Saturday, August 10, 2013

I Must Not Be Batman

You know what's really cool? We're gonna talk about deontology vs. utilitarianism in terms of superheroes, and you're going to understand
Aren't comics awesome?!

For those of you who don't notice the logos that precede the blockbuster movies you've been watching recently, in the world of comic book superheroes, there are two giants: Marvel and DC. Now, upfront, I'll cop to being a Marvel fan more than anything else. Spider-man is my spirit animal and I've never really connected with any of the characters in the DC Universe.

There is, however, a reason for that. You see, Marvel makes characters, and sometimes they make heroes. We can connect to them because they're flawed, and human, and they're often losers. But DC is different. DC makes ideas.

Hang with me on this. We'll start with Superman.

And I love you, Random Citizen! *

*Not actually Superman quote.

Superman is maybe the most famous superhero on the face of the planet. In case you haven't left the shelter of your rock since 1938, he's an alien who escaped to Kansas when his home planet exploded, leaving him the last of his race. It's fortunate there's only one of him, because Superman is terrifying. Superman is a physical god. He's faster, stronger, and more resilient than anything Earth has ever managed to crank out. Compounding that, according to All-Star Superman, his brain is super, too. He can see wavelengths humans might not even know about, and his mind operates at a swifter pace. Basically, he wins at everything, always.

On a story theory level, this is a serious problem, because people rarely take an interest in god-level characters. God-men don't struggle, and stories without struggle aren't interesting. So the problem the writers of Superman are faced with is how to make Superman somebody worth reading about. Clearly they succeeded—if they hadn't, we wouldn't be churning out movies, cartoons, and songs (and songs, and songs, and songs) about the guy. And Bill (the guy who gets killedwouldn't spend three solid minutes talking about him.

The trick is that Superman's struggle is all to do with his monumental choice. Given what power he has, he has to decide whether to save the world or destroy it. He's a giant walking among ants. He can do whatever he wants. So he decides he wants to save it. (Check out this video for a much more detailed look at this aspect of his character.)

Of course, the thing about being a giant is that you have to be very, very careful where you step. So Superman is always following his own unbreakable code of ethics. He doesn't lie, cheat, steal, or play dirty at any step of the game. He's a dyed-in-the-wool Boy Scout.

Batman could not be more different.

Taking a fiercely contested second place to Superman for most-recognized-superhero, Batman makes up for it by being, perhaps, the most butt-kicking. In direct contrast to Superman (who has ALL the powers) Batsy has no superpowers at all (except his budget). He's a master fighter, a spectacular detective, and generally a terrifying ninja. But he does it without any supernatural powers. Where Superman is godlike, Batman is wholly human.

To make up for his lack, though, Batman has no limits. He has exactly one rule ("Thou shalt not kill") that he won't break, but short of that, anything and everything is fair game. He will do whatever it takes to stop the bad guys, from psychological warfare to breaking bones to spying on an entire city. From his perspective, these are necessary—he has nothing else to fall back on. Superman can afford to be a Boy Scout because he has enough power to back it up. Batman doesn't, and therefore can't.

Loosely speaking, Batman embodies a utilitarian ethic ("the end justifies the means"), while Supes personifies a deontological one ("the means justify the end"). This delineation defines almost every aspect of their personalities. Superman is associated with truth and justice, while Batman is known as the Dark Knight. Superman is polite, well-intentioned, and cautious. Batman is gruff and he will slam your face into a table.

He is the night, and he does not have time for your nonsense.

You can learn a lot about a culture by looking at the heroes they immortalize in stories. Greece had Odysseus, Rome had Julius Caesar, France has...erm...I'll go with Jean Claude van Damme. And America has Superman, Batman, and all the characters falling in between.

For a long while, Superman was considered our biggest cultural icon. He was the principal figure of the Golden Age of Comics, when men were men, ├╝bermensch were ├╝bermensch, and women were just...sort of...there. (Because there had to be some diversity, right?)

The Golden Age of Comics, though, eventually gave way to the Modern Age (where we are now). In the Golden Age and most of its successors, comics leaned Superman-wardly, because America thought of Supes as our avatar in fiction. Like Superman, we were powerful and responsible. We needed to be careful where we stepped. Most of all, we were required to be righteous—to do the right thing, no matter what it cost in the long run.

But in the Modern Age, that zeitgeist has vanished. Comics have shifted away from Superman's rosy perspective to the grittier world of the Dark Knight. The 80's saw the deconstruction of the superhero-as-a-nice-guy. Now we have Jack Bauer, Gregory House M.D., Ozymandias and Rorschach, and the Doctor. We've crawled sneakily away from the shiny ethics of Clark Kent to the far more frightening, far more efficient world of Bruce Wayne. We care more about competence than compassion.

This isn't just evident in our stories, or in our politics (looking at you, U.S. government). Look closely enough and you'll see it everywhere. The temptation is to buy into Batman's worldview, because, let's face it, Batman gets the job done. He does the only thing that makes sense. His world doesn't have rules, and even if it did, there's no one to back them up—except him. He does what's necessary because no one else can. Compassion is well and good, but he'll take competence every time.

I worry that sometimes I tend to think that way, too.

I'm the guy on the left.

For a long while, I've had a serious issue accepting the Christian subculture, because for the most part, it is just that: sub-cultural. Our attempts at making art are generally not very good. (I'm looking at you, Facing the Giants. And you, Fireproof. And you, Family Christian Bookstore.) Our church services can often really suck. So, too, can our church communities. As a widespread rule, I did not find the church able. They weren't competent. They had a job to do and they were failing to do it.

I couldn't forgive that.

I've been confronted, though, with the fact that God does not go looking for competence. In fact, "competence" is somewhere near the bottom of the list of divine qualifiers. If memory serves, God picked someone for competence once. Once. (It's in 1 Samuel. The candidate is good-looking, a powerful warrior, a compelling speaker. He's the king Batman would choose. He tanked the job so bad that God picked his successor halfway through his reign. Nothing like meeting your replacement, especially when he's a scrawny, metrosexual, seventeen-year-old shepherd with a thing for the harp.)

Missionary to the Gentiles? Started out as a religious persecutor. Apostles? Mostly uneducated fishermen, plus a slimy money launderer and a terrorist. Best-known Jewish king in history? Promoted from "sheep-herder boy." Savior of the human race? Born amongst pigs and cattle, to a disgraced 16-and-Pregnant mother and a seemingly-cuckolded carpenter, in a backwoods town in a downtrodden nation of failures and former slaves.

God does not pick based on competence. It's not His style.

With this in mind, I'm making a resolution: I must not try to be Batman any more.

Let competence live and die on its own.
Let the Christian cool factor fluctuate.
Let my instinct to be awesome—to do awesome things that would make God proud of me—starve to death.

So Christians really suck at making movies/music/what-have-you. Our competence isn't what saves the world.

That's Jesus' job.

Time to leave it to Superman.