Marc Oromaner explores why our childhood heroes had to lose their parents before achieving glory, and why we must do the same as grown men.
Disney taught us that, “when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.” Unfortunately, if your dream is to have both of your parents live to see you succeed, you’re sheer out of luck. In fact, of Disney’s forty full-length animated features from 1937 until 2000, I know of only one* where the protagonist’s parents remain alive for the entire film.
Then there’s the fact that just about every super-powered hero is an orphan. If this isn’t bad enough, one or both of the hero’s adoptive parents often dies too! (Superman, Spider-Man, and Luke Skywalker for example). What kind of impression does this leave on impressionable boys hoping to emulate their heroes? With the Amazing Spider-Man movie set for release in July, and its exploration of the mysterious back-story about Peter Parker’s real parents, I thought it would be a good time to delve into the topic of why so many of our heroes—both super and animated—are orphans, and what the message means for us as grown men.
Even though most of the films we see as kids feature heroes with one or more dead parent, it’s interesting that so few of us ever notice, let alone ask why. The list of movies with this theme is long and spans multiple generations: Star Wars, Pete’s Dragon, Aladdin, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Harry Potter, Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Conan the Barbarian, and The Wizard of Oz just to name some of the more popular ones.
Concerning the Disney films, you might say that many of these films are based on old fairytales and during those times, most kids didn’t have two living parents, or that the stories were simply meant to scare kids. I could buy that for maybe a handful of these movies, but nearly all of them? And many of them including Dumbo, Bambi, The Jungle Book, The Rescuers, The Lion King, and Finding Nemo were based on relatively modern stories.
As for the superhero films, they’re all from the 20th century so what’s the rationale there? Is something deeper going on? Are we being secretly brainwashed as kids so as to not have high expectations about life? Are we being given subliminal messages that reveal the inner-workings of the world? Or is it all just a result of lazy writing because we feel sorry for orphans and want to root for them so they succeed? The answer to all these questions, is “yes.”
Nearly all good stories that resonate with us, do so because they are actually about something much deeper than what we consciously detect. Stories are filled with symbolism, metaphor, and archetypes that can just as easily be plugged into our lives as the protagonists’. In fact, in every story we’ve ever experienced, we are the protagonist. So in seeing how they successfully triumph over their challenges, we get a message about how we can do the same. But at the early age when these movies make the deepest impression on us, most of us are not orphans, so why are they?
In life, very few of us ever get to live out our dreams. We start out with high expectations, but then seem to get sidetracked and before you know it, our dreams seem out of reach. Yet, there is a part of us which still longs for whatever it was we felt we were meant to do. That part doesn’t really feel comfortable in our daily lives. Your superhero self isn’t about paying bills and doing chores. In many ways, it feels like a stranger in your own life; no longer connected to your higher passions. In short, it’s an orphan.
But where did all this orphan business originate? From the story that much of our society and its numerous traditions and rituals is based on—the Bible. One of the greatest heroes in the Hebrew Bible is Moses. Moses had the power to talk to God, act as his messenger, and split the Reed (Red) Sea. And of course, he was an orphan. Set adrift in a basket by his mother in hopes of saving her baby’s life from the decree that all newborn male babies were to be killed, Moses was found and adopted by the Egyptian Pharaoh’s daughter who raised him within the material riches of the kingdom.
Of course, once Moses finds his true identity, he rebels against the Egyptians and leads his enslaved people to freedom. The message of the story is that initially we all believe we are slaves, stuck in the rat race of this material world. But once you re-discover your true passion, you must heed its call and help others to hear the calling too.
The message stayed the same but the details changed in the Christian Bible. There were learn of Jesus, said to not be of this earth, raised here by his adoptive parents Mary and Joseph. Just like all heroes, Jesus represents all of us. Like him, we have a message within us that we are meant to share. Even if sharing that message would bring us hardships, it would also leave us more fulfilled than anything else we could do on earth. Obviously, this is a powerful metaphor. But it’s also one that is continually updating and making its way into our modern day myths to this very day.
Superman is the perfect example of this same archetype. The original trailer for Superman Returns makes the Superman/Jesus link very obvious: “Even though you’ve been raised as a human being, you are not one of them,” booms the all-mighty voice of Superman’s father, Jor-El. “They could be a great people Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you…my only son.”
In Hebrew, Jor-El can translate to “light of God” while his son, Kal-El translates to “voice of God.” As in voice, or messenger, of God. (In Kryptonian, Jor-El apparently translates into “star-child,” much like how Jesus was a child born under a bright star.) Even Superman’s adoptive parents fit into the myth. Little Jor-El is raised by Martha and Jonathan Kent (note the same initials as Mary and Joseph) who decide that their huge farmhouse is too small for the baby boy so he’s kept in a barn, similar to how Jesus was born in a stable.
