In Defense of Superheroes

By Vern Crisler

Copyright, 2006


Speaking of superheroes in general and of Superman in particular, James Bowman says,


“[Y]ou are an insult to the imaginations of our children….Some of us, at least, are sick of superheroes….The fancy—what we call fantasy—perverts and weakens the imagination by using it idly to conjure up alternative worlds.”  (“Blockbuster Banality,” American Spectator, July/Aug 2006.)


It has been a long while since I’ve heard such a constricted view of the role of fantasy in the area of literature or cinema.  If Bowman is right, does that mean we must regard Andrew Lang, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and others, as false literary prophets?  Did they not engender in us an appetite for alternative worlds?–that which Bowman regards as an insult and perversion of the imagination.  Is there to be no distinction between good fantasy or bad fantasy?


G. K. Chesterton evoked the image of the “superior” type when contemplating things beneath him, as one who gives a “haughty twirl to his moustaches.”  Chesterton was discussing “juvenile literature” or “idle books”—called penny dreadfuls.  These are those books about knights, duelists, cowboys and other romantic figures who inhabit “rambling, disconnected, and endless” adventures, described as “vulgar” by the higher ups but which are really the “actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.”


Of course, one does not normally look for profoundness in juvenile literature, since its chief goal is entertainment rather than instruction.  Thoughts of a higher sort would surely kill most of this literature, or even given it the appearance of pretentiousness.  Arguably, superheroes are in the lower substrates of literature, for they inhabit comic books and television shows, and perhaps a few action-adventure movies, but are never, or almost never, regarded as serious characters in serious literature.  They are, indeed, the stuff of penny dreadfuls.


However, I wish to defend superheroes, and fantasy in general.  In my defense, I’m not adopting the practice of praising vulgarity or light literature, in post-modernist fashion, simply because it is light or vulgar.  Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize hierarchy in literature or art.  The theory of Bowman that literature at lower hierarchies must be criticized at the level of the highest art or literature is a recipe for the worst sort of snobbery—the kind that tells a child that she must not read Wind in the Willows or Narnia because such “alternative worlds” would warp her Kantian imagination.  Chesterton reminds us that the stories made up by children in the nursery or playground are not the type of things to be criticized by nursemaids on the theory that they are not up to the standards of Balzac.


Literature must not violate the hierarchy in one way, that is, it must not “write down” for children, or for anyone really, for that is to write “with an eye on the other grown-ups present” (Tolkien).  Fantasy, says Tolkien, is not a lower form of art, but a higher.  It is also more difficult of achievement.  Much fantasy remains undeveloped, mere decoration.  Tolkien pointed out that men dressed up as animals do not achieve fantasy but rather buffoonery.


I would say, however, that even light literature (or TV or cinema) can achieve moments of profoundness.   There are some superhero stories that achieve a depth sometimes not evident even in “higher” literature.  A good example is the TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (hereafter Buffy*), created by Joss Whedon.


Buffy (played by Sarah Gellar) is a powerful Slayer of vampires and other demons.  Early on Buffy* was about high school vulnerability or pain or “angst.”  This comes through in the way magic, fantasy, or fairy tale twists are used as metaphors for high school life.  There are two are three story “arcs” that are about redemption, the most involved featuring Spike, Buffy’s nemesis, a vampire who in the 6th season finds his soul.


Spike had a long history of killing people, and as the show progressed, he was muzzled by a secret government agency that put a “chip” in his brain so he could not harm anyone.  Eventually, in order to please Buffy, whom he is in love with, Spike travels to a place where he could be put back to his former state before the chip was implanted.  He overcomes some terrible tests so that he could go back as he was before.  Only, in this case the ironic magic put him back further than the chip to his pre-vampire days, and his soul was restored.


In the episode “Beneath You,” (7th season) we see the consequences of this ensoulment of Spike.  After an encounter with a worm-demon, Spike goes into a darkly lit church and Buffy follows, wanting to know what was wrong with him.  She hears him talking crazily about a “spark”:


Spike: “I wanted to give you what you deserved.  And I got it.  They put the spark in me.  Now all it does is burn.”  Eventually Buffy realizes what Spike is talking about and whispers:  “Your soul.”

Spike:  “A bit worse for lack of use.”

Buffy:  “You got your soul back.  How?”

Spike, looking quizzically at Buffy:  “It’s what you wanted, right?”  He then looks upward, as if looking to God, and says in a louder tone:  “It’s—it’s what you wanted, right?”  Walking away from Buffy, Spike starts complaining that everyone is talking in his head, all the things he had done, all those he had killed.  Then he says someone else is talking in his head:


 “And him.”


Spike names another, as well:  “And it, the other, the thing beneath—beneath you.”  The latter reference is to the “First,” the evil entity that Buffy will battle in the final episodes of the season.  It is clear that the reference to “him” is “Him,” i.e., God, and is distinguishable by the pronouns from the reference to the First, the other.


