“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” — G.K Chesterton
Image credit: Marvel.com
“Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to…When works of art shine, they illuminate and glamourise a way of life, and all other things shine in their light.” — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining
Ok. So here’s my theory — one I’ve found some support in elsewhere — if you want a form of popular art that performs this function in the modern west, where we have figures who are clearly heroes — superheroes — battling figures that are clearly villains, and ‘glamourising a way of life’ — by embodying virtues of the current age, then it’s our humble comic book superhero stories that do this. They do it because these are the popular stories of our age — but they also do it because they self-consciously present us heroes of our age. This means if we want to change, or re-enchant, our current view of the world, these stories might be a vehicle to do that. The problem is that these stories are products of a modern view of the world — just as ancient stories were a product of an ancient view of the world, so we may need a healthy dose of ‘enchantment’ thrown into the mix if these stories are going to raise our eyes to a greater significance of reality. To pull us towards the ‘transcendent’ or the idea that the world has a meaning beyond physical, material, reality.
In a piece of fairly bizarre timing, Christ And Pop Culture (one of my favourite websites) launched a new column this week called Panel Discussion, an exploration of the world of the comic book. The first cab off the rank was a piece titled Comic Books as Modern Mythology. This piece operates on the premise that: “The comics of today are American versions of Greek mythology complete with origin, philosophy, psychology, and religion.”
This is a view supported in a couple of more scholarly works on Superheroes and their function in our culture. For example, this essay ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ that compares our modern heroes to ancient heroes like Beowulf.
“The vague origins and the sudden departures of such heroes also serve to enhance their legends. These legends in time take on almost religious status, becoming myths that provide the communities not only with models for conduct but with the kind of heightened shared experiences which inspire and unify their members.” — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader
…And this book Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths by David Reynolds, who looks to Socrates and Plato and their understanding of the function of myth in conveying truth about the world, and fostering virtuous character, to suggest we should read these modern stories asking similar questions that we (and others, historically) ask of their ancient equivalents — epic myths:
The cultural function of mythic heroes such as those from Greek, Roman, and Norse cultures has attracted significant scholarly attention. Yet, what is the relevance of those ancient heroes today, and what are we to make of their hitherto academically neglected modern equivalents, popular superhero figures, such as Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman? A culture’s prominent narratives become that culture’s myths, reinforcing cultural values and disseminating norms of social behaviour… — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths
Reynolds charts three ages of comic book mythology — the gold, silver, and bronze ages. He draws the boundaries of these ages in slightly different places to some sort of comic convention — suggesting ‘golden’ age heroes appeared in stories from the modernist world, up to and including WW2. The heroes in this age served the establishment. Silver age heroes emerged after the war, with the creation of Spider-Man. They have more human flaws, this period spans the gap from modernism to post modernity and its stories introduce a greater sense of world-building and story integration. Bronze age heroes are all dark, gritty, post-modern and somewhat nihilistically hopeless — a product of our cynical age. The ‘epic’ function of superheroes developed over these epochs.
The shining ‘heroes’ of the ‘golden age’
Heroes, as the central characters in our modern works of art — especially stories — show us how to live. They become combatants in the mission to help us see the world rightly — they’re products either of an enchanted world embedded with meaning, or a mechanical world where heroes are made, mostly accidentally, not born with a divine purpose. Most of our modern comic book heroes are products of a mechanical, or immanent, world. They’re (largely) spawned by the immanent world going very right, or very wrong — science, and science gone bad, accounts for the super-powers of plenty of our heroes.
When they are their most ‘epic’, or enchanted, heroes don’t just show us that dragons (or villains) can be defeated, but at their best present us with a path to immortality. That’s been a theme of the epic tale since Gilgamesh — see also the Arthurian knights in their perpetual quest for the Holy Grail.
It’s interesting to consider what a quest for immortality — or an epic quest — looks like in an immanent world, where the infinite is collapsed into the finite. What does salvation look like in this sort of frame? The secret to immortality is likely to be either a product of scientific innovation, or immortality will be dismissed as a pipe-dream, and replaced with the quest for some more rational form of immortality — like a name that lasts.
Often, in epic stories where the hero is clearly mortal — like, say, Beowulf — immortality is captured when a hero’s name lives on, on account of their glorious deeds. Immortality in an immanent world is about making a name for yourself. A name that lasts. That’s the best a modern myth can imagine, or aim for.
