Villains Longing for a Hero

I’ve taken a small break from writing in the midst of moving, so my husband took up the keyboard this time around.

Few things stir my interest like superheroes; especially Batman. Why Batman? As a child, I admired him not only for his arsenal of gadgets, and his hyper-intelligence but also his desire to be the “good guy”: the hero. Yet, as I mature I realize I am less like the hero and more like the villain. My motives are often impure, I am laced with apathy, and I crumble under the pressure of my own expectations. I obviate this problem by justifying my thoughts and actions, convincing myself (and others) with the mantra: I am not that bad, or at least I am better than most people. If I can’t live up to a moral standard, I must simply lower it because sin is just not that bad.

It seems few know our thin moral fiber better than the villain, especially Christopher Nolan’s Joker: “You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these…these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.” Maybe the Joker is correct and we’re only the hero until we’re pressed enough to be villainous. Perhaps this is why “the more successful the villain the more successful the picture” (Alfred Hitchcock). In our villainous state, we mistakenly identify with the hero, but in reality we long for him.

Most people agree something is wrong in the world, but we do not agree with what is right. Perhaps we do not agree upon what is right because we fail to include ourselves as part of the world’s problems simply because we don’t see ourselves as the villain.

In the new Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice Bruce Wayne (Batman) knows every man is corruptible (including, it seems, himself): “Twenty years in Gotham. How many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?” This serves as his motivation to fight Superman. Later in the film Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) describes the fallen nature of mankind, “A hundred years ago I walked away from mankind: “From a century of horrors… Men made a world where standing together is impossible.” But Bruce Wayne responds with uncharacteristic optimism: “Men are still good. We fight, we kill, we betray one another but we can rebuild. We can do better. We will. We have to.” Yet his sanguine disposition seems to arise not from past experience, but from desperation. Perhaps we can do better, but only for a little while…If we really look at the world of human efforts, the Joker is correct: “human existence is mad, random, and pointless, one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them? In a world as psychotic as this… any other response would be crazy!” (The Killing Joke by Alan Moore).

What is the solution to this human condition? There is no human solution, because the root of the problem is this: man’s heart is corruptible. Just as a broken car needs a mechanic and a sick patient needs a physician, a broken human needs a savior. Better education, more time on the evolutionary ladder, politicized speech, more personal freedom, improved access to scarce resources and a collectivist attitude will not tame the human spirit. At any moment we may turn from the common understanding of right and wrong, for as Hume says, “reason is a slave to the passions”. The Holy Scriptures echo this sentiment, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom 7:19)” for “the heart is fickle” (Hosea 10:2). Therefore, we may be rational beings but our reason is in constant tension with our fickle feelings, irrational emotions and hedonistic impulses.

A more helpful question might be: who is the one to redeem us from this broken and corruptible state? In the DC universe Superman’s character obviously displays not only divine qualities, but also a savior/messiah complex. Yet, the character of Superman is non-human, and doesn’t understand the human condition. He is always good, always right, un-tempted, and almost naively innocent. He does not relate to man because he is not a man. But Superman has one unique characteristic that the people of Metropolis cannot ignore. As one character says, “We’re talking about a being whose very existence challenges our own sense of priority in the universe.” In the same way, if a messiah (savior) does exist, he is also a being whose existence ought to change our sense of self and where we look to find answers to our human condition. In contrast to Superman, Batman (a.k.a. the Dark Knight – not the knight in shining armor) is not a true hero; he is a vigilante, working outside the law, motivated by fear and anger. He carries the burden of humanity because he understands pain, evil and the true nature of mankind as weak and corruptible. While he does not display any savior-like characteristics, he does represent a raw man struggling with the human condition, always one step away from being a villain himself. It is because of Batman’s grasp of human nature that he still views the villains like the Joker with mercy, unwilling to kill them because he believes that no one is beyond redemption. It is not because he sees something in the Joker worth saving, but he recognizes that redemption is precisely for those who have fallen.

In the DC world, the villain symbolizes evil and injustice. The villain introduces the most interesting moral paradigms, often challenging the hero’s notion of good and evil. In Dawn of Justice, Lex Luthor (the films main villain) introduces the ontological problem and the problem of evil (among others): “See, what we call God depends upon our tribe, Clark Joe [Superman], ’cause God is tribal; God takes sides! No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from daddy’s fist and abominations. I figured out way back if God is all-powerful, He cannot be all good. And if He is all good, then He cannot be all-powerful. And neither can you be.” Like many real atheists, Lex Luthor’s rejection of God arises not from an intellectual hindrance, but from an experience. His sordid childhood lacked a loving father (much like many real atheists, e.g. Freud) and he simply could not embrace the psychological paradox that suffering may have purpose and a life devoid of pain may not be the highest priority God has for humanity. He then explains that the idea of “god” simply differs according to each tribe (implying the idea of “God” is manmade). He even goes as far to say “god is dead” (referring to Superman), which just happens to be a well-known phrase of a prominent atheist: Friedrich Nietzsche.

Prior to his conversion to Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrestled with the same problem as Lex Luthor, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?” In Mere Christianity, Lewis also addresses Lex Luthor’s idea of God (and morality) being relative to our society or “our herd instinct” that developed as a product of years of evolution. But can we truly believe this? Lewis argues, “If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality. In fact, of course, we all do believe that some moralities are better than others.” Are we willing to say that Nazi morality is as acceptable as Christian morality or life-respecting forms of secular ethics or humanism? I can only hope that one would not tell Heinrich Himmler, “I personally don’t believe in gas chambers, what’s right for you is right for you.” Despite the ubiquitous embrace of this line of thinking in our current “liberalized” culture, such a view would be intellectual schizophrenia.

Even if most of society accepted the idea of a general Moral Law, some will still struggle with the problem of evil. In part, the problem of evil can be explained by free will: if man is free to do real good, he is also free to do real evil. While I agree with this idea, it does not address the emotional problem of evil where we don’t feel like God is good when tragedy impacts our life. I think this is the far greater problem than the intellectual problem. Yet, here is where Christianity offers something that no other religion, belief system or personal idea can provide: the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He is the only divine figure in history that understands our human struggle, because, despite being God, he willingly entered our human experience for the sole purpose of dying on the cross to reconnect the bridge between God and humankind. As scripture says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). We cannot say this of the “god(s)” of any other religion (including monotheistic religions). This is why I find the figure of Christ so attractive: he is not foreign or naïve to our human experience like Superman, but he is not outside the law and compromising like Batman. Jesus, the one who brings hope and justice, is the true hero we long for.

Burk is a first-year resident doctor, husband, father, and superhero aficionado.

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