I’ve been thinking a lot about heroes and villains lately – here in Parkes we just ran an event called Big Box Battle where teens made Godzilla-like monsters and kids built heroic cardboard robots to fight them; last month in Sydney I spoke at an event about monsters and villains in children’s literature; and, on a darker note, my Twitter stream just yielded Dean Trippe’s comic Something Terrible, courtesy of Dylan Horrocks. Trippe’s comic shows how fantasy heroes can be a beacon of hope and goodness in even the most terrible of real-life circumstances.
Given the huge part protagonists play in our own notions of what it means to do the right thing, I find myself exhausted by the long and seemingly unending trend for dour superheroes on our movie screens.
It’s not hard to find alternatives, after all. Did you see the Batkid?
The city of San Francisco just gave a five-year-old boy the chance to live a dream and become the Dark Knight in a citywide adventure complete with Batmobiles, bank robberies, and feats of derring-do. This got me excited, because if cities, and even the US President, can get behind this kind of special event as a one-off, perhaps communities around the world can offer scaled-down versions to a wider audience – just as we’ve been offering kids in Australasia the chance to battle in a live-action zombie apocalypse.
(I’d love it if everyone who merely tweeted or Facebooked their praise and awe for the city of San Francisco actually got up and made a mini-Batkid adventure for the children in their own city, or neighbourhood, or even family).
Neither the recent Christopher Nolan films nor the current run of Batman comics at DC seem to capture the hopeful and happy side of superheroic figures like Batman – the part of the character that makes crowds so willing to cheer a five-year-old boy’s desire to be that hero, that sustains Dean Trippe’s inner strength. When director Zack Snyder announced his Superman vs. Batman movie this year, he did so with a grim and growly quote from Frank Miller’s infamously brutal comic The Dark Knight Returns.
At the announcement, an actor read Batman’s line to Superman from that comic:
“I want you to remember, Clark, in all the years to come, in all your most private moments, I want you to remember your hand at your throat. I want you to remember the one man who beat you.”
It looks like scowling heroes are here to stay, and that bums me out.
To finding a Batman who’s happy doing good, I had to go to the trailer for the upcoming Lego Movie.
The best thing about that clip is seeing Batman grinning as he saves someone’s life in his Batplane.
Bruce Wayne’s fellow hero Superman should also smile more, I feel – despite the recent Man of Steel, where the Last Son of Krypton killed his nemesis General Zod after a hideously destructive battle.
After all, Superman is, as Carol Borden neatly captures in her essay Loving the Alien, effectively a burlesque on masculinity. A godlike alien immigrant who chooses to play along with our humble categories of humanity, manhood, ‘truth, justice, and the American way’ in order to make the most of his existence on Earth. And Batman, to paraphrase Grant Morrison, is a prank played by an orphan on the cowardly and superstitious denizens of the underworld. He’s less an instrument of fear than an absurd practical joke played on evildoers by a boy who never grew up – a gleeful, vengeful Peter Pan.
Why can’t we see a “Superman vs. Batman” in these terms? There would still be a conflict: instead of between two sour and serious post-9/11 versions of America’s iconic capes-and-tightsmen, how about the misunderstanding and inevitable battle that would ensue between an extraterrestrial of almost psychedelic power who chose to take on the values of a Boy Scout, and a clever billionaire who scares wrongdoers by equipping himself with the ultimate Hallowe’en costume? One of them begins at the far extreme of weirdness and is trying to be as American as apple-pie; the other has had his “normal” childhood stolen from him, and so turns his life into a dark carnival in the name of justice. Sounds like all the conflict – and, as far as superheroes ever develop – all the room for character development – you could wish for…
To show I’m not just carping from the sidelines, I put together an outline of how this might work in the context of “widescreen” high adventure.
I reckon I can give you the perfect theme song for a reimagined Batman and Superman as well: it conjures images from the Depression-era which gave birth to the heroes, it touches on natural disasters of the kind we want to see our superheroes saving us from, and it’s the most accessible song ever by an underground band – capturing the strange mixture of the bizarre and comforting which superheroes represent.
I’m not alone in wishing that there were more female heroes around to save the day, and that might be a better project than rehashing Superman and Batman for the umpteenth time, but if we DO have to trot out the men in tights yet again – why not something like this?
As Maureen Ryan accurately points out in her review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., we’ve entered a strangely bland world where our heroes are allowed neither to be fun, nor to experience true sadness. (That’s why my less dour Superman and Batman find themselves in an earthquake – there’s space for tragedy and loss, but also a rejection of that militarised mentality which sees our superheroes exploiting the tactics of the War on Terror for their fantasy battles).
Do we want boys and girls of all ages to see these inflated, superheroic visions of masculinity and heroism as tight-lipped dealers of death and destruction, who kill and terrorise because “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do?” Or should being a superhero feel more like the carnival delight and release of a Hallowe’en party, when we challenge the darkness by clothing ourselves in absurdity?
For more on heroes, villains, and their importance to our culture, see last year’s panel discussion “No matter how hard they’re punched: on heroes and real-world issues”.