In the Weekly Standard, political science professor Travis D. Smith has written a response piece to Jonathan Last’s Standard essay on the virtues of Batman as a hero of our (and all) time. Smith counters that in fact it is Spider-Man who embodies the noble spirit of the classically liberal order, and is more accessible than Batman as well.
But this discussion either ignores or underplays the single most important feature of the Batman canon, without which it cannot be properly understood: that Batman and his villains are human. This is not incidental to the storytelling of Gotham City’s travails. Other superhero stories may begin as modern political parables, but they immediately morph into something else entirely. X-Men, for example, may be an obvious retelling of the Civil Rights era, as Last noted, but it proceeds along classic comic lines: superhuman good guys fight superhuman bad guys. Batman is completely different in this respect. The stories follow the human paths on which they set out, offering far more value as a vehicle to telling our own story. On Batman’s lack of superhuman powers, in contrast to his favored Spider-Man (and just about every other superhero), Smith writes:
On the massacre that occurred in Aurora, Colorado, earlier this morning, the most obvious thing to say is that the lives of the families and friends of those who were killed and wounded have been altered in an awful, nightmarish direction.
We all know evil exists, that life is fragile, and that people die. But the suddenness and scale of an event like this, in a country like this, is what shocks our system. And for all the efforts by the greatest theological minds in history to explain theodicy, nothing I have ever read or heard addresses it in a satisfactory manner. The “problem of pain” is something that some people might be able to wrestle to the ground when the issue is abstract. But when pain pierces our lives in ways we could never imagine, the neat, tidy explanations – that tragedy is the consequence of the fall of man, that God allows human beings to choose evil, and all the rest – often wash away like sandcastles on the edge of the ocean.
It isn’t that these explanations are necessarily wrong. It’s that they offer very little comfort to those besieged by sorrow. Because what we learn in time is that (to paraphrase the writer Chad Walsh) grief is the price of knowledge – not the knowledge of the mind but of the heart. It is the knowledge of friendship, of affection, of love. Those who live in the shadow of people’s love eventually live in the shadow of grief. Understanding this basic fact of life doesn’t make it any easier to endure. Bereavement can fracture even the sturdiest foundations of our lives.