Buffy asks:  “Why?  Why would you do—”

Spike: “Buffy, shame on you.  Why does a man do what he musn’t?  For her.  To be hers.  To be the kind of man who would nev—[turning away from Buffy].  To be a kind of man.”


Spike walks toward the large cross in the church and speaks as though reading from a prophecy: “And she shall look on him with forgiveness.  And everybody will forgive and love.”  Now Spike faces the cross:  “He will be loved.  So everything’s okay, right?”  Then Spike leans over the cross, his body beginning to steam, a prelude to burning up in vampire fashion.  (The old vampire story elements are retained for the most part in Buffy*.)  He says, “Can we rest now?”  Buffy is watching Spike, and a tear falls down her cheek.  Spike’s last words before the episode closes is: “Buffy?  Can we rest?”


Joss Whedon admits to being an atheist, and he does not hesitate to take what he calls “digs at Christianity” in the series.  For example, religious people, conservatives, or moral traditionalists invariably turn out to be evil—e.g., mothers concerned about the effect of the occult on their children, or a Roman Catholic priest as the emissary of the “First” evil, etc., and similarly people who oppose perverse relationships are seen as intolerant (Riley and Tara’s father).  And yet, despite these anti-Christian, Hollywoodish attitudes, Whedon and his writers (including Douglas Petrie) and director (Nick Marck) created one of the most intensely Christian scenes ever put on film.  Was Spike redeemed because of his own sufferings as some have suggested?  Or as I think, because his literal leaning on the cross was also at the same time a spiritual leaning on the salvation symbolized by that cross?  I think Whedon and his crew, despite their intentions perhaps, got a brief glimpse of what Tolkien described as the joy of the Resurrection, the Gloria.  They understood, even if for only a moment, the nature of real redemption.


Not all “superhero” stories work, however.


The movie City of Angels started out with a kind of formal profundity and then moved downwards into banality.  The story starts with angels, or with one angel in particular named Seth (played by Nicolas Cage).  Of course, no superhero can be as powerful as an angel, but an angel can be regarded as a superhero of a sort.  These angels do not interfere with people, other than calming people down, something like invisible sports therapists.  However, Seth falls in love with Maggie (played by Meg Ryan), a doctor whom he first sees trying to save a patient.  As the story develops, Seth desires to become human in order to be with Maggie.  He accomplishes this by literally falling from a high building.  At this point, the story goes downhill just as quickly as Seth fell.  The problem is that a superhero cannot be reduced to a normal man without destroying his basic character.  I am reminded of Clark Kent in the second Superman movie, who gave up his powers to be with Lois.  Yet he did not understand the consequences of this act.  His powers were not secondary, something to be given away–a form of romantic liberalism, I guess.  Clark’s powers were a part of what he was, part of his very essence, and this became obvious to him when he was beaten up by a bully in a cafe, after trying to protect Lois.  In the series Lois & Clark, Jonathan Kent, Clark’s father, realized this truth as well.  Clark had lost his powers after exposure to green kryptonite, and Jonathan simply pointed out forcefully that being “normal” like everyone else was not “normal” for Clark.  Normal for Clark was being super strong.


In the case of Seth, there is a failure on the part of the writers to understand this, that when Seth gives up his angelic powers, this makes him less interesting, not more so—it makes him a creature who has thrown away his very essence.  The subsequent romantic affair between Seth and Ryan’s character, is anticlimactic and even depressing—a writer’s mistake even.  A shocking tragedy has to be invoked in order to jolt the audience back into a renewed state of interest, though it did not work for me.  A superhero cannot be reduced in positivistic fashion to the mundane.  (For instance, the story might have been more interesting if Seth had discovered that he had not lost all of his powers.  If he used them to help Maggie heal her patients, certain consequences would follow, etc.)


I’m not sure who said it, but a writer of fiction, or cinema, should never, in crafting his literature, strive to be “the grown-up in the room.”  C. S. Lewis said that the Christian “will take literature a little less seriously than the cultured Pagan.”  By this Lewis meant that the non-Christian sometimes makes a religion out of aesthetics.  He must be “creative” and is in thrall to some law that says he must follow his “artistic conscience.”  According to Lewis, the cultured pagan “commonly wishes to maintain his superiority to the great mass of mankind who turn to books for mere recreation.”  But for the Christian, says Lewis, all the stories in the world are not worth the soul of one single man.  A Christian has no objection to books that merely amuse or refresh, for he thinks, like Thomas Aquinas, that “We can play, as we can eat, to the glory of God.”  Or as Tolkien said, “Though all the crannies of the world we filled with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build Gods and their houses out of dark and light, and sowed the seed of dragons—’twas our right (used or misused).  That right has not decayed: we make still by the law in which we’re made.”


So let us not be killjoys in our literature.  Just as God made angels, we can make superheroes.  And the most profound thing in the world—in any world, even the world of dragons and superheroes–is the story of redemption.  “The Evangelium,” says Tolkien, “has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them.”