It is clear that the world has not sufficiently processed its obsession with superheroes, and as a result, we're experiencing a whole new cycle of films; The Avengers, Spiderman and Batman in which superheroes teach us lessons about what it's really like to live an extraordinary life.
The popularity and re-hashing of classic characters such as Superman, Spiderman and Batman is starting to feel a little strained. Admittedly, today's films are much better in quality than those 80s Superman movies with Christopher Reeve. Yet even the CGI wonders of the 2000s do not feel quite as deft as the "original" Batman movie starring Michael Keaton, produced by Tim Burton. Yet for some reason we seem quite eager to embrace the arrival of these new efforts as keys to understanding the psychology of superheroes. As if that might change us for the better.
A very few superhero fans were willing to admit they were less than thrilled by the Batman movie The Dark Knight starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. Critics raved about its supposed depth and the manic rendering of an evil clown by the gifted actor Heath Ledger. Yet as each new superhero movie seems reaches deeper into the psyches of heroes and villains, we encounter near pathological levels of introspection, leaving us drained and uninspired by the idea of actually being a superhero. It just doesn't look like any fun, most of the time.
Being a superhero should be fun. Otherwise, what's the point of having all those super powers if you can't laugh at your ability to swoop down from tall buildings like Batman in his kickass cape and catch the bad guys? And beating up bullies is the whole point! That's what made the Bruce Wayne played by Michael Keaton so darned fun. While he was a bit of a tortured character, he ultimately seemed to relish what he was doing, comically and metaphorically.
For one brief period in my youthful history, I came to believe I really could be Superman. My mother had purchased a Halloween costume made of bright red, yellow and blue silk--and bright red cape. The more I wore that darned thing the more real the notion became that maybe I could fly.
Perhaps you'll remember too. At 5 or 6 years old you have dreams of flying and wake up the next morning disappointed that you can't. The power of those dreams sticks with you, needing only a nudge by a shiny suit to make you want to test the metaphysical limits of who you are, versus who you want to be.
With our neighbor girls Cathy and Amy serving as witnesses, I climbed into the maple tree in our front yard, up to the second limb, a height of about 7 feet in the air. The ground looked airily distant from that perch. I must have figured there would be time to catch myself if the will to fly did not materialize in mid-air.
So I dove forward, sort of, and hit the ground so fast there was no time to get my arms out. Which is probably fortunate, or I'd have broken a collarbone.
For some reason it did not hurt when I hit the ground. It happened so fast and my skinny little body was so light and wiry it seems there was no way to damage it. Even though it turned out I could not fly the girls were both pretty impressed that someone could hit the ground like that and not get hurt. Amy was always breaking one limb or another, it seemed, and Cathy was so heavy she'd have probably left an imprint in the ground like the Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons.
For me it was just luck, of course. Like a relaxed, drunken fool in a speeding car, my ignorance and superhero insolence spared me injury. So I lived to see another day, deserving or not. As I recall (most fortunately) the girls did not even laugh. One of them even touched my arm. It made me want to touch her back.
Superheroes all seem to work the field like that. They always get the girl (or guy...) sooner or later, but not before getting whacked pretty good by life and supervillains. That's the price of being a superhero it seems, because circumstance and Kryptonite can prove to be the equal of Superman and Batman and Spiderman on so many occasions.
The idea of superheroes isn't always to be taken so seriously. The Batman television show in the 1960s was pure camp. No one really tried to make the television Batman and Robin characters seem almighty, or even smarter than the thieves and villains they chased most weeks. The Batman landscape was full of Riddlers, Jokers and other freaks trying to gas Gotham City or swindle the world out of its philosophical pants.
My father simply loved that show. It fulfilled his appreciation for humor and entertainment. He was not one to entertain notions of real superpowers, and he was never told about the Superman flying stunt on my part until 20 years later. He just shook his head.
His own life had held enough challenges to make getting through it all seem like an act of a superhero. His mother died from complications of cancer when he was six years old, forcing him and his siblings to go live on an uncle's farm, a tiny dairy and crop farm parked on the side of a Catskill mountain in Upstate New York. It was 1932 or so, with the Depression in full swing. My father's own father Harold crumpled into acute emotional distress following the sudden death of his wife and the loss of his farm and another business to big picture economics. He later married another woman, only to lose her to cancer as well. He was institutionalized for depression after that. We saw him rarely all through the 1960s and he died in 1971. My father went for a very long walk that day.
There were many things to think about. My father had made it through his youth working on a poor farm only to be sent off to sea with the Navy at the tail end of World War II. He visited the bombed out ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet saw no action and came home to attend college and then marry my mother who lived 200 yards away on a farm down the road. They set about raising four boys.
It had all happened so fast, and it seemed to have left a bitterness in my father because he had not had the opportunity participate in sports during high school. In retrospect, that latent desire for success in sports probably drove him to push us even harder in the sports we played. His boys all excelled; in baseball, basketball, soccer and running. We could hear his voice urging us to relax, calling out "Stay Loose!" when he saw us tense up on the mound or show other signs of fear during games or meets. These words, however well-meaning, often had the opposite effect.
He just wanted the best for us, and by proxy, for himself. We were good athletes, but not superheroes on the playing field. None of us turned pro, but one did play Division I basketball. Another was a Second Place Team All American in cross country. The best athlete of the four boys might have been the oldest son. Yet he was so pressed in many ways by my father that his full potential as an athlete was probably never realized. He ran a 4:40 mile as a freshman, the type of performance that points to a mile time under 4:10 by the time he was a senior. It didn't happen. He could also do a standing dunk in basketball, and played college soccer before mononucleosis stole that season and ended his career. From then on it was almost like he chose to hide his superpowers on the athletic field, the better to discipline himself for the work of making a living.
Sound familiar? Clark Kent. Bruce Wayne. Peter Parker. Come out, come out, wherever you are. So many superheroes go on like that.
In the end, whether you are a superhero or not, it's all about compensating for our inner flaws, and vindication when we do. For when the Batman character played by Michael Keaton leverages the personal demons caused by the death of his parents to slay the Joker, we get the picture that right has won over wrong.
Yet the audience doesn't really cheer at that point in the movie. We're left with the image of a pair of clacking toy teeth making a laughing noise. Because whether we know it or not, when through our fantasies we become Batman, Superman or Spiderman, the joke's really on us. Turns out life is as tough on superheroes as it is on mere mortals.
Perhaps that is why the Avengers have decided to help each other out. Now there's a real lesson in life.