I’m a huge fan of the Dark Knight, so I was ready to throw hands a few weeks ago when someone told me they considered Batman to be a terrible superhero.
“You can’t just say that. You have to give reasons,” I demanded.
Well, she did: “Bruce Wayne has wealth and access and power, and he uses it all on himself—building armor and weapons and going out in the night to beat up bad guys just because he can’t get over his parents’ murder. When, instead, he could be using all his wealth to save Gotham City by improving schools, getting homeless people off the streets, and providing opportunities for young people who would otherwise turn to a life of crime.”
I had to admit she made a good point. And that point has stuck with me.
Superheroes have done us a disservice
Why do we need superheroes? Why are we attracted to them? Why are comic books and superhero movie franchises the mythology of the modern age?
More importantly: why has our collective fascination with mega-powerful men (and sometimes aliens) remained steadfast even as their closest real-life equivalents—the “leader of the free world” and “commander-in-chief” of the world’s greatest armed force, along with the exceedingly wealthy heads of giant tech organizations and retail companies—repeatedly prove incapable of (or unwilling to) effectively address the vast and complex issues facing swathes of the global population? Poverty, lack of healthcare, injustice, and lack of access to education and life-transforming information affect millions daily, and it seems that those with great power shun the great responsibility that comes with that power.
Despite this, there is a cult-like dedication to the superhero genre. Hundreds of millions have flocked to theaters, resulting in three of Marvel’s Avengers movies being in the top-ten highest-grossing films of all time. Every year—well, every year except the current one—tens of thousands make pilgrimages to comic book conventions dressed up as the demigods and vigilantes they most admire—and, often, as the villains they’ve come to love too. Fans become emotionally invested in TV series featuring characters who have power and latitude beyond anything we’d dare hope to obtain in our own lives. (I know Arrow is over, but I’ve stanned Olicity since day one and grew increasingly frustrated when the show insisted on using every occasion possible to drive Oliver and Felicity apart. And you will never not find me talking about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., my heart and home among all comic book television adaptations.)
But, as a recent TIME article suggested, maybe it’s time we reassess how we relate to superheroes in the midst of our present social crises. We look up to them because they are symbols of that which we wish to do and be, but cannot and are not. And that is where superheroes (and our dedication to them) have done us a disservice. Over the past decade, racial tensions have flared in the United States, bringing to light the ugly reality that racism, prejudice, and bigotry are not a thing of the past. The protests and riots of recent memory (some still ongoing) have forced the national discussion again and again to the topics of systemic injustice, economic inequality, and lack of opportunity for minorities. The #MeToo movement and a steadier, sustained spotlight on feminist causes has highlighted the lengths to which we still need to go for the respect and dignity of women in the workplace and public life. Global poverty and refugee crises continue, seemingly unabated, despite repeated recommitments to action. Politicians and para-politicians lie, bully, demean, and engage in blatant hypocrisy at the turn of every news cycle, and sometimes more frequently than that.
I often feel like Digory in The Magician’s Nephew, where the little boy says to the misguided magician who is his Uncle Andrew (who has just sent a little girl into the mysterious and dangerous Other Place with no way to return), “Don’t I just wish I was big enough to punch your head!”
Digory is all of us in these times. Digory is what superheroes have made us into: children, helpless and scared, feeling powerless and wishing we could deal a tangible blow to the villains of our day. Despite a commitment to non-violent protest, we fantasize about punching the heads of the fascists and neo-Nazis,, the racists and bigots, the hypocrites and politicians who care only about holding onto their power as long as possible.
And this is where superheroes have let us down. While we long to have their power and free rein, they have failed to exemplify how we can use the power we do have to effect the change we seek.
The heroics we need
Comic books and superhero movies have long been viewed as a channel by which social issues are litigated. The heroes, such as the X-Men—persecuted and misunderstood vigilantes—and other powered individuals are often seen as stand-ins for the oppressed and downtrodden who deserve justice. The costumed characters usually end up kicking the villains’ asses, shaming the system, saving the day, and carrying on to the next adventure. But what’s rarely seen in the pages of comic books and on the big screen is heroes doing the steady, day-to-day work of justice—investing their time, capabilities, and resources. Everyone pays lip service, but few (if any) get their hands dirty on the lowest levels if it doesn’t involve punching or blasting the enemy.
All this makes me wonder what superhero-based entertainment would look like if our most popular “heroes” weren’t just the eye-in-the-sky type. What if Superman was on the ground, in the trenches, serving in soup kitchens, establishing programs to help prevent the creation of the villains he will otherwise have to eventually defeat—and prevent young people from joining the ranks of the villains that already exist? What if Bruce Wayne funded non-profit paralegal organizations working to reverse the negative impact of the justice system on black and brown communities? What if Wonder Woman spent her time visiting the heads of major corporations, convincing them to hire more women in leadership positions and pay them the same as men? What if the Avengers visited Capitol Hill once in a while to testify for reforms in the education system instead of testifying only when their latest solution to protect the planet from hostile aliens has caused irreparable damage to New York City?
Ironically, in Batman Begins (which preceded the MCU by three years), Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) asked Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to be more grounded and practical in his desire to wage war against injustice in Gotham.
Justice is about harmony… You care about justice? Look beyond your own pain, Bruce. This city is rotting. They talk about the Depression as if it’s history, but it’s not. Things are worse than ever down here. Falcone floods our streets with crime and drugs, preying on the desperate, creating new Joe Chills every day.
She identifies the factors that keep Gotham in the grip of injustice—fear, misplaced wealth, and the undeserving in power:
…as long as [Falcone] keeps the bad people rich and the good people scared no one will touch him. Good people like your parents who will stand against injustice: they’re gone. What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?
