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Superheroes: Good vs. Evil isn't really much of a theme

In the classroom lesson that wraps up the romantic and thematic threads of "The Amazing Spider-Man," a high school English teacher takes issue with the old saying about there being only ten (or so) stories in all of human history. She says she believes there's only one: "Who am I?" This being a remake-reboot of the Peter Parker Becomes Spider-Man origin story, that's a good thing for this, or any, coming-of-age movie to focus on.

An appealing cast headed by Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone provides all the special effects the movie needs, and they're far more engaging (for adults, anyway, I would imagine) than the usual clinical computer visuals. (Yes, I *liked* it. Hey, Mikey!) The emphasis is on charm, emotion and comedy -- until the third act CGI blowout, but even those scenes give Spidey some real weight and mass for the first time as he swings through the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan. (There's even a built-in joke about it, with two students of Midtown Science High School discussing some user-uploaded YouTube footage.) The way director Marc Webb ("[500] Days of Summer") and DP John Schwartzman shoot Spidey and the city, they both seem to occupy a common, more-or-less real physical space. The camerawork isn't all "Avatar" floaty and fakey, and there's a lovely shot of Spidey on the Oscorp building with sunlight shimmering off the windows that looks like real glass and steel and sunlight, even though the Oscorp building itself is a CGI creation. (So are the hallways of Morse Science er, Midtown Science High, but you'd never know it.)

This Spider-Man movie is also about flesh -- the perishability of it, the gene-spliced mutability of it, the vulnerability of it. No wonder it focuses so intently on Peter's bare feet and hands, the digits that will allow him to climb like a spider (even if his web filaments are mechanically deployed, bio-synthesized Oscorp products). Fathers, father-figures and mentors disappear, die and disappoint. It's nice to see Martin Sheen, as crusty old Uncle Ben, simultaneously guiding Peter and -- intentionally or not -- publicly castigating his own real-life son about moral failures and responsibilities. And it's worth noting how, without anyone articulating it, Peter's ethical failures and lapses are reflected in others: the school bully who later becomes a more empathetic person; and the scientist whose healing research turns him into a monster. (He does have an unfortunate tendency to sound rather eugenic when he proclaims that he imagines a wonderful "world without weakness.") The line between "good" and "bad" is crossed, in both directions, by several characters.

(This is also the way Christian Bale sees Bruce Wayne and Batman. He told Entertainment Weekly: "I was playing the idea of there being three Bruce Waynes. The public, vacuous billionaire. The private Bruce Wayne who is still a child. And then the vengeful one who is a monster. Remembering that, I was no longer playing a guy who was dressing up and looking silly. It was a man playing multiple parts, and a man who dressed up as a monster for a reason, because he feels monstrous, and so he must become a monster in those moments." And that's why, as many have observed, it's the "vacuous billionaire" who is the real mask.)

Some people say that superhero movies are distinguished by their villains: think of Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow in "Batman Begins," Heath Ledger's Joker in "The Dark Knight," Ian McKellen's Magneto in the X-men movies, Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor in "Superman," Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin in "Spider-Man," Alfred Molina's Doc Oct in "Spider-Man 2"... Not so, here. Rhys Ifans' Dr. Curt Connors, mysterious one-armed former colleague of Peter's dad, didn't make much of an impression on me at all. He experiments on himself and the experiment goes awry, turning him into a destructive reptilian creature -- for a while, anyway. I don't really understand what was going on with him, or with the henchman (Irrfan Khan) of his corporate sponsor. All I know is that I kinda teared up when Peter first announces his superhero identity to the father (C. Thomas Howell!) of a kid he's just rescued: "Spider-Man." People do bad things in this movie, and they do good things, but they are not purely "good" or "bad."

What I really want to talk about here are how some superhero movies develop their themes. "The Amazing Spider-Man" touches on the issue of vigilantism, but only superficially -- certainly not as seriously as in either Tim Burton's or Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. And the psychology of the (anti-)hero is usually interesting: Peter finds himself repeating patterns of denial and abandonment he's suffered at the hands of his own father and Dr. Connors. What drives someone to put on a unitard and try to catch criminals? Spider-Man, Batman, you name it -- that's always an underlying question. In "Iron Man," Tony Stark dons a whole metal suit in an effort to atone for his military-industrial sins.

What's not a theme is a simplistic formulation of "good vs. evil," although I see critics, fans, pundits and filmmakers announcing it as if it were supposed to mean something all the time. "Good vs. evil" might make for a simple math problem, or a wrestling match (ask Rev. Harry Powell about Love vs. Hate), but it's not a theme.

