I saw The Dark Knight Rises yesterday… eons late for a science fiction/fantasy/comic lover like me. (My grandfather was a comic book collector and as a child I read everything from the treacly but beautifully drawn Prince Valiant to (surreptitiously) my uncle’s creepy and beautifully drawn copies of Heavy Metal.) But I’d been out of the country when the movie came out, and from a perch thousands of miles away watched the horror of Aurora and the political paralysis over gun laws overlay the movie-in-itself.
Though I’m not without critique, I thought the film was great. As I walked out of the theatre I pondered the little adrenaline rush that comes with watching a good comics-inspired film. For a moment, if you’re a fan, you get to feel the childlike wonder of imagining what it would be like to be powerful and daring and strong beyond belief. (Even the human superheroes — like the self-made muscle-plus-tech of Batman, vs. mutants or immortals or aliens — must be slightly beyond our belief to achieve cult status.)
When I Googled “Why do people love superheroes?,” the top search result was Ben Shapiro’s fascinating but right-polemical essay explaining that the genre fulfills our “dual needs for clarity and hope.” In his words:
The human mind desires clarity above all – that’s why we create mythologies in the first place. The concept of mythology, in its original sense, meant a narrative attempting to explain mankind’s origins in a rational manner. Mythology was an attempt to superimpose a reasonable story on a mysterious universe…..
Which brings us to our second need: hope. In today’s world, we are constantly told that there is no hope of rooting out evil. We are lectured about the use of force against evil by pusillanimous liberals, and criticized for fighting for good. In the superhero world, there are no such conundrums.
I happen to agree with Shapiro’s initial premise, though not the geopolitical overlay he adds to it. In Slate, Seth Stevenson talks to academics who study comics. He takes on why Batman is more popular at the moment than Superman, writing, “According to Peter Coogan, director of the Institute for Comics Studies, “Superman is about public-spiritedness. His motto is ‘Truth, Justice, and the American Way.’ Batman is about private demons and personally driven ambitions. His motto is first-person, and it’s darker: ‘I must be a creature of the night.’”
Of course, after spending three hours sitting on my rump at the movies, I wondered if I could keep my superhero buzz and commit to a few more daily pushups. I have no plans to tackle terror… I just hope my admiration of the Dark Knight spills over into a bit more commitment to my own optimized self.
(P.S.: Shortly after writing this I did go out and run the stairs in the park. No arch-villains were hurt in the process, except the deadly Sloth.)