Where are the Families of Fabled Heroes?

Unlike Hindi films, modern North American films rarely embed the hero in the thick traditions and obligations of family history. It is a rare movie indeed when we meet the hero’s parents.

So wrote cultural anthropologist Richard A. Shweder, of the University of Chicago, and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia, in a chapter for the Handbook of Emotions (2000).

We don’t meet the parents of Hollywood heroes because many of our culture’s iconic superheroes are orphaned. Or might as well be.

Batman’s parents are dead; victims of a violent crime. Superman’s folks died in a disaster on a far away planet. Luke Skywalker was the son of a mostly absent, and decidedly bad, father. He barely had a mother. (The character that appeared later in the Star Wars franchise, played by Natalie Portman, was an afterthought.)

At a time when the very definition and role of family in our culture is muddled (perhaps because it is in transition), we might not be surprised that our cultural heroes seem to spring forward without parental guidance and support. Or in spite of it.

Yet, the Batman and Superman narratives go back many decades to their comic book origins in the mid-last century. Perhaps they helped set us upon the path we find ourselves today.

Still, no matter how the entertainment industry construes the hero’s journey, social relationships early in life have a profound impact on shaping how each of us perceives, interprets, and relates to the world.

Given a choice between nurturing parents or becoming orphaned, even most Superheroes probably would take the hugs.