Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Why Superheroes?

This weekend The Avengers opens and I, for one, am looking forward to it. Especially after reading this review:
The Avengers is a blast from start to finish, that rare summer film that is both funny and touching, and both tender and thrilling. In shrt, The Avengers is everything we hope our summer blockbusters will be, and know that they can be, but so often find them not to be.
. . .
Let’s not mince words. The Avengers is not only the best comic-book movie ever made (your move, Chris Nolan), it is one of the best action/fantasy/sci-fi movies ever made. It is, in fact, a minor miracle — a blockbuster with both brains and muscles, a popcorn flick that enchants the eye while warming the heart.
But since I haven’t seen it yet (I have tickets for Friday night), this is not a review of The Avengers. Instead, it’s a brief exploration of why superhero stories remain so popular.

In a way, they’re a version of fairy tales; although with super-human strength, technological mastery, invincible shields, unstoppable hammers, and genetic modifications resulting in everything from gained muscle mass to spider abilities, they put the magic of most fairy tales to shame. And, strange as they are, such stories also reveal profound things about ourselves. They abstract real problems into impossible settings, and by doing so are able to examine them better because of the abstraction.

For example, were I looking for an example of justice I would turn to Batman Begins, which addresses justice, mercy, and vigilantism. Were I looking for an exploration of the problem of evil in the soul, I would cite Dark Knight. Spiderman explores power and responsibility. Iron Man address humility (a great man being humbled) and purpose. Captain America also explores humility, but by showing a humble man being made great. X-Men considers our treatment of those different than us. And (not quite in the same genre as the others, although it remains my favorite Pixar movie) The Incredibles teaches the importance of working together.

But under all those themes lie two larger ones. First, is the matter of power. In The Republic, Socrates engages with the story of Gyges, who finds a ring that makes the bearer invisible. Able to get away with anything he wishes with no fear of getting caught, Gyges falls from one vice to another in his lust for greater power. Ultimately, however, Socrates argues that power or no, the best thing is to have a virtuous and just soul.

Superhero stories address this same dilemma. We are told (in politics), that power corrupts. But these characters are heroes precisely because, despite power’s very real corrupting temptations, they resist and overcome.

And they not only overcome, but all (or nearly all) do so in the similar way - through sacrificing their happiness, their safety, and their very lives for the innocents they protect. Bruce Wayne stands between the Joker and Gotham and, at the end of Dark Knight (in a remarkable imagery of substitutionary atonement), even takes upon himself the guilt of Joker’s sins. Thor must sacrifice his own happiness by breaking the link between him and earth. Steve Rogers crashes, putting himself into a decades-long coma, to protect others. And the list goes on.

We’re initially attracted to these heroes because of their strength and power. But they are compelling because they resist the temptation to use that power for themselves, and instead sacrifice themselves for those they protect. Although super-human, they teach us profound things about being human.

So yes, I’m greatly looking forward to this.

 
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