Heroes model virtues. But not just any old virtues — virtues set against the backcloth of the current view of the world, or, they may embody a virtuous ideal, linked to an ideal vision that they are working towards — within the story, and as the story (as a tool of a story teller). Heroes, through these stories, articulate a picture of human flourishing. We readers are invited to share this vision, but we’re invited more to see the character as embodying a certain type of heroism, a type of heroism that we are free to imitate in our own world. Heroes are model imaginators — they help us see the world as enchanted because they model what it looks like to have an imaginative vision for the transformation of the world, and show us a bit of what it might cost to change — to re-create — the world as we know it to the world as we imagine it could be.
Heroes that only solve very ‘domestic’ issues are a little too small. Epic heroes — heroes that may pull us somewhere other than where we are — need a sense of being larger than life. They need to shine. They need to stand for something bigger than themselves.
“All of these heroes are larger than life; some are merely larger than others. But what the hero is and does in terms of objective reality are less important than what he represents to our inner reality. The local man who saves a child from drowning is of less enduring interest to us than our fictive or historical heroes: the former wants symbolism, and unless local mythopoeia provides him with it, we tend to displace him in our consciousness with the more value-charged heroes we seem to need.” — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader
And, as Chesterton says, the heroes of these stories teach us to kill dragons, or vanquish evil — they fight evils that are larger than life too. Everything is exaggerated. C.S Lewis agreed with him, he says heroes, especially enchanted ‘radiant ones,’ provide us with a more comforting picture of the defeat of evil than even thinking about real, immanent, heroes, like the police.
“Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened… For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones; and the terrible figures are not merely terrible, but sublime. It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think St George, or any bright champion in armour, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.” — C.S Lewis, Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say What’s Best to be Said
Despite the new ages of comics-as-epics that make the characters more human, flawed, and twisted by their agenda — the golden age hero, or how they were used — might teach us something about a hero can be presented to people in this epic sense.
‘Golden age’ heroes as propaganda
There’s a fine line between characters being orchestrated to deliberately depict a cultural view of virtue and the stories these characters appear in functioning as propaganda. This is a fine line that has, at least according to David Reynolds, historically been obliterated in America, in the form of comic book stories, especially in the so-called Golden Age, and especially in the archetypal heroes from the DC world, Superman and Batman. Their origin stories, heroic powers, and their respective ‘missions’ position them to be perfect carriers of an ideological agenda.
Superman is the last survivor of the planet Krypton, sent to earth as an infant. As a Kryptonian on Earth, Superman is gifted with an array of superpowers ranging from superstrength to x-ray vision. Raised by the “everyman” Kent family on a farm in Smallville, Superman was raised to embody the ideal American norms of honesty and justice. As a superhero, Superman is dedicated to “truth, justice, and the American way.” Batman, on the other hand, witnessed the murder of his millionaire parents as a young child, and swore an oath dedicating his life to fight crime. He is at the peak of human physical and intellectual performance. While fighting crime, Batman utilizes a vast array of gadgetry, such as his batbelt, batarangs, and the batmobile. He represents the epitome of human physical fitness and intellectual conditioning and, by extension, he symbolizes how people may unlock their true potential through will and determination. — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths
This propaganda function came of age when America itself was under external threat — during World War 2. It’s interesting to see how the propaganda functions now when the greatest threat is perceived as a threat from within — radicalisation — Marvel has this Civil War storyline that seems fascinating, and may, I understand, even be part of the storyline of the forthcoming Captain America movie. Because Marvel’s characters are participants in the ‘real’ world, they were able to directly participate in the war effort (incidentally, my introduction to Phantom comics was a reprint of the Phantom’s foray into World War 2). Superman and Batman, functioning as the heroic citizen of the ‘every city’ stayed home and played a more symbolic role, embodying a responsible, patriotic, ideal that encouraged civilians to support the war effort via the American way of life.
