Why the World Needs a Superman

This rant is dedicated to Mark Carver (admittedly  only “a casual superhero and comics fan”) and his superhero hit piece, “Mediocre Times,” over at SpeculativeFaith.com, a website whose pretentious analysis of geek cuilture and speculative fiction is progressively wearing thin.

In “Mediocre Times,” “edgy” Christian speculative fiction author Mark Carver comments on  an article published on NBCNews.com titled “What Wonder Woman Teaches Us About How to Be a Leader.” He then asks, “Do we really need a fictitious comic book character to teach us these character traits?”

While we could quibble about whether superheroes have anything to say about leadership skills (and they do, especially in movies featuring team ensembles where leadership is required, the new Wonder Woman movie included), Carver’s question is much broader.

I have nothing against superheroes. I just think it’s a lamentable state of affairs when not just children, but grown adults are looking to comic book characters for inspiration in their lives. These are indeed mediocre times.

When he refers to “mediocre times,” he’s referring back to a quote he makes earlier in the article:

“So why are we looking to superheroes to give us that extra drive to succeed in the boardroom or find the inner strength to open our own business? Are there not enough real heroes in real life? Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass makes a memorable statement in my favorite superhero movie, Unbreakable. He says, “These are mediocre times…People are starting to lose hope. It’s hard for many to believe there are extraordinary things inside themselves as well as others.” 

Um, (and this is just a reminder) Mr. Glass is…

[By the way, if you’re worried about spoilers from a movie that came out 17 years ago, you’re on the wrong site.]

…the villain. You’re not supposed to take the villain’s claims as gospel; however, in this case, Mr. Glass was right… Just not in the way Mark Carver spins the quote. (We call this fallacy “quote mining,” kids. It’s when you take a quote out of context to give it a meaning it wasn’t actually meant to convey. As you were.)

Mr. Glass (otherwise known as “mild-mannered” comic book aficionado Elijah Price) believes that David Dunn (played by Bruce Willis) is a superhero. Glass believes that comic book superheroes exist because he exists:

“I have something called Osteogenesis Imperfecta. It’s a genetic disorder. I don’t make a particular protein very well and it makes my bones very low in density, very easy to break. I’ve had fifty-four breaks in my life. And I have the tamest version of this disorder… Type one. There are type two, type three, and type four. Type four’s don’t last very long.”

Glass believes that because he was born with this condition that it could reasonably be inferred that his exact opposite counterpart likewise existed. Someone who was Unbreakable. A bona fide superhuman. In the mind of Elijah Price, finding David Dunn also confirms something else:

“Now that we know who you are, I know who I am. I’m not a mistake! It all makes sense! In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain’s going to be? He’s the exact opposite of the hero. And most times they’re friends, like you and me! I should’ve known way back when… You know why, David? Because of the kids. They called me Mr Glass.”

So when Mr. Glass utters that line about a mediocre world, he is saying that the world needs superheroes to give them hope. He’s saying that a world without heroes is mediocre precisely because it cannot it cannot see extraordinary things even within themselves.

In making his case against superheroes as a means to teach us values and give us hope, Mike Carver essentially rewrites the “Why the World Doesn’t Need a Superman” by Lois Lane [Superman Returns (2006)].

I have a big problem with something that I usually call Superhero Deconstructionism, a modern-day tendency to make our heroes darker, more humanized and less heroic. Superhero Deconstructionism is a misguided attempt to correct a natural conflict between the heroic ideal and the “real deal.”

The human part of superhuman has always been integral to comic book narratives. Superman is more appealing because Clark Kent has trouble navigating everyday life. Spider-Man is more appealing for much the same reason. That isn’t what we’re referring to here. Superhero Deconstructionism isn’t merely showing how the human side of superhuman factors in to the story. Rather its about attacking the ideal the superhero represents. Its taking the superhero ideal and dragging it down to our level, which, ironically enough, is almost always equivalent to dragging them into the realm of the anti-hero.

Now some people will try to justify this trend of knocking superheroes off their pedestals by appealing to everyday heroes. We don’t need superheroes, they say, because true heroism is committed by real people every day. This is the argument Lois Lane makes in the fictional news editorial, “Why the World Doesn’t Need a Superman.” It’s also the justification Mike Carver utilizes.  It relies on a logical fallacy called an appeal to nature. An appeal to nature is an argument or rhetorical tactic in which it is proposed that “a thing is good because it is “natural,” or bad because it is “unnatural.” In this case, it takes the specific form of superhero is bad because it’s not real (an equivalent to natural), but everyday heroes are good because they are real. Obviously, it also implies a dichotomy which (being based on said fallacy) is also false.

It shouldn’t be a question of loyalties either. No one denigrates the real heroism of our every day heroes by also trying to emulate the fictional heroes of comic books. Even the fictional superheroes themselves often make a point in recognizing our everyday heroes like firefighters, police officers, etc., because the storytellers behind these superheroes recognize the heroism they’re trying to exemplify through their protagonists. The fact that Superman and Spider-Man are superheroes does not mean that they do not recognize everyday heroism.

