Putting Superpowers to Good Use

Batman_Misfortune of Knowing BlogWhat makes a person extraordinary?

In the 1960s, John McPhee set out to assess what made Bill Bradley an exceptional basketball player, first on Princeton’s team, which is the focus of McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are, and then on the New York Knicks with a prestigious stint as an Olympian and as a Rhodes Scholar in between. Bradley’s excellence at the sport went beyond the obvious factors like height and jumping ability — he was tall, but not the tallest player on his college team, and his “ability to get high off the floor” was “among the worst of the Olympic candidates” — and yet he became the highest per-game scorer in Princeton’s history, and he was later inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

You’ll have to read McPhee’s book to get the full explanation, but Bradley’s excellence boiled down to hard work, skill, and a “remarkable natural gift.” Essentially, he had eyes on the back of his head.

With these talents, Bill Bradley was an outstanding athlete, who excelled academically and went on to serve the public as a member of the U.S. Senate, representing New Jersey from 1979 to 1997. He was also a candidate in the Presidential primaries in 2000.

Most of us will never lead such a high profile life, but that doesn’t mean ordinary folks aren’t extraordinary in many ways. Many people I meet have at least one skill or talent that sets them apart from everyone else, whether it’s their kindness or their ability to listen, to navigate social systems, or to use their knowledge to improve other people’s lives. Those who use their skills to help others are superheroes without the capes and, obviously, without all of the powers we traditionally ascribe to fictional heroes.

Of fictional heroes, it’s interesting that my daughters’ favorite is Batman,* who doesn’t possess a superpower. In the words of my husband, who knows more about the superhero scene than I do: “That’s what makes him unique. He’s cunning and resilient,” and I would add a caveat about his wealth, which enables him to have all the gadgets and gear that endear him to children.  Whatever his attributes or resources, he uses them to fight crime, a public good, even if his vigilante methods leave something to be desired in terms of Due Process.

Might M!
Mighty M!

It’s tough for children to understand that justice means more than simply catching the “bad guy,” and I’m not going to ruin their imaginary games with a detailed account of constitutional principles, or of how even the most skilled detectives and prosecutors can be mistaken about a person’s guilt. I’ll let their hero worship continue unchecked, except to teach them that, whatever a person’s skills happen to be, what really matters in the end is what she does with it.

*The real reason for their love of Batman is that they idolize their Aunty Na, who happens to be a Batman aficionado.


  1. What cute little batgirls!

    Well, even if we don’t have remarkable natural gifts I guess that we can put some hard work into whatever natural skills we do have, and end up at least semi-extraordinary, eh?

  2. What cute little batgirls!

    And even if we don’t have “remarkable natural gifts” we can all put in hard work and develop our skills, and become at least semi-extrordinary, eh?

    1. Thanks! Bradley was very lucky to have a “remarkable natural gift,” but I think many people are extraordinary without any innate talents. Hard work is the most important part.

  3. Your daughters are adorable! I remember as a kid I was super into the ninja turtles…I was Donatello, and Kati was Michelangelo. I don’t know how Batman compares to Turtles that have mutated and have special powers…kind of hard to beat if you ask me, but he’d be a close second. 😉

    1. PS. M. just asked for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles book today! She’s very excited about it. Her sister doesn’t understand it, though. She asked, “Why would [M.] want to read about injured turtles?” Ha!

    1. Yes, we do! It seems like heroes pop up when we least expect it sometimes, such as in Cleveland when Charles Ramsey intervened in what he thought was a “domestic dispute.”

  4. The girls look cute dressed up. Bill Bradley was an exceptional person. I did not know all that about him, especially that he excelled academically.

  5. Do you remember Batman and Robin climbing the rope up that wall – how did they do that? I’m meeting a superhero again on Friday. Eric Walker is 90 today. He was one of the British liberating forces on 9th May 1945 and he met his future wife on that day. He went on to become Jersey’s bomb disposal officer for many years and he is still as chirpy and bright as a button. It’s an honour to know him.

  6. Awwww, that’s got to be one of the best parts about having kids—the superhero admiration. I’m totally fine with getting kids their favorite superhero stuff: pajamas, masks, watches, whatevs, it’s fun to see them be excited. I only have nieces and nephews to spoil, and the only ones I get to see very often aren’t as interested in superheroes. Blahhhh…. My nieces are more about being Beliebers… blahhhhh…. 😉

    1. It is one of the nice parts of having kids! My girls have all kinds of Batman stuff, mostly courtesy of their Aunt (my sister). It’s a nice stage. I’m not looking forward to when they get interested in whatever tween idol is popular in a few years (maybe it won’t happen…).

      1. Hopefully Justin Bieber will be a thing long gone. His songs are awesomely underwhelming in the lyrical department. He’s living his dream, and I respect that, I just don’t want to hear about it. Maybe the tween idol when your girls hit that age will be cool? Maybe. (Okay, we won’t hold our breath).

    1. Thanks, Alesia! My girls love pretending to be superheros, even if it’s a “boy” activity (a stereotype they’ve picked up from school, not from me).

  7. Lovely post, AMB. I love the sentiment, which I share, that ordinary people are extraordinary in many ways. I may have to borrow that thought from you!

  8. I love that your girls have superheroes! Gender-neautral marketing (not that I agree with it, but better than gender-based marketing) hasn’t quite caught up to the superheroes yet, but I did see the first girl’s superhero underwear recently.

    1. I haven’t seen the superhero underwear–my girls would love it! Gender-based marketing bothers me, too. It surprises me how quickly my kids have learned certain gender stereotypes–despite my best efforts–simply from what their friends at school bring as “home toys” (they get to bring a toy from home to share at school).

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