Spiderman is back. A fraying web of hope brings out our need for heroes, Sydney Morning Herald, June 29, 2004
Spider-Man is back. The only question about his box-office appeal is will Spider-Man 2 match the record worldwide $820 million return earned from the first Spider-Man. Superheroes have universal and perennial appeal for kids and adults alike.
Superman, created in 1938 by two high school students, became the prototype. He was followed closely by Batman, the Phantom, Wonder Woman and Captain America in the early 1940s. Spider-Man was born in 1962. There are 72 feature films about superheroes. So what is it that drives the interest and enthusiasm people have had for these characters over generations?
Their appeal is not simply that they can fly or crawl up walls, lift buildings or stop an aeroplane in mid-flight. They possess powers of strength and endurance we wish we had. They can solve problems and overcome obstacles; they are uncompromising.
But they appeal widely and they are heroic because they are also ethical and unquestionably good. They are unassuming people who choose to protect those around them. They always act in the interests of others. Their goal is to assure survival, protect the sick and the weak, secure justice and the wellbeing of those they serve.
Their mission is to stamp out evil. They embody the best of human nature in all respects - gentle and sensitive characters with a gift of power they never abuse. While they struggle to achieve life-balance they are unable to turn away from their calling.
A calling is a term that seems old-fashioned these days, certainly not a value that is prevalent in professional training any more. Most commonly a calling was the term used to describe those entering the church as priests or missionaries.
But doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, journalists and even politicians also had a calling. This meant that along with their professional, technical and academic training there was a moral and ethical dimension to their vocation. They were not driven by money or self-aggrandisement, by short-term performance at the expense of a broader sense of responsibility. They were concerned for the client more than the bottom line.
Times have changed and to think of a politician and a calling in the same breath today stretches credibility. Politics is now regarded as the practice of expedience rather than ethics, or concern with the common good.
A politician is one who is often seen as seeking power or advancement over maintaining principles. The concept of social responsibility is talked about as a soft issue. Professions in general have become market driven rather than client oriented and ethical concerns have been separated from effective practice.
Apart from on the sporting field there is an absence of heroes or any sense of the heroic in public life. And when our young sporting heroes, unlike Spider-Man, are shown to have feet of clay we condemn them and feel let down because we and our kids don't have other heroes. The dearth of heroes means there are few role models. As well there are few mentors; there is no longer the time. The best way to learn to be a good citizen or a good worker, is to learn from people whom you respect. Such people are more and more difficult to find.
Our society is now defined by rampant individualism, materialism and consumerism. Family and community ties are loosening and there is increasing self-doubt and moral confusion.
Our political leaders have sniffed the wind and smelt the growing discontent. Mark Latham seems aware of the cynicism in the electorate with his grassroots approach. But people are cautious about the simple one-liners he is expressing. Those who listen would like to believe they signal a more complex and multifaceted approach than the campaign message suggests. We do know what the Prime Minister stands for, flagpoles and PE notwithstanding.
Among other things he stands, with his good mate George, for the war in Iraq, the conduct of which has raised many ethical issues.
In the US Professor Howard Gardner, who is both professor of education and of psychology at Harvard, and who published the pioneering work on multiple intelligences, has been working with his colleagues on the dissociation between expertise and morality.
They are seeking to identify new ways of thinking that sustain the creative spirit while rejoining it to the essential moral traditions needed for binding together a pluralistic society.
They have said they are motivated by a belief "that if such ways of thinking are not identified and widely adopted the political solutions likely to prevail will be repressive, non-rational, inhumane and destructive". They expressed this view in May 1997 when they began this project. How right they were.
Today we are all irrevocably involved with and responsible for one another. What happens in one part of the world impacts on the other socially, economically, environmentally. Television, technological advances and global politics have brought this about. At the same time the networks of family and community have broken down.
We have to work on all fronts if we are to reverse the social disintegration that is occurring. Young people must be taught what matters in life. Without values, they have no meaning or purpose in life, no sense of belonging, no sense of hope. We are social beings. The pursuit of individual choice over the collective goodwill ultimately bring about our undoing. To achieve the type of change people are seeking we need the best of leaders. We need a leader who can inspire and motivate, and who can be trusted and believed.
The disaffection and alienation felt by so many people in the US and Australia are so strong, our disillusion with politicians and the political process so pervasive, that we can only dream of a superhero who might lead us to a better way of life.
Unlike Peter Garrett, Peter Parker alias Spider-Man can't be drafted and placed on the ballot. If he could he would undoubtedly win the election in both countries.