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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Idealism v. Realism

This week I watched the Batman v. Superman movie, Dawn of Justice. I had heard plenty of negatives about it, so I went in with eyes wide open. There are some problems as far as plot goes, for sure. Most movies tend to have them to some degree, but I'd heard that it had too many story lines going, little character development, and deviation from past character history both in comics and movies.

And to a degree, I can understand what they are saying. Without revealing any spoilers, one big difference is the character arc for Superman. This was evident in the first movie, Man of Steel. Traditionally, Superman has been portrayed as a highly moral, righteous, and benevolent god-like being. Why does he use his powers to help people instead of satisfying his own self-interest? Because, he is innately good at heart.

But in Man of Steel, what you get is a more self-absorbed Superman, who ends up involved in the destruction of a lot of property and life, despite his desire to do the right thing. In other words, he's more like us than the selfless, moral, and ethical hero he'd been portrayed previously. That theme continues in Batman v. Superman. As a matter of fact, it is the premise for most of the city protesting Superman, and why Batman sees him as a threat and tries to take him out.

However, this gives Superman a character arc, room to grow. The basic movie plan is that no one is fully faultless and can resist temptations without a struggle. When they find an established, near-perfect character to depict, it is rare to see them stay that way.

Case in point: Faramir in the Lord of the Rings. In the book, he appears to easily resist the temptation to take the ring back to Gondor, and sends the two hobbits off to continue their journey. In the movie, Faramir desires to take it, commands his men to take the two hobbits and the ring back to Gondor. It is only an attack from the Nazgul that he comes to his senses and lets them go. Peter Jackson's reason for that change is that it diminishes the power of the threat for anyone to be able to resist the ring's pull without much effort.

Certainly it made for more tension and interest in the story. It also makes it more “real” in that we know no one who doesn't struggle with temptation to do the wrong thing, to do what is best for one's self-interest, not even within our own lives. We all have our points where we struggle with certain temptations, even if we don't give in to them. Even Jesus struggled with temptations in the desert and in the Garden of Gethsemane.

That said, our stories have a history of putting in the strong character, who may not “grow” through the plot, but act as the ideal of what we should say, do, and be.

Many Christian fiction stories, especially the romance genre, have these characters. Some would say to the other extreme: they never cuss, act unbecoming, avoid sexual situations, always act appropriate in all situations. The perfect Christian.

The problem with that approach, if taken too far, is few can identify with the person. Consequently there is a temptation for the digester of such a story to feel they can't be that person. Give them some faults, temptations, sins and then not only will the reader/watcher identify with the character, but will see the way to grow with the character to reach a more ideal state of being.

That is in part what I think the director is shooting for with this new version of Superman. Without giving anything away, Superman does show the good in him in the end of Batman v. Superman and it is truly heroic. He proves his selfless core. The big difference you see between this Superman and previous versions was the struggle to get to that point as opposed to being there on day 1. It becomes gold refined in the fire as opposed to an innate goodness that everyone sees at first glance. In that sense, we can identify more with his own struggle to figure out what his place in this world is.

It highlighted for me the friction between a perfect role model and real life.

Superman has always been portrayed as an example of virtues to follow contrasted against the gritty realism where it seems evil rules—no one has pure motives. That's the part Batman plays in this film. He's lost all hope that justice can prevail despite all his efforts to combat the evil in his city. In the end, Superman reignites that flame of hope in him.

Good fiction will not be on either extreme of the idealism v. realism spectrum. Just like we experience in reality, most people have their selfless acts and goals to strive for as well as temptations, ugly behavior, and blind spots to their own sins. When a character is portrayed as being purely evil with no redeeming qualities, it isn't realistic. Likewise a character who appears perfect in all points is no one we've ever met either, aside from Jesus Christ Himself.

So what do I think of this modification to Superman and Batman's character arcs, which differ from previous renditions?

First, I can understand people's aghast at seeing Superman smashing through buildings and not saving everyone, even intentionally killing the villain in Man of Steel.

That had never been Superman before. Superman shouldn't be intimidated into doing wrong by a villain. Even Batman doesn't escape this change. For the first time we see Batman regularly toting a gun and shooting people, not to mention the firepower in his car. Batman kills people in this movie, mostly bad guys, but that is a change from the traditional Batman we've seen before.

Second, while that might be a shock to many people's view of the two heroes, it does give room to see their growth to the “Bright Side.”

You catch a glimpse of it at the end of Batman v. Superman. You see the rise from despair to a joyful hope. It does give the viewer a taste of their journey as to how and why they chose to use their abilities for helping others instead of trying to control everyone for their own pride—the definition of a villain.

Third, we finally get to see heroes struggling with what it means to make life and death decisions that can have devastating consequences.

Fighting evil is a messy business and frequently there aren't any perfect solutions to fixing a situation. Doing the right thing can end up hurting someone else and it isn't always clear what the right thing to do is. For instance, Superman could have killed Lex Luther several times in this movie. Doing so would have prevented many others from dying at the hands of Doomsday who Luther brings to life.

But Superman can't kill someone purposefully without a very good cause, as he did at the end of the Man of Steel movie. Fighting to stop Zod may have been the right thing to do, but resulted in whole buildings coming down on who knows how many people, at least in part by Superman's heat vision. It was more like Godzilla than Superman. It shocks our sense of justice that everything isn't packed into a neat and tidy box by the time the movie is over, but that is reality.

To see their character progressions makes the virtue they demonstrate more forceful, inspiring, and that maybe I too can rise above self-interest and use my abilities and resources to help others rather than hording them for my own pleasure and means. So while the previous versions of these heroes have their value in being role models for our kids, they don't always have the inspirational force that our children can be that person. Rather, sometimes it may do the opposite when they become teenagers and discover that they are not all that super of a man or woman. Because they've not seen Superman battle the evil within as he does the evil without. It came naturally to him.

So I'm content to see where this goes before pronouncing final judgment.

It is obvious there will be more character growth in future movies. While Batman v. Superman has its problems, I recommend to see it. So much happens it might take more than one viewing to catch it all. At first it can seem all over the place, but there is a reason for the madness within the movie, save perhaps for some of the future Justice League characters making cameos here and there (why they don't join in and help like Wonder Woman, who knows?)

Without casting aside the value of the previous versions of Superman, I do see the added value of watching our heroes face the real-life difficulties and consequences of their decisions and actions, and struggle with how to overcome them within themselves. They can be just as heroic in that version as the more pure and virtuous heroes we've come to love.

What do you think? Where on the scale of idealism and realism do you think the characters should fall?