Inside Expeditions: The Philosophy of Marvel

When our founders started Sora Schools, they set out to build a learning community where education is an exploration of knowledge. Our series, Inside Expeditions, gives readers a look inside the classroom where students are building up their skill sets, deepening their knowledge, and making connections between ideas. Our experts who design these middle school and high school courses for Sora come from a variety of STEM and Humanities backgrounds and look to build expeditions that are rigorous, engaging, and relevant.

Michael Granado is one of the early faculty members at Sora who leads a popular course on The Philosophy of Marvel. We sat down to discuss one of the school’s most-requested learning expeditions.

 

Hi Michael, thanks for taking the time to talk about The Philosophy of Marvel. I’m curious how you approached designing this course.

I design my courses thematically around philosophy, for example, The Philosophy of BLANK. The Philosophy of Marvel is a popular one, and I designed it to blend philosophical discussion with literary analysis. The Marvel movies are really important to discuss philosophically because, in a way, they function in American society similarly to myths in ancient societies. For example, Greek myths were an educational tool from which the audience could glean moral and life lessons. The course really builds on students’ aptitude for literary and philosophical analysis. For example: together we talked about literary aspects like how does Iron Man’s character progress? And in the same discussion we would get into philosophy: What does Iron Man tell us about grief, loss, and addiction? Is the superhero an idealized version of ourselves or is that not really possible?

In addition to all that I am a big comic book person. I think Marvel is the closest thing we as Americans have as a shared culture. Myths give us context, meaning, and direction. Myths are also almost always local. From a historical perspective, they give insight into a people’s worldview. 

Why are myths important to us? There’s a reason why the Epic of Gilgamesh has survived for thousands of years. We are not Sumerians, we don’t worship Sumerian gods, but the story of Gilgamesh is the story of us as a people. Purpose, direction, life, grief. Those things don’t go away. They are a fundamental part of the human condition. When you look at things like Marvel, it’s a retelling of these stories. Some are obvious, like Thor who is a character from Norse mythology. The figure of Iron Man is less obvious, but the basic structure and themes are still there. We find Iron Man compelling for the same reason we find Hercules compelling.

 

Okay, so the students are analyzing in the class. How do they show mastery of concepts? What projects do they do?

They get a choice. In the last expedition, we looked at Iron Man, Black Panther, and Thanos. At the end of the expedition, the students had the option of writing an essay, making a presentation, or creating a video essay making the case for certain analysis. It depends on what perspective the student wants to bring into it, and I’m here to help support them.

Usually how I have the expeditions structured is: that the first four weeks are discussion-focused, with small assignments attached to those discussions. For example one week we will talk about Black Panther and look at Killmonger as a villain. We will get together, explore these ideas, and look at the impact of colonialism on marginalized communities together. We will do this every week for four weeks on a different character or aspect of Marvel. Then for the final two weeks, they can take the model of exploration we’ve been exercising together and do it on a film of their choosing. 

Why are video essays a format that you encourage students to consider? What goes into making a video essay?

There are a few reasons why video essays are not only a valuable skill for students to have but also a really great format for movie analysis.

One is that in terms of how we digest information online, video essays are a niche that when done well, can build a large audience. There are people who see a lot of success making video essays full-time. There’s an aspect of this where it’s a valuable hard skill to have.

Video essays take more time to create than a written essay or a presentation. You have to plan the script and the visuals, gather your materials to make the video, and do a voice-over if necessary. 

When it comes to analyzing a visual piece of art like movies, video essays are a natural format. It can be cumbersome to describe a scene in an essay to then analyze it. In a video essay, the audience experiences the reference to the source material in its natural format.

 

Where do students start at the beginning and where are they at the end?

Some students join the expedition because they enjoy film and film is fun. Throughout the course, I see students say: I’ve never thought about it like this before. The Thanos discussion is probably my favorite part of the class because it’s the most controversial aspect of Marvel films. 

To understand why these discussions are so great, first I need to explain the ethical frameworks we are using. Ethics is a branch of philosophy that asks questions about what is right and wrong. The two big theories in ethics are utilitarianism and deontology. A lot of students know what these are, but they don’t know the jargon around them. Utilitarianism is the idea that something is right if it benefits the majority. Deontology uses rules to distinguish whether something is right or wrong. 

There’s this really weird trend in cinema where a “good” bad guy is utilitarian. In Marvel, Iron Man and Captain America are fundamentally deontologists. They both do right when it is right. But Thanos is utilitarian. We see the trend echo out to other characters who are positioned as “good” or “bad” in the Marvel universe. It’s interesting to have the discussion on ethics because Thanos is obviously the bad guy, but it’s always fun to see how stripping Thanos of the ridiculous logic of killing half the universe down to the brass tacks to where students are like: well he has a point. 

 

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