Monday, June 20, 2011


No, not these Heroes (though the show had a fine first season). I'm referring to the universe(s) that inspired the show, i.e., the world(s) of superheroes created by Marvel, DC, Image, and a slew of other comic book publishers. I grew up on these books, was nurtured by their mythology, and found in the pages of comics stories about how individuals can be their best selves. 

Given the strong influence of such "graphic novels" on my childhood/early adolescence, it's no surprise that I'm a huge comic book movie fan. I haven't seen every comic book movie ever made—for example, the films Daredevil and The Watchmen haven't yet come up on my screen—but I've seen, and loved most of them. (Yes, some have been dreadful. I'm looking at you, Fantastic Four [they made a sequel?!] and the Hulk.) The reason they're so wonderful, in my estimation, is the same reason that I still love Greek and Roman mythology, as well as some portions of the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

Comic books, like the best stories from ancient myths, help us see both the darkest and noblest edges of our humanity. In the best of comic book movies, I think this aspect becomes even more amplified.
Now, I'm not going to bore you with a litany of how films like Spiderman 1 & 2, X-Men (all but #3), Iron Man, or the rebooted Batman films do this (these films are my gold standard for well-made comic book movies). Any intelligent reader familiar with those films could do that. Instead, I want to express what these movies make me feel and hope, and why I think such films—again, when done well—play a special role in our society, one met in few other places.

Superheroes and villains often possess the best and worst aspects of what it means to be human (and neither the good guys or the bad guys are all good or all bad). This is what makes them compelling. Peter Parker, for example, is a nerd and loser, i.e., a regular schmuck, until becoming Spider Man. He never loses the sensibilities of being a nerd when he has his superpowers, and this is what makes him truly good. He overcomes his anxieties, his desire for power and popularity, and instead lays it all on the line for others. Conversely, Magneto (from the X-Men series)—perhaps one of the most compelling comic book villains of all time—suffered through the Holocaust, so who could blame him for doubting humanity's intentions toward mutantkind? Any one of us, having gone through what he went through and being in his situations, might react similarly.

The villains show us what we could become if we allow fear, pain, regret, or any other destructive emotion to govern the whole of our lives. Yet heroes, no less filled with pain, regret, etc., find within themselves the ability to look beyond themselves and their own needs. When Batman willingly allows himself to be seen as a violent criminal in order to preserve the pure reputation of someone else (in The Dark Knight), he does what each of us really wishes we could do when it counts: lay our lives down for others. These heroes willingly make this choice again and again, not because they get off on being needed, but because doing so is right

What can be deceptive about superheroes, though, is that they're always finding themselves in dire situations. How many times can a single hero find himself in certain doom? How many super-enemies does Superman have to take down (and can there really be so many that are his equals in this universe)? None of us find ourselves in such times of immanent crisis. We live in the world of traffic jams, whiny kids, demanding bosses, and credit card debt. This is why, though, superheroes need alter-egos. Spiderman can't do a damn thing for Peter Parker when he's about to lose his job; but Peter still must try to act as justly and nobly with his loved ones and friends as he does when he has the suit on. Seeing heroes without the costumes allows us to see that even then, or, really, especially then, in the day-to-day grind, we can do what is good and noble. We can be people of justice and truth, with or without an adamantium skeleton. So, superheroes only show us in an extreme way how best to live, how best to treat one another: protect the weak, defend the innocent, find the lost, repair the broken, and, above all, speak out against wickedness. (Sounds almost biblical, don't it?)

But why this paean to the comic book film? Because, as a genre, these films point to the truly heroic in our (and here I mean "American" or "Western") society. Not everyone is going to rush to a comic book store to keep up on the latest exploits of Batman or Wolverine—heck, I haven't so much as stepped inside a comic shop but once in the last fifteen years—but they will go see these heroes in action on-screen. And comic books, and the films they result in, offer us that rare glimpse into the human psyche, where great power and great frailty share the same body and mind. Superheroes are no less prone to self-doubt, regret, or selfishness than anyone else. The best ones, in fact, have such foibles in spades. 

Where else in our culture do we see such a bold embodiment of how to live nobly or justly or honestly? Television is filled now with reality shows, all of which seem only to be reflections of Narcissus. Politicians and military personnel have been tainted as heroes for most in our society, for many reasons we can't go into here. Athletes and actors, frankly, seem to be the last real human beings who seem capable of doing truly noble deeds—though the maintenance of their wealth and status no doubt gets in the way of their ability to offer us symbols worthy of imitation. So, the best stock of role models we have, at this point in time anyway, are imaginary figures, but compelling figures nonetheless.

Were we to lose such models of virtue, selflessness, justice, and brokenness, we would soon forget, I think, what we're really capable of. And while we can't all be Superman, of course, looking to Superman might just give us the guidance and strength to become better than we were.

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