Neil Sheppard explains to his wife that there’s more to Star Wars than light saber duels.
It all started very innocently. It was my son’s first Christmas and I felt I should make the effort to get him a present just from myself. My wife was constantly complaining about his toys lying around underfoot, so I thought I could get him a toy box. I spent a few hours mucking around online and finally presented my wife with a picture of a sturdy wooden box with a picture of Spider-man swinging across a cityscape.
“You can’t get him that, it’ll scare him.”
I looked down at the screen, expecting an advert to have popped up or it to have accidentally switched to another picture. It hadn’t.
“ … but it’s Spider-man,” I stuttered helplessly.
“He’s three months old, that’s a bit advanced for him,” she said, before dropping a bombshell that would shake my expectations of fatherhood to their very core. “Besides, what if he doesn’t like Spider-man?”
“He’s a boy, he’s going to like Spider-man,” I scoffed … but what if he doesn’t?
You probably think, very much the way my wife does, that I’m being silly. Perhaps you’re judging me for enforcing male stereotypes on my child. Maybe you think these worries are just petty insecurities about not being able to connect with my son. I assure you, that’s not the problem. My concern is what type of man he will turn out to be without positive male role models.
Yes, I know, I can be a role model to him, but I’m not perfect. I’m going to make mistakes and fail to live up to my own principles. A fictional hero can be the ideal we all wish we could be; something to emulate and strive for, even if we fail; a reason to be a better man. I, for one, don’t know what kind of man I would have grown up to be without comics and movies and books.
The veritable Willy Wonka of comic books and Spider-man creator Stan Lee defined the very platonic ideal of a Spider-man story as “if he goes North, he can fight the villain who is about to blow up the world, but if he goes South he can reach a drugstore, which has the life-saving medicine that his aunt needs within the next hour. [He] can’t do both.” What else is growing up about other than being confronted by dilemmas?
What’s more important, looking after your family or fighting for a better world? Should you spend your evenings volunteering at the local homeless shelter or educating and enriching the lives of your children? Should you keep promises to your wife or to yourself? These are the kind of questions Spider-man’s alter ego, Peter Parker always asked but never managed to find answers for.
Peter never wanted to be a superhero. He used his powers, initially, to earn money as a TV star, but while doing so, he allowed a criminal to escape out of laziness and a sense of entitlement. That criminal then killed his beloved uncle. This led him to the conclusion that “with great power must also come great responsibility.”
Many years of considering this led me to realise that everyone has great power. As a man, I have the physical strength to force a woman into sex or to offer to help her carry some heavy bags up a flight of stairs. As a husband, I can make my wife happy or I can make her life miserable. As a father, I can give my son the wisdom he needs to live a good life or I can ignore him. My actions have repercussions and those consequences are my responsibility.
I really can’t think of a better lesson to teach my son.
I think my wife detected some of my concern over her implication that our son may not turn out to be the geek that I am. She came home recently with a tiny Batman T-shirt that I take great pleasure in dressing our son in whenever I can.
Batman is a rather darker superhero than Spider-man. Spidey quips wise and sticks villains to walls with his webs. Batman beats the living hell out of them and hangs them off the side of buildings. Still, Batman also has an important message for young men.
You see, Batman is one of those rare superheroes who has no superhuman abilities.
Batman started life as Bruce Wayne, the son of loving parents who were murdered in front of his eyes by a mugger for the sake of a few dollars and some jewelry. Bruce swore to avenge his parents by fighting to end crime in all its forms as a costumed vigilante.
In order to do this, he traveled the world, learning from experts in the field. He studied under great detectives, respected forensic scientists and, most importantly, ninjas. At the end of it, he became “the world’s greatest detective” and the superhero equivalent of Chuck Norris. As many of you will have seen in Christopher Nolan’s last Batman movie, Batman once had his spine broken by the villain Bane. He brought himself back to full mobility through sheer force of will and determination.
The lesson: if you set your mind to something and put every atom of your being into it, you can become anything you want to be. I also want my son to believe this.
I could go into how Doctor Who resolves all his conflicts with rabid monsters and alien armies without ever resorting to violence, or how Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek envisions a future without racial or sexual inequality, religious hatred or poverty, but the title of this article should give away what I really want to talk about. If my son doesn’t grow to love any of these things, I hope he, at least, can find a place in his life for Star Wars. You see, the entire six-film Star Wars saga is really about just one thing: being a father.
Anakin Skywalker grows up literally without a father, following a seeming virgin birth. He leaves his mother in favour of Qui-Gon Jinn, a solid father figure who promptly dies. His mentorship is bequeathed to Obi-wan Kenobi, who is both distant and doubtful of Anakin’s abilities.
Anakin becomes a talented, but emotionally stunted young man, who lacks patience, respect and self discipline. When a new father figure arrives, in the form of the scheming Palpatine, Anakin allows himself to be seduced into indulging his darker desires, setting him on a course that eventually destroys him and leads him to abandon his own son. His son, Luke, however, grows up to be a much stronger man than he was. Luke’s faith that the father he barely knows is still capable of being a good man saves Anakin and the entire galaxy.
Far from being about space battles and laser swords, Star Wars is about the damage that can befall a boy when he grows up without anyone to teach him how to be a man and how having a son of your own can grant you redemption from your past mistakes.
My own father introduced me to both Star Trek and Star Wars, an act that created a life-long love of science fiction. I still credit the lessons I learned from these stories with most of the good I’ve done in my life. I really hope I can pass them on to my own son.
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