Phone Booth Friday: Telling Super Stories

This week Warner Brothers announced a slew of upcoming films based on characters from the DC Comics universe, which will take us through 2020; Marvel Comics have already announced their future lineup.  The offerings from DC include stand-alone superhero movies based on Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Shazam, Green Lantern, and Cyborg, as well as ensemble films such as the in-production “Batman v. Superman”, and the interesting sounding “Suicide Squad”, which will be something like “The Dirty Dozen”, only with supervillains.  The really BIG event will be the first-ever “Justice League” film, split into two parts, which should bring together all of the major characters from the DC universe.  Anyone who watched “Super Friends” on Saturday morning cartoons when they were little will probably be looking forward to that one.

If this seems like a lot of spandex to deal with on the big screen, not to mention the host of superhero-themed television shows now appearing on the small screen, it may be worth stopping to consider how repeated storytelling about heroes and their adventures is a common practice within Western culture.

There is no one, single definitive version of the stories of the ancient gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters from Greek and Roman mythology.  Over many centuries, the same stories were told in different ways, sometimes adding or taking away elements, depending on the times or the tastes of the audience. The basic legends surrounding Heracles/Hercules for example, were pretty much the same in both Greece and Rome, but when the Romans adopted the Greek hero as their own, they changed his story in places to make him a more Roman figure, even transferring some of his famous “Labors” to a Roman setting.

We can see the same adaptation of well-known characters over time in the legends surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur lived – if he did at all – in what is now Northern England during the 5th or 6th century, and legends about him fluttered about in popular storytelling until a Welsh writer wrote a chronicle of these tales in the 1100’s with many of the now-familiar aspects of the Arthurian legend.  However, a century later a French writer expanded upon these stories, adding both the quest for the Holy Grail and the character of Sir Lancelot.  As a result, today a modern audience could not imagine telling the story of King Arthur without the adultery of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, even though at one time this plot device would not have been considered canonical.

Both Hercules and King Arthur have had their stories told by many different storytellers.  While certain details may change, depending on who is doing the telling, as subjects for sharing ideas and ideals, they have never ceased to fire the imaginations of writers, artists, and performers.  So rather than be surprised that the characters from comic books continue to be revisited and reshaped, both for existing audiences and for new audiences coming to learn the stories of these heroes, we can see them as part of a continuum in Western literature.

Because they are more recent in time, having appeared in the 20th century, superheroes are more easily adaptable to the present age than figures from the very distant past, like Hercules and King Arthur.  Sure, we still create entertainment around these earlier figures as we tell their stories, but there is always going to be some level of distance between us and them.  Hercules is not going to be taking creatine and whey powder while powerlifting boulders, and King Arthur is not going to be receiving suggestive snapchats on his iPhone from Morgana la Fay.  Superman, however, can have a meeting with Batman on a space station orbiting the Earth, and we think nothing of it.

Our appetite for mythology, tales of adventure, and acts of heroism seems to be fairly insatiable in Western culture.  With the release of so much superhero material, perhaps the studios and publishers are over-estimating the public’s appetite for market saturation when it comes to this particular genre, as some have argued.  Yet in seizing the zeitgeist of this moment, these storytellers are not only being very smart from a financial standpoint, they are also tapping into a long history of storytelling, one which laid the building blocks of the culture which we enjoy today.

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Imagine You’re a Superhero

Can imagining that you’re a superhero make you smarter?  According to British scientists, the answer is, “Yes.”  Yet there are even broader implications for this new study, which was reported over the weekend.

Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire in England conducted an experiment, in which students were asked to take a series of tests designed to improve their mental abilities. Some of the participants were asked to take the tests while wearing Superman t-shirts, while the control group wore regular t-shirts.  Amazingly, when the results came in, those subjects who put the “S” on their chest scored an average of 72%, while the control group scored an average of 64%.  Similarly, the Kryptonian group felt that they were stronger, better-liked by others, and more self-assured, than did those who wore an everyday garment.

Readers may recall another study I shared with you earlier this year from the University of Illinois, about the impact that playing a heroic character in video games can have on real-world behavior.  Gamers who regularly choose to play the superhero in a game were more likely to carry over some of the positive behavior of that character in their daily lives.  Those who typically play a villain on the other hand, had a greater tendency to mistreat others in their offline world.

In these studies, what scientists are really examining is how self-visualization can make a profound impact on someone’s personality. People who regularly imagine themselves to be intelligent, healthy, and successful, are actually training a part of their brain to kick in automatically.  It’s an old adage to say that, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it,” yet more and more scientific evidence points to the fact that this statement is absolutely true.

The same British researchers in the study referred to above found that depressed women tend to wear the same clothes over and over again, ignoring 90% of their available wardrobe in the process.  By engaging in this kind of behavior, which chances are we’ve all seen or engaged in, at one time or another, the depressed reinforce a (false) perception that they don’t have any control over their own lives.  On the other end of the scale, I’m sure that many of the men reading this blog have a “lucky” tie hanging in the closet, which they wear on special occasions or critical moments.  It gives you a sense of being in control, even though you know it’s just a woven piece of silk, because something about it makes you feel like good things will happen when you wear it.

If you’ve been down in the dumps or are going through a difficult patch, as everyone does, maybe it’s time to start imagining yourself a hero, rather than a zero.  No, self-visualization isn’t going to give you superhuman strength or the ability to fly, but then again that’s not really the point. In order for you to ace your next exam or try to understand the Bauhaus movement, you don’t need to go throw on a special t-shirt, let alone the full spandex-and-cape combo out of the comic books.

What studies like these reinforce however, is the idea that how we present ourselves matters, and can make a big difference in achieving what we set out to accomplish.  The more we encourage ourselves and others to play the hero rather than the villain – or indeed, the victim – the more likely it is that we will see real-life examples of self-sacrifice, defense of the weak, and the pursuit of knowledge popping up everywhere in our culture.  Just imagine, what a truly super society we could have, then.

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God, Heroism, and the Call of Duty

Like many men who never quite grow out of their boyhood interests – and why should you? – I’m still drawn to certain stories of heroism.  With great interest, I can still become absorbed in tales of scientific adventurers exploring the cosmos or long-forgotten civilizations here at home, knights in shining armor or shining spandex fighting villains and monsters who seek to destroy the innocent, and so on.  Yet on the whole, I must confess, I’ve never been particularly drawn to war stories as a genre, whether of writing or filmmaking.  Perhaps because it’s all a bit too real to take.

There are exceptions to that however, and one of them is the story of a Kansas-born priest, Father Emil Kapuan, the most highly decorated chaplain in U.S. military history.  Father Kapuan was imprisoned by Chinese leftists during the Korean War, but managed to comfort and save the lives of others while being tortured and humiliated in a brutal prisoner of war camp.  Today, in aid of the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage, author and speaker Chris Stefanick tells the story of Father Kapuan, whose courage and virtue frankly makes most of us men look like little more than schoolboys by comparison.

While you’re over at the FLPH site, feel free to leave a prayer request for Brother Rex, ashe loves receiving them, and won’t you consider making a donation to help us build him and his successors a hermitage? And please share the site with anyone you think may be able to help.  The site features inspirational quotes and posts from many Catholic writers and speakers, as well as Brother Rex’s daily posts of quotations to reflect upon and inspire you in your journey of faith. Thanks for your support and your generosity!

Servant of God Father Emil Kapuan (1916-1951)

Servant of God Father Emil Kapuan (1916-1951)