Why We Love Screen Heroes

I walked into Captain America: The Winter Soldier a few days ago operating on a stratospheric level of excitement. It wasn’t because I’d loved the first Captain America movie so much; in fact, I’ve only seen it once, and I hardly remember what happened. I wasn’t excited solely because I love these Marvel movies, though that certainly played a huge role. No, what got me the most enthusiastic was the fact that Cap is my favorite superhero, and I was thrilled to have two hours of screen time just for him (and his muscles).

God bless America.

Why do I love Cap? Yes, he’s a good guy. He’s smart, he’s loyal, he’s patriotic. He has good values and an easy smile. I love him for all of these things. But do they make him better than snarky Iron Man? Doofus Thor?

The bottom line, for me, was actually a strange and seemingly-irrelevant experience in the real world. When I went to Disney World two years ago, my parents and I timed our visit to the comic book world to the slice of time when the actors were released. By actors, I mean all of the Disney World workers who dressed up and walked around as Spiderman, Wolverine, Dr. Doom, and a whole host of other heroes. People could line up to take pictures, which I did with as many heroes as I could find.

Near the end, we found Cap. He had a significant line in front of him, but I waited as he posed with a broad smile and his shield with various patrons. As I watched, a young girl (maybe six years old) approached him. She was accompanied by a few others, and as he knelt down to her level, the word spread that she was there with Make-A-Wish. He stayed with her for at least two minutes, just chatting and making her smile.

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When I finally reached the front of the line, Cap gave me a huge smile. He greeted me with “Hello, sweetheart,” which instantly made me melt. We chatted for a while, and he was incredibly kind and open. When it was time to take pictures, he pulled me close and did a few poses with his shield, looking at me every once in a while to make a joke and crack a grin.

I was star-struck.

I know it’s silly that such an insignificant meeting would influence me, but it really did—from that moment on, Cap has been my favorite. The on-screen hero, for me, reflected my real life hero.

When you think about it, that’s the essence of these movies. Yes, life imitates art, but art also imitates life. What we see on the screen is a reflection of our time and our culture. It is a representation of our fears and our failures as a society, but also our hopes.

When I was in the theater to see Star Trek: Into Darkness, I enjoyed myself immensely. I loved the action sequences and the characters. Everything was going off without a hitch, in my mind, until the sequence when Khan’s hijacked ship crashes into the San Francisco skyline—a picture that was, in my mind, eerily reminiscent of the 9/11 destruction.

I was a little unsettled by the image, and for a few minutes I was taken out of the movie. I couldn’t help but ask myself: Why do we watch these movies? Why do we continue to make and enjoy action movies with such large-scale destruction?

It’s true—look at The Avengers. Even in such a light-hearted movie, New York gets beaten. Comic book movies are notorious for disaster-scale city destruction, but it shows up in other action movies as well. Surely it’s a reflection of the times and our society’s fears. But why include it?

It struck me then, in Star Trek, as I watched the sequence of Spock relentlessly chasing Khan down through the streets: we watch these movies because we like to imagine better. We like the idea that there is a singular “bad guy” that can be caught and brought to justice, like Khan. If there is one villain to be blamed, suddenly the world seems more black and white. We cling to the idea that evil can be stopped so easily.

Most of all, we like the idea that there are heroes out there who can and will restore peace. They are our hope, and they give us chances for a better world. They give us the justice that is so often absent in huge catastrophes.

We do project reality onto film. Art does imitate life, no matter how much we magnify it and tweak it.

The great thing? Those heroes do exist in the real world. They may not have the mask or the cape or the superpowers, but they’re here. And they change the world day by day, in big ways and small.

That, I think, is something worth cheering for.

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