I grew up with Adam West’s Batman, Christopher Reeve’s Superman, and Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman. That’s why I have no desire to see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The 1960s and 1970s superheroes have something that their 21st century successors don’t, and today’s superhero stories have a troubling aspect that concerns me.
West, Reeve, and Carter’s superheroes were fun to watch because they seemed comfortable with themselves. No angst, no self-doubt, no deep moral dilemmas (except for how go get rid of a bomb in a responsible way). They also weren’t afraid to let themselves be vulnerable. Whether it was getting drunk after being exposed to bad Kryptonite or getting captured by the baddies (even Liberace!), our heroes found creative ways to get themselves out of trouble. When they were back in civilian clothes, they felt just as comfortable in their secret identities as they did in their tights. West, Reeve, and Carter’s superheroes weren’t so powerful that they could be dangerous. Even though they had incredible powers (or the money to buy every bat-named gadget imaginable), they were essentially people like us. If they could be heroic, so can we.
Today’s Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are far different.
They are dangerous. They aren’t afraid to level city blocks or violate civil liberties. What matters to them is power, thinly veiled with some notion of justice that gives them ends to justify their means. They refuse to show their vulnerabilities in fear of looking weak. Setbacks only fuel their rage. They seem to have no love or concern for the people they are supposed to protect. We may depend on them to protect us, but we don’t trust them. We may see them as gods (something Reeve and Carter’s all-powerful heroes would never want us to do), but we worship them out of fear.
These aren’t just gloomy stories with gloomy characters in gloomy costumes. They also have something gloomy to say about the times we live in. In iO9, Charlie Jane Anders drew parallels between Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War in how they show the temptations to abuse power and resist limitations to it. Since 9/11, we’ve become too comfortable in giving away our civil liberties in exchange for security. (And as George Carlin pointed out, it’s just an illusion of security.) We look to strong and invulnerable men (or women, but mostly men) to protect us. As mere mortals, all we can do is step back and try not to get hit by flying debris.
West, Reeve, and Carter showed us a different way.
They showed us that power, even incredible power, has limits. True heroes understand this. They don’t fear their flaws or try to hide them, but they learn to use them to their advantage. Knowing that our heroes have limits to their power reminds us that we still have power of our own. No one is so powerful that they can’t be weak, and no one is so weak that they can’t be powerful.
True heroes also have genuine concern for the people they try to protect. Superman and Batman had childhood traumas, but Reeve’s Superman and West’s Batman didn’t seek power as a way to compensate for the lack of it in their past. Their memories of powerlessness made them more determined to protect the vulnerable.
These are the type of heroes we need today, and we are starting to see them on TV. At a time when a certain politician tries to present himself as an all-powerful, invulnerable, and potent hero who can beat the baddies and make our country great again, we need to remember that every superhero has his weakness — and all of us have our strengths.