On Friday, we took our kids to see Batman v Superman, and what struck me most was how real, how immediate Gotham and Metropolis felt. How 2016. While the film was clearly a science fiction/action experience, my 12-year-old walked out and declared: “That was about philosophy and politics.”
(Cultural appropriation trigger warning, motherf*****s. I am indeed going to use superheroes to talk about philosophy and politics.)
What my child sensed: the real menace was not a bad guy, not a monster. The real menace was how easy it is to confuse regular, good people about the nature of evil.
How easy it was, in Metropolis, to distract the masses, and even a fellow (perhaps somewhat resentful) superhero, from the world’s real problems by obsessing about Superman’s abuse of power. How natural it was that this moral debate overrode the actual, urgent battle, the one with the sadistic nihilist, Lex Luthor.
How easily Superman himself became convinced of his own guilt; how Kryptonite became a metaphor for your own strength being the thing that works against you in the court of public opinion.
How real it all seemed, in 2016, with today’s inability to separate those who seek to build and augment society, perhaps sometimes at a human cost, from those who seek to be forever devastated, seething with anger over some perceived injustice…and to tear society down. Today’s inability to tell the difference between power and aggression, between progress and subversion.
This conflict now being meditated onscreen by DC (comics, maybe also hopefully the place) is the same one George Lucas dealt with many years ago, and then J.K. Rowling.
The Dark Side and the Dark Lord, Lex Luthor and the Joker, fascists and nihilists and jihadists. They all have (at least) one thing in common. They prey on people’s fear of actually confronting hard things on the road to goodness and greatness, sometimes with true moral issues on the way, and instead settle for tearing down what others build, all the while crying foul and claiming the moral upper hand.
You may call it lazy; I call it evil, but I know that word went out with the Reagan administration and my argyle legwarmers.
In a world that feeds on Schadenfreud –– the sadistic pleasure derived from the misfortune of others — this slide into romanticizing tragedy and chaos is only natural. Reality TV and paparazzi journalism are but some of the symptoms of a renewed gladiator culture, in which watching people fail or fall is somehow profoundly soothing to the public ego.
In which watching someone truly despicable succeed is kind of gross and fascinating, like eye surgery (or elections.)
Ours is a world that has reversed empathy at its core and finds great game in keeping the other down. We are therefore ripe to sympathize with those who celebrate victimhood instead of those who seek to reverse it, of whom we might grow resentful and wary, rather than become inspired.
We are ripe to revel in nightmarish execution videos, watching through our hands, and shaking our heads, and lathered by adrenaline, which has a jagged addictive quality much like heroin, but in no way makes us heroic.
Like Superman, Skywalker, and Potter, those who annoyingly insist on wearing goofy earnest faces and moving forward — thriving, winning — from a world destroyed make people feel uncomfortable. Also, somewhat bored. And suspicious.
Don’t we all prefer Batman, Solo, and Weasley? Palatable heroes because they are flawed: cynical, physically brave, but emotionally immature… and the world doesn’t ride on whether they win.
We stand to lose everything free and noble, if we don’t learn to live with our discomfort with scarred but starry-eyed, straight-laced truth-tellers.
(Where is this type of hero in public life, in 2016?)
If we don’t remember how to feel romantic about boring, drama-free hard work, good deeds, and success.
We stand to lose everything, if we don’t remember how to feel proud and passionate not only of becoming something, but also, after we’ve become…of being something.