Superheroes nearly always save the day, but the methods they use might not be as heroic as people think, according to research presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition on Friday.
“We actually found the protagonists were performing a greater amount of violence per hour than the antagonists. Protagonists were performing 22.7 violent events per hour, while the antagonists, or bad guys, were performing 17.5 events per hour,” said John Muller, a medical student at Penn State College of Medicine and lead researcher of the project. The findings have not been published or peer-reviewed.
The research looks at 10 superhero films from 2015 and 2016: “Suicide Squad,” “Batman: The Killing Joke,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Deadpool,” “Fantastic Four,” “Ant-Man” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
To work out who was committing the violent act, “each major film character was classified as either a protagonist (‘good guy’) or antagonist (‘bad guy’),” the research says.
After acts of violence had been identified by the researchers, they were analyzed and converted into rates of violence per hour for comparison, Muller said.
There were 2,191 total acts of violence for the good guys, compared with 1,724 for the bad guys.
“This is important because so many kids are looking up to these superheroes as positive role models and people they want to act like,” Muller said, using Halloween as an example, when kids dress up as both the heroes and the villains from these films.
The most common type of violence seen in superhero films was fighting, with 1,620 total appearances in the movies. The antagonists were involved in only 599 of these fights.
This was followed by use of a lethal weapon, which appeared 1,263 times throughout the movies. Again, the good guys won, being responsible for 659 of these appearances, compared with the bad guys’ 604 times.
The other categories of violent acts that appeared were destruction of property; bullying; intimidation or torture; and murder.
Bullying, intimidation and torture was the only category where antagonists were responsible for more of the incidences: 237, versus 144 for the heroes.
Although the reasoning behind the violence for the good guys was not analyzed in the research, Muller suggests that if they are seen as committing acts of violence for a good reason, such as protecting someone, it may be better accepted and understood.
The research also found that male characters committed an average of 33.6 acts of violence per hour, compared with only 6.5 mean hours of violence per hour for female characters.
These findings could be problematic, according to Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. Research has shown that children are known to imitate role models, either live or filmed.
“We know that children are strongly influenced by media characters, they think they are cool, and they’re likely to imitate their behavior,” said Bushman, who was not involved with the new study.
Research has shown that children who see movie characters drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or use guns are more likely to indulge in those behaviors themselves, he said.
“It’s troubling to me that the perpetrators of the violent acts are the good guys, because that communicates the idea that aggression is justifiable as long as it’s committed by a good guy,” he said, especially as he believes superhero characters are the type of role models that children are most likely to imitate.
“We are more likely to imitate violence that is by attractive perpetrators who are justified for what they do, so superhero violence is kind of a really good recipe for that,” said Sarah Coyne, an associate professor of human development at the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.
Coyne was not involved in the new research, but her own work has looked at how watching superhero programs influence the behavior of preschool children.
“I think that most people know that superhero movies are pretty violent. I think they might be surprised by how much violence is by the superhero themselves, as opposed to the villain,” said Coyne, who believes that the research adds an “accounting of the violence that’s actually in superhero movies.”
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Even though superhero programs and movies tend to be made for older audiences, they are often popular with younger audiences, including preschool-age children, Coyne said. All of the superhero movies listed on Box Office Mojo, which is where the study sample came from, had a rating of at least PG-13.
Coyne’s first advice for parents is not to let children watch such movies until they are of an age at which they can understand the themes. “They are rated PG-13 for a reason,” she said.
However, if adults decide to let a child watch a superhero movie, she suggests talking to them about what they saw, making sure that they understand what they are watching.
“Something that would be a great conversation would be ‘OK, so there’s all this violence happening. What would happen in the real world if somebody hit somebody like that?’ ” she said. “My main advice is just to avoid them until they are older. If not, please talk.”