Lessons in the Dark
By Ned Gannon
A closet holding nearly a hundred and fifty consecutive issues of The Amazing Spider-Man and a nine-year old son obligated me to fork over my twenty, hard-earned American dollars to see the new Andrew Garfield picture. Leaning back in the cool, dark cinema on a bright and hot summer afternoon, I expected a visual effects extravaganza, which I got, but the movie honestly had more heart than I expected. With the Dark Knight looming just behind Spider-Man in the super-money-grossing lineup, I found myself contemplating what it is that keeps us going back for these tales told and retold, sometimes with little-to-nothing new to add to their mythology. To be fair, Nolan—one of the more interesting popular directors working today—did nearly re-envision the Batman mythology with a neo-noir quality and an added emotional intensity. In fact, it seems viewers are demanding more and more emotion and humanity from their heroes. But even in the newest Spider-Man picture, we hear the old adage that there are only a few good stories and we keep retelling them. What is it about the billionaire-technology-mogul of Gotham who moonlights as a guardian of his city, the Queen’s New York teenage-turned-freak-vigilante, or Stark’s playboy-genius turned armored guardian of the free world that even resonates with a middle class kid or adult?
With my son, it’s obvious. Spider-Man can move fast and run circles around bad guys, and he’s funny. But what do the millions of teenage, twenty-somethings or even thirty-somethings find so compelling about these stories. There is the issue of scale. The ante is progressively upped. The recent Avengers movie featured not one, but five superheroes. But to be honest it was kind of boring for the same reason Superman was never my favorite hero as a kid. I simply can’t imagine that Superman or Thor is very interesting if he’s not vanquishing a huge foe. I mean, honestly, can you imagine Thor discussing the latest Michael Chabon novel or going for a beer without picking a fight? Spider-Man at least has real world problems, at school, at work, with his relationships. And Batman, being more or less a mere mortal, was always vulnerable. The Uncanny X-men appealed to thousands of readers because of their teenage angst. They were a school of misfits that were special. What geek would not like that? So perhaps it is vulnerability that makes the best heroes compelling, be it physical or emotional vulnerability.
But I think there is more. I think superhero stories feed on our collective imagination, or as Joseph Campbell might put it, the Power of Myth. They feed off our hopes, secret desires, and beliefs. Who among us has not had a daydream that included heroic or selfless acts (or at least the humble acceptance of a prestigious award)? In a society rife with energy problems, wars, and economic problems, Iron Man offers us a character with unlimited financial resources, who produces an almost unlimited energy source, who can be anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes, and is evidently quite the charmer in the bedroom too. Are there any male fantasies we didn’t cover? Oh, he has the sports car too.
For many young people hiding behind their Facebook pages, out of work, and confused by the moral ambiguities of politics, Spider-man offers a hero who has moral clarity and boyish charm, but still some of the same worries that young people confront today.
A reaction to all of this might be cynicism—to write off these films as simply fantasy escapism with nothing to offer. I feel the temptation to do that myself at times. And yet I can’t, not while they permeate so many people’s imaginations. However, beyond the superpowers and super gadgets, I believe these heroes appeal to us because they do the right thing, the moral thing at the right time. Maybe that is what appeals to us more than anything. They are special because they are extremely good, as well as all the other traits they possess. They offer moments of heroic and moral clarity. But does this moral clarity exist? When I think of real-world vigilantes, George Zimmerman comes to mind—hardly a role model for children. One of the first definitions Wikipedia (insert standard apology for quoting Wikipedia here) gives for vigilantism is lynching. This hardly fits our popular notions of vigilantism. Is it ever that easy to see what we should, or need, to choose? Are we ever, in the rigmarole of real life, able to see with clarity the right and moral choice and make it without self-considerations. Or are we sitting in the dark without a clue?
I, for one, am glad for popular hero stories. Anakin Skywalker provides a convenient metaphoric reference for times when my son impatiently loses his temper. In the Amazing Spider-Man, Uncle Ben teaches that to humiliate someone for revenge is wrong and instructs Peter that if he is in the position to do something good for another person then he has a moral obligation to do it. Lessons that we should all live out.
