The Challenge of Mixed Messages from Popular Superheroes

The Challenge of Mixed Messages from Popular Superheroes

The entertainment industry has shifted towards a more inclusive and diverse assemblage of characters, without overlooking its global Muslim audience. One example is the film produced by the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, “Spiderman: Far from Home,” which featured their first-ever hijab-wearing Muslim character. Now with Ms. Marvel soon to hit theaters about a Muslimah superheroine named Kamala Khan, the youth’s craze for comic book-themed movies will only skyrocket.  As this surge in representation draws an increasing number of Muslims to watch, a discussion about its implications on the minds of our youth and their perspective on Islamic values is ever so crucial.

Some Background

When I was a young mother and my first two sons were a toddler and a baby, I was determined to never let them enter the world of comic book superheroes. Not wanting them to fall into the trap of idolizing fictitious characters or ascribing godlike attributes to anything or anyone other than Allah, I steered clear of all action figures, Disney, DC and Marvel comic books, and the television or movies that promoted them. In this society, where education is closely tied in with entertainment and consumerism, and families feel pressured to give in to the latest fads, it was literally a Herculean task. 

My intention was to build a strong faith foundation for my children, promoting real-life heroes, like the prophets. I wanted my children to love them with the same enthusiastic fervor as I saw other children admire Superman. I even began writing and illustrating a comic book series called, “Our Superheroes (Nuestros Superheroes)” under my family’s educational non-profit organization, Hablamos Islam. We published two titles in the series, “The Adventures of Suleiman (Las Aventuras de Suleiman),” and “Yunus’ Mission (La Misión de Yunus),” about the prophets Suleiman and Yunus, peace be upon them.

I spoke to my children about the great messengers in Islam, whom Allah gifted with superb powers of faith, morality, integrity, and devotion to Allah. And best of all, they were real! I explained they were real-life people who performed the most marvelous feats of character to teach people about the Oneness of Allah. And some even had miracles! My slogan for my kids was, “Who needs Superman when we have Suleiman!”

Superheroes Everywhere

This endeavor was short-lived. Once my children entered school, the school system and their peers were able to singlehandedly undo every protective thread I sewed around them. Although I avoided the funky t-shirts with Spiderman or Batman cartoons, the toddler underwear with the Hulk or Captain America, the Star Wars bedsheets, and all the superhero toys, eventually superhero paraphernalia came into my house by way of pencils, stickers, and trinkets. 

More and more, the superhero culture made its way into our lives, by way of comic-inspired educational materials, stories they heard and read, and games they played with their peers. The fact that they were in Islamic school did not help filter out the obsession. Most of the gear they brought came from their Islamic school teachers! Lunch and recess discussions centered around the latest movies and TV shows their friends were watching. The boys began to ask for superhero toys for Eid and they grew more enthusiastic about visiting the action figure sections of department stores. Soon, they were asking to watch movies like Batman vs. Superman as I sat across the table with a raised eyebrow. “You know who’s better than them?” I would ask, and then playfully answer for them, fist-pumped to the sky, “the prophets!”

I continued to resist, diplomatically, as they got older, but I did not want to be unreasonable. I understood where they were coming from; I was also into superheroes as a child. I loved the old reruns of Batman, the X-Men cartoons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Captain Planet and his environmentally-conscious “Planeteers.” Yet my admiration for these imaginary characters never evolved into the cult-like following it is today. Superhero movies were not nearly as popular in the 80’s and just began gaining traction in the 90’s, until finally booming in the early 2000’s until now. Ironically, one of the events that prompted Hollywood to produce more films based on comic books was the success of the X-Men, a personal favorite. How could I blame my children for wanting to follow this trend? After all, as human beings, we are drawn to stories of heroes, like those of the prophets who faced immense hardships and triumphed against all odds. These tales fill us with awe and hope, and they are incredibly entertaining.

Growing up, I read a lot of Greek and Roman mythology and I knew that comic book creators drew from mythological tales to develop their own fictional characters. Think about heroes like Odysseus or Perseus, portrayed in the myths as demigods with superhuman strength who defied the greatest odds to achieve their goals. A protagonist in the comic book world may be just a regular human being, often flawed (making him/her more relatable), who is given a gift (by accident or circumstance), and they must use this gift for good against an evil adversary. Some storylines are even taken directly from mythology with little alteration, like the Nordic “god” Thor, one of the key figures in Marvel’s Avengers series.

Never has the influence of superheroes been so palpable as after the death of Chadwick Boseman in August 2020. Boseman became popular as the character Black Panther, also known as King T-Challa, ruler of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. He played an important role, representing an intelligent and powerful Black leader who had wide appeal, particularly with people of color. News of his passing grieved many, and non-Muslims and Muslims alike took to social media to express their sadness. In addition to T-Challa, the movie portrayed a host of powerful Black male and female characters who inspired youth to feel proud of their African heritage, finally able to see themselves on the big screen in a positive light. Chadwick Boseman became a real-life hero for the African American community, and he will always be remembered for his outstanding performance. 

The Dark Side of the Force

So, if these films have an inspirational side, what is the danger? To answer that question, we have to return to the basics. 

