Buzz-Kill Batman & the Myth of the Lone Hero

By David Dunham

I can’t imagine that Batman would be very much fun at a party. He’s always so grim, a real buzz-kill. Of course, Batman would never really go to a party–he’s not much of a socialite. Even if someone did look past his brooding demeanor, he’s not likely to accept an invite. And he’s not the only character like that. There are a host of characters whose heroism is often accompanied by a deep isolationism. It’s easy to appreciate their caped-crusading antics, and yet we ought to consider just how compatible isolation is with real heroism. They seem rightfully at odds. Real heroism comes from within the context of real community.

Comic books, films, and literature are littered with the stories of great heroes who, for all their concern for others, often seem very much alone in their respective worlds. Wolverine is a nomad, crossing the globe in search for answers to his past, never planting roots and rarely interested in developing long-term friendships. The few women he has loved have either died or betrayed him. And the scars he bears from all his betrayals have hardened him against all human relationships. He is the epitome of the lone-wolf.

Not all heroic loners are the same, of course. Some do seek their isolation through solitude, others are merely alone because their self-destructive habits won’t let people get close. Batman certainly exemplifies the hero living in solitude. Alone in a giant mansion, cut off from the world in his Batcave, he fights crime as the faceless Dark Knight. He shares his secrets with a scarce few, and even they are not permitted to speak into his life, to comfort or care for him. Other lone heroes might include James Bond or Jack Reacher. In fact the whole spy genre utilizes these types of characters. Narratives have often built stories around the lone-wolf stereo-type. But despite our love for such characters, their isolationist tendencies should not be romanticized.

Our culture loves the ideas behind these nomadic warriors, ideas such as independence, freedom, and rebellion. Their independence makes them role-models. It’s the individual we applaud over and against the community. The hermeneutic governing much of our culture sees things almost exclusively in individualistic terms. Sociologist Robert Bellah has argued that we “are limited to a language of radical individual autonomy.” People cannot even think “about themselves or others except as arbitrary centers of volition” (Habits of the Heart, 81). The lone hero is very much at the center of our culture. We celebrate the lone cowboy with no one to rely on but his trusty six-shooter and his own brand of justice. We romanticize separation from the world in stories like Into the Wild. But the reality is that apart from community we wind up like Chris McCandless, starving to death in the Alaskan wilderness. More to the point, apart from real relationships our heroism diminishes. In fact the anti-social behavior of many fictional heroes would likely drive them away from compassion and pity, not towards caped-crusading.

Community is vital for developing the kind of compassion that fuels heroism. In 2000 Robert Putnam described the importance of community for altruism. He warned us that good deeds flow out of social networks. “Social networks provide the channels through which we recruit one another for good deeds,” he says, “and social networks foster norms of reciprocity that encourage attention to others’ welfare” (Bowling Alone, 117). Good deeds require investment in community. However, the real reason that isolation doesn’t produce selfless surrender is because sin is a reality.

The reality of sin means that left to ourselves we will not naturally produce the kind of sympathy that is required for heroism. Chris Brauns, author of Bound Together: How We Are Tied to Others in Our Good and Bad Choices, has keenly observed:

Intentional isolation, far from inclining us to care for others and serve them, simply drives us deeper into our sinful, selfish patterns…Because of our solidarity with Adam in sin, the Lone Ranger tendency is not to serve but to run. Lone Rangers will not lay down their lives for people with whom they have no connection. Lone Rangers don’t fire the silver bullets for anyone but themselves. (184)

A lone-wolf does not naturally seek the benefit of others. Isolationism and anti-social behavior create sociopaths, not heroes. The only way Batman jumps in the Batmobile and goes racing to the rescue of the innocent Gotham citizen is if he has developed compassion. And compassion can’t be cultivated alone.

This assertion should not undermine the fact that we do each need a respite from social interaction at times. Even Superman, who has certainly cultivated healthy community in his life, has a fortress of solitude. But heroism as we value it and understand it, as we celebrate it in our fiction, cannot come from loners. It is love that compels us to act heroically. The gospel testifies to that motivation behind true heroism. It was out of love that Christ laid down his life. He was not motivated by some abstract concept of justice or human decency, but rather by compassion. John 3:16 famously states that God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son. It’s a heroic act driven by love – both love within the Trinity and love for creation. This is a true hero’s model.

The lone-wolf, the rebel without a home, is a figure of fiction which we celebrate for its uniqueness. It is certainly because of their willingness to rescue others, despite their anti-social tendencies, that we delight to read about Wolverine and Batman. They fight against their nature to do the right thing. Yet, we must surely recognize that such a hero, for all his excitement and hype, is a myth. Heroism apart from community simply doesn’t exist.

David Dunham is an associate pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in the Detroit Metro area. He is not a hipster, he does drink too much coffee, and he blogs at http://www.pastordaveonline.com/.

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