Sunday, February 17, 2008

batman & the american supermyth

For my "Faith, Film & Spiritual Formation in Young Adults" class last week we watched "Batman Begins." It tells the story of traumatic events in the life of young Bruce Wayne, his young adult years, and how he came to call himself "Batman." It's a pretty decent movie if you like superhero movies. A New York Times article I just found sums it up well: "In an uncertain world, one the director [Christopher Nolan] models with an eye to our own, [Batman] is a hero caught between justice and vengeance, a desire for peace and the will to power."

The discussion for this week centered around the idea of the American superhero as the cultural myth we tell ourselves about who we are, and what is good and right and true. We're reading a book called "The Myth of the American Superhero" by Lawrence & Jewett. It talks about the cultural monomyth of the hero:

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (p. 5-6)

(Editorial note: this says "fellow man" because the hero is almost always male. When there is a female heroine she has a different sort of myth, usually involving staying home, finding a home, or returning home, the classic in our culture being Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz: "There's no place like home.")

This cultural monomyth, according to Lawrence & Jewett, is very similar across cultural, ethnic, and historical boundaries. The American superhero follows a similar trajectory, with slight differences:

“A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisaical condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.” (p. 6)

The American superhero myth is different in that there is an Edenic community at the beginning--either a family or a town or a relationship--and that perfection is shattered by an outside force. Lawrence & Jewett say this is partially based on Judeo-Christian mythology's influence on our culture, and partially on the early American dream of a perfect land, unspoiled, where everything was going to be wonderful. When the early pilgrims and pioneers got to America and realized life was still hard, they blamed it on outside influences because obviously nothing could be wrong with this perfect place! This kind of desire for the perfect community and disappointment at its inaccessibility has made its way into our cultural psyche and comes up again and again in the metanarrative of our cultural stories (mainly film).

Another difference is that the American superhero is not really human. He may be completely human in terms of the story, but he doesn't act human. He is selfless, sexless, and lonely, all while defending a culture whose main values are selfishness, sexual liberation, and friends at every turn. The superhero defends these values but lives outside of them. When he achieves the goal of saving all the normal people he must leave. He cannot actually be part of the society he is working to save. This is true for Batman, because he's Bruce Wayne by day, but has to play a party-boy rich kid with too much time on his hands. This is true for Spiderman, who cannot have his precious MaryJane because if he loves anyone, their lives are in danger. This is true for Superman who isn't human at all, who gets only fleeting moments with Lois Lane, and who can't return to his home. This is also true for Neo in "The Matrix," who has to ignore feelings for Trinity and finally sacrifice her for the good of humanity. And although Lawrence & Jewett say this is the American myth, I think maybe it's more like a Western 20th century myth, because characters like Frodo and Aragorn in "Lord of the Rings," where Frodo can no longer be part of his happy hobbit community once he knows so much of the world, and Aragorn must always be a distant, tormented character even once he becomes king.

One of the most interesting things to think about in all of this is how similar our present understanding of Jesus is to this superhero ideal. One main difference is that most people don't think of Jesus using violence to attain his ends, but they are totally OK with superheroes using violence as a means to a good and just end. Other than that, however, we generally think of Jesus in similar ways: he's a person, but he's more than a person. Only he could overcome evil and save the world. He has powers that ordinary humans don't, and if he wanted he could undoubtedly leap tall buildings in a single bound, etc. He's ostracized by his community and killed, but he does all this for selfless reasons, for the good of a human pop culture which he cannot be a true part of. After saving the day he recedes, making it possible for people to live in a harmonious world (at least after they die).

Do you think American culture got its superhero from its ideas of Jesus, or that our ideas of Jesus have morphed because of our exposure to the American superhero? In what ways do you see Jesus similarly or differently from this superhero template?

1 comment:

Ralph Beebe said...

Wow, Cherice, quite a comparison. I see the point--Jesus is something like these superheroes. So far I can't make the leap, though.

Gr. Ralph