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How Captain Marvel and Stan Lee stand up for a more tolerant America

Fireballs from her fingertips are one of the many superpowers that Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) exhibits in "Captain Marvel."

Fireballs from her fingertips are one of the many superpowers that Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) exhibits in "Captain Marvel." | Disney-Marvel Studios

At the very beginning of the new movie “Captain Marvel,” there is a brief tribute to Stan Lee, co-creator of The Marvel Universe, which has enthralled millions of fans in comic books and, more recently, in a juggernaut of superhero films.

The film opens with a montage of scenes from recent Marvel movies, in which Lee — who died last November at age 95 — always made a cameo. My young daughter and son, who sat beside me in a packed movie theater in Oak Park last weekend, have delighted in spotting the elderly creative genius in those quick and often comical scenes.

OPINION

When the tribute to Lee ended, the crowd applauded — an appreciation and cheer sent to the heavens.

And then the movie continued, unfolding as another indelible addition to the Marvel canon, another milestone. For the first time in a Marvel superhero movie, the lead hero was a woman —  a former Air Force pilot, in fact. She was someone my 11-year-old daughter could look up to, even if my daughter never develops the ability to shoot photon blasts from her fists.

There have been some noisy voices online, people who are annoyed that the lead superhero is a woman, and questioning whether a woman can carry a movie of this magnitude. The same noisy voices objected last year to a black man as a leading movie superhero in the landmark film “Black Panther.”

The box office earnings for the opening weekend of “Captain Marvel,” however, signaled an overwhelming vote of approval. It pulled in $455 million, the sixth-best worldwide start of all time. “Black Panther,” an absolute blockbuster, has so far earned more than $1.3 billion worldwide.

I was not a big comic book reader as a kid, so I’m a relative latecomer to The Marvel Universe. I largely have my three kids — and the excellent recent movies — to thank for that. The films are consistently entertaining, exciting, smart and funny, with complicated, flawed heroes and diverse casts. Whether it’s “Spider-Man” or “Ant Man” or “The Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Thor,” when my kids want to go see a Marvel movie, my wife and I are on board.

The movies offer a message of tolerance and acceptance during difficult days. We live in a time of increasing acrimony and divisiveness in our public sphere. Hate crimes are on the rise. Racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia — they’re all in the news almost every day.

As I sat with my children in the theater this past weekend, surrounded by hundreds of other children, I could not help but think of Stan Lee and his inclusive vision.

“America is made of different races and different religions,” Lee once said. “But we’re all co-travellers on the spaceship Earth and must respect and help each other along the way.”

When the lights came back on in the theater and we shuffled up the aisle, back into the real world, I could see that the crowd itself was strikingly diverse, like America itself.

There are still forces of good in the universe, I thought. You might even say there are super heroes.

John Biemer is a freelance writer in Oak Park.

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