The Hero Rises: extraordinary figures for extraordinary times

There’s a stereotypical opening to terrible pre-written statements—valedictorian speeches, application essays, remarks at weddings—that goes something like this.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “extraordinary” as “out of the usual or regular course or order.”

“Extraordinary” often has positive connotations, but this is a recent shift, one that hasn’t wholly taken hold; “extraordinary” can be a gunman opening fire on a crowded theater.

As you have no doubt heard from many other, more reputable sources, the much-anticipated midnight opening of The Dark Knight Rises was overshadowed by something extraordinary.

Extraordinary. Extraordinary. Extraordinary. Extraordinary. Extraordinary.

The literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky talks about the role of art as a means of defamiliarization. We encounter day-to-day things so regularly that we become numb to them. They, like a word repeated too many times, lose heft. Defamiliarization, it can be said, “makes the stone stony.”

If you look at movie releases over the years, an interesting trend appears: as our times become extraordinary, so do our heroes. During crisis, we take comfort in the Bruce Waynes and Peter Parkers, the seemingly familiar figures who carry with them extraordinary alter egos.

I confess, I have not seen the Dark Knight films. I can’t speak from that experience, but I can speak from others. Harry Potter indelibly colored my childhood. I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a young adolescent. Early on, I became convinced that Yoda kicked ass, and I stand by that. All these characters are extraordinary, in their ways. All are heroes. And all had their evil counterparts.

Because without extraordinary evil*, what good it a superhero? When the Comics Code Authority set new standards and the Joker was relegated to stealing children’s homework, wasn’t Batman just as crippled?

In response to the impulse to blame the violence of the Dark Knight films for the violence in Denver, NPR blogger Glen Weldon writes:

Batman didn’t create this act of random violence. In a very real sense, he exists to help us respond to it.

True, comic-book heroes are childish notions. But this is exactly what lends them a simple, primal purity of meaning. They are a means by which we vicariously confront—and defeat—what threatens us. Batman is our agent, our proxy, our sense that Good exists and that it invariably wins out over Evil. On the streets of Gotham he will be met by Fear (The Scarecrow), Greed (The Penguin), Wrath (Bane) and, inevitably, repeatedly, Insanity (The Joker).

But he—and thus, we—will win. Always. Every time. That knowledge is what he gives us. That is what he is for.

A good superhero is (I would imagine, not having made an attempt since I was quite young) hard to write. There is the risk of the Luke Skywalker—the character so good and extraordinarily pure that he becomes grating. There is the risk of the deus ex machina—the character with an extraordinarily arbitrary and simple solution that makes the resolution feel unearned. But a good superhero is also hard to resist, on a good day, but even more so on a bad one.

*There are complications with portraying extraordinary evil in the real world. But that is another matter for another time.

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