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Superheroes Who Care: What the Year’s Best Action Movies Taught Us About Empathy

Wade Wilson, also known as Deadpool, is being beat up—as he is wont to be, from time to time. At this moment, it’s by Russell Collins, a teenage boy who insists on the name Firefist, due to the fire coming from his fists. Russell violently pushes back anyone who approaches him, and this includes Wade. As Russell pleads to not be returned to the Essex Home for Mutant Rehabilitation, Wade comprehends the abuse that the teenager is facing, and turns to fight the abusive headmaster instead, telling Colossus that “you can always tell” when kids are being abused. The literal statement is perhaps dubious, but the implication at its heart rings true. The scene is classic superhero fare—bad guy, hero, lots of punches, some weird costumes—but it is also, quietly, about a superhero protecting and identifying with a traumatized child. In that moment, he’s not saving the world, he’s trying to make one life better than it was.

Three of the biggest, most bombastic (and highest-earning) releases of 2018—Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, and Mission: Impossible Fallout—shared many action stunts, and a notable theme. Each movie was engaged with defining what it means to be “good.” But instead of equating goodness with action, or even with self-sacrifice, as was the case in previous installments of their respective franchises, each film portrayed goodness as a commitment to empathy toward other characters. The idea was there in Ethan Hunt’s refusal to sacrifice the life of his friend Luther, and in Wade Wilson’s immediate identification with Russell’s suffering and abuse. The duty, these movies find, is to protect life on an individual level, rather than preserving life in the abstract.

It’s rather remarkable that the biggest—and loudest—movie franchise in the world is also its most consistent in terms of theme.

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