It is no coincidence in an age of uncertainty and fear that we are so obsessed with superheroes. Our collective consciousness craves security in the knowledge that someone is doing something in a world where chaos is so prevalent and its cause so intangible. As soon as we seem to have a handle on one nebulous evil another looms ominously into view.
Accordingly, our superheroes get bigger and more powerful, pumping out enough kinetic energy to terminate the world all on their own. If the source of evil is so difficult to locate then why not destroy everything in reach and, in that way, the enemy too may be destroyed. And we mortals cheer them on from the side lines in a manner that has film studios rubbing their hands with glee and Steve Rose of the Guardian to declare that, “…there’s no indication that their appeal is on the wane.”
But, he continues, “… as time goes on, the superhero genre has been edging ever closer to its own contradictions”, where we have “a nagging sense that for all their tales of heroism and sacrifice …the superhero moral compass is no longer pointing in the right direction”. Superheroes have become self-serving and too ready to place their own agendas above the needs of a troubled universe.
As if to exacerbate these failings, the superhero appears to have lost the omnipotent capacity to single-handedly save the world, having to team up with a bunch of multi-skilled co-workers to be even moderately effective. There is a wry recognition that our superheroes are actually made in our likeness and that, very soon, all-too-human cracks will show in their personas as they mirror our own weaknesses. For all the fun they generate, we’ve been pretty quick to project our human failings on them and to pull them down from their pedestals.
Are we completely incapable of imagining of what a genuine saviour of the universe looks like? My favourite Christian meme has to be the one of Jesus sitting with a group of superheroes, telling them how he saved the world. Whilst amusing, it effectively highlights the futile attempts of the current bunch of superheroes to save the world in contrast to the man who has – and far more dramatically – already done so. The question is, do we recognise this saviour and do we understand the way in which the world has already been saved?
The quest for the hero must be the biggest and most successful misdirection of humanity’s efforts to find salvation that there has ever been. The hero was never designed to save the world. In their book, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette are critical of the hero archetype, describing it as an “advanced form of Boy psychology”. While heroism may be the peak of the masculine energies of the boy, the hero archetype remains immature and, “when it is carried over into adulthood as the governing archetype, it blocks men from full maturity”. A hero may well have high ideals and good intentions, but his capacity to see them through is limited by his lack of self-discipline, planning and commitment to a final outcome.
This immaturity is sadly evident even among young Catholic men today. There are a disturbing number of social media pages purporting to represent traditional Catholic masculinity but which are full of boyish allusions to fights and warfare, crusades and the retaking of Jerusalem and to literally arming oneself in preparation for some kind of impending battle. A battle against whom? Jews and Muslims, apparently, along with Communists, Liberals and anyone with any kind of ideology that doesn’t seem to fit the world they want to imagine. The discussion threads are abusive, racist and misogynistic; the administration actively encourages debate around divisive issues and intentionally whips everyone into a frenzy with contentious posts. The end result is even more chaos – and denigration, not just of those they believe they are against but of each other, as they blindly defend their tenuous views by hurling insults and vitriol at their fellow Catholics. There is more than a whiff of fear and helplessness in the air – and, of course, very little action ensues.
Moore and Gillette characterise this negative aspect of the Hero as the Grandstander Bully, someone “[whose] strategies are designed to proclaim his superiority and his right to dominate those around him. He claims center stage as his birth right. If ever his claims to special status are challenged, watch the ensuing rageful displays!” This is an accurate description of the type of interaction that takes place on these social media pages. If any dissenting voice suggests looking at things in a different way, their views are torn down with a vengeance and their manhood called into question. These attacks, as Moore and Gillette state, “are aimed at staving off recognition of [the bully’s] underlying cowardice and his deep insecurity”. They conclude that “[his] downfall is that he doesn’t know and is unable to acknowledge his own limitations…”.
That is not to say that being a hero is a childish waste of time; on the contrary, and in the right circumstances, “the Hero energies call upon the boy’s masculine reserves … in order to establish his independence and his competence, for him to be able to experience his own budding abilities, to ‘push the outside of the envelope’ and test himself against the difficult, even hostile, forces in the world”. In other words, the hero archetype is what should drive the boy away from the dependent security of his childhood towards the difficult tasks that life is beginning to assign to him. Without the compulsion of the hero’s energy, the boy would – and often does – remain in maternal stasis, unable to move beyond the apron strings and either caught up in a cycle of neurotic activity and exhausted self-loathing or cocooned in a passive existence of televised sport and computer games.
The real mission of the hero is not to save the world but to save himself from a naïve blindness to his own internal barrenness and desolation. We have, says Fr Ronald Rolheiser, “… untamed and uncultivated deserts within our own hearts, the unexplored and dark areas inside of us. … [We] are frightened of what might lie in hiding there, how vulnerable we might be if we entered there, what wild beasts and demons might prey on us there, and whether a chaotic vortex might not swallow us up should we ever venture there. We … fear unexplored places; except our fear is not for our physical safety, but for our sanity and our sanctity”.
Thus Moore and Gillette appreciate that the real purpose of the hero is to throw the individual “up against the limits, against the seemingly intractable” in order to discover “his own dark side, his very unheroic side” and, ultimately, to come to a point where he has “drunk the dregs of his own humanity” and “met the enemy and [realised] the enemy is himself”. The hero will never succeed in saving the world because that’s not what the heroic software has been designed to do. The hero’s quest is intended as a personal inward journey, into the heart of darkness, to face the dragon of his own grandiosity.
Karen Armstrong, who has long trodden her own troubled path, agrees: “[The hero] must venture into the darkness of the unknown, where there is no map and no clear route. He must fight his own monsters, not somebody else’s, explore his own labyrinth and endure his own ordeal…”. The battle, therefore, is not with the Jew, the Muslim or the Communist, but with the Self. As Thomas à Kempis says, “Who has a harder battle to fight than he who strives for self-mastery? And this should be our endeavour, even to master self, and thus daily to grow stronger than self”.
One must, of course, see this in the context of the greater struggle against the wiles of the devil, as the letter to the Ephesians explains, “… our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”. Again, it’s worth reiterating here that it’s not other members of humanity who are the enemy!
So, what happens to the hero in the end? “Almost universally, in legend and in myth, he ‘dies’”. The recent cinematic deaths of key superheroes suggest that this inevitable consequence of heroic actions remains deep in our psyche. With a sense of finality, one of the more prominent franchise characters is told, “No resurrections this time!” This death, Moore and Gillette believe, “signals a boy’s or man’s encounter with true humility. It is the end of his heroic consciousness”.
In reality, a resurrection can and should take place. It is, however, a different kind of resurrection to the simple regeneration we see with modern superheroes. In another cinematic universe, a fearful and indecisive Gandalf the Grey journeys deep into the Mines of Moria to face the demonic Balrog. After an heroic stand, he kills the demon but loses his own life. He then enters a purgatorial process of purification and rises again as the powerful Gandalf the White, with renewed strength and authority and a clearer understanding of the mission to defeat the evil Sauron. The egocentric hero has died but the sacrificial Warrior is born.