As kids, when we watched movies like Batman v Superman, we would be attracted to the uppermost layer of the fantasy (the superhuman abilities) and wish to be like them. But as we grow up, our scepticism kicks in, and we relegate it mostly as a historical artefact of our childhood memory.
Mostly, not completely.
For many, the attraction of these two superheroes never disappear. We spend millions of dollars creating and re-creating stories about them. Perhaps because, while our younger imagination used to fantasize about being Superman and Batman, the older, wiser part of us realises that we are, in different ways, more like Kal-El and Bruce Wayne:
Idealism and Virtue
Speaking to the sense of virtue in us, Kal-El is coloured as an imperfect hybrid of Nietzsche’s Übermensch and a messiah. He represents the Ideal Person: You can never be him, but by trying to be like him, you become a better version of yourself.
And while he is surely not like us in the literal sense, he is quite like us in his aspiration. He wants to help others through something that he is excelled at. Isn’t that what we are trying to do every day?
Yet he, like us, has to endure the same fact about the world – that other people don’t always choose to see the good in us.
If you spend time comforting your little daughter who is having a miniature life crisis, and then come late to an appointment, chances are some people won’t see you as a loving parent; they will see you as a late, unorganised person.
So, should we just ignore what others think of us?
Kal-El tried to do that, to ignore the media when they blamed him for the deaths in the Nairomi desert and the Capitol Building explosion. It didn’t work. His public image became so distorted, that even the intelligent Bruce Wayne was persuaded, and nearly killed him.
Through Kal-El, we learn that not everyone will choose to see the good in us.
It doesn’t mean we should stop trying to be kind. It simply means we need a more mature perspective on how complex the world operates, and not placing a false hope that our kindness will always be seen as it is.
And while selectively ignoring criticisms protects the peace in our heart, a complete ignorance can be quite harmful. Wisdom lies in making the distinction between when to let unfair opinions pass by, and when to take actions against them.
Pain and Fear
In Chris Nolan’s trilogy, Bruce Wayne went to incredible lengths to avoid killing his adversaries (he even refused to kill Joker). In Zack Snyder’s version, the Dark Knight is several shades darker — he kills, and even tortures criminals.
This Bruce Wayne is at a different stage of life.
He is much older, and has battled the criminal world for 20 years. Through it, he has suffered the pain of lost. There’s a scene where he looked at Robin’s suit, painted with “HA HA HA, joke’s on you BATMAN”, suggesting that his partner, who he considers a family, was killed by the “freak dressed like clowns” who he perhaps refused to kill before.
The pain created a chasm within him, separating justice and kindness. “It is the rage, the fever, the feeling of powerlessness,” as Alfred explained, “that turns good men… cruel.” Bruce Wayne won’t be kind to you or hesitate to kill you, if he feels it’s the just thing to do.
His iconography is not of a levitated messiah looking down. He is on the ground looking up, a dark shadow between an assassin and a devil.
As adults, we understand the symbolism better than our children. We know how vulnerable we are to cynicism. Because we have been frustrated by people, from politicians who embezzle millions of dollars, to someone close who stabs us in the back.
That pain can, without you realising, turn you cruel. You hurt others with your words or actions, thinking “that is what they deserve.”
Your fear fuels distrust. When people talk about love and kindness, you feel annoyed, you make fun of them, because deep down, you don’t trust life can be anything like that.
You become that shadow.
Through Bruce Wayne, we learn that no matter how strong you are, pains of life will still affect you.
Every pain, whether it’s the death of someone you love, or the little hurtful comment people make about you, will have an impact. Never underestimate it. Because pains engenders fear, and being in fear is where the darker side of you comes out.
Maybe, what Lex Luthor called “the greatest gladiator match in the history of the world” is happening within us every day in our choices. It’s in how we choose to place our Ideal and Virtue in this world, against the meaning we choose for our Pain and Fear.
Those choices, those gladiatorial struggles, forge what kind of person — perhaps, what kind of hero — we become.