What would Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy have looked like if Bruce had taken Rachel’s advice? Perhaps Gotham would have never succumbed to the likes of the Joker and Bane. (Perhaps, too, the superhero screen adaptations that have come since would have taken a different cue.)
Just as superhero entertainment has quietly influenced society to adopt a fairer and more just mentality, it can be used to inspire the steady, unglamorous, behind-the-scenes work that needs to be done to bring about consistent, long-term change. It can be used to inspire the ordinary person to wield the power they have—their physical, spiritual, financial, and emotional capacity to influence persons and systems.
We have accepted the call to be more like superheroes. We look up to them and admire them. We praise their courage and strength. But we need superheroes to be more like us—to show us what it means to use our power to bring about the change we desire. We have looked up to Thor and Wonder Woman, Star-Lord and Ghost Rider—gods and the offspring of gods. It is time the gods come down to our level and work with us, showing how much can be achieved through dedication and perseverance.
The gods become us
The Christian Scriptures speak of the Son of God in the way that we need to be able to speak of our superheroes. In what C.S. Lewis, the author of the aforementioned Magician’s Nephew, called a “true myth,” Jesus “set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a servant. Having become human, he stayed human… he lived a selfless life…” (Philippians 2:6-7) The Gospels speak of Jesus as a man who, while never rescinding his claim to divinity, led an exemplary life—loving his friends, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, ministering to those who were hurting, and standing up to the establishment that preyed on those who were weak and poor and who had no influence in a society that was stacked against them.
The time is ripe for our gods to be reborn as men. Comic book adaptations such as Netflix’s Umbrella Academy, Amazon’s The Boys, and HBO’s Watchmen have proven that the public is ready for heroes who do more than suit up and punch and blast. We are ready for more than idealism, air-brushed morality, and superficial platitudes. We are ready to see those who have power we can only dream of struggle with realistic emotional dilemmas, mental health, and interpersonal conflicts. We are ready to embrace the butchering of established power structures and arrogant, pandering para-politicians who appear to be above the law they claim to defend. (And for those who missed the pun: No, I am not advocating violence.) We are ready for the voices of black and brown communities, seemingly recognized only in deaths, protests, and riots, to no longer be held up as some kind of Rorschach test for political factions but to be a test of whether we will be our brothers’ keeper as their blood cries out from the ground.
I’m ready to argue that Rachel Dawes is the real hero of Batman Begins. Sure, the Batman stops Ra’s al Ghul’s plot to cause Gotham’s citizens to tear their city apart through panic and fear. But if the city had more people like Dawes, more people in the trenches dedicated to doing good and using the access, influence, and power at their fingertips to fight the forces that held the city hostage, the Batman might never have been necessary. Perhaps, unintentionally, the movie is sending us this message—little nods throughout inform us that what Bruce Wayne is turning himself into is not exactly what Gotham needs. When Bruce takes Alfred down to his new lair for the first time, Alfred tells him that his great-great-grandfather used the tunnels under Wayne Manor to smuggle slaves to freedom as part of the Underground Railroad. Bruce’s father “nearly bankrupted” his own company fighting poverty in his city, hoping to inspire the rest of the city’s wealthy to put their resources on the line. Bruce never engages with this information; he’s intent on becoming an incorruptible, everlasting, elemental, and terrifying symbol.
Iron Man, Captain America, the Green Arrow, Supergirl. They’re all symbols, somewhat incorruptible (at least to us) and everlasting in the way that good characters are. They represent something we can aspire to but can’t achieve. Maybe such symbols are not what we need right now; maybe we need to see our heroes doing things that we can see ourselves doing. Science has proven that observational learning—learning by watching others, even on TV—can change the way we behave. According to psychiatrist Steven Gans, we are more likely to imitate people we admire, people in authoritative positions, and people we perceive as personable and warm. Superheroes, for instance.
The TIME article I mentioned earlier pointed out that 2018’s Black Panther made a move toward showing a more boots-on-the-ground application of a superhero’s influence and what that could look like:
T’Challa opens a community center in Killmonger’s hometown, Oakland. He asks his girlfriend to run a social-outreach program for Black communities and his tech-savvy sister to head up an education program—the same sorts of community investment that activists calling to redistribute police budgets into social support systems are now calling for.
While the crushing and untimely passing of Chadwick Boseman will likely change things for the planned Black Panther sequel, I hope that Marvel allows movie-goers to see that what T’Challa started is being carried out.
Black Panther and creations like him have inspired millions to dress up in real life and to role-play in video games. It might sound simplistic, childish even—but what if millions witnessed the latest comic book movie or TV adaptation and it depicted costumed superheroes working side-by-side with mere mortals, investing their time and money and resources in practical, efficient ways that created change at the lowest levels? What if our “supes” left their dark lairs and glass towers and Batmobiles and Quinjets behind, and manned the streets of low-income neighborhoods, speaking to high school students and college kids, inspiring them to live worthy lives in a rotten world?
Seeing our heroes in this light might inspire us to be less like Bruce Wayne, dark and angsty and bitter, and more like Rachel Dawes, hopeful and committed in the face of tremendous darkness. It might make more people willing to rattle the cages—and lead to more people doing the little they can as capably and consistently and compassionately as they can.
What if our gods came down to our level and showed us how to live as men?
Daniel Whyte IV is a writer and former web designer and podcast producer. He’s a sci-fi/fantasy nerd who pretends to be serious by writing about culture and faith. When he’s not writing about superheroes, time travel, fantasy, or Narnia, he’s tweeting about those things @dmarkwiv.