August 29th, 2012 / 12:41 pm

Why We Need Superheroes, or, A Parental Theory, or What Was Just A Review of Chronicle Before People Were Murdered While Watching The Dark Knight Rises

This July my wife, daughter, and I visited my family in California and on our return flight to Atlanta we met with a reprieve when our one-year-old fell into a deep sleep in our arms. She didn’t even wake when my wife had to use the bathroom and shifted the baby into my lap. I took this quiet opportunity to scan the movie offerings on those individual screens that some Delta flights afford passengers. The movie choices are not usually very good and the descriptions of the plots are vague, especially if you’re like me, and you hardly watch television and so remain ignorant when it comes to pop culture. I ended up selecting one of these vague choices, with an equally vague title. I didn’t know anything about Chronicle. The plot synopsis was something like “three friends chronicle their lives through a camcorder when suddenly everything changes.” I didn’t recognize the actors’ names, and I think that’s why I chose to watch it; I figured I’d try something completely unknown.

I got lucky with this choice. The movie is not very long (at 83 minutes it’s closer to the length of movies that I grew up on and not the typical two-hour epics that are common today), and I didn’t know when my daughter might wake, which would end my movie-watching experience. But she snoozed right through the whole thing, which afforded me the time to think about the ideas that coalesced in writing the first draft of what you’re reading.

The story is about three high school kids who stumble upon some mysterious object buried underground that, when they get close to it, gives them powers that they spend the rest of the movie learning how to use until one of them goes off the deep end and . . . well, the plot really isn’t important. What’s important is that, aesthetically, superhero stories are my guilty pleasure: I love them, even though I know that they are juvenile, formulaic, and poorly written. And though I love them, I don’t write them. And I like to read and/or watch them, but I don’t talk about them like I would talk about the more literary reading that I do, and I would never mention a superhero movie when talking about film with my friends, because we’re usually talking about some pretty weird or high-brow stuff. (The last conversation I remember having about movies was about Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother.) But why should I be ashamed that I like superhero stories? What’s wrong with that? Or is there nothing wrong with it?

As a kid I read Superman and Batman comics and around the age of ten or eleven “graduated” to what my peers called the “not lame” Marvel comics, in particular the X-Men, and from there I gravitated into a love of all things Wolverine. Yeah, I am a cliché. While I never really read Spider-Man or any other Marvel universe comics—or any other DC comics, for that matter—on Saturday mornings I watched the Super Friends. I watched the old Adam West Batman. I saw all of the original Star Wars movies in the theater and was enamored with the Jedi. I saw all the Superman movies, too. I was right there when the Tim Burton Batman opened, and I’ve seen every incarnation of Batman since, except this new one. I’ve been to the openings of all the X-Men movies. None of these comics or cartoons or television shows or movies was particularly “good.” I don’t think any of their authors, directors, actors, etcetera, deserve Nobel Prizes or Emmys or Academy Awards (except maybe Ledger’s posthumous recognition, which was deserved).

So what draws me to these stories? Is it the oft-cited superhero’s rugged individualism and resourcefulness that Americans are naturally enamored with? Is it the fantasy of being more powerful than I can imagine, which I desire because I am so weak? Is it the simple joy of the imagination inspired by the fantasy of obtaining such abilities?

It’s obvious that these stories have been popular for decades and remain so today. Just look at the smattering of summer blockbusters that feature superhero characters:The AvengersThe Amazing Spider-ManThe Dark Knight Rises. Everyone already knows that superhero stories are popular.

Many have written about superheroes and superhero stories and why audiences are attracted to them. In a comic strip written by Mike Russell that appeared in The Oregonian, two superhero-enamored kids discuss—very eruditely—why people love superhero movies: there have been superhero movies almost as long as there have been superhero comics, the stories are ready-made for epic-scale dramas, they‘re made from simple good-versus-evil plots along with the super power fantasy, they feature corporate-owned characters that can be reinterpreted whenever so that sequels and reboots can be made ad infinitum, and they’re ripe for marketing tie-in toys, games, clothing and costumes, IMAX and 3-D theater versions, etcetera.

And, recently, Seth Stevenson, covering the 2012 Comic-Con for Slate, attended an academically-oriented panel discussion wherein college professors (notably, Ben Saunders from the University of Oregon and Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist) discussed the reasons why we love these costumed crusaders. Not surprisingly, these academes brought up Carl Jung and Otto Rank whose work on the cultural phenomenon of the mythological hero’s journey informs virtually every cultures’ storytelling, from Moses and Hercules to Superman and Batman.

