Every Friday in Panel Discussion, Jeremy Writebol considers how the latest comic book releases intersect with the Good News of Christ. This piece may contain spoilers.
Super hero stories are often meant to be inspirational, at least in the long run. We suppose that if Captain America can save the world from the vices of tyranny and fascism, we can stand against the injustice happening in our own neighborhoods. If Superman can defeat the evil schemes of power-mongering moguls like Lex Luthor, we can similarly overcome the smaller poverties and injustices in our lives. At their inception, “Golden Age” comics were there to inspire and enable Americans up out of the Great Depression, through the tragedy of World War II, and into the hope of a better tomorrow. Their heroes were created to inspire and produce an attitude of justice, hope, generosity, and compassion in a world of crime, poverty, war, and death.
Almost eighty years later, these characters still remain the same. It’s expected that Clark Kent is Superman, Steve Rogers is Captain America (even though that has changed frequently), and specifically, that Bruce Wayne dons the cape and cowl as Batman. Anything else, or any one else, and the story doesn’t have the same gravitas. Frankly, no one else can be Batman — no one else has the financial resources, training, and motivation to be the Caped Crusader. No one else is driven with the desire for justice laced with vengeance over the loss of their parents. This saying is true and trustworthy: Bruce Wayne is Batman and Batman is Bruce Wayne. You cannot separate the two.We’d like to think we can save ourselves and our society. But we can’t.
Yet, over the last seven Batman issues, Bruce Wayne has yet to take up his alter-ego and save Gotham. Suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, Wayne is now an honest social worker helping kids off the streets at the Lucius Fox Center for Gotham Youth. He has no memory of his past as Batman, no understanding of his training, and none of the angst and dark passion for justice. Bruce Wayne’s lifestyle now is compassion, kindness, and peace. His secret identity is still intact, but forgotten as the city presumes that Batman was killed by the Joker.
Gotham still needs Batman, though, and have a Batman it will. Funded and backed by a conglomerate of executives, former police commissioner Jim Gordon gets rid of his iconic mustache, shaves his hair into a mohawk, and takes up the mantle of the missing Batman. Instead of a super-strong, dark, menacing hero, we now have an awkward new robotic suit-wearing, cigarette-smoking Batman trying to bring down the newest villain to come Gotham’s way, Mr. Bloom. The results are far from surprising: Gordon is a noble but poor attempt at Batman and the city falls deeper into a cesspool of crime and corruption.
With each successive issue, Bruce Wayne’s discomfort with himself continues to rise while Gordon’s inadequacy as Batman grows. Which brings us to issue #47. The conflict is reaching a high-tide mark with every move of Batman to bring Mr. Bloom to justice met by a counter-move to kill and destroy more citizens. The outlook for Gordon, Gotham, and Batman looks very bleak. Even a new Robin, Duke Thomas, is unsuccessful at opening Bruce Wayne’s eyes to who he really is; Bruce’s amnesia continues to persist. The new Dark Knight, Jim Gordon, is not the hero Gotham deserves or needs right now.
While comic stories are intended, in one way or another, to inspire us to step up in a world gone wrong, Scott Snyder has exposed the limitations of our heroic capacities. Even with all the resources in the world at his disposal, Jim Gordon-as-Batman cannot bring down the evil infesting the city. He cannot save Gotham. And yet he tries. And so do we in our own ways.
I am in no way surprised that, during the holiday season, we stand up to try and care for those who are poor, weak, needy, homeless, and broken in our society. The number of phone calls, inquiries, and express requests for cash to fund social justice causes exponentially grows during the Christmas season. We take on our own heroic mantle to defeat the tinges of guilt that we’ve suppressed by not being good enough. The bells of the Salvation Army ring outside the shopping center where we just indulged our consumeristic tendencies, and as we cart out three large bags of unnecessary material stuff, we’re reminded of the poor chap who has to go without, and so we put in a pittance to quell our guilt-ridden hearts. Perhaps we can save ourselves.
America goes to church during this season. We look around expectantly for a savior. With next year being an election year, we hear the promises of hero-minded politicians who project their abilities to right societal ills, care for what we value, and make us great again. Yet for all their promises and all our abilities, we are like a shaved, mohawked, wimpy Jim Gordon putting on a poorly imagined replica of the Batman suit. We’d like to think we can save ourselves and our society. But we can’t.
Everyone knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne… or more accurately, that Bruce Wayne is Batman. And whenever someone else steps into the role that only Bruce Wayne can fill, weakness, trouble, and death ensue. In the same way, the Scriptures tells us that only Jesus is the Savior and hope of mankind. He is the only one who is the mediator between God and man, who gave himself as a ransom for us all (1 Timothy 2:5-6). Yet, we try, we attempt, and we hope in others who set themselves up as functional saviors but who all eventually end up in failure and disappointment.
Instead of the ringing bells of Christmas pulling at our heart strings to try and get us to assuage our guilty conscience, perhaps they could be a bird-song to remind us that we aren’t saviors. Perhaps they could point us to the manger, and then to the cross to help us see the real Savior, and cause us to trust in him to save, redeem, and renew all things. Instead of our weak attempts at being the hero, we can return to the part we are called to play: servants and friends of the Savior who declare and display his love in the fallen world. Let the bells ring, and let us give — not because we are the hero but rather, because we have been pulled out of the pit of death by the true hero. In that way, our good works become displayed responses to God’s grace and not attempts at saving power. After all, we must confess with John the Baptist. So, repeat after me…. I am not Batman. I am not the Savior. I am not the Christ!