Recently, my son, obsessed with Sherlock Holmes, watched the Jeremy Brett version of the Conan Doyle story, The Crooked Man. A key plot point in the mystery is the story of Uriah and David from the Old Testament. My son, very familiar with the David and Goliath narrative was a bit disillusioned to discover David would be treacherous enough to steal another man’s wife by placing him in harm’s way in battle. All this reminded me that sooner or later his narratives, our narratives, become more complex and convoluted and even polluted. Moral clarity is lost in the whirlpool of politics, social norms and economic powers.
And so it is necessary to teach lessons that Hollywood will never be in a position to provide. In his book Justice for Hedgehogs, Ronald Dworkin argues that in matters of moral decision, we will never have a smoking gun or Higgs-Boson particle that instructs us clearly as to what we should do. Dworkin suggests that in matters of value, where moral discourse falls, we will never have proof that torture is wrong or acceptable or that preemptive war is justified or wrong. He goes so far as to say the idea that we can scientifically prove the moral right of a position is tantamount to suggesting the evidence of a moral particle he calls the moron. I tend to agree with Dworkin, if not on all points, at least on the point that moral right is defined through dogged discourse and evolves and that truths exist whether we acknowledge them or not. We must choose our value and then defend it, but we are in the dark without knowledge and experience. One part of this is being willing to listen to other voices.
At dusk on a Tuesday evening, my family and I set out for the intersection of County Highway K and State Highway 12. In a bank parking lot, we rendezvoused with a DNR volunteer, piling into her truck. After about fifteen to twenty minutes of driving, the highway deposited us onto a dirt road. Soon we stopped under the deepened blue night sky. Our guide walked, barefoot, down the dirt road and had instructed us to follow but to keep about ten yards behind her. Then she howled. We waited. Nothing. She howled again. Nothing.
And then over the soft breeze and the black silhouettes of the pines, a distant howl sounded. My breath stopped. My son looked at me with eyes wide. Then once more. Slowing returning to the truck, we climbed in and our guide drove deeper into the woods. We stopped again, following her barefooted lead down the sandy rock now in deep dark. She moved thirty yards ahead, and I strained to see her outline in the darkness. An owl sounded somewhere nearby, loud and clear. A distant owl answered adding to the depth and dark of the trees around us. Twigs off to my right in the dark snapped. Who knew what was watching us from the impenetrable density of the woods’ dark. She howled. Nothing. She waited and we stood, breathing shallow. Then rising to meet the now starry sky a host of voices filled the air like a wild choir. Yearlings, pups, males, females. You could almost pick them out. For minutes they cried, letting us know they were there, and that we were entering their territory. Slowly, the voices dropped off, until none were left except that of the alpha male. A soaring, solitary howl quieting all others. I stood stunned by the clarity and beauty of what I had just heard. Our companion reappeared from down the road, and we all climbed into her truck. As soon as the doors were closed, we all began to chatter excitedly. Headlights came on and we drove to what appeared to be the end of the road in order to turn around.
There, in a small clearing that opened into the road, stood a wolf pup, all legs and paws and soft fur. Her eyes glowing in the headlights, as she stared at us. We gasped and leaned forward. She stared for about thirty or forty seconds, and then turned and cantered into the black, disappearing as softly as she walked. “We need to leave them alone now,” our guide suggested. And we drove back the way we came. “That’s not going to be a shy one,” said our driver, smiling. “That’s your next pack leader.”
She said this, even after our discussion about how those wolves would soon be pursued by dogs, hounded by hunters, and snared in traps in almost every part of Wisconsin. Dogs will be attacked and viciously killed, and wolves will be snared in traps and left to slowly die. Wolves have become the most contentious animal in politics. There are voices on both sides, and as usual, the voices with money and power behind them are winning.
I enjoy the movies, especially with my son. But something tells me when I look back on this time in my life one of the first experiences I will recall will be a walk with my family down a dirt road in the backwoods of Wisconsin on a Tuesday summer night when a long-legged wolf pup appeared and disappeared before my eyes. There is an old Heiltsuk saying that a wolf only allows itself to be seen if it is trying to tell you something. Not all moral choices have the luxury of clarity. Some lessons can’t be gleaned from a screen. Some of us are left in the dark, straining to hear other voices, even if those voices are not our own kind.
Wolf drawings, copyright Ned Gannon, 2012, all rights reserved.