The stereotypical comic book reader is male and nerdy. He may be overweight or skinny. He is not usually athletically gifted. He has social issues, like anxiety, or awkwardness, and has few friends. I guess that in my life I have both exhibited and defied this stereotype. I am a white male. I have at various times been both popular and not, a nerd and not. Where I grew up was a predominantly Hispanic region of California’s central coast, so by being white I was in the minority. On top of that “difference,” I loved to read, and I was often labeled a “dork,” or a “nerd” by those who did not read so well, or who did not excel academically, and often it happened that these tormentors were from the reigning Hispanic demographic. The other white kids were also often called “dorks” and “nerds.” I know that in reality nerdiness was not cut across racial lines, but in childhood it seemed that way. But I wanted to be socially accepted. I played sports, and while I was not a great athlete, I was also not a completely uncoordinated waste of space on the baseball diamond or football gridiron. Brief moments of athletic magic visited me. I kept much of my nerdy reading to myself by doing it at night when I couldn’t sleep, and I kept quiet in the classroom, and did not always raise my hand to answer the teachers’ questions. I started hanging out with Hispanic kids, dressing like them and talking like them. By the time high school came around I was beginning to develop my own identity and the divisions (both socially and racially) softened, or dissolved, a bit. I returned to my friendships with some of my white and “dorky” friends, and at the same time I kept my friends who were jocks and I maintained the friendships I’d built with the Hispanic kids. I played football. I was popular enough to go to all the cool kid parties, but I still kept my “nerd” friends.

I paint this picture so that I can say that, while some people love superheroes and superhero stories because they represent a fantasy in which powerless people (skinny and fat nerds who are social rejects) gain power and acceptance due to their exceptional abilities, that wasn’t necessarily the case for me. I was overweight, but I channeled that weight into lifting weights for football, and so I grew strong, even if still chubby, and I was intimidating enough so that no one really wanted to fight me, if that was ever going to happen, which it didn’t because I was a pretty nice person. And because I was nice I was not a social reject, despite my “nerd” tendencies, which I repressed enough to be socially popular, but not enough to get bad grades. So I cannot say I shared the fantasy of living vicariously through a character that is seemingly all powerful.

I was also a Catholic, and my family and I attended mass (and my siblings and I Catechism) at Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church. There I heard about and read the stories of Joseph in Egypt, after his brothers sold him into slavery; and Moses, who led the Israelites to the Promised Land; and Jesus of Nazareth, who despite his humble birth, grew up to perform great miracles and save everyone on Earth in his death through crucifixion.

Roger Ebert, in his review of 2009’s Watchmen, remarked on the modern superhero’s roots in ancient cultures’ mythologies, even down to their iconic accoutrements (e.g., Zeus’s lightning bolts, or Hermes’s winged sandals) and their archetypal adventures (Odysseus’s travels to the underworld; Jesus’ 40-day-and-night banishment to the desert). So, Wolverine has his trademark claws, and Luke Skywalker must face Darth Vader before he’s a true Jedi. Some comic book/movie superheroes literally are ancient mythological gods, such as Thor. And even non-god super characters refer to themselves in godly terms at times, as when Magneto tells Pyro that he is “a god among insects” in X-Men 2.

Thesis: I like superheroes and superhero stories because they are a democratic society’s version of mythology, and are stories about gods, goddesses, demigods, and demigoddesses. Thus, by extension, they are stories that comfort us because they tell us how to act in life, and because they serve this function they are a kind of parental “voice” for the collective consciousness.

Gilgamesh is so powerful that he can haul hundreds of pounds of armor and weapons for thousands of miles in just a few days, and he can then slay outrageous monsters just for the hell of it. He is part god, and part human. So he cannot outlast death. Try as he does, he cannot achieve immortality. Though he performs superhuman feats, he more closely resembles us than not. And in his failed quest for immortality he provides a powerful lesson to his people that resonates with readers of the epic in our era. He returns to Uruk to act as a benevolent king, to raise the city walls in which he tells his and Enkidu’s story, and, ironically, through storytelling he achieves the immortality he so vainly sought.

YHWH, of Old Testament fame, is an all-powerful, all-knowing god. But, he’s not pure perfection. He creates the universe and Earth, and all living things, but he kind of screws up when he sees that Adam is lonely, so he creates Eve to pacify him. Whoops, god made the mistake of giving his human creation free will, so BAM: original sin. Anyway, there are many instances of YHWH being not-so-perfect: he gets angry and kills all life on earth, then regrets having done that, and he forgets his covenant with the Israelites, and on and on. Still, the characters of the Old Testament look to their “Father in heaven” for protection, for guidance, for education, for sustenance.