Superman noticeably shifts his ideology such that his adventures begin linking patriotism to legitimate business, while he consistently thwarts illicit business… The original Superman of 1938, hero of the underprivileged working class, has given way to the new Superman of the war effort, supporting complacent consumerism and upholding the values of the capitalist, industrial empire… most popular comic book characters, like Superman and Batman, also served to remind soldiers of home and “reinforce the purpose of the war in their minds… Since the most popular superheroes of the war effort adopted strong, responsible consumerist values, their following mythoi have built steadily upon those values and that style of crime fighting. However, although the modern superhero finds its cultural roots in consumerism, some recent storytellers have begun to challenge the superhero’s traditional role of blindly supporting hegemonic values…
… the narratives were directly affected by the political and social climate of the time. Not only were they affected by the social context, but they were employed as a means to affect the culture as well, as a medium to spread war-time propaganda. — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths
Comic stories as vehicles for complex ethical questions
In order for comic books to keep reflecting the values of a culture, and to keep providing ‘shining’ examples, comic heroes had to shift from embodying idyllic certainty to embodying questions. The door for this change was opened, at least a little, with the creation of Spider-Man, a flawed hero who wanted to use his new-found powers for gain, only for that to cost him the life of his uncle, which propelled him (along with that line from his uncle: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’) into a life of web-slinging heroism. But this trajectory didn’t stop with more relatable, more human, more broken, heroes. It continued into what Reynolds calls the ‘bronze age’ — which he suggests begins with the creation of The Dark Knight version of Batman, and Watchmen.
“Many sophisticated elements of comics today that we now take as givens – the way they raise questions of justice and vengeance, their exploration of the ethics of vigilantism, and their depiction of ambivalent and even hostile reactions towards superheroes from the general public as well as from government – are largely traceable to these works. These two titles deconstructed the superhero genre so thoroughly that for several years any superhero comic that continued in the traditional vein of storytelling seemed like nothing more than a bad parody of the superhero genre… Miller and Moore deconstructed the established tropes of the superhero genre, challenging readers to confront the issues surrounding justice and vigilantism.” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths
This move ends up producing a depressing — rather than radiant — hero. One who’s not much good for doing anything but keeping us squarely in our immanent frame. Watchmen creator Allen Moore agrees:
“Obviously, we’ve to some degree doomed the mainstream comics medium to a parade of violent, depressing postmodern superheroes, a lot of whom, in addition to those other faults, are incredibly pretentious. I stand accused.”— Allen Moore, cited in Geoff Klock, ‘The Revisionary Superhero Narrative,’ The Superhero Reader
This, in a sense, is a reflection of our modern culture and its cynical inability to find anything virtuous, or anybody heroic. For a hero to re-enchant the world they now have to pull us out of this culture, by giving us something we believe in. But something that is still real and relatable, that grapples honestly with the questions and challenges of life in the real world.
Comic stories as myths that explore models of the (fallen) world
There’s a guy, Joseph Campbell, who is generally held to be pretty cluey when it comes to thinking the shape of myths, and especially the mythic journey of the ‘hero.’ Here’s a TED talk featuring his view of mythology — in which he sees every hero (and every ‘god’) being described as going on a journey that involves a three stage process of: separation, initiation, and return.
It’s pretty fascinating, even if its given birth to a bunch of dumb ideas about Jesus being exactly the same as any other god. This same story — this journey — takes place throughout the ages, the same pattern, but against a different backdrop, the stories happen against the model of the world that produces it.
“Myth has to deal with the cosmology of today… a mythological image that has to be explained to the brain is not working… then, you’re out of sync.” — Joseph Campbell, cited in David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths
It’s interesting to consider the stories that are produced by the ‘cosmology of today’ — a cosmology that is not enchanted, that is immanent, in many ways they’re the stories we see in The Dark Knight and Watchmen. Myths reflecting the real world means the bar is lower for us, as readers, to enter the story, and helps us see our world with fresh eyes. Reflecting the real world means reflecting the world in its brokenness. And it does. The world presented in these stories is a broken world. Broken, in part, by villains. The heroes want to help perfect the world, according to their utopian vision, while the villains want to stop them, either to keep the world the way it is or to see it fall apart even more, or indeed to continue the affects of the Fall. Vreekill is a villain from a 1940s Batman/Superman crossover story who invents a machine that makes steel fall apart. He embodies this sort of villain-as-truly-fallen trope.
“Vreekill’s bald head and functional costume signify him clearly as a ‘mad scientist’. There is no exploration of the psychology that leads Vreekill to use his discovery for the pursuit of crime:
“With my machine I can become the most powerful man in the world! I can hold it as a club over those who deal in steel constructions.”
This is clearly not a sociological view of the roots of crime. The mythology underlying the text is that of the Old Testament, and, most specifically, the Temptation and Fall. Vreekill is a prototype for many ‘Fallen’ characters which Batman and other superheroes have encountered through the years — the Joker, Two-Face, Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Ozymandias. All are corrupted by power, and power in the particular form of knowledge. ‘Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil’ promises the serpent in Genesis 3… If history is to be understood as a progress towards Utopia, a significant tension can be adduced between superheroes (assisting this process) and villains (thwarting the Utopia builders, or ‘those who deal in steel constructions’).” — Richard Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology
So heroes have this job of representing the ideals of our modern world — especially ‘unfallen’ ideals, and pulling us back towards the paradise lost at the Fall — part of that paradise, I suggest, is a rekindling of our capacity to see the world as enchanted, as an artwork itself that points us to the great artificer. The God who spoke this world into being and continues to sustain it, the God whose divine nature and character are on display in this world, if only we were able to see them.
