The story I need, not the story I deserve

Well, I’ve been blogging about spiritual formation, Theresa of Lisieux and the Restoration Movement. Any good movies coming out?

And now, more words about Batman.

I re-watched The Dark Knight this week, just in case I missed anything. It’s still really, really, really good.

It got me thinking about the superhero movies I’ve loved, and a few that got my hopes up. I remember as a pre-teen hearing rumors of superhero movies – X-Men movies, Batman movies, Captain America movies – that would get me all crazy with anticipation. But it wasn’t until I was a college graduated, married, employed, action-figureless adult that I sat in a dark theater with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) making me perch and giggle like a seven-year-old.

Superhero movies (notice the MPAA ratings) are not action movies for kids. They are grown ups’ stories – grown ups who likely fed through childhood on action comics for kids – about what it means to be human in the face of something greater than ourselves. But the good ones also grab hold of my childhood wonder, and say, “yes, there was something really good about that.”

In Donner’s Superman (1978) films (and really Singer’s for that matter), our hero is a god, but the story taps into our desire that he’ll turn out to be like us. Maybe he’ll even like us a little, too.

This is actually the thing that made me dissatisfied as a kid in the theater. What’s with the love story? Donner’s Superman can save the world, but the heart wants what it wants, and what Superheart wants is to fly backwards around the earth to bring Lois Lane back to life. (Oh, and “spoiler-alert.”) I think the Superman movies are about the vulnerability of a man of steel, in a cultural moment when that was a pretty interesting symbol. He could save the world, but he has to save Lois.

Singer’s X-Men (2000, and, yes, I’ll just skip to it) is the movie I’d imagined so hard as a kid that no celluloid print could satisfy my expectations. There are these strong adolescent themes from the comics of belonging, and feeling left-out, and getting past outer appearances to what bonds us; even the civil rights allegories are there. The X-Men could save the world but, for one, nobody likes them, and, for two, first they have to save their social clique from the other social clique. Still, what each X-Man and X-Woman has to heroically face is the choice to do the right thing with the gift they have. They stand between resentment and self-pity or glorious destiny, and choose. Singer’s X-Men (like Singer’s Superman, I think) may or may not save the world, but they will ultimately sacrifice themselves for the sake of the greater good.

Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002): I truly did hop and giggle through it. Even the weirdo dialogue between two fully masked actors. Because that movie was the best on-screen comic book I’d ever seen. It captured the amazement and joy of Peter’s transformation in a way I loved. And the action sequences – even the CGI – were actually interpretable (something the previous Batmen didn’t do well, bless Burton’s genius heart), like panel-to-panel storytelling. Raimi’s Spider-Man does a great job with the comic’s main themes, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and, “if your irresponsibility gets your uncle killed, shame on you forever.” Spider-Man can’t save the world, but he can defeat evil, one supervillain/mugger at a time. And he just has to.

In most ways, though, he’s one of us, just Now, With More Spider Power! He’s what I would have done or wish I’d said if I was Spider-Man earlier today, and so-and-so would be sorry then, even though I’d still have to come home at the end of the day and be me.

And then comes Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) to out-awesome everybody. Iron Man is interesting because Tony Stark starts as a “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” powerful and reckless enough to destroy the world himself, until he puts on the suit, and now he can defend it. But Tony’s story and choices are so spectacular, that this is not really my story. Iron Man is the hero who can have his cake and eat it, too. This is a fantasy, all around, in which a one-man whole-fulfillment-of-the-American-Dream can will-to-power everybody else into their places. I can’t relate, but I can imagine. It’s awesome.

Iron Man is a good-guy Goliath. He’s our true American gladiator. He can save the world, as long as there isn’t a singularly self-made challenger (and, perhaps it will be himself) smart, resourceful, self-centered, and willing enough to threaten him, mano-y-mano.

So, here’s the thing about Nolan’s Dark Knight, the “hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.” Like Superman, Batman is principled (he won’t kill) and vulnerable (keep upgrading that armor), but more powerful than a locomotive (assuming he’s in a BatLocomotive). Like the X-Men, Batman is a misunderstood outsider with some social insecurities, but willing to take the beating the world brings. Like Spider-Man, he’s unstoppable with a mask on, but can’t quite make life work without it. Also like Spider-Man, Batman is human like us, but maybe with a little more baggage than some, which drives him. Like Iron Man’s alter-ego Stark, Batman’s Bruce Wayne can play out all my American fantasies, but has made some very admirable choices. And Nolan (easily the most fascinating filmmaker to take on a superhero, IMHO) brings us a Batman whose unusual choice is not just to use his powers for good, but to use his powers at all. Batman isn’t saving the world. He’s rescuing his wallowing city from itself, for it’s sake. With every act of evil he dramatically, yet anonymously, defies, he is changing us into the saved world he believes we can become.

Nolan goes to great effort to make Batman as real as possible. We recognize many of the tools he uses, even though they are amped up beyond what anyone could really afford. We also recognize the streets and people where he works nights. This is a demythologized world, a place where faith is hard to keep. What Nolan gives us is a human being willing to do something extreme in a situation as extreme as our own.

The Dark Knight’s Joker is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve watched in a theater. The unaccountable chaos he creates makes something clear about Nolan’s Batman: Batman’s just as crazy. The Joker has no interest in outcomes, and absolute certainty in Nothing. He acts to create more chaos to expose the nil he believes is at our core. At the other end is Batman, who stands to lose everything personally for continuing to keep his own commitments and protect the innocent – because he believes each of us to be good at the core.

