Lately, it seems that the two “Fs” (Fiction [Literature] and Film) are having a pretty strong impact on the American economy. When the fiction and film combination includes comic book heroes, each film seems to earn more than the last. And while the money these films generate is significant, the potential educational impact on the minds of young Americans is also worth considering. As a high school English teacher, I stand in front of a young audience everyday and try to convince—no, sell—young minds on the idea that reading old texts like the Iliad, Beowulf and Frankenstein are still valid experiences both relevant and rich regardless of age, race, cultural background or old the books are. One of the reasons this is becoming easier as the years in the classroom speed by so much faster than one might think, is the presence of popular films that build on the concepts these great works are founded upon and spins them into block buster images that young mind just can’t resist. Do some of these movies inadvertently or intentionally promote violence, sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc.? YES. But they can also be used to encourage kids being conditioned every day by popular technology to abstain from text, to pick up something old, read it and discover just how much the old world connects with the new.
By drawing clear lines between characters like Beowulf, Achilles and Victor Frankenstein and the heroes, villains and anti-heroes featured in films about Thor, Captain America, Iron man, and the myriad of Batman movies, average public school teenagers, who are neither advanced placement nor necessarily college bound, are reading and understanding a complicated epic poem like the Iliad and enjoying it. This is important because not only do these complicated texts challenge their perceptions of language and help their brains carve out new neural pathways, they can also help create a common ground upon which students from a diverse cultural and ethnic palate can stand with each other and the great heroes, villains and anti-heroes of the past. Once these connections are made, their attitudes magically change from reluctant and often indignant to curious and amiable. At this point their eyes can begin to focus on the essential similarities between the ancient and the modern worlds. This can be an educational moment that reaches across demographic barriers. For example, most Native, African, Mexican, Asian and European American students in my classes had no idea how similar the Roman’s attempted conquest of the Britons—a historical topic relevant to Beowulf—and subsequent spread of Christianity was to the colonization of America by the French, British, and Spanish. Many of my students viewed colonization as a singularly American “thing” that happened only to minorities. Fortunately for teacher, there are films out there like Beowulf and Grendel or Centurion that dramatize this very concept. Suddenly, in their eyes, the world became just a little bit smaller. Suddenly, the people across the sea and the ones seated next to them don’t seem so scary or different any more.
So the next time you yawn and complain about another comic book hero franchise film, remember that one person’s kryptonite could be some teacher’s magic lasso.