," says Weaver-Hightower. "I also like to think about what it would be like to fly, or to be invisible, but for me, it provokes a lot of questions about ethics…If one was able to be invisible would one try to help people with that, or would they just try to sneak into the girls locker room? If I could fly would I be a hero, or would I use those skills for ill-gotten gains?"

Superheroes in Education

Far from being a genre limited to children, Ommen contends comic books aren’t just a way to pass the time. The construction of the narrative in a comic book reinforces our manner of interpreting the world. “The way I read comics is useful for the way I interact with a variety of texts,” says Ommen. “We experience a lot of multi-modal, visual and textual images in our contemporary life, and the comic book certainly develops an aptitude, or a literacy in children--or any reader--for dealing with that. As you move from one panel to the next panel in a comic book there’s an implicit premise in that break the reader has to fill in. So when you experience a variety of images in everyday life, you’re more likely to ask ‘what’s implicitly left out?’ as we move from one image to the next.”

Using superheroes as a catalyst for learning has come into its own as a developing trend in recent years, says Weaver-Hightower. "Absolutely, there's a role for superheroes in education. My own personal work on it is trying to figure our ways qualitative researchers--people who do interviewing, observing, and naturalistic kinds of research--can use the comic book format not only to do the research, but to present it to others in a way that's more accessible. Lots of other educators have used comic books as a way to get kids engaged in reading.... The level of vocabulary in comic books is typically far higher than one might expect."