Friday, 27 July 2012

Identity crisis in Gotham City

Identity is the hot issue of the moment for superheroes.

Peter Parker, the schoolboy alter ego of Spider-Man, ends his latest onscreen adventure in an English Literature lesson.

As he slumps into his chair, exhausted by saving New Yorkers from destruction, his teacher tells the class, "It’s said there are only ten plots in all of fiction".

She pauses a moment.

And then adds: "But I believe there’s only one: ‘Who am I?’"

It’s not just a comment about literature. "Who am I?", the makers of The Amazing Spider-Man seem to be implying, is the core question of their film.

By reducing the essence of their story, and - by implication - all of life, down to this one simple theme, the makers of The Amazing Spider-Man have made self-discovery the key issue of human existence.

Batman would beg to differ.

In The Dark Knight Rises, he describes himself as "a symbol" and asks rhetorically, "Who was Batman? He was just Batman, the person under the mask doesn’t matter, because ANYBODY can be Batman".

For the caped crusader, it is not by uncovering something about ourselves that we resolve the plot of our own stories. Instead we need something outside ourselves, a symbolic figure of hope who inspires us to become our best selves.

Each film, then, offers a slightly different vision of reality.

Interestingly, Jesus seems to partially agree with both.

He, in line with Spidey, emphasizes the vital importance of understanding ourselves.

In one memorable exchange he told a group of very religious people that they may think their scrupulous cleansing rituals make them good people but they are actually like whitewashed tombs; beautiful on the outside but ruined by the darkness and corruption within.

If they understood this aspect themselves, he suggests, it would pave the way to an entirely new way of life.

And, like Batman, he doesn't expect self-awareness alone to be transformative. There does need to be a solution outside ourselves. Jesus said that he had come to "save", not just to 'reveal'. To simply be aware of the brokeness within offers no hope.

We need help.

Yet, despite helpfully pointing to this need for outside help, Batman's Abelardian belief that we simply require an inspirational (and faceless) figure to motivate us is ultimately unsatisfactory.

It fails to address the question of how we can become something different than we are at present.

If I ask "who am I?" and discover I am more of a supervillain than a superhero, is there any hope for change other than simply being inspired to become something more? Could "I" be changed or is it simply a fixed thing in need of discovery?

Jesus spoke about an inner renewal within which, while as silent as the wind, becomes outwardly visible. He moved the discussion beyond Spider-Man's "who am I?" and Batman's "what could I become?", and towards the question of "how can I change?".


  1. It's interesting that, in the context of the film, Bruce Wayne speaks those words while he's in what some might consider his Dark Night (no pun intended) of the Soul, a period where he's without drive or purpose or fire in his spirit. When he goes out as Batman, Alfred points out, he does nothing worthy of praise. He just uses a bunch of gadgets--relying on the exterior trappings of his Batman identity. But when it comes down to crunch time, all the tricks aren't enough, and he loses.

    It isn't until he's forced to find himself (without offering any spoilers here, I hope) that he really steps up and resumes his Batman-ness. So, even though he never explicitly recants that statement, I think the flow of the narrative serves to refute it. He may think, for a time, that only the symbol matters, but it's really the man under the mask who has to do the hard work and sacrifice, not the Jungian bat-archetype with which he's associated.

    1. Yeah, I think that may be true - good insight. I wonder though if 'self-discovery' is a secondary theme to the idea of symbolism, which is definitely the note the Gotham-based portion of the film ends on.