Don’t Push the Green Button
May 15, 2010 Leave a comment
Having seen Iron Man 2, and then engaged in some thought and discussion about super heroes, I have come to conclude that the current crop of comic book heroes are the wrong ones for our society. Last time I mentioned the naivete of the Superman and Spiderman protagonists, and I will say the same rules extend to Iron Man. In a major way, the former characters are quite different from Tony Stark. While the three suited-up men are always humbled by the formidability of their respective foes, the unsuited Tony Stark is not as bumbling as Peter Parker or Clark Kent. But underlying Stark’s rock star persona is an earnest search for meaning and a desire to single-handedly bring world peace. While these are nice sentiments becoming the likes of Madonna or Bono, the hero’s god-like abilities and achievements put him in a plane that does not intersect the viewer’s reality.
The most prominent offense of most super heroes is their ability to dodge the issues we must face in real life. Early in Iron Man 2, the viewer discovers Stark is slowly being poisoned. Without revealing too much of an utterly gripping plot, its safe to say that through a combination of deus ex machina and good old gumption, Stark is able to invent his way out of death–apparently overnight. You might pause and ask if it is contradictory to shoot down Stark’s grit and determination as undesirable since I have previously defended the “bootstraps” idea of success in America. The difference is that in reality, hard work is hard.
On the silver screen and in comic book pages, mythical heroes can magically make super devices and single-handedly resolve eternal dilemmas overnight. But satisfying narratives need profound sacrifice–whether it is blood, sweat, or forbearance. That is why the Gospel is so naturally compelling: God as Christ submitted to reality as we experience it, facing humiliation and death to bring a ringing victory over sin. Many exemplary stories shine because of their portrayal of sacrifice, but for most comic book heroes sacrifice is either superficial or arbitrary.
The heroes that defy this trend tend not to be so singular or over the top. The X-Men franchise is pretty solid, but the best may be Batman. In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne and his fellow players must come to terms with a gritty world populated by jaded citizens and fallible heroes, a world that offers only heartbreak and insurmountable moral dilemmas. While Batman is a rich, technological whiz like Tony Stark, he is not in danger of teaching the moral that pushing a green button will magically make life better. Neither does Batman feed the idea that there are certain exceptional individuals we should look to solve our problems. Rather, The Dark Knight emphasizes the democratization of morality and virtue, which is clearly born out in the climactic ferry boat stand off.
We may look to comic book blockbusters as just a little vacuous, harmless entertainment, but we should not be lulled into an unconscious acceptance of their implicit worldview. Not all comic book movies were created equal, and I am not talking in terms of computer graphics and explosions. It matters just how one goes about saving the world.