Dreaming of being indestructible

Yet what if your superpower were to be vulnerability?

I’ve loved superheroes since I was a young child. Whether in comics, films or cartoons, their exploits would capture my imagination. I particularly loved Superman and Batman, the first because he was strong and invulnerable, the second because of his technological toys, his intelligence and his agility. Needless to say, I would spend entire days dreaming of being like them.

Despite my poor grasp of physics, it didn’t take me long to understand that I’d never be able to fly (being, of course, a precociously intelligent child…). Yet I’d continue dreaming of becoming invulnerable like Superman, or of fighting bad guys cloaked in black like Batman, after which I’d return to my Batcave in my Batmobile. Children aim high, of course. I’d spend long afternoons designing all sorts of gadgets to use in my heroic undertakings. A particularly odd one still comes to mind: a wooden, boat-shaped helicopter driven by the pedals of my bicycle.

As I grew older, a better understanding of reality taught me, day by day, that these dreams would never come true. Superman’s strength was superhuman, and an earthling such as myself would never have been able to achieve the required muscle bulk. And Batman wasn’t only intelligent. He could dip his hands into Bruce Wayne’s unlimited pockets, while my family and I probably got by on less than did Alfred, Batman’s trusted butler. Yet I still continued to follow up on their adventures.

Over the past ten years, there’s been an impressive increase in the number of superhero-themed films being produced. They’ve taken quite a slice out of the box-office pie-chart. The popularity of the genre is interpreted by some as the resignation of the American film industry to the logic of “secure” commercial investments, easily marketable even outside of the United States itself. It’s often said that “explosions translate easier than wit”. But I believe there’s more to this phenomenon than that. Our passion for superheroes says something about us.

What makes a superhero a superhero? Being different. They’re more powerful than us, having a unique ability the rest of the world can only dream of having. The superhero is a representation of who we want to be, who we’ll never be. It’s that dream of being subject to no limits, a forbidden, impossible dream made flesh and blood. In a society in which man has been reduced to a number, the philosopher Umberto Eco writes that:

the positive hero must embody to an unthinkable degree the power demands that the average citizen nurtures but cannot satisfy.

It’s true that lately some films, such as Logan, haven touched upon the problem of limits, of ageing and of the vulnerability of the superhero. But the general tendency appears to be the privileging of spectacle at the expense of script, and therefore to the detriment of depth and of the humanity of the story. Just remember Justice League, released recently in cinemas.

But we’re fine with that. Perhaps because these pre-packaged dreams allow us to distract ourselves from the hard reality of our own limitedness. Superheroes rescue us from our vulnerability, from our feelings of inadequacy. From our cowardice and our mediocrity.

There’s a monologue in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill that’s a particularly brilliant description of the difference between Superman and other superheroes. “Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman”. Clark Kent’s clothes are “the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak, he’s unsure of himself, he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

True, we’re weak, we’re unsure of ourselves, sometimes we’re cowards. But Superman’s not the answer. I don’t believe that we need supermen. We need vulnerable men. It’s our pretense at being invulnerable that keeps us from being profoundly touched by those who stand next to us, which leads us, inevitably, to unhappiness. We are transformed into an impenetrable fortress, an anaesthetized heart incapable of empathy. Incapable of tenderness.

Becoming incarnate as a helpless child, in need of care and attention, God united himself to every human being. He didn’t play at being human, He wasn’t God dressed up in mortal skin.

“He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart” (Gaudium et Spes, 22).

He gave Himself completely. He made himself vulnerable, vulnerable enough that he could be put do death.

So, perhaps, one meaning of the Incarnation is this: we’re not, and we shouldn’t be, invulnerable. It’s a heart that bleeds that makes us fully human.

Happy Christmas.

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