Marvel v DC — The man of iron v the man of steel
When it comes to modern comic book stories — and comic book heroes — that achieve this for me — it’s the Marvel characters that most connect me to modern ideals. I’d rather learn how to live from Iron Man, or other Avengers, than from Superman and the Justice League. As a disclaimer: I don’t read the comic books, but I watch the movies and TV shows, so it may be that my reflections are easily dismissed by real comic fans.
I don’t know how much my preference for Marvel is determined by the question of the space the stories take place in — that Superman is in the fictional ‘every city’ of Metropolis — I suspect that’s only a marginal factor (see Episode 1). I think its more to do with the ideal on display in each world.
When some of my friends were discussing my last question — what difference the city setting makes — my friend Craig Hamilton made the observations that:
“The DC universe is about the ideal whereas Marvel is about struggling to live up to an ideal. DC heroes are almost pure archetypes while Marvel are heroes with feet of clay.”
There are DC characters who break this type — Arrow, and The Flash are less archetypal than Superman, and, indeed, Craig points out that DC has deliberately become more Marvelesque (Marvellous?) over time.
“It wasn’t until the mid-1980s with Crisis on Infinite Earths that DC, in my opinion, tried to become more Marvel-esque. In the post-Crisis DCU they shipped in John Byrne and Frank Millar to redefine Superman and Batman. You can’t get more Marvel-esque creators than those two.”
The ‘man’ in the mask (Marvel) v the ‘masked man’ (DC)
In a piece in the Christian Research Journal titled ‘The Gospel According to Marvel’ a guy named Jason McAteer made a similar observation.
“The biggest difference between Marvel and DC is that Marvel heroes are ordinary people disguised as superheroes. Whereas DCs Superman is really an alien (Kal-El) disguised as an average guy (Clark Kent), Marvel’s Spider-Man is just an ordinary teenager named Peter Parker dressed up in red Spandex. Even DC’s Batman is using the persona of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne to distract from his true identity as a vigilante hero. Bruce Wayne’s drinking and womanizing is all an act. Contrast Marvel’s Iron Man whose true identity is Tony Stark, a millionaire playboy who really is as obnoxious as Bruce Wayne pretends to be. Marvel heroes are complex characters with all the imperfections of real-life human beings. They’re not all that “heroic” in comparison to a Golden Age DC character such as Superman, who came to embody a kind of idealized moral perfection. The original DC heroes are mostly aliens (such as Superman and Wonder Woman) or self-made men (such as Batman). Marvel’s heroes, on the other hand, are flawed ordinary people who gain unusual powers. They have extraordinary abilities thrust upon them whether they like it or not, usually through accidental exposure to “radiation” of some sort or another. Furthermore, Marvel heroes always have other real-life problems to deal with in addition to fighting crime.”
I think this is true — and its part of the reason I prefer Marvel’s heroes to DC’s. One of the implications of this ‘type’ of heroism on display in the DC world is that DC’s heroes can be so idealised that we’re unable to relate to them, and as a result, unable to imitate them. They hold up such a strong ideal that we can only dream about doing what they do. These dreams might still enchant us, and cause us to see goodness and virtue differently, but goodness and virtue always appear just that little bit beyond us. Because the real Superman is not Clark Kent, but the heroic guy in the cape — the masked man — we’re not invited into the story via the relatable human brokenness of the hero, we’re invited to enjoy the story as pure idealistic myth.