To be honest, I’m not quite convinced of Batman’s success with that mission. There is a pivotal scene where some ferry-bound commuters of Gotham are given a choice, by the Joker, to save themselves by blowing up a boatload of criminals. If they don’t, it is possible the convicts will push a button to remotely destroy the ship of innocents. It is difficult for me to imagine convincing myself not to save my family and friends in that situation, at whatever cost to strangers whose bad choices are already made. What occurs is in contrast to the wannabe-vigilantes Batman thwarts at the movies’ opening, who are inspired to take matters into their own, violent hands. Here, an unmasked, clearly flawed human being chooses not to take a life for his own sake.

At the critical moment, I am not sure what motivates these citizens to exercise mercy and trust. Courage? Fear of guilt? Innate dignity? For Batman, there is never a question. They won’t do it, because his people are ultimately good. They just need a little encouragement. I guess I don’t have Batman’s faith in us; maybe I don’t have Nolan’s, either. But it’s a story that stirs me to want to. Nolan tells me a story that calls me to be a better unmasked, only-human, being.

Batman isn’t just about good versus evil, or catharsis for us nerds. Batman loves his city. He thinks his own community could be something else. He wants to stand up and be that until they can do it themselves. He wants to work himself out of a job, or will work himself to death in that direction. Nolan’s superhero doesn’t do what a free-willed god would do in my world, or what I would do if I was really super. He makes hard, hard choices to continue to be true to his decision, for Gotham. Nolan doesn’t give us relatable insight into what makes superheroes tick, or just a cathartic illusion. He gives us something we could aspire to be, minus the utility belt. There’s no world where I would put my hope in becoming bulletproof, or even unimaginably bankrolled, but even if I could, what would I do? When I see Nolan’s Batman, I have to admit, I rarely think of doing that.

It’s like that great icebreaker question, “which would you choose: the power of invisibility or flight?” My thoughts may turn to what would be fun, or who I could impress, or maybe even what I could do for others, but also, “what could I get away with?” My thought process reveals what separates the four-color pages of the comics and the real world; why superheroes are just not real, and maybe why, for the most part, we grow out of them. After a certain age, we just don’t fantasize about goodness any more.

So when a grown-up genius billionaire playboy inhabits a regular human body in a regular – or maybe even worse than regular – human world, and decides to make of his life an anonymous sacrifice, that’s a different kind of story.

There aren’t many real people like that. But I do know some other stories like that.

Sometimes we like to tell the story of Jesus in a way that seems more relatable. He was human, after all. He’s my friend. He loves me. He knows what it’s like. It’s a story of God made vulnerable, so I can know God is for and with me. It’s the story of incarnation. We need that story.

Sometimes we like to tell the story of Jesus the sacrifice, Jesus who is the only one who can save us, and who stands between us and what really threatens us, willing to give us his life for ours. Jesus is something entirely other than us who comes to our aid, and offers himself up for our good. It’s the story of atonement. We need that story.

Sometimes we like to tell the story of Jesus as a conqueror. He’s a warrior, a hero, a Temple-clearer. He can cathartically take out the powers that be and eventually show-up the powers that still are. He can do things we can’t, and even when he doesn’t or hasn’t yet, we love to hear that he will. It’s the story of victory. We need that story.

We also need to hear about the Jesus who is just like us, a human being in a failing world. But, a human being with unusual resources who makes a radical choice. Jesus is the man without limits who decides to take on limits because of love. Jesus is the man who makes decisions I wouldn’t think of on my own.

He fights for us in a way that looks painful. He fights for us – for his city, for those who don’t deserve him.

And he wants to change me into that kind of human being.

Jesus is a lover, a sacrifice, a revolutionary, a God-man, a hero; and Jesus is a way. I think maybe this is the Jesus that I most need to see if I’m going to live the life God has in mind for me. Not just a life in which I hold before me an idea of something I can never be or never have to be, but a life that actually makes me who I could be. A life in which I share in the Spirit of this human, and am empowered to do and be the things he chooses, and become part of the city he envisions. Each of these stories is an invitation into life with God, and invites a choice. But I think through the one where Jesus walks and talks and eats and bleeds, yet rises, I am able to ask the Spirit to come make me that kind of person, too.

I probably won’t see The Dark Knight Rises at the 12:01AM showing, but I’ll be with you in spirit. I wonder, though, if what Nolan has in mind as “The Legend Ends” and “A Hero Rises” isn’t the end of Batman and the rise of Gotham. Perhaps, in his version, Batman will complete his mission by stirring his people to act with the power for good he calls them to. Maybe it will cost him his life.

I don’t know that I have Nolan’s faith in Gotham. I don’t know that my own human courage and conviction could lead to a new social order. But I believe that trusting Jesus means a new way to be human is breaking in as I follow his way of love. I am called to live out Jesus’ story fully told, as it unfolds in my path day to day.

From Jesus, I’ve learned the way for me to rise is for me to follow my Hero to his end, and then, by the power he has that I don’t, through that end – and all the little ends along the way – to new, full life. I don’t just get to play Christ; I can’t get what he’s offering by posing my action figures according to a vision of life as it’s never been. I get to know him, so that I can live something like him. This Jesus is so unlikely but real, and calls me to new reality through a possibility I would not imagine for myself. He really lived with us, just like us and just like this. He really suffered, in a body familiar, and really died. He really, really, lives, and, by his Spirit (not just my courage), I can really participate in that.

It’s the best story I know. It’s the story of transformation. We need to tell that story.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.


6 responses to “The story I need, not the story I deserve

  1. Thanks for a refreshing perspective on the heros I loved as a boy and the greatest hero I’ve come to appreciate as a man.


  2. This is a wonderful piece of writing. Well done. Thank you for a thoughtful reflection through some of our culture’s popular narratives as well as the most important story we’ll ever know.


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