A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a piece on Simone Martini’s Altarpiece of Blessed Agostino Novello. Art critic Peter Plagens describes the saint flying to save a falling child with “superhero alacrity.” It’s an apt sketch of the picture and a catchy phrase in itself — so catchy that WSJ editors seized on it for the article’s title, “Future Saint as Medieval Superhero.” Cheese, anyone?
It’s hard to blame them for trying to relate. Besides, the saint as wonder-worker, rescuer, guy who comes to tame a wild beast, recover a vanished valuable or expose a murderous butcher with Columbo-esque serendipity has always been a popular figure. In these stories, the saint does resemble the superhero: People have a problem; mysteriously powered stranger shows up. And, presto, problem solved.
If there are saints who resemble superheroes, there are also superheroes who resemble saints. Before his late, deplorable incarnation as an indecisive deadbeat boyfriend who fathered a child out of wedlock, Superman was the example par excellence of this kind of character, the “big blue boy scout” who didn’t have to shoot or kill to polish off his day’s good deed. Occasional aberrations aside, his squeaky-clean image made him ripe for canonization.
While Superman may have been an American saint, his Justice League companions and their counterparts across the fictionally powered world are not always so scrupulous. Their exploits call to mind not so much a saint’s legend as the intermittent rages and immortal peccadilloes of the ancient Greek gods.
In recent years especially, a spate of new movies — the Spider-Man trilogy and its reboot, Christopher Nolan’s now completed Batman trilogy, and the still ongoing Ironman series — have featured heroes who exercise their powers as means of feeding their own arrogance, satiating their desire for revenge, and/or providing a sop for their feelings of inadequacy.
These modern titans do good deeds and even sometimes — when the chips are down — do good deeds for good reasons. Indeed, if there are only 20 minutes left in the movie, they’re practically guaranteed to come out on Thurber’s Side of Right. But it would be laughable to think of them as saints: They are neither virtuous nor even continent men.
Point out the flaws of the modern superhero to a writer or critic, and he will talk about “humanizing” the character. It’s hard to relate to those whose wealth, technological expertise or physiological enhancements make them all but demigods. The easiest way to induce empathy for a character so removed from normal daily life is to give him flaws to which we mortals can presumably relate. If the result is a man like us in no thing except sin, that is less the fault of the story-crafters than of the genre.
In WSJ, Plagens makes a similar point about his flying saint, Blessed Agostino Novello. “To the 14th-century Sienese,” he writes, “many of the Catholic Church’s saints seemed out of touch with daily life. The Sienese tended to attribute miracles to prominent citizens who practiced charity in down-to-earth ways.” Plagens’ example of Agostino’s down-to-earthness is the saint’s training as a lawyer and eventual career as Prior General, “a kind of CEO-cum-provost.”
So the saint is a wonder-worker who is humanized by his mundane life, and the superhero is a wonder-worker who is humanized by his mundane sin? Is the distinction between the two as simple as that?
Towards the end of his stellar if spoiler-filled review of Gran Torino, Father Robert Barron makes a telling point about the protagonist, Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski. Kowalski has been using “the old methods” of violence to repay wrongs done to his friends and himself; the result, predictably enough, is more violence.
It’s a problem familiar to both the Western and superhero genres. If the answer to the question “How can I deal with this evil?” is always “Beat the bad guys up,” then it’s usually only a matter of time before another, stronger, angrier bad guy comes around to extract his revenge.
That remains true whether the hero is the “boy scout” Superman or Nolan’s anguished Bruce Wayne or a hostile foreign power in the real world. The conclusive solution is not to beat the bad guy, but to change him — or, failing that, to change so much of the rest of the world that he is rendered powerless.
There’s a lovely story about St. Nicholas (nemesis to the murderous butcher cited above) that credits him with punching Arius at the Council of Nicaea. St. Nicholas may or may not have made heretics suffer for the faith, but we know he suffered for it himself.
The saints are not cowards — the saints can on occasion be sharp-tongued and forceful and impetuous — but the saints are not chiefly men of violence either. That is the real difference between Blessed Agostino and Batman: not that one is a good man and the other a morally indifferent one (an interesting point, but one consequent chiefly to their souls), but that they use their “powers” for different ends.
You can shoot a lone, crazy gunman; but you can’t shoot Chicago. You can beat up a bully, but you can’t beat up Jack Merridew’s savages. You can behead an orc, but you can’t behead every orc in Mordor.
It’s much faster to kill a criminal than it is to kill a cancer. It’s much simpler to put someone out of his misery than to make someone happy. It’s much easier to thwart a heist than it is to perform a rescue. (Why do you think heist movies make us root for the heisters and rescue movies for the rescuers, hmm?) But the easy, the simple and the fast are all Band-Aids. Batman is a Band-Aid. Even Superman is a Band-Aid.
The solution for Gotham, the solution for Aurora, Colo. — the solution for America — isn’t more of Batman. It’s more of Mother Teresa. More of Blessed Agostino. More, in fact, of Christ.
I suspect Walt Kowalski would agree with me.
Sophia Mason is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College
and a graduate student at The Catholic University of America.
She blogs at The Girl Who Was Saturday.