Superman is always ‘other’ — always fully super (except around kryptonite) — and only ever disguised as human (somehow this doesn’t annoy me as much when it comes to Thor). There’s nothing particularly imitable about Clark Kent, who, when trouble strikes, disappears in order for Superman to appear and save the day. You know that underneath the nerdy Clark Kent disguise there’s a godlike figure waiting to emerge to save the day. Iron Man is always Tony Stark in the suit. And when he puts the mask on he’s the same guy, just wearing a suit that lets him make a difference. The humanity is the driver of the story and the source of narrative tension, his humanity is not a disguise, a mask he wears to hide his real identity
Identity is an interesting motif in superhero stories — in the Marvel world, especially the world of the Avengers, the heroes don’t have a ‘secret identity’ — they are who they are. Even in a Marvel story where the hero keeps who they are a secret — like in Spider-Man — the hero’s identity is the human, Peter Parker puts on a mask and becomes Spider-Man, Spiderman doesn’t take off the mask to become Peter Parker. You could compare Stark’s Iron Man and Bruce Wayne’s Batman at this point — both use their significant means to transform the world according to their imaginative vision of a better place. Stark is a complicated mess of arrogant over-confidence and a real desire to do good, the stories he features in function as stories of his sanctification — he moves through that journey towards humility, even if he always remains true to himself. His personal demons are things he works out as a human, and they’re exaggerated when he puts his super-suit on. Batman is Bruce Wayne’s actual identity. The Bat is the manifestation of his damaged psychology. We wrestle with his demons when he puts the mask on and becomes himself. Batman is Batman, and like Superman, Bruce Wayne is an alter-ego. A projection. A persona he adopts — even though Batman is thoroughly shaped by the young Bruce’s experiences — these experiences fundamentally change who Bruce Wayne is. Wayne’s foppish ‘adult’ persona is an act, a disguise. We know the real, heroic, Bruce Wayne is revealed when Bruce puts on the mask, not when he takes it off. This is following an ancient pattern of behaviour of mythic heroes who only become ‘heroic’ by revealing their true selves in and through violent chaos.
“Heroes cannot, however, remain lambs: crises call for lions… crises usually require violent solutions. Violence indeed seems to be the reality of their worlds, and it is in violent situations that heroes are defined. Superman is somehow more “real” than the mousey “Clark Kent,” Batman more “real” than the do-gooder “Bruce Wayne.” Indeed, in this “civilian” alter ego, each of these heroes is suspected of being, like the youthful Beowulf, “slack, a young man unbold.” — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader
Ultimately I find Marvel’s heroes more compelling, and more useful for looking to for models of workable heroism and/or virtue. It’s interesting that my gut-feel preference is also for their city setting, and their exploration of the consequences of ‘heroic’ action in the real world, rather than for DC’s fictional ‘every cities.’
Marvel v Marvel: Iron Man v Daredevil
Marvel’s world has two types of hero — much as DC’s world does in Batman and Superhero. Heroes shaped by a modern sensibility. Heroes best typified, at least for my purposes of comparison, by Iron Man and Daredevil. They’re both typical modern heroes in that they’re essentially loners, thrust into a network of relationships at least, in part, because of their desire to make a difference to the world. To re-imagine it as something different.
“A new kind of popular hero had emerged: the self-reliant individualist who stands aloof from many of the humdrum concerns of society, yet is able to operate according to his code of honour, to take on the world on his own terms, and win. For Americans, the historical path from Munich to Pearl Harbor coincides with the emergence of Superman and Captain America — solitary but socialized heroes, who engage in battle from time to time as proxies of US foreign policy. A darker side of the Lone Wolf hero is embodied by the Batman, a hero whose motivations and emotions are turned inward against the evils within society, and even the social and psychological roots of crime itself. The tension between these two veins in the superhero tradition remains to the present day.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader
Daredevil adopts the cowl of the Batman like ‘Lone Wolf’ hero, while Iron Man operates in a similar vein to Superman, without his humanity ever being compromised. In fact, its his full humanity that makes him compelling — even as his imagination causes huge destruction on the global landscape.
When it comes to the modern cinematic heroes that I find most compelling as myths that help me see the world differently, I like Daredevil. I like the idea that Daredevil — at least the Netflix iteration — operates in a world where people are truly enchanted (ala Thor), or super-human products of science gone wrong (ala Spider-Man, The Hulk, Captain America), or are humans with a big imagination for how transformation might take place — but whose ambitions sometimes end up causing more destruction than hope — ala Iron Man — but while this is true of the world Daredevil operates in, he is grounded (as is his world).
I like Iron Man because he’s a flawed guy trying to do the best with what he’s got. He’s both incredibly human, and incredibly super-heroic. Daredevil has smaller ambitions, and lives in a world dealing with the mess these guys created, but also sees the world differently to the people around him. He isn’t endowed with superpowers, but more intra-powers. His senses are sharpened by the loss of his sight. It’s fun to imagine Daredevil as a guy who is imitating Iron Man, simply without the means to do quite so much damage, and without the same grand ‘global’ vision.