The bloodshed at the end of the Odyssey—after all the suitors are dead, and their relatives then seek vengeance against their killers—never would have ended until Odysseus and Telemachus had killed everyone but themselves on Ithaca had not Athena swooped down from Olympus and raised her goddess voice, and had not Zeus sent a lightning bolt of authority so that Odysseus would obey the goddess. For the ancient Greeks, while they could at once revere and ridicule their gods and goddesses, ultimately they rely on them for supreme guidance.

As Nietzche said, “God is dead.” Welcome to the 21st century. Of course, realistically, for many people their god is certainly not dead, but due to our (I mean American) Constitutional freedom of religious expression, our government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” And since our culture consists of many cultures, with no one set of cultural values holding any legal power over any others, the superhero has become our mythology.

There’s the now cliché “with great power comes great responsibility” line from Spider-Man, a line that Peter Parker picks up from his surrogate dad and that, through his actions, he passes on to all the young people he saves and who admire him. And there’s us, the eager audience, soaking up this hokey truism because, vague and cliché or not, there’s some truth there.

That’s one example, but in the multi-verses of comic lore—as in real life—there are many kinds of parents that tell us many different things about how we ought to live. Superman, with his Truth, Justice, and the American Way motto represents a kind of patsy, pre WWII American idealism that’s difficult to translate to a 21st century world, which is perhaps why the franchise has suffered since long before Christopher Reeve’s death. But who knows what the future might hold, as next year’s Man of Steel is set to reboot the franchise. Batman has done quite well, probably due to his dark nature—at least in the Frank Miller-Jeph Loeb-Dennis O’Neil-inspired reboot that kicked off withBatman Begins in 2005. He’s mysterious, brooding, full of wrath and a desire for vengeance. Ultimately, though, he has to put aside his personal feelings to steward Gotham City, i.e., the rest of the world. There’s Marvel’s Wolverine, the rugged individual, good-to-the-bone-but-anti-social guy. Everyone wishes his dad was Logan—the guy’s a lumberjack who smokes cigars and drinks beer—and in terms of his distance from everyone else he’s probably hitting not far from the mark for many readers’/viewers’ relationships with their fathers. As for female superheroes there’s Storm and Rogue and Wonder Woman and Jean Grey. I’ll argue that, though the majority of superheroes I allude to here are male, gender or sex isn’t as important to the overall parental consciousness that superheroes represent as mythological symbols. That said, it’s telling that most superhero movies feature male leads in our patriarchal culture, but that’s another essay.

In Chronicle we see that the superhero mythos takes the place of traditional parenting, and at the same time espouses those same values. The three friends who gain superhero powers—Andrew, Matt, and Steve—are in their own ways rogues prior to their solidified bond through the experience that grants them power and in their discovering how to use it. Andrew—the film’s central character—is the stereotypical nerd: a quiet kid who’s unknown among his peers in high school. His mother’s dying of a terminal illness and his alcoholic, abusive father “supports” his family off his disability as a post-accident firefighter. So really, Andrew hasn’t any parents to speak of—except an abusive one. While we don’t meet Andrew’s cousin Matt’s immediate family, Matt—an intellectual—has distanced himself from traditional teenage socialization due to what he perceives as teens’ ridiculous desire to fit in and be cool. He’s reading Schopenhauer and shit. On the surface, while Steve seems like the exception to this group—he’s popular, seems like a shoe-in for the class president spot he’s running for, and has a cheerleader girlfriend—he gives up all the social amenities that come with such a position in order to hang out with his new friends. I’m conjecturing here, because we learn the least about Steve in the course of the film, but often people in such situations find themselves desperately lonely, as everyone who clings to them does so only for the accompanying social status that they themselves might gain and so this “leader” finds himself without any “true” friends. That is until he gains secret superpowers with two new buddies and now they play football at 30,000 feet and talk about vacationing in Nepal.

Once these three have discovered their power they run amok playing with it. This is the best part of the movie and interestingly seems most “true.” Since the superpower fantasy is a big reason audiences love superhero stories, it’s surprising that more films and comics don’t spend time with their characters coming to terms with their powers in a realistic way. Most of these stories involve teens (core audience), and what teenager wouldn’t have fun if he found out that he could move objects with his mind? So, for a long segment of the movie we see Andrew, Matt, and Steve playing pranks on people in a Wal-Mart-like store and in the parking lot, and experimenting with each other as their abilities grow. They scare little girls with teddy bears and blow girls’ skirts up with leaf blowers. Good times. The boys are acting like . . . boys. Boys without a parental figure to give them ethical guidance with their new talents.

