I don’t need another hero
One upside to writing about masculinity is that going to the movies counts as research. I have taught enough men ages 18-35 to know that I need to see every superhero movie. Even if they do not themselves like superhero movies, blockbusters end up being an assumed topic of conversation with their friends and coworkers. One very gracious student who loves superhero movies stayed in conversation with me as I watched hours and hours of backlogged movies. After sorting through the nuances of each era’s Superman, the various Batmans, the Spiderman from Electric Company to the Spiderman crawling up buildings today – I realized I was not going to find a superhero franchise that I like. I was on a fool’s errand, because I disagree with the whole shtick.
My mother loves superhero movies, and she has told me she would prefer I keep my holiday film criticism to myself, thank you very much. At the risk of ticking off more loved ones, here is why I do not like superhero movies. They assume that we, the people, need a hero. As one current student pointed out, even the Avengers franchise, which features a team of heroes working together, creates a post-9/11 feedback loop. Each film features teeming groups of humans, running around like scattered ants, on the verge of mass destruction, needing a team of super-humans to save us from the forces of chaos. He astutely observed that our repetitive viewing of impending chaos keeps people trapped in a trauma response to 9/11. He suggested that we end up stuck feeling afraid, and saved, and afraid, and saved – usually by a man who can do something we are fundamentally unable to do. Merely mortals, without Batman’s fortune or Superman’s genes, viewers watch ourselves saved from apocalypses. I suppose there are some viewers who leave the movie theater inspired to put on a superhero suit and save someone, but that is also a fool’s errand. Trying to be someone else’s savior is a very bad idea, however cute the suit and however pretty the damsel.
In case someone thinks that Ironman is the exception (I hear this frequently) please consider how the ironic twist of those movies depends still on a man-saving-the-world template. Though the perky woman next to him puts on a similar superhero costume, the overarching assumptions of the superhero story remain intact. We, the people, cannot manage ourselves. We, the people, are under threat from this or that form of villainy. We, the people, need a hero. This is a profoundly undemocratic way of seeing the world. I am baffled that film makers get away with this unpatriotic stuff. But they do get away with it, and the superhero stench wafts over into other genres. From Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr., historical dramas have recently offered filmgoers a grand story of a great man who was able to make history. In his review of Spielberg’s reconstituted Lincoln, David Bromwich sums up beautifully what is wrong: “Any leader who adopts the posture of seeing himself on the stage of history is a glory to himself and a menace to all whom he must lead.” Even Atticus Finch was not, it turns out, Atticus Finch. Whatever you make of the controversy around or the quality of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the take-away message is that Gregory Peck’s 1962 depiction of the character is satisfyingly lacking in subtlety. Life together is not a superhero movie.
Democracy depends on cacophony – on the discord of disparate voices. Hero narratives assume cacophony is a problem to be overcome, whether by a man in a cape or by a great speech given by a great man on a big stage. Craving a leader who stands above me is an impulse I must resist, if I am going to be a citizen in a democracy or even if I am just going to be a constructively critical human being. Or, if I am going to remain Christian. Churches sometimes crave a hero as much as Fox audiences (evidently) crave a big Reagan airplane. When we do, we should read and read again the beginning of Acts, when the church receives a very different kind of power. People who were not supposed to speak to one another, or speak up at all, talked all at once. Writing during a time of famine, the Hebrew prophet Joel had seen a vision of a miracle whereby women and even servants would speak up. The beginning of Christianity depends on that vision. That is reason enough for me to resist the temptation to find a hero.