“I see a suit of armour around the world”. — Tony Stark (Iron Man), The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Stark has a big vision, and the incredible resources to make it a reality. He bankrolls the Avengers for this purpose (in Age of Ultron — when S.H.I.E.L.D isn’t around). His vision for the world is, as it turns out, quite destructive. And its only when he listens to those around him — in humility — that the destruction is mitigated. But this destruction comes at a cost, on a local level. And that’s where Daredevil steps in. He’s in the same world, and he’s left to clean up Stark’s mess.
“[Daredevil] carries no water for the larger franchise to which it’s connected. There’s a reference in series creator Drew Goddard’s pilot script to “death and destruction raining from the sky” above New York City and its effect on property values in Hell’s Kitchen; later, if you don’t blink, you’ll spot a “BATTLE OF NEW YORK” front page hanging in the office of crime reporter Ben Urich (a wonderfully careworn Vondie Curtis-Hall). But that’s it. No one gets a job offer from Samuel L. Jackson or stumbles upon a Cosmic Cube; at no point does Tony Stark drop by for shawarma. We’re meant to understand that this is the same New York where men with unimaginable power kick other men through buildings on the regular, but we’re also allowed, and in some sense encouraged, to forget that as soon as it’s established.” — Alex Pappademas, ‘Giving the Devil His Do-Rag Why Netflix’s Daredevil is The Least Marvel-y Marvel Property Yet,‘ Grantland
Matt Murdock’s Daredevil is the sort of hero endemic to Hell’s Kitchen, and to the sort of world shaped by Stark’s grand vision meeting his humanity. When Stark goes to battle for his vision, the collateral damage is immense. Stark acts global, while Daredevil acts local. Even Wilson Fisk (Kingpin) the villain in the Daredevil story mocks him for his transformative vision being too small. Daredevil plays the heroic game on a local level, not a global one.
Fisk: You first. That’s what I thought. You and I have a lot in common.
Daredevil: We’re nothing alike.
Fisk: That’s what you’ll tell yourself.
Daredevil: You’re feeding off this city like a cancer.
Fisk: I want to save this city, like you… only on a scale that matters.
The world of Netflix’s Daredevil is a product of Stark’s vision, but the localisation of its story is part of the way it paints a compelling and heroic vision for those who encounter it as ‘art’ in the functional sense. Daredevil is the model of a localised hero. A real flesh-and-blood hero for our times, and your place.
Despite the difference in scale, both Daredevil/Murdock and Iron Man/Stark are flawed heroes, bringing their humanity to the table as they work towards their transformative ‘heroic’ vision — the better world they imagine. In All Things Shining, Dreyfus and Kelly describe a sort of approach to heroic life that’s a bit like Tony Stark’s — or at least like Iron Man’s at a particular stage of the story arc in every Iron Man/Avengers story — and like Matt Murdock’s — as he alienates his friends through the pursuit of his vision of a better Hell’s Kitchen — this serves to make these guys a bit more relatable as characters, and makes their heroic triumph a triumph over the limitations of their human nature, as well as over whatever is going on in the world.
“The man of self-confidence is often a compelling figure. Driven and focused, he is committed to bringing the world into line with his vision of how it should be. He may genuinely believe that his vision for the world is a good one, that the world will be a better place if he can shape it to his will, and sometimes he is capable of making changes for the better. But there is a danger to this attitude as well. Too often it turns out that the blustery self-confidence of such a person hides its own darker origins: it is really just arrogance combined with ambition, or worse yet, a kind of self-delusion. As a result, when his plans fail, as they are bound to do at least some of the time, the self-confident man is often unable to recognise the failure. Stubbornly and inflexibly committed to his vision of how things ought to be, he has no ability to respond to the world as it actually is. The self confident man believes that confidence is its own virtue.” — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining
I can totally relate to this. Daredevil/Matt Murdock can relate to this too, on a smaller scale. Coming out of this over-confidence and into an approach to service that involves humility and teamwork is part of the journey of most Marvel heroes. It’s the journey we’re invited to take as we use the lens of these stories to examine our selves, and to truly see a path to decision making in our own life. These stories always play up the heroes as paradoxically fully human and fully super.
Christ and Pop Culture published a great piece exploring Daredevil’s model of heroism
— of martyrdom even. There’s some great stuff in this piece about the complex relationship between heroism, violence, suffering in traditional superhero stories, and an exploration of how Daredevil breaks this pattern — including the relational disconnect that comes when the hero understands themselves as ‘suffering for’ the city, not suffering with it, that seems to go hand in hand with a lack of concern for the damage the fight for a city does to a city (seriously, read the piece). Daredevil/Matt Murdock even breaks the pattern of ‘self-confidence’ — or has it broken — through his relationships with others. Unlike Stark, it’s a bunch of ‘normal’ others who choose to be heroic, rather than superheroes, that move Daredevil away from arrogance, and towards a new and different sort of virtue.
