Superheroes, with the exception of Pizza Man and Frogman, are uniformly athletic and attractive. Is that a problem? As the Disney/Marvel marketing apparatus works at full-tilt boogie to convince us that a new Spider-Man movie is an exciting thing, I've been questioning my lifelong adoration of costumed heroes.
Princesses also conform to impossible physical standards, and googling "princess culture" results in a minefield of debates. Parents throw down over the gender-role expectations and premature sexualization instilled by Cinderella, Snow White and Jasmine: some refuse to let their children play with princess toys or watch princess movies at all.
Yet I've never heard of parents putting a ban on superheroes, even though Spidey, for all his sweetness, is basically an unregulated paramilitary operative.
Ditto Batman and Squirrel Girl, who also launch attacks against perceived enemies without any governmental or civilian oversight. Daredevil and She-Hulk are lawyers who break the law in their spare time – and all of these characters are largely beloved as role models for children.
Unlike most cartoon princesses, superheroes have complicated lives and personalities. Grownups love these characters for reasons other than spectacular costumes and amazing powers, and that might be why we're so willing to turn a blind eye to the messages these muscle-heads are broadcasting to the under-10 set.
Take Spidey, who we see in the the new Spider-Man: Homecoming as an awkward teenager. From his first comic-book appearance in 1962 up to his sixth and latest movie, the best handlers of the web-slinger's tales have understood that people connect with the character because he is chronically, courageously uncool.
Peter Parker is a loser. He has great power and intellect, but he never wins.
Torn between high school, freelance photography and crime-fighting, Parker always arrives too late to help his frail Aunt May, never has enough money, is forever squandering professional and romantic opportunities and is perpetually fighting an unsuccessful public-relations battle with a newspaper editor determined to vilify the hero in the eyes of the public.
As the struggling underdog loner who always makes the right moral choice but never personally succeeds, Peter is someone who we could be.
But that's an adult's perspective. To a child, Spider-Man is cool for less complicated reasons.
"Five-year-olds love the bright costume, the fun powers that they can pretend to replicate while swinging on ropes … he's fun!" says Chip Zdarsky, writer of Peter Parker: Spectacular Spider-Man, one of about 10 Spidey-related comics, aimed at various ages, in publication.
Zdarsky (a friend who illustrated a book I wrote in 2013) says that his own love of superheroes began simply, too – as a child, he found the corny puns that Spidey uses against physically stronger opponents such as Scorpion, Rhino or the Lizard hilarious.
But he thinks that this simple appreciation evolves as kids mature, that "as you grow older, you start to relate to Peter more," as he did. Just like Peter Parker, Zdarsky was bullied as a kid: He sometimes pretended that his super powers and secret identity are what kept him from fighting back. "It's a strangely fun delusion to help you cope with bullies and the bad stuff that happens to you," he says.
Unsurprisingly, the truth is complicated: While kids probably do develop an appreciation for Peter Parker's loveable loser persona with time, it's still possible for them to absorb the wrong messages, especially during their preschool and kindergarten years.
Lee Essig, co-author of the recent study Pow! Boom! Kablam!, says that small children especially don't have the ability to appreciate a superhero's complications. "The minds of three- to five-year-olds are very different from seven-year-old children, let alone adolescent or adult brains," says Essig, a researcher at Brigham Young University in Utah.
He has two children and his co-author, professor Sarah Coyne, has five. Their study was subtitled Effects of Viewing Superhero Programs on Aggressive, Prosocial, and Defending Behaviors in Preschool Children, and examined the effect of a year of watching superhero shows on the physical aggression of 240 children.
Younger children were less impacted by a superhero's motivations than the manner in which they help out, the researchers found. And although heroes usually learn that not every problem can be solved with violence, the first two-thirds of most stories see superheroes punch, kick, optic blast and clobber their way out of trouble.
That, Essig and Coyne found, is the behaviour that most little kids mimicked.
"They see that these characters beat up or kill people and are celebrated and rewarded for their actions," Essig says. "Kids don't pick up on the more implicit messages of their moral decision-making that led them to act out violently."
It isn't until the ages of 7 or 8 that kids begin to understand that superhero violence is motivated by "standing up for what's right and defending those in need," says Essig. Plus, parental engagement is essential in "helping them learn … the valuable lessons that were always there, but that the children were unable to recognize." So if you love superheroes, make time to watch the movies with your kids.
Small children aren't the target audience of most comics and movies, says Andrew Woodrow-Butcher, manager of school and library sales for Toronto comic bookstore The Beguiling.
That's why many comic publishers, including Marvel and DC, have attempted to promote what he calls "kid-appropriate" stories. DC SuperHero Girls, for example, is a multiplatform franchise of shows, books and toys populated by pint-sized versions of branded characters. It's wildly successful.
"For people under a certain age, who aren't necessarily filtering through all these moral ambiguities and synthesizing them, this is perfect," says Woodrow-Butcher, who is also the kids programming co-ordinator for the Toronto Comics Arts Festival.
"Because kids want to read something with Superman in it and this is a thing they can read where the adventure is like, someone stole the doughnuts."
While it's nice that these companies produce baby and teen versions of popular adult superheroes, the value of these franchises can be as ambiguous as some of the stories.
Disney owns Marvel, along with nearly every popular and profitable collection of characters including those in, but not limited to, Star Wars, Pixar and Winnie the Pooh. In 2013, its annual licensed merchandise sales – everything from Halloween costumes, video games and coffee mugs to key chains, baseball hats and backpacks – passed $40-billion (U.S.).
"That said, hooking someone on something that's going to keep them reading for the rest of their lives doesn't sound like an evil scheme to me," Woodrow-Butcher says. "At the end of the day, it's also giving you opportunities, like learning to read for pleasure, learning to read with your family, learning to go to the library, to be excited when books are coming out."
Kim Chung, director of programming at the Centre for Family Literacy in Edmonton, agrees in the value of comic books. "The way children learn how to read is by being exposed to something over and over. Pictures give them cues," Chung says.
"And then they start to notice that there's little black squiggly things. If you're reading with them, they start to understand that those are what's telling the story," Chung says. Hungry for the same stories again and again, children will eventually want to know everything about their favourite heroes, to unravel the mystery of what's going on inside those word balloons.
Not all superheroes are created equal, of course: While loving Spider-Man is easy, Wonder Woman is a complicated feminist icon and the Punisher, a mass murderer who was the most popular comic character of the 1990s, oozes toxic masculinity.
But at their best, superheroes are defenders: from the micro to the macro (the neighbourhood bully, Vulture), the real to the surreal (Nazis, Skrulls), they exist to help us when we can't help ourselves.
In Zdarsky's words, they're valuable symbols "of men and women being the best they can be, with a focus on helping others who don't have the ability to, say, shoot laser beams from their eyes or lift cars."
And while superheroes have long been seen solely as power fantasies for young boys, he says that their appeal is finally widening. "Sure, a young Muslim girl can read Spider-Man and still relate to the character, but it's a much more potent fantasy when it's a character that resembles them, like Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel," Zdarsky says of a character that debuted in 2013.
As long as I can remember, I've been in love with superheroes. They taught me about right and wrong, selflessness, iconoclasm, loyalty, courage and that the West Edmonton Mall is the largest shopping centre in the world (or was as of Alpha Flight #26, in 1985). All of those are important things to know – as is reading, and the love of reading, which I learned through comic books.
So even if superheroes aren't the best role models for young children, I believe they're worth sticking with. After a while, the "thwips" and "snikts" take a back seat to stories that teach important virtues, and that ingenuity, self-sacrifice and teamwork are necessary to triumph over adversity.