Good and evil exist only in the human heart and mind and cannot be artificially separated. One always contains the seeds of the other. In fact, I'd argue that the idea that the world can be broken into such categories is, perhaps, integral to the very definition of evil itself -- a notion, I think, that's at least more provocative and intriguing than pretending that it's so easy to tell one from the other. "Good vs. evil," stated as a kind of equation, makes for lame drama, because if the choice is so clear, nothing is at stake. The Big Lie about the Holocaust, to use the most extreme popular example of the 20th century, is that it was perpetrated by people whose only motivation was to "do evil." I see that as a form of Holocaust denial, an abdication of responsibility and a refusal to deal with the realities of human nature.

It's so easy to claim that Evil People just decide to Do Evil because they are Evil (totally unlike the rest of us!).* But the truth is, many Nazi war criminals and those ordinary people who actively or passively collaborated with them weren't all, as the cliché has it, "just following orders." They believed the horrors of genocide served what they saw as a greater purpose: maintaining the purity of their beloved Germany, their race and their empire. So, as difficult and terrible as it might be to exterminate Jews and Catholics and homosexuals and intellectuals and other perceived threats to purity (even if they were considered subhuman), the Final Solution was, they believed, a noble calling in the long run. That is what's so damnable and terrifying and human about them. They weren't monsters -- they were people like you and me who found themselves capable of doing monstrous things in the name of a Great Cause in which their faith was pure and fervent and unshakeable. That's the stuff of history, and that's the stuff of drama.

The Joker articulates something like this (maybe a little too formulaically) in "The Dark Knight" with regard to his ferry experiment: "You see, their morals, their code, it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these civilized people, they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster ... I'm just ahead of the curve." (He's anything but a nihilist or an "agent of chaos." He's a methodical amateur psychologist whose elaborate stratagems require an enormous amount of thought, planning and preparation.)

And, I know, it's a heavy burden to lay on a superhero movie -- but if you're going to use terms like "evil," you gotta go there eventually. "Evil," by definition, isn't trivial; it isn't just selfishness or impoliteness (though it may begin there). What Peter Parker discovers (the hard way) is what every person has to learn in order to become a morally functional adult: that distinguishing good from evil, right from wrong, is not always presented to you in the form of clear-cut choices. He enjoys humiliating a bully a little to much, for example. And when he understandably gets mad at a dick-ish convenience store clerk, one thing leads to another and another and another and, within minutes, Peter's actions and inaction have resulted in a personal tragedy. No, there's no way he could have foreseen it, and he didn't directly cause it... but he shares moral culpability for it and he knows it. So, these emotions are more complex than, say, young Bruce Wayne feeling it's his fault that a random mugger killed his parents because he was afraid and wanted to leave the opera early.

I know nothing about the story or themes of "The Dark Knight Rises" (which I am eager to watch), but I did see that Christopher Nolan told Entertainment Weekly: "Looking back, there's no question that in popular culture Batman is the most interesting figure for dealing with the theme of ends justifying the means. It's something I've always been interested in. Since 9/11 those issues have been a national and global concern." In "Batman Begins," Ra's al Ghul tries to use Scarecrow's "fear gas" to destroy Gotham because it is a corrupt and fallen city (such an on-the-nose depiction of post-9/11 terrorism it's barely even a metaphor); in "The Dark Knight," the Joker is a self-proclaimed "agent of chaos" who simply wants to rip apart the fabric of society, expose Batman as a phony, and watch the world burn. I'm very curious to see how these themes are developed in the final part of Nolan's Batman trilogy.

But, while I've avoided clips and trailers, I've also seen that Nolan has described "The Dark Knight Rises" as "a very elemental conflict between good and evil." I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean, exactly, but as someone who criticized "The Dark Knight" for over-explaining its themes in dialog, I sure hope there's more to it than that. Especially with a 164-minute running time. (I'm fairly confident there will be, because I think Nolan's view of Batman is a little more ambitious and ambivalent.)

In a recent article appearing in the Rev. Sun Myung-Moon's Washington Times, Sonny Bunch wrote:

Obviously, superhero pictures are filling a gap in the marketplace: Critical weariness of reboots aside, audiences love them. We are starved for tales of unambiguous heroism, the sort of film that gives us good guys and bad guys and resolution, self-sacrifice and self-reliance.

"Unambiguous heroism?" I think somebody's not paying attention. (See above.) While Christian scholar Dr. Marc T. Newman acknowledges that audiences like "to cheer a narrative about the forces of good overcoming an invasion of evil," he sees the Avengers, for example, as flawed redeemers because (with the exception of Black Widow and Hawkeye) they are superhumans trying to rescue humanity:

"The Avengers," in keeping with most superhero films, is about a fundamentally moral battle. The demi-god Loki, like the masters who send him and the army he leads, represents evil. His aim is world domination so that he can subjugate the puny humans. He declares to some frightened citizens that they were made to be ruled, and he is happy to oblige. This is the common refrain of evil: the desire for power, combined with hubris, with domination as the goal. This calculus is true regardless of the scope of evil. Playground bullies and national tyrants have these elements in common -- the only distinction is degree.