“Matt Murdock is a part of Hell’s Kitchen, and though he’s often tempted to be a lone vigilante, he learns again and again that the true way to preserve his community is to recognize and enter into communal brokenness, not to try to save it from without. In Daredevil, the significance of relationships trumps the rightness of violence done in their name… Matt Murdock’s story, with those of his friends, positively reinforces the idea that heroes should suffer with their communities rather than standing apart and suffering for them…
Wilson Fisk’s character also reinforces this idea—only his does so negatively. Fisk is always portrayed as apart from Hell’s Kitchen, the community both he and Matt Murdock say they want to save. Fisk lives high above them in luxury; when he bombs the Russian-controlled parts of town, he and his girlfriend watch them burn from the wide windows of a high-rise restaurant…I think one reason the standard “suffers-for” hero is so attractive is that a lot of people are intrigued and allured by the idea that they might stand apart, adored and admired. They may suffer, but there will always be someone there to gaze adoringly and express gratitude. But that’s not the only, or the best, kind of heroism. And as Christians, while we might sometimes suffer for each other, we are also called to suffer with each other—to enter into community with others, to carry their sorrows and help them in their work and through their struggles.” — Julie Ooms, Daredevil, Hell’s Kitchen, and the Good Samaritan, Christ and Pop Culture
Daredevil’s local, incarnate, form of heroism is overtly influenced by a religious — even a Christian — vision of heroism. The Good Samaritan functions as a metaphor throughout the series, developing this vision of a heroism built on incarnation and sacrifice.
“Claire: You know, the only thing I remember from Sunday school is the martyrs… the saints, the saviours… they all end up the same way. Bloody and alone.
Matt: I never said I was any of those.
Claire: You didn’t have to.” — Claire and Matt Murdock, Netflix’s Daredevil
The pay off for this metaphor comes when Fisk, himself, makes it clear that he is not the good samaritan, he and Matt are not as similar as he claimed (see above), it turns out that the from-the-community-hero, Daredevil, is good Samaritan. The neighbour to those who are suffering.
“I’m not a religious man but I’ve read bits and pieces over the years. Curiosity more than faith. But this one story There was a man. He was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was set upon by men of ill intent. They stripped the traveler of his clothes, they beat him, and they left him bleeding in the dirt. And a priest happened by saw the traveler. But he moved to the other side of the road and continued on. And then a Levite, a religious functionary, he came to the place, saw the dying traveler. But he too moved to the other side of the road, passed him by. But then came a man from Samaria, a Samaritan, a good man. He saw the traveler bleeding in the road and he stopped to aid him without thinking of the circumstance or the difficulty it might bring him. The Samaritan tended to the traveler’s wounds, applying oil and wine. And he carried him to an inn, gave him all the money he had for the owner to take care of the traveler, as the Samaritan, he continued on his journey. He did this simply because the traveler was his neighbor. He loved his city and all the people in it. [sighs deeply] I always thought that I was the Samaritan in that story. It’s funny, isn’t it? How even the best of men can be deceived by their true nature. What the hell does that mean? It means that I’m not the Samaritan. That I’m not the priest, or the Levite. That I am the ill intent who set upon the traveler on a road that he should not have been on.” — Wilson Fisk, Daredevil
Despite its religious allusions, Daredevil is a hero for an immanent age — a hero borne out of a community, and its concerns, in response to an external, but still immanent, threat. Fisk is not a demi-god, like Loki in The Avengers. He is a villain — a devious, wealthy, businessman — with an alternative vision for Matt’s city. He has no interest in pursuing immortality, his interest is in shaping his city, according to a virtuous vision, by loving his neighbour. He’s the perfect hero for a gritty, earthy, real, disenchanted age. Embodying the best bits of the post-modern milieu of The Dark Knight and Watchmen, but offering the hope that a visionary hero (albeit a blind hero) might be able to effect positive change on the city they belong to, rather than spiralling into a bleak and vicious cycle. The note of hope comes via the offer of a solution proffered in the form of this virtuous, incarnate, connected, hero — whose heroism is on display both under the mask, and apart from it. Murdock’s fight against Fisk, his fight for his city, is simultaneously carried out by the masked hero and his unmasked alter-ego. Matt Murdock and Daredevil are one and the same. Matt Murdock, the lawyer who has a vision for something greater for Hell’s Kitchen, and Matt Murdock, the vigilante, who steps in to fight the battles the law is unable to reach. In both fights he suffers with the people around him, and that’s the way he attempts to mitigate some parts of the ‘fallenness’ of his immanent world. But though he avoids the aforementioned traps of the ‘Golden Age’ figures like Batman and Superman, and, more narrowly, the depressingly hopeless traps for vigilantes grappled with in the Miller-esque ‘Bronze Age,’ Daredevil is still a flawed ‘epic’ hero — he doesn’t offer a path to enchantment, or to immortality. We still need transcendent heroes.
