Heroic Fiction

I saw a post on Facebook some time ago, from someone teaching a course in American Mythology. The teacher first showed two scenes from 2013’s “Man of Steel–” Superman, worried and uncertain, reluctantly rescuing Lois from an escape vehicle; and a scene in which Superman rescues Martha by attacking Zod in the midst a populated civilian area. Then, s/he showed two scenes from 1978’s “Superman: The Movie,” and its sequel– The scene in which Superman rescues Lois and the helicopter, and a scene in which Superman rescues civilians from Zod, and leads the fight away from populated areas, despite appearing like a coward to the citizens of Metropolis by doing so.

Then, the teacher had his/her students write down what each of those scenes made them feel. Apparently, Henry Cavil’s Superman inspired feelings of fear, anger, and recklessness, while Christopher Reeve’s Superman inspired feelings of confidence, inspiration, and happiness.

And this reminded me of a conversation I had once had with a friend regarding superheroes and pulp heroes. My friend made the point that, culturally, we tend to turn to stories of superheroes when we feel that our society, or our “System,” is failing us.

For example, in the nineteenth century, before proper police work was developed, and when security was essentially for those wealthy enough to hire their own band of thugs, the stories of Sherlock Holmes were immensely popular. Here was a hero who was able to detect the guilty and bring them to justice, and one who was a refined gentleman, with a sense of fair play for all before the law.

In America, when criminals and their organizations were running amok, we had Doc Savage and his Fabulous Five, and The Shadow– both of whom not only fought crime, but actually rehabilitated criminals, turning their adversaries into allies, and teaching the once criminals how to make positive contributions to society.

When we were dismayed at the limitations of law enforcement, we looked to Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman as imaginary saviors.

But in these days, when our political system is so sharply polarized and ineffective (I speak here as an American citizen), and we have come to mistrust our own police as violent thugs, no better than the criminals they’re supposed to protect us from, things are a bit different.

The person who made the post in Facebook that I was referring to notes it as a “recent shift from ‘aspiring to heroes’ to ‘relating to protagonists.'”

Now, to be sure, the latter is an excellent story-telling device, and it has worked for many heroes, such as Spiderman, or the Hulk. But there seems to be very little these days as far as real Heroes and Heroines. And I am thinking now of what I have seen so far of DC’s revamped ‘New 52.’ –Sorry, Marvel fans; it’s just that I grew up on DC, and I am more familiar with those characters.

Superman was once the incorruptible knight in shining armor. He was often teased as The Big Blue Boy Scout, and so on. But he was, arguably, the most powerful being in existence, AND he was Good. You could always count on Clark to do the right thing, no matter what the cost, no matter what the situation. He loved humanity, and his adopted home, and would never even think of inflicting harm on anyone for any reason. He not only spent time fighting crime and rescuing people, he also found time to help the random kid on the street change his bicycle tire. He would be there to talk jumpers down off ledges. He would rescue kittens from trees. He was utterly trustworthy, and always told the truth, and was scrupulously honest.

How does that compare to the character today? one of the more popular titles is “Injustice,” in which Superman has become a selfish tyrant. Even apart from that series, Superman is far more wrapped up in himself than in his desire to help people and serve others. He’s far too important now to stop and have a tea party with some little girl whose friends have left her behind. There’s now angst about his relationship with Diana. And really, his attitude during the course of his ‘normal’ superheroing duties is more the attitude of a “tough guy,’ not Our Hero.

Then there was Batman. Although he began in tragedy, Batman was never the dark and grim avenger he’s been portrayed as lately. Ever since Frank Miller’s treatment of the character in the excellent “Dark Knight Returns,” Bruce has always been brooding, obsessive, grim, and humorless. But during the Silver Age, Bruce was able to do his job without being dark and cold. In fact, the whole reason Bruce does what he does as Batman is not because he’s obsessive-compulsive, or because he’s trying to work out his own personal tragedy. Bruce does what he does, because he loves his city, and he loves people. And he is determined that no more children should ever have to go through what he himself went through. Yes, his armor is significantly more rusty than Clark’s; but he is no less a hero.

And then, there’s Diana. These days, Diana is portrayed as a badass warrior who takes no shit. She’s almost as powerful as Superman, and she carries a sword, forged by Hephaestus himself. She’s grim, and merciless in battle. And she loves to fight, often berating her team mates and fellow superheroes for being squeamish about diving into the fray. And the latest run seems to infantilize her as well.

But in the early days, Wonder Woman’s whole M.O. was the loving rehabilitation of her enemies. For Diana, violence of any kind was always a last resort. She would reform her enemies through love and discipline. Etta Candy, for example, was once a foe, but who eventually came to fight at Diana’s side. There was another story in which Cheetah had given up her “soul” in order to save someone she cared about, but in the process, became uncontrollable. To save her, Diana entered her psyche, and was attacked by Cheetah’s mind. But as the beings in Cheetah’s mind were attacking Diana, Diana realized that the only way to save her was to not fight. And so Wonder Woman stood there, being torn to pieces, until Cheetah could come to her right mind herself, and rest. Wonder Woman defeated her foe by NOT fighting.

In the movies these days, we no longer see mighty heroes and heroines, forbearing to use their powers on those weaker than themselves. We no longer see them looking for non-violent alternatives to dangerous situations. Frell, we almost never even see them presenting criminals to the police any more! Rather, they act like thugs, just beating up ‘their adversaries, and ‘teaching them a lesson’ Presumably because we must have ACTION in our superhero movies.

I miss the days when heroes and heroines were people to whose ideals we could aspire. I don’t need to ‘relate’ to them. I already know I’m a miserable git. I need inspiration. When I, like Lois Lane in the 1978 movie, sneer at the idea of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, I want Superman to chide me, because he honestly believes in it, and works to make those ideals a reality. He led by example, and expected others to reach for the same lofty goals and ideals. As campy as Batman was in the 1960s, I want someone who believes in justice, and who works with law enforcement to protect the citizens of his city. I want someone like Diana, who understands that the only way to defeat evil is through love, and that nearly everyone can be rehabilitated, and who fights to empower the disenfranchised.

And as a final thought– If we as a culture tend to look toward our superheroes and heroines in times when we lose our faith in our own government and law enforcement, then what does it say about us when our heroes and heroines are now violent thugs, who don’t even bother trying to work with the authorities?

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Dongcheng district
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