On the side of good stand the Avengers. But because theirs is a human good, it is not completely unalloyed. The Avengers are powerful, but not self-serving. They are better than humans at technology, fighting, and healing -- but these are external traits. On the level of pure value, the Avengers are humble -- willing to place their own lives on the line to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Despite their great power (which could be turned to tyrannical ends if they chose), these super-heroes do not seek to dominate, but to ensure freedom. But in fairness, and in a hint at realism, Whedon's screenplay has the humans behind S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division -- the government agency that oversees the Avengers) hedge their bets. What motivates S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury and the Council does not appear to be raw power, but fear and distrust. It makes them dangerous, but not despicable.

Newman offers a Christian reading, insisting: "If human beings are, as scientific materialists insist, nothing but a random combination of time plus chance plus matter, then all nattering about a moral struggle is ultimately meaningless." Well, not necessarily. Humanists and materialists might counter that since faith acknowledges that we can't prove the existence of a deity or a life after this one, the only morality that caries any weight comes from trying to do what's right in this world because it is right, not out of concern for eternal reward or punishment in the "next world." Newman emphasizes the role of (original?) sin and saviors, even flawed ones, in superhero stories:

How can people erase the stain of evil deeds from the fabric of their lives? The route that Natasha [Black Widow in "Marvel's The Avengers"] takes is one of balance. She is hoping that by now doing right, she can counterbalance the wrong actions of her past. Thinking of this sort is common in the "work your way up by your bootstraps" American ideology. Many people believe that since they were the ones who got themselves into this mess, they will have to be the ones who get themselves out.

"The Avengers" represents an opportunity to discuss God's take on this predicament and His solution. That we have violated eternal laws is clear. Like Natasha, we have red on our ledgers. But the violation of eternal laws require eternal punishments that we -- being finite -- are not equipped to pay. No amount of right action can expunge our records. We are guilty and need someone to redeem us.

That, of course, raises the question of whether it is morally possible for someone (even a superhuman, or combination of human/divine being) to actually redeem a person. I don't know how many recent superhero movies would support that reading -- but certainly not the Spider-Man or Batman ones (unless in "The Dark Knight Rises" the Caped Crusader somehow martyrs himself for the citizens of Gotham and/or humanity at large). But I'm eager to find out...

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* I recently heard a Radiolab show about the Milgram Experiment, which some have claimed bears a resemblance to the Joker's ferry experiment. The results are usually interpreted to show that people are willing to obey authority -- to (in the famous Eichmann formulation) just "follow orders," even when it involves harming others. But psychology professor Alex Haslam has a different interpretation of Milgram's "obedience" data that suggests the subjects are invested in the cause (in this case, being part of what they believe is a worthwhile Yale science experiment). In fact, if they were given a direct order, told they had no choice, the subjects refused to comply. As Haslam told Radiolab:

It's not just blind obedience: 'Yes sir, no sir, three bags full, sir.' They're engaged with the task. They're trying to be good participants. They're trying to do the right thing. They're not doing something because they have to; they're doing it because they think they ought to. And that's all the difference in the world. [...]

There's a sort of chilling comparison, which is a speech that Himmler gave to the SS, some SS leaders, when they were about to commit a range of atrocities. He said, Look, what you're going to do, of course you don't want to do this. Of course nobody wants to be killing other people. We realize this is hard work. But what you're doing is for the good of Germany and this is necessary in order to advance our noble cause.

I wonder if or how the Joker's minions could be said to fit these profiles, too.

UPDATE (07/16/12): Just found this interview with Marc Webb in which he talks about the conception of the villain. I liked the concept more than the execution (I thought the character was a washout and the Lizard just looked like a Hulk knock-off with a tail), but the idea, at least, comes through in the movie:

I can tell you this much -- it's a new villain, something we haven't seen before and villains help define the story in a very specific way. Marvel villains -- and Spider-Man villains in particular- are rich and complicated and interesting and Rhys [Ifans] has done just a fantastic job in translating that and there will be a lot of new things to explore for the fans. They're tragic in the Greek sense, meaning it's a competing idea of what's good. They're not just guys, they're people trying to do good or to do the right thing and on that journey that effort becomes subverted or manipulated or it sours. It makes for a much more compelling adversary. In the Marvel Universe, traditionally, the villains have more texture. This is open to interpretation because there are so many incarnations of the villains over the years and it varies, but the [tradition is there]. Tom Stoppard was on Charlie Rose's show once and he said what makes great drama is competing ideas of what is good, and there's no better mythological version of that than what you see in Marvel.

Watch Michael Mirasol's rousing tribute to superhero movies:

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