Superman, Iron Man, Daredevil and the God-Man: Our quest for an imitable, but transcendent, hero
I think it’s interesting to explore the idea that stories about our mythic heroes either tend to emphasise the human nature of the hero or their super-human nature.
There’s been plenty of stuff written comparing Superman to Jesus — and the similarities are evident —but I’ve always had are a couple of problems with the metaphor because Superman is never actually human, and so he’s never someone who can truly be imitated. Superman, in his ‘human incarnation’ is an imitation human.
Classical, creedal, Christianity has always been exceptionally keen to emphasise that in his incarnation; Jesus is fully human, and fully divine. He’s not a superhero play-acting at being human, or a human play-acting at being super. He is not masked — a human playing at being God, or God playing at being a man. He is, in a sense, God unmasked. God made fully known. There is no transcendent God apart from the God made known and on display in Jesus. There is no disconnect between his human nature and his divinity. His identity is not confused, a bizarre mish-mash of humanity and hero where we’re left asking if the real Jesus is human or divine. He is fully both. He makes no secret about his identity. Both his humanity and his divinity are heroic — in fact, its as these parts of his being work in concert, in harmony, that we see a path to true heroism.
In fact, through these aspects of his being — his humanity and divinity — working together we are invited to move beyond our immanent existence and participate in his transcendent nature. Unlike Superman, who always remains fully other, Jesus invites us to share in his divinity, and in the Christian story this participation comes as God’s Spirit dwells in us.
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” — John 17:20-23
Jesus also makes the ‘transcendent’ immanent. He becomes flesh and blood. Truly human. And his humanity is enough to mediate the triune God’s transcendent nature to us.
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” — John 14:9-10
And rather than heroically wielding power to perpetrate violence to solve the violence of the world, hiding behind a mask to avoid truly facing this violent reality, or to somehow buffer himself from his violent nature — as some sort of divine avatar — Jesus submits himself to violence in order to defeat it.
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name — Philippians 2:6-9
A hero who adopts this ‘transcendent’ view of heroism, and the world, doesn’t live for the immortality of their own name, but secures immortality — a share in Christ’s heroic victory — by living for his name. And rather than epic, radiant, larger than life battles against super-villains, real heroism looks like humble service in accordance with the divine pattern for life, as agents of the divine will. This is what makes us shine, and what gives the world a new, enchanted, lustre. We’ll be ‘bigger’ than others because we are noticeably less ‘warped and crooked’…
“… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” — Philippians 2:13-16
It’s this story — this hero — who invites us to see the world through fresh eyes, who enchants it again, and also provides us with a new model of virtue to imitate in an ‘immanent’ sense — physically, in this world. Marvel’s heroes, in their very human ‘immanence’ — especially in Daredevil’s gritty local, incarnate, immanence — give us something to imitate — but in most cases they don’t give us something ‘other’ — a sort of saviour who can truly save us from ourselves. A saviour who can pull us from our humanity by offering us a humanity that is not flawed, and a real path to immortality — a path our immanent heroes can only dream about treading in fictional worlds that don’t age or change. Jesus does what these heroes fail to do, and provides us with a new way to see and imagine the world. The real world is changed by its heroes, heroes who capture and articulate a vision for world creation and the creation of meaning for us as we look at our world through their eyes. In a future episode I’ll unpack the idea of Jesus being a God coming into the machine (a deus in machina) — an unlikely happy ending — and the implications this has for our view of heroism.
The disenchanted world we live in needs heroes — both from above, and below — if its any hope of being lifted from despair, of the effects of the Fall, especially death, being dealt with, and if we’re to have ‘radiant ones’ people who shine like the stars, to imitate. The beauty of Daredevil’s incarnate heroism is that it provides us with a place to start. We start by doing something, anything, just that little bit heroic.
“If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.” ― Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling