Just a Thought – Super or Special ?

In the teeth of a heat wave, I tend to be more of a library lurker than a multiplex maven, but circumstances took me to the movies twice in the last week. It wasn’t by design, but I realized that both of those films were on the same topic; heroism. The “Incredibles 2” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” come at this from opposite ends of the spectrum, but the question of what it means to be a hero shines through.

I love animation, and I’ll admit that no trailer ever made me laugh as hard as the first teaser for the original “Incredibles.” As rather freshly minted  middle-aged mother, the scene of Mr. Incredible trying to get his body back into his super suit with much groaning and squeezing had me laughing until my face hurt.  But “Incredibles 2″ reflected the heroism in a much more nuanced fashion. I loved the Mom-on-motorcycle-racing-the-runaway-train sequence, but overwhelmed Dad facing the New Math; that was heroic. How ‘super’ do you have to be to help with homework? I could hear other parents in the theater laughing,”Didn’t we just do this with Common Core?”

Cartoons have always won my ardor by dispensing with the laws of physics without apology. This is what turns an adventure into a surreal fantasy. Of course, having super powers is also a great daydream – what would I do if I could fly, or disappear, or freeze time with a touch? The assortment of ‘supers’ introduced throughout the film covers a lot of truly weird turf, all of it thoughtful, all of it fun.

I was surprised that my younger daughter wanted to see the documentary on Fred Rogers, as he was off the air long before she was born. PBS still had reruns,  but I didn’t know he meant anything special to her.

Fred Rogers meant a lot of special things to me. He was on the New York PBS station, WNET, when I got home from grade school in the afternoons, and the sound of those trolley bells can put me right back in the family room, with the flagstone floor and the worn old leather couch. Television was a controlled substance in my parent’s rule book, and my sibs and I were allowed to watch selected, small slices of TV. Mister Rogers was the voice of calm in many hectic circumstances, and his habit of speaking slowly and gently felt as soothing as a glass of cool water on a hot day.  I loved him for being my neighbor. Best of all, proof to my folks that TV was not always toxic.

While even people who worked on ‘Mister Rogers Neighborhood’ noted that it had none of the usual elements of successful children’s programming, the really damning evidence in the documentary was the short montage of other ‘kids shows’ that were on the air at the same time. Anyone remember any great life lessons learned from ‘The Banana Splits’ or “Johnny Quest?’

The fun house mirror curved all the way around for me when the Incredible kids, Violet and Dash, are shown watching ‘Johnny Quest,’ a detail probably inserted into the scene to give it a specific point in time. ‘Johnny Quest’ was the show my brother requested for his tv time, an animated James-Bond-for-boys with a fathers and sons motif.  Dash and Violet already know that they are ‘supers,’ a category of humans with special powers, but they also watch television, maybe just for entertainment, but maybe to learn something, too.

Mister Rogers did not tell his viewers that they were super, he told them that they were special. A category perhaps not above, but beyond.

Television was a very new medium when Fred Rogers began his career, and he was intrigued to see what he could communicate to children. “Incredibles 2” takes off of cartoons so old, I could see the Chuck Jones/Tex Avery choreography in the baby-versus-raccoon fight. But whether you stand on tradition or open up a new standard, showing children what heroism can be is a very noble thing.

Entertainment for children is so much more than just entertainment. Being a hero is rarely about racing a runaway train, and often about the daily things we do to help our friends, our neighbors, and our kids. Both of these movies are still at the ArcLight in Downtown CC, and if you have time to watch them both, you might find a lot of heroic things to think about.

As we continue to face climate change, political oppression, and the depressing impact of the daily news, hiding from the heat in a cool cinema can be a respite for an hour or two.

More heroics will be required soon, so consider your options – Super or special?

Judith Martin-Straw







The Actors' Gang

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