In all forms of art and creative expression, there is an objective. It might be simply to entertain, to portray beauty of some sort, to communicate an idea, or to bring about an intellectual, moral, or emotional response. Film is no different. Yet, there is often a hidden agenda behind the movies Hollywood produces. After all, the big screen is a powerful tool with the ability to influence public opinion on a global scale. Whether or not these agendas are sinister in nature is up for debate. However, by meticulously examining cartoons that were popular in the past and now, we discover some disturbing facts and trends. 

For instance, a significant number of characters bear Christian Crusader symbols, like a cross on their chest, on their armor or uniforms. Some examples are He-man, Voltron, and the Star Wars robot BB-8. Even more perplexing is the Star Wars Jedi order symbol which eerily looks like a cross on top of a horizontal crescent. Others, like Batman and Robin, are openly called the “Caped Crusaders.” This leaves one to wonder what is the point of that reference? Likewise, the psychiatric hospital/prison where Gotham city houses the criminally insane, notably Batman’s archenemies, is called “Arkham Asylum.” This name is strangely close to Dar-ul-Arqam, the house of one of the first Muslims, Arkam bin Abil Arkam bin Asad –  a safe house in which the early Muslim converts held secret meetings with Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, to escape persecution.

Occult symbolism is also found throughout some cartoons. Here are a few examples:

  • In Spiderman, when shooting webs from his wrists, he forms a “devil horns” hand gesture. 
  • Batman is also referred to as the “Dark Knight” and uses a bat as his emblem, a representation of evil in the Bible (Isaiah 2:20). The official Church of Satan even tweeted in September 2017 that “Batman is the perfect manifestation of the satanic ethic ….” 
  • The concept of the Eye of Providence, or the all-seeing eye, can be found in Thundercats and scattered across the DC and Marvel universes. 
  • Some superheroes and villains are even depicted with distinct characteristics of the Dajjal or the Antichrist, specifically his floating one eye and ability to appeal to the masses by way of illusions. Examples of this are Dr. Sivana in Shazam and Doctor Strange of the Avengers. 
  • Dr. Strange is known as the “sorcerer supreme,” drawing his powers from supernatural entities and mystical artifacts. 

All these symbols and ideas go against the teachings of Islam and the Oneness of Allah. 

But it's Just a Movie!

Our children may argue (with an accompanying eyeroll) that it is “just a movie, Mom!” and, these are fictional characters after all. My main concern, however, is that we must draw a clear line between what is fantasy for entertainment purposes and what is our reality as Muslims. Can love for these super-powerful fictional characters coexist with our pure love for Allah, as the All-Powerful Supreme Being? As my children became more exposed to superhero movies through family, friends, school, and commercial spaces, I began to think of this interest as an educational opportunity or “teachable moment.”

Instead of solely countering a child’s curiosity with an outright “no” or “haram” tag, parents can ask, “How does this differ from our beliefs as Muslims?” For my own children, I make sure lines of communication are always open. When they are interested in watching an age-appropriate show or movie, I allow it on occasions, and always with my own agenda to seize the opportunity to teach. I read reviews about the film first, on sites like Common Sense Media and I sit to watch it with them. I instruct them to be aware of religious, pagan, and satanic symbolism within the most popular fictional comic book universes and remind them about the impermissibility of magic and ascribing Divine attributes to any other than Allah. I also point out any xenophobic, Islamophobic, and racist content so they understand what is and what is not ok. It is equally important to remind them about the trials of the Last Day and the Dajjal, of course at their level of understanding, along with the recommended Sunnah practices to counter and seek protection from their evils.

Striking the Middle Path

We have a saying in Spanish, “No se puede tapar el sol con un dedo,” which means, “You can’t cover the sun with your fingertip.” Nothing exemplifies this statement more than parenting Muslim children in the West. Our children are exposed to so many things, including these alternate multiverses filled with magic and superpowers. Even though these worlds are fictional, messages from the characters they house can find their way to our children – whatever message their creators want them to extract. What are we doing to help our children identify the good and the evil? Some parents prefer to keep their children isolated to protect them from exposure to questionable or harmful influences. But this risks resentment or rebellion down the road. Others leave them to explore their surroundings without any guidance or supervision, hoping they will stay grounded through the strength of family traditions. 

Then there is the middle path: establishing a harmonious balance of autonomy and compliance for our children. The ideal is to teach children, so they make the best decisions and never fall into any extreme, whether that be completely neglecting their duties to the Creator or becoming overzealous to the point of fanaticism. This is our goal, as parents and as a community. In an age filled with distractions and temptations of every sort, the comic book superheroes are here to stay. Soon, with the release of Ms. Marvel, we will have to decide whether to watch the film or not, and if we will allow our children to see it. Will we be the hero or the villain in their eyes? Hopefully, with guidance we can be great teachers of a Divine criterion so that our children can navigate skillfully in this world of good and evil. Let us be a heart-driven force for the preservation of our values; and may Allah be with us. 

(This article is modified from a previously published article, Striking the Balance in a Superhero Culture, in The Message International Magazine.)

Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish ( She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam.

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