Superman is a modern update to a timeless truth. And much like the hero of every story, he represents us. It’s up to us to show the world the way to the light. This powerful message lets us know who we really are and what we are meant to do. What it doesn’t tell us however, is how. That’s where the next part of the myth comes in—the part about the death of our adoptive parents.
Once again, we can trace this myth back to the Bible. In the Bible, God tells Abraham that he must leave his homeland and family in order to begin his quest. Once again, this message is for us. True growth cannot begin from within our comfort zone. We must first go outside and then bring others with us. It’s difficult to convince others how things can be different if we have not done so ourselves.
Symbolically, this leaving of the familiar is often played out as abandoning the home and going to a very strange place as did the children in Peter Pan, Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Simba in The Lion King, and Nemo in Finding Nemo.
In the superhero stories, the superhero usually fights evil on his own turf whether it be Metropolis, Gotham, or New York City (the city where people from every country in the world live, thereby relating to all of us and explaining why the NYC archetype is nearly always the home turf for the superhero). But to get there, they often had to have lost their parents or adoptive parent(s).
Something has to jolt the hero into this new realm in order to start his or her adventure. Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben is killed by a criminal, inspiring him to fight evil. Similarly, Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are killed by the evil Empire. Once there is “nothing left” for Luke, he leaves the place he grew up, breaking free from the familiar and entering the challenging world of the unknown.
Even though heroes like Luke or Harry Potter or even Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz aren’t considered superheroes, since they all have a power—the Force, magic, and an ability to fall from the sky and crush a witch, respectively—their roles are interchangeable with superheroes. That’s why both Harry and Dorothy were taken away to foreign, strange lands, and both were already orphans. Like us, they were stuck in their ordinary lives and had to leave its comforts to achieve their true calling.
Around the time the hero makes the leap of faith to leave the familiar, they are usually given a guide and a gift to help them on their quest. Luke meets Obi-Wahn and is given a light saber, Dorothy meets Glinda and given the ruby slippers, Clark hears wisdom from the recorded voice of his father and gets his Fortress of Solitude, Cinderella encounters her fairy godmother and gets her glass slippers, Aladdin frees the genie and gets the magic carpet, Frodo meets Gandalf and gets the ring, etc. At this point, the hero is ready to face his or her challenge.
So, putting it all together, what’s the message for us? We are pretty much being given the instructions for the game of life at a very young age, it can just be hard to put it together on a conscious level. Even those of us who do, usually fail to act, and instead, decide to live vicariously through our favorite film heroes instead of using them as inspiration to begin our own journey.
Isn’t there something that you were once truly passionate about? It’s never too late to begin it, or complete it if life has managed to get you sidetracked. Sure there are challenges. These are the same monsters and villains and treacherous journeys that our heroes face.
In your case, they are likely bills that need to be paid, expectations that need to be met, a boss who needs to be pleased, and a family that needs to be fed. The message is not to ignore your obligations, but be empowered by them. Think about it. What message would you rather teach your kids: live life by serving the man or follow your dreams? Teach by example.
Once you begin, you will meet your mentor and be given the gift you need to help you on your mission. Have faith. Believe in yourself. See the outcome you want. Then act so that it comes to fruition. Remember who you truly are. Not some worker who has to make money to have the life someone told you that you need to have to be happy. You are a unique being who was put on this planet for a specific task. Do it.
Riddle me this: what is Superman’s costume? Most people would answer that it is a blue suit, a yellow belt, and red boots and a cape. Nope. His costume is a business suit, hat, and glasses. Kal-El is not from this world.
His true essence is Superman. But much like you he must put on a costume to disguise his true identity. He must play a role that makes him appear to fit into society. The difference is, he still manages to unleash his superhero identity as well. In real life, the challenge of doing that is much harder than Superman’s. But because this is your true passion, you will subconsciously create situations for yourself that will push you towards making it happen. Once you become conscious that you are doing this, life often starts to make more sense.
The next time you go see a Disney, Pixar, or superhero film, see yourself in the role of the hero. Imagine your challenges in place of his or hers. Plug your life’s story into the story of the film. Then notice what the hero does and see how you can apply that to yourself.
Yes, there will likely be suffering, yes people will say you’re crazy, yes it will be challenging. Isn’t that what happens to the hero in these stories? Use the stories to inspire you, hell, use the soundtrack too if it helps!
The fact that you’ve read this is a confirmation that you are on the right track. It is part of the mentoring energy that is coming your way because you’ve already begun taking the first steps on your journey. The question is not, “what would Jesus or Superman or Luke Skywalker do?” It’s what would you do? So, what will you do?
*Only 101 Dalmatians. (In Alice In Wonderland it’s unclear if she has two living parents or not.) I stopped at the year 2000 because I’m not as familiar with the later Disney films.