Once their power takes them over the edge—literally—one of the three friends steps in to fill this parenting role. Matt outlines Chronicle’s rules: they are not to use their power in public, or against living things, and they’re not to use it when they’re angry.

Of course, as in any superhero story, the rules must be broken (otherwise we have one very short and/or boring superhero story/movie) and this leads to the climax. At the film’s end we’re left with one of the protagonists who, due to the film’s found footage style, provides a parental soliloquy as an ending. The lone protagonist now posthumously tells his fallen fellow (fallen after he had to take his friend down to protect the innocent) that he loves him, and he’s sorry he never told him while he was alive. True to form, this sounds like the voice of human reason: we should all spend time with each other, showing that we love one another, because life is so short.

As is typical for me when reading or watching any superhero story I’m aware that the writing isn’t all that great and Chronicle, while surprisingly fresh compared to its contemporaries, is no exception. Other than Andrew, we don’t learn much about the characters. There’s no strong female character at all, unless you want to tangentially consider Matt’s love interest who spends most of the movie acting like she’s not interested but ends up sleeping with him anyway, and the story resorts to the grandiose spectacle-type violence that characterizes the climax of any superhero story. I compare this to the one and only M. Night Shyamalan movie that I like—Unbreakable—which does a tremendous job of developing character and not succumbing to every superhero cliché. Also, due to Chronicle’s found footage style—which always has its limitations, like the lame-as-hell Blair Witch Project that started it all (you know, because I‘m supposed to be scared that some producer is outside the tent shaking the rain fly)—there are some serious stretchers when it comes to the documentation of the events. For example, when one of the characters resorts to crime, using his powers to get money, and he’s like, “You know it’s probably a good idea to record all of this on my camera!”

However, despite my realization that the writing is wanting, I still enjoyed Chronicle while I sat on that 757 as it careened through the air (just like the movie’s characters) across America with my baby cradled in my lap. And that’s when these ideas gelled, as I watched this somewhat ridiculous story and looked down at my daughter’s wispy locks, her peaceful closed eyelids, and her little pursed lips. I like superheroes and their stories because I want to feel taken care of. I admit I get a little emotional (and I try to not show this when reading or watching a story like this in public) when Superman—or any other hero—saves his first civilian and I see the look of gratitude on that hapless and helpless citizen’s face. There’s no hiding my sentimentality, so I just accept it. Superheroes make us feel like there’s some benevolent good out there and it will triumph over the evil of the world. These stories teach us that we must be good to one another and that, when we act in such ways, we can defeat all that opposes us, or that we can learn the unknown. And these are the values that good parenting ought to instill.


And that brings me to James Holmes and the Aurora massacre on the opening night of The Dark Night Rises. Despite articles citing the film’s violence, Batman’s cold heartlessness, and claims that Holmes called himself the Joker, the people were in that theater that early morning (some of them with babies and young children) because they love the myth of the superhero. They were going to see good triumph over evil and they would take comfort in that idea. Unfortunately, evil visited them that very night. But I believe there is still good in the world, and all the James Holmeses out there cannot defeat it.

When I look at my daughter when she’s looking at me, what do I see? In her eyes I read absolute love and devotion, but at the same time I see her exercising her free will, especially when she’s been chewing on the buttons of the remote control that she’s snatched off the coffee table and I ask, “Can I have that, please?” I also see that she looks to me for protection, when she stumbles to me, arms up for me to hold her when she’s fallen and she’s crying. In her eyes I see that she needs me for sustenance, when I set her in her highchair and bring to her a snack or meal. I see that she seeks guidance when I read to her before I put her to bed, as with my finger I underline the words, “Goodnight moon,” and point to the book’s illustration of that yellow cookie-looking thing she’s learning all about. I see peace when she’s exhausted after her story and I lay her in her crib and she somehow knows, intuitively (call it faith), that she’s safe, that I will protect her, and that she can drift off to her dreams. For my daughter, I am her Superman, her Batman, her Wolverine, and right now she needs me. And with truth, justice, and in an ethical way, I will not let her down.

– – –

Jamie Iredell wrote The Book of Freaks.

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  1. mimi

      i need a superhero to come over to my house and wash my kitchen floor

  2. A$AP $alvatore

      I’m so glad this essay exists. Have you read Supergods by Grant Morrison? It’s a critical study of the genre, and it makes a lot of points that mesh with what you’re saying here. I’m crafting a course about superheroes/supergods/utopias/dystopias, and I’m definitely going to teach this essay. I’ll have to go seek out Chronicle.

      In sum, thanks for writing this.

  3. A D Jameson

      It continues being superhero week here.

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