Spoiler alert - the last two paragraphs refer to the final scenes of “The Dark Knight Rises.”
At the end of 2008’s seminal “The Dark Knight,” Heath Ledger’s Joker hangs upside down from an unfinished building, taunting Christian Bale’s Batman:
"Oh, you. You just couldn’t let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever."
The power of the scene - the power of the trilogy which completes with the just-released “Dark Knight Rises,” and which has already become one of the most beloved in the modern popular film canon - rests in the intense complexity of its most important characters. As the Joker swings silently in the night, literally the inverted form of Batman, the ultimate paradox is clear: no matter how much they loathe one another, they are not themselves without the other.
In his book Proust Was A Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer lauds the eponymous writer by saying that he understood that “idiosyncrasy is the essence of personality.”
Most people have an intuitive sense of the tension between unlike forces at the heart of so much of our individual personalities and collective culture. When we deny ourselves urges that feel primordial; when we recognize that the traits that draw us towards our partners become, in the extreme, the same traits that push us away; when we come to appreciate that a country like America, such a beacon of freedom to the world, could be built on the backs of one of the greatest exploitations in the history of humanity, we recognize the truth behind Walter Benjamin’s admonishment that “every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism,” and we live inside the paradox at the heart of the human experience.
In an essay published last year, author Michael Ellsberg used an interesting example to point out our attraction to unexpected dynamic tensions. He presented a list of types of people - a convicted murderer, a buddhist, a brilliant scholar of 19th century literature, a death metal fan - and asked his readers to think about which they’d most like to read a story about. His guess was that none of them would be particularly interesting.
Where it gets interesting is in the next paragraph, in which he now asks readers to review a slightly different list of types of people - a convicted murdered who is a brilliant scholar of 19th century literature, a Buddhist death metal fan, etc. - in which two of the types have been combined in one unexpected whole. The list is almost undeniably more interesting, which is exactly Ellsberg’s point: that paradox creates tension creates intrigue.
The canon of superheroes is practically defined by an intentionally hyperbolic amplification of paradox. Superman, Batman, Spiderman – all are heroes with two totally different sides to their lives. And what’s important is not simply that they embody a simultaneous yin and yang, but that the question at the heart of the tension between the two sides is a question of cosmic significance.
On the one hand, these characters (at least feel) as though they have a chance of a normal life. In this instance, “normal” is not a factor of wealth (Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne could hardly be more different in the social strata), but a vector of obligation. In each case, the normal lives that these superheroes could lead are filled with the comfort of predictable expectation, whatever form that expectation may take.
The other side, their heroic side, is defined not by any one type of act, but by a surrender of the expectation of predictability, and the loss of the pre-defined limits on achievement. In the world of the hero, a world in which there is always more evil, always more violence, always more depravity, callousness, and pain, there is no “good enough” and no comfortable end point. There is no one else to determine when it is okay to stop, only one’s own choice, and it is a choice with direct, profound, knowable and (usually) bad implications for others.
The superhero paradox is an exaggerated drama that models the central existential question that most thinking humans contemplate at one point or another: what is my purpose?
In a TEDx talk in Las Vegas, coach and entrepreneur Bryan Franklin articulated something he called the “universal paradox of significance.” Simply put, it is the tension between two undeniable and seemingly irreconcilable facts. The first is the fact of how much we matter - the ability we have to touch lives, deeply, and profoundly, and the ripple effects that emanate from those experiences as the people we’ve touched interact with others in ways that they wouldn’t have were it not for us. The second is the fact of our ultimate and overwhelming smallness in the face of the universe, the incredible lack of control we have to shape the great patterns of history.
Our quest to discover meaning, purpose, vocation and fulfillment take place in the gray area between these two realities in which they are both undeniably true. The happiest people are not those who exist at the poles; neither the couch potato nor the emperor contains the key. It is instead the people who find where their particular story - their passions, their desires, their gifts - intersects with the universal story of becoming that is played out every day, infinitely, whether recognized or not.
In his celebrated novella Demian, Herman Hesse wrote “Each man’s life represents a road toward himself, an attempt at such a road, the intimation of a path. No man has ever been entirely and completely himself.” His point was that this process of becoming is a perpetual journey. It is not something with a distinct end; indeed, the feeling of having come to oneself is illusory and ephemeral - simply another stop on a journey.
It is difficult, exceedingly difficult, to embrace the idea that change and transformation do not have a clear end at which point we can feel wholly and truly ourselves. If there is something about our love of superhero stories that is dangerous it is this: we look to them as prescriptive, dramatized self-help stories that can guide us to make the right decisions about who we should be.
Life is never that simple. Indeed, the best fiction tends to rebel against the view of its characters as role models. Author Rosellen Brown, wrote once about how people who didn’t like her books often told her how disappointed they were that her characters didn’t behave in a more idealized way:
“‘After she got over her initial embarrassment at being disarmed — no, she hadn’t much liked the book, but she hadn’t thought it showed — she said: ”Well, look, I’m a lawyer, too, and a woman, like your character, but” — and her expression became urgent as if she had clamped her hand to my arm — ”the book was no help to me. I didn’t tell me how I should live my life.”
To Brown, this wasn’t the point of her writing at all:
"To be reminded of the difficulty of things — to be taught the inescapable complexity of the world — frequently makes one unfit to be a smiling moral arbiter. The writer may organize the chaos of our lives a little, which makes the questions clearer, but that has nothing to do with the provision of reductive answers or people who always respond ”appropriately.”
I have nothing against lovable characters; there are a great many wonderful ones out there…But our first obligation is to create interesting, suggestive, realistic, possibly even challenging situations, set our characters down in them and see where they go. Which may not be the way you wish they could; rather it is the way, given who they are, they must go.”
Ultimately, this is the question of a life well lived: to discover where, “given who [we] are, [we] must go.” Our love of superhero characters rest in the simple fact that their turmoil on their way to becoming reminds us of ourselves, while their resolution into lives of incredible significance feels like evidence that we too can lead lives of great meaning.
The paradox of our love for these characters is that their reminder that lives of great meaning are within our grasp is absolutely true, but misleading in what, for the vast majority of us that meaning will consist of, which tends not to be cape-bound heroics, but to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, myriad, petty unsexy acts of sacrifice and caring.
The wonderful and satisfying irony at the conclusion of the Dark Knight trilogy is that, when all is said and done, happiness, significance and contentment do not come to Bruce Wayne through martyrdom but through the quiet sharing of a life with someone else. His transcendence is that he is able to trade a foil – in the form of the Gotham Criminal – who brings out his heroic side, for a foil that allows him to be content in the absence of heroic acts.
The final irony is that it is not we who want to be like Batman, but Batman who wants to be like us.