Superhero films as modern-day identity parables for Gen Z

Roslyn Hernández Image Roslyn Hernández | Jun 3, 2021

Ka-pow! Booooom! Bang!

Do you hear that? After a year without releases, that’s this year’s superhero blockbusters approaching.

COVID-19 made this past year difficult for many reasons. One of the difficulties has been gathering in person. Getting together with our loved ones, our friends, and our communities takes many forms—one of those being watching movies together. Being a film nerd, I am incredibly grateful for vaccines and reduced restrictions for gathering.

That is why last week I sent a group text to the young adults in my ministry:

“Would any of you be down to watch the Marvel movies (or some of them) in some kind of Machete order before all the new movies coming out this summer? *cool smiley face with sunglasses*”

After some like and love reactions came a, “Yeah. That would be fun!”

I know I cannot be the only person attempting to re-watch all these movies, brushing up on trivia, and trying to organize physically-distanced outdoor movie hang-outs. And I probably don’t have to tell you that scheduling a movie night, or anything working around young people’s schedules, is not easy. So far, I have found one date for us and I am determined to watch at least one more of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) installments with my students before this year’s new releases!

More than spectacle

Watching these kinds of movies with my students is important to me because while on the surface they are just fantastical spectacles, their narratives increasingly provide a wider representation of diversity. These narratives and characters can provide rich opportunities for us to have deeper conversations. In doing so the films become parables, texts that open the door to discussions of identity, diversity, representation, intersectionality, and social justice.

These are conversations my students have told me are important to them. And these are the realities research tells us this generation is living. Pew research shows that Generation Z is the most diverse generation in U.S. history to date. From our own research we know that identity is one of young people’s biggest questions and that cultural and ethnic identity are a part of the diversity we see in Generation Z. This was a reality we kept circling back to in our team’s research conversations for 3 Big Questions that Change Every Teenager.

My particular group of students and our church community are Latinx. We have diversity within this Latinidad: Mexican, Guatemalan, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran. But my students also interact with people of other ethnic and cultural backgrounds at their schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods. Diversity is not just part of their lives by circumstance, it is also something they value and intentionally seek. My students and their generation are interested in understanding, appreciating, and seeking justice for those who are different from them.

Our students may be interacting and learning from other cultures. But they might not always be talking through what they are learning and experiencing. The world of superheroes can present a way into a deeper and mutual understanding by offering the interactions between their increasingly diverse characters as parables our students can engage.

How can we use the superhero genre to have conversations about cultural identity and diversity with our students?

The characters in these narratives allow students to process their own experiences and learn about the experiences of others.

As diverse representation increases, we will be able to use films like Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse with mostly positive discussions of diversity. But the studios do not always get things right—some of these films still perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes. Those are still opportunities to listen to our students, get to know them better, and learn together.

These might be vulnerable conversations for some of our students. But if they are open to those discussions, it is often helpful to hold space for them as they share. We do not need to respond by saying the right thing. The perfect Bible verse is not always needed.

What is needed is our posture of listening and empathy. In the long run, a safe space to share as our full ethnic and cultural selves can build the sense of belonging that a quick response might shut down.

Characters and questions can foster discussions with our students. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

Shuri (Black Panther) and Darcy Lewis (Thor, Wanda Vision) are young women working in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

  • What is it like for each of these characters to be a young woman in a STEM field? 
  • How do young women in our youth groups experience STEM spaces and roles given their ethnic and cultural identities?

The character of Mantis from Guardians of the Galaxy is a more problematic representation of ethnic identity. Mantis is played by an Asian actor.

  • What stereotypes of Asian women does this character portray?
  • In what way could this representation be made better?

In Falcon and The Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes navigate racial tension in our nation. 

  • What is it like for Sam, as a Black man, to become Captain America? 
  • What does each of these characters learn about the way the other character experiences the world around them?
  • What have our students learned from friends of different cultural backgrounds?

Miles Morales from Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse is Afro-Latinx.

  • What is it like for Miles to be biracial?
  • If any of our students are biracial, or multicultural, how do they experience this reality?

General questions to foster discussion

Here are a few questions you can ask after watching any superhero film:

  • What character do you relate to and why?
  • What did this character get right about your experience?
  • If the student shares a cultural background with the character:
    What would make this character a better representation of what it is like to be from your cultural background?

For our students, diversity is more than a statistic. It is part of their reality. Creating the space to have conversations that engage their cultural and ethnic realities can play a part in shaping their identity.

Beyond the questions of, Who am I in my cultural contexts? Or, Who are you because of your culture? this generation is also asking, When we are part of a community of diverse individuals, who are we together?

Superhero genre films and shows are made for entertainment—they are not going to delve deeply into these topics, and they will not provide the answers to our students’ questions. But they do provide relevant and safe spaces for exploration and for these conversations to begin. Because whether they come from a different borough, a different planet, or a different dimension altogether, these characters are increasingly representing and including the diversity and intersectionalities of young people’s lives.

Tweet this: Diversity is more than a statistic for our students—it’s their reality. Find out how superhero films are modern-day parables for Gen Z to explore diverse identities

Photo by Erik Witsoe. Winter Soldier courtesy of Disney+.

How to understand the young people in your world

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Roslyn Hernández Image
Roslyn Hernández

Roslyn Hernández is DEI Manager and Content Producer at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI). She produces The FYI on Youth Ministry podcast, manages resource production, and provides support for research projects. Roslyn lived in México City as a child and grew up in the Central Valley of California. She holds a BA with majors in Film & Media Studies and Spanish, and a minor in Art History from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB); and an MDiv with an emphasis on Youth, Family and Culture from Fuller Theological Seminary. Roslyn is also a Spiritual Director and writer. She is passionate about decolonizing, public theology, pop culture, culinary traditions, nature, and tea.

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