Likewise we should not make a dichotomy between the idealized superhero and the everyday hero as if it should just be one of the other. In fact, it is often the case that people choose to be everyday heroes because they were inspired by the stories of fictional heroes. They make that choice, full well knowing (once again in the words of Mr. Glass) that “this part won’t be like a comic book. Real life doesn’t fit into little boxes that were drawn for it.” Yet the ideal of heroism helps them make the choice to take the very real risks that come with being an everyday hero.

The larger-than-life ideal and everyday heroism are intimately connected. In fact, as Christians, I think we know that. Our ultimate ideal is the God-man Jesus Christ; Superman is in many ways just an allegory of Christ; in fact, many critics pointed out that the allegory was a little too on the nose in Superman Returns. Our ideal is perfection Itself. We strive to be Christ-like, to walk in His steps, even if we know it is ultimately unattainable. That doesn’t make the ideal unworthy of our emulation.

Superhero Deconstructionism has its counterpart in Christendom: people who just want to make Jesus out go be a man, maybe a good man, but altogether human in the end. Or maybe just something tamer. They try to bring the ultimate Superman down to our level because the difference between the ideal and everyday heroism is an offense to them. They know they can’t ever fully aspire to the ideal so they lower the ideal to something more palatable. We’d much prefer a winking god who accepted our “good enough” and our “better than that guy” than the example of the perfect One portrayed in the Greatest Story Ever Told.

Having said that, the question should NEVER (Are you listening, Mark Carver?), EVER be “Do we really need a fictitious comic book character to teach us these character traits?” You see, in Mark Carver’s appeal to nature (again, a logical fallacy) in regard to superheroes, he indirectly condemns ALL FICTIONAL PROTAGONISTS. I am confident that he can provide no logically consistent, non-arbitrary means of asking whether we “really need a fictitious comic book character” to exemplify these traits without also asking whether we “really need ANY fictitious character” to do so. And here the entire tradition of storytelling (including his own) stands as mountain of evidence against his shrill voice of protest!

We need stories. We need the lessons they teach. We need the ideals their protagonists represent. Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether the hero of a given story is historical or a product of our imagination. We need stories to remind us how we should act. The prophet Nathan used a story to convince King David of his sin. Jesus told parables, teaching stories. Luke told the story of Jesus and the later acts of His Apostles. Nursery rhymes and Aesop’s Fables. Beowulf and the tales of Homer. CS Lewis and Stan Lee. I could go on.

John Campbell famously argued in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) that enduring myths and stories from around the world all share a fundamental structure, which he called the monomyth. He summarized the monomyth thus:

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.

According to TVtropes.comThe Hero with a Thousand Faces discusses the following tropes:
  • Back from the Dead: The hero usually dies and returns, either literally or figuratively.
  • Big Bad: Every journey needs one to drive the plot.
  • Deity of Human Origin: Buddha, Jesus, and others become this after apotheosis.
  • Eternal Hero: This is what the phrase “hero with a thousand faces” describes, the idea being that all mythological heroes are facets or reflections of one heroic archetype.
  • Eternal Recurrence: In many cosmologies the world is in cyclical decline and improvement.
  • I Choose to Stay: The hero is tempted to but usually doesn’t and instead brings the boon back to their people.
  • Messianic Archetype: The classical hero is often one or at least aids one.
  • Standard Hero Reward: The boon they find is often represented by a woman.
  • The Underworld: The hero might wind up here, either while spending time dead or entering it themselves without dying.
  • Vision Quest: Again, the hero might find themselves on one.
Sound familiar? The Hero’s Journey sounds a lot like Jesus. Perhaps God ordained the narrative of Jesus’ life in such a way that the story would resonate with all the great hero stories so that such stories to some degree could be used to point back to Him! As Superman points out to Lois Lane in Superman Returns, “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior. But everyday I hear people crying for one.” The monomyth points not only to an heroic ideal but to our desire for a savior.

At the very least, we can observe that the monomyth exists because humanity universally needs stories which present ideals our culture strives to emulate. With these things in mind, it is quite natural that Lois Lane ends up writing “Why the World Needs a Superman” at the end of Superman Returns.

In The Two Towers, the Samwise Gamgee gives a speech to Frodo Baggins on the great stories that bears well on this subject:

Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”

Thus, I can say with confidence that superheroes are needed more than ever in this mediocre world.

Until we reach The Last Door,
Tony Breeden, a storyteller

If you like superheroes, you should really check out Johnny Came Home.

Three years after the fire that took his home and his family, John Lazarus returns to the town of Midwich searching for answers to why he can do extraordinary things no one’s ever seen outside of a comic book. Is he human? Alien? Something more? The answers lie within the Titan complex that overshadows Midwich. But someone else wants Titan’s secrets too and will stop at nothing to make sure that she alone possesses them. One young man and his friends stands between Pandora and world domination in an action-packed, white-knuckled thrill ride that will leave you breathless!


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