Stan Lee helped create some of the most iconic characters in the world of comic books, and they have taught us much throughout the decades. Here are 6 lessons we learned from his superheroes.
It’s hard to overstate just how important Marvel in general, and Stan Lee in particular, have been for the superhero world. A world not confined to the pages of colorful comic books and idiosyncratic memorabilia, but to movies and popular culture as well—and through that, a world open to the rest of human society. He brought humanity to his fantasy characters; he brought believability to their woes. In the end, we learned—and keep learning—much from these superheroes, much to the credit of their creator. With that in mind, here are 6 lessons Stan Lee’s superheroes taught us throughout the years.
1. Cherish your flaws
The main distinctive feature about Stan Lee’s superheroes is the fact that they’re flawed beings. Before him, superheroes were mostly ideal, near-perfect people who embodied the highest moral and personal standards. But Lee found beauty in imperfection, and realized, like the great writers in history, that human flaws make characters relatable. Wherever there’s no imperfection, there’s no substance, no depth, no truth. In short, what makes each of us truly interesting is not that which makes us saints, but those individual flaws that distinguish us from the rest.
You’ll often find that the more perfect you are, the less relatable you become: others will have a harder time sympathizing with you and might even go as far as to dislike you. So, yeah, you should cherish your flaws. That’s not to say you shouldn’t keep improving, though. Improve as much as possible, but don’t diminish yourself on account of your shortcomings. As a whole, humanity likes those shortcomings—in ordinary people as much as in superheroes. They keep all of us with our feet on the ground.
2. Stand up against injustice
You’ve heard the quotes, and the wisdom, from Stan Lee’s own characters, as well as from many great thinkers. Injustice thrives wherever good people stand idly by. “With great power comes great responsibility,” Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, the single phrase that turned an awkward high-school boy into the Amazing Spider-Man. More than a radioactive spider, what made Peter a superhero was his unassuming old mentor: his ordinary, loving uncle, who imparted not martial training or great warfare skills, but simple moral guidance. It’s not about having superpowers, but about using whatever ability you might have—mundane as it may seem—for good. Therein lies the key.
3. Work hard
Stan Lee’s superheroes often earned their superhero status. They didn’t come flying from another planet gifted with everything they ever wanted from birth; rather, they grew into their roles through an arduous and laborious process of character development. They had to learn to be heroes, and they had to work for it. Also, they were frequently pretty successful individuals in their own right beyond their superpowers—precisely because of hard work. They would earn advanced degrees, become doctors, lawyers, or scientists. Bruce Banner, Stephen Strange, Tony Stark… well, pretty much everybody accomplished so much outside their superhero mantle.
4. Look out for everyone
Don’t focus all your empathy on people close to you or on those who have been in similar situations as you. Everyone—even members of other species—deserves a minimum dose of our protection, of our care, and of our indignation whenever violence is used against them. It’s not about defending the rights and welfare of those who look similar to us. That’s not what being a superhero is all about—not at all. From the poor to the alien, from the lowest organism to sentient machines, a superhero cares about the welfare of any being whatsoever. Sure, it’s hard to focus our attention on so many issues. But no one said being a superhero was easy.
5. Set goals and pursue them to the end
It’s important to have clear goals, even if only moral ones. Perhaps you don’t know where or what you want to study, or what to do during the weekend, or even where your life is headed. But you should at least know what you and your actions represent. Stan Lee’s superheroes, from the X-Men to the Hulk, were a bunch of misfits and outcasts, often wandering around trying to figure life out as much as you or I. But they always knew that their actions mattered, that they could become symbols for something greater than themselves. And above all, whatever their goals, they would never give up. They could fall and fail, but always rise again. No matter how hard things got: the mark of a superhero is to adapt, grow, and keep going, even in the face of defeat.
6. Use your wit
What’s more entertaining than a witty superhero? It’s not for nothing that Spider-Man is one of the most popular superheroes ever to be created: his quick whip and ingenious interventions during fights made him rather lovable. The same goes for almost every other character in Marvel’s universe: in their own way, they all have an admirable sense of humor and a fascinating sagacity in their dialogue. Sure, not everyone is gifted with amazing wit, but that’s not the point. The idea, in the end, is to just have fun—whenever you’re doing something, no matter how serious or important, it’s crucial to learn how to have a good time. Stan Lee’s superheroes sure did so, and consequently we had a good time with them.
As Stan Lee himself said, superhero tales are essentially fairytales for grown-ups, and we love them for it. But they can also be far more. For kids growing up, comic books are one of the main sources of role-models ever to be found, which makes these stories a deeply important influence for future generations. That’s a lot of responsibility for any single medium. That’s why it’s so relevant to have had creators like Lee, who passionately showed not the world as it is, but as it could be—if only we were brave enough to take his moral lessons to heart.
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