If you haven’t yet seen Avengers, The Amazing Spiderman or The Dark Knight Rises, you may not entirely understand what I say in this note. You’re welcome to read it anyway, but this is just a little early disclaimer in case you get halfway through and have no idea what I’m talking about. There are also mild spoilers in this, although I don’t think they’re anything that will shock you if you’re at all familiar with the stories.
In Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, a very silly man is deceived into thinking the object of his desire loves him through reading a planted letter. In that letter the “lady” tells her idiotic suitor: “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” (Act II, V, 156-159) Out of the mouth of a fool, this intense and focused bolt of truth comes. This statement has, of course, been used since the writing of Twelfth Night for all kinds of situations and scenarios. Politicians, orators, historians all have turned it to their purpose, and I’m turning it to mine now.
What I want to propose here is this: The three superhero movies that have been released this summer – Avengers, The Amazing Spiderman and The Dark Knight Rises – present us with a perfectly balanced demonstration of this color-wheel of greatness and heroism.
“Some are born great…” (Avengers)
In the Avengers, the heroism is bold, brash and full of strength. While several of the Avengers are human, none of them are ordinary. Their incredible strength or unusual wit or divine nature or even simply their dexterity are features that are intrinsically a part of them. Even Captain America, who began life as a puny Everyman, is no longer in that category and his feats of strength are impressive *because* they are superhuman. Ironman may have his issues and challenges to face, but his natural genius is as much his badge of greatness as Thor’s position among the gods in Asgard.
As viewers, we go to see the Avengers knowing that victory is a given; I doubt that anyone over the age of 10 was in any doubt during the film that the outcome would be positive in the end. We know that these superheroes, if they collectively bring together their strength, can vanquish any foe. Even as adults this concept is thrilling, as the popularity of the Avengers movie demonstrates. Somewhere in humanity there is a longing to believe in some sort of power that is greater than what humans possess, and as Tom Hiddleston (Loki in Avengers) said in his article written for the Guardian, films such as Avengers provide us with the chance to explore, “a shared, faithless, modern mythology.”
Like the mythologcal characters of the past, these are the ones who are born great – they may have chosen to wear the mantle more or less fully, but it was handed to them and is fully a part of who they are. The conflict in the Avengers rises from the superheroes’ inability to move beyond their own individual selfish aims and goals to find a greater purpose around which to rally. The excitement for the viewer lies in discovering whether they will finally choose to use the greatness that has been given them for selfish or unselfish acts. The brilliance of the film we saw this summer is that it managed to convince us both of the intrinsic greatness of these characters and of their need for one another. The most beautiful idea Avengers conveys is that even native ‘greatness’ will never see its full potential unless self-interest can be set aside.
This is greatness by nature; heroism by choice.
“…some achieve greatness…” (The Amazing Spiderman)
Spiderman is, in my opinion, the current Everyman of superheroes. The reboot of the franchise which this most recent movie provided brings to us a Spiderman more strikingly normal than any other current superhero; more normal, even, than previous incarnations of the same character. Peter Parker is a teenager like any other. He’s snarky, rebellious and sweet by turns, and this doesn’t change simply because he’s bitten by a spider. His newfound powers do not instantly bring along with them heroism (or, for that matter, greatness). Victory, for Spiderman, is not always assured, and the movie takes great pains to remind us of that fact – the fact that Peter Parker is overwhelmingly human. For much of The Amazing Spiderman, what we see is an average (if very intelligent) kid attempting rather awkwardly to figure out what he is going to do with the odd abilities he’s developed as they interact directly with his humanity.
The Amazing Spiderman is a movie pitched perfectly for a young generation of viewers. I said before that this Spiderman is the current Everyman, but really this should be most true if you’re a teenager at the moment. Peter’s rebellion, his lack of focus, his tendency toward showmanship and his bitterness and angst seem at times to belong more in the John Hughes films of the ’80s than in a movie about a supposed superhero. For Peter Parker to become Spiderman, he has to recognize that his powers are an opportunity for heroism rather than simply a fun toy to play with or a weapon to use. The beauty of The Amazing Spiderman is in watching the journey of a superhero for whom greatness has to be discovered, clearly defined and then donned like the ubiquitous costume he wears.
This is greatness achieved; heroism by design.
“…and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” (The Dark Knight Rises)
Whereas in Avengers and Spiderman we see characters who choose to embrace their powers and their chance for greatness, the Dark Knight version of Batman is forever expending effort to repulse all chances for potential heroism. This is the Reluctant Hero; this is even, at times, an anti-hero. Of the three films released this summer, The Dark Knight Rises provides by far the darkest and most complex picture of both greatness and heroism. Bruce Wayne is bitter, he is angry, he is hurting – he is miserable to the point of wishing for death. While previous films have shown us the brash, bright side of heroism, The Dark Knight Rises holds up a mirror to that image and what is reflected is its opposite.
Yet in my opinion Batman in TDKR is, of all the superheroes presented to us this summer, the greatest hero of all. He is, after all, in the end the one entirely human superhero. He does not have special powers by nature; he is not changed by any sort of chemical or animal or mineral. Bruce Wayne must rely on friends and on those closest to him to facilitate his greatness and his acts of heroism. And he is cognizant of this fact; oddly, Batman is the most truly humble of the superheroes because he is the most aware of his humanity. Bruce Wayne is not, like some of the other superheroes, unaware of the truest definition of heroism. The knowledge is always with him (whether he admits it or not) that heroism is painful, is sacrificial, is endlessly giving with no thought for self. Batman is a hero whose very nature requires trust; he must trust others just as much as they trust him. He cannot accomplish what he does alone, and this makes him more vulnerable than any of the other superheroes. It is the very reason he tries to run from it at every opportunity. Yet his journey toward greatness is inescapable; no matter how much he wants to avoid the pain, to avoid the vulnerability, his understanding of the need in humanity for heroism forces him into action. The beauty of The Dark Knight Rises is when he does, finally, embrace the greatness that is thrust upon him and become the hero. He walks into the pain with his eyes wide open.
This is greatness by destiny; heroism by self-sacrifice.
With all three laid out so closely before us this summer, it’s impossible not to compare these films. Yet I don’t believe that they have to suffer by comparison to one another; rather, I feel that by comparing them we can begin to see a more complete picture of our culture, of the human experience, and of the complex nature of greatness and heroism.