“For boys a teacher at school is found, but artists, are teachers of men.”
Aristophanes (c.448 B.C.–c.388 B.C.). The Frogs
There’s a new kind of story that film makers are telling in greater numbers than ever before. It’s a more explicit version of the hero’s journey upgraded for the complexity of a 21st century psyche. Batman Versus Superman (BVS) is one of those movies. It shouldn’t simply be judged by the fact that there are too many opening scenes, or that the film ends three or four times, or that Aqua-Man looks like a Food Cart Vendor stepping out of the shower with a fork in his hand ready to flip another burger. None of that really matters.
Because while our collective neo cortex might struggle to make sense of the plot holes our unconscious minds are being fed a bounty of incredibly potent archetypal coding that most other stories say almost nothing about.
The Pain of Bruce Wayne
The murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, his inability to deal with that loss, and come to terms with his feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness has given rise to one of the greatest defense mechanisms of super hero lore – the Dark Knight – precisely what Bruce has been going through his entire life. And he has yet to see the light.
At the funeral of his parents he literally runs from the agony of their passing and falls down a hole of despair until, in his moment of greatest weakness (that he is entirely unsupported to process) he is visited by a vision of power that gives him the strength to carry on – the Bat. But bats can see in the dark, and Batman for all of his spectacular night vision … still can’t.
But this is the trade off that all defense mechanisms offer us. They are strong but blind. Helpful in the moment but woefully over simplistic. Batman is no exception. He is a singular minded, dogmatic warrior who sees little grey area in the war against (his) terror. He is a wounded soldier who seeks to bring order to his own suffering inside by attempting to create order in the world of Gotham outside. But it’s a fools errand. His story is a cautionary tale that illustrates one of the great misunderstandings of our time – that you cannot remove the stains in your basement by forever cleaning your attic. You cannot think your way out of emotional trauma or meditate your way out of dis-identified shadow. You cannot simply fight you way out of internal pain and suffering. You must meet vulnerability and pain mano a mano and lovingly let yourself be broken by it.
The unprocessed emotions of the wounded children within us all will simply wait in the darkness for years if they have to, until the moment that we are ready to acknowledge, love and re-integrate them. And until we do they will forever cause friction and turmoil in our lives as a result of their blindness. A blindness that finally takes on its greatest, and most destructive quantum leap in BVS when like Cain turning on Abel Batman finally seeks to kill his own brother.
He and and Kalel after all share the ‘same’ mother.
They are both called ‘Martha’.
Hence the great irony of our anti-hero – Batman teaches us not just what he needs to learn, but what we all do. Because we are all Bat-Men and Bat-Women in training, all struggling to free ourselves from the projections of our suffering so we can love the parts of us that have been hurt so we can stop projecting that pain onto something or someone else.
Batman’s fragmentation is not a fiction – it’s the on going story of civil war and cultural disagreements that have plagued human relationships for most of our history.
Superman and The Healers Messiah Complex
The man of steel still struggles to lead by example. He continues to fall into the trap of taking the burdens of the world entirely onto his shoulders. He is warned repeatedly by his mother – ‘you don’t owe this world anything’ – an internal conflict that many healers and ‘good’ people know well.
After all if we can help – then don’t we have a responsibility to?
Of course, but the minute we become invested in whether we succeed or not, the minute we entangle our identity into the results of our patients, and clients, even our world, then we have just taken the apple and inserted a worm.
Now when we succeed, or heal, we will feel loved, valuable, worthy.
And when we don’t we will feel guilty, ashamed, and undeserving.
Suddenly our entire self worth will now be fused with the endless pendulum swing of results that we alone will never be able to control.
And to think otherwise is the tragic loop of the savior complex. We feel the pain of others and want to help them by taking it all away. And there is tremendous presumptuousness in that. It assumes that we know what is best for them. But by taking someones pain away we may be removing an important stepping stone to their growth. We may be taking away the very resistance training they need to step up.
This is the paradigm of many men and women who want to ‘help’ instead of simply doing their work, with all their heart, and enjoying the process, regardless of what comes of it.
Take the most messianic scene of the film, when Superman saves a young child and is subsequently surrounded by a crowd on the Day of the Dead, the festival for those who have passed. Everyone reaches to him as if Christ himself had appeared from on high. The people are covered in face paint to make them look like skeletons. The iconography speaks volumes: those who desperately reach for saviors outside of themselves are not living but “dead” men and women walking. Superman wants to be the symbol of hope represented on his chest but he can feel himself being used as a catalyst for their dis-empowerment. His dilemma is heart breaking.
How to heal and love others without also depriving them of the value of conscious suffering?
Superman is still working on his communication skills, and the holding of healthy boundaries. He and the world are portrayed as being in a struggling co-dependent relationship.
But let’s take this a little deeper.
Early Childhood Trauma The Attachment Styles of Superheroes
If you want to understand one of the most fundamental ways in which you relate to those close to you then you need to look into your past, and particularly into the relationship between you and your primary care giver. In the world of childhood trauma and adult attachment styles the ACE test dominates the field and has identified several main attachment styles that we all fall into:
“Secure”, “Anxious”, “Dismissive”, “Fearful” and “Disorganized”
Simply put – they cover a spectrum that goes from being able to self regulate emotions in times of stress and conflict to having almost no ability to self regulate with others, and being unable to create lasting, healthy relationships not based on sex, guilt, or unconscious psychological and emotional manipulation.
Batman would probably score at the high end of the ACE test. His style would be “dismissive”. His only deep and healthy relationship is with Alfred, his childhood caretaker. Other than that he struggles with intimacy, is unable to let in the care of those close to him, and does little to self regulate his emotions outside of beating the hell out of criminals.
Lex Luther would be “disorganized” – the highest category on the ACE test that usually suggests a violent relationship with caregivers that severely challenged their ability to interact with others.
Superman on the other hand would probably score on the “secure” side of the ACE test. He is healthy. He can self regulate. He can love. He can heal. His relationship with Lois shows this. His ability to work with Batman, even as he is being attacked by him, reflects this.
If anything – Superman is “secure” but also ‘parentified‘ by the still childish world that struggles to take responsibility for its problems and yearns constantly to be saved by him. This is what the Congressional hearings in the movie are about. The ‘higher’ functions of society recognize the co-dependency and attempt to take steps to sever it.
In this way the world’s attachment style in the film is portrayed as “anxious.” Instead of feeling real love or trust toward “the savior” – whether that’s a religious figure, lover, parent, or child – we are emotionally hungry and look to them to rescue and complete us.
Some Final Thoughts
When Batman (Trauma) dreams it is in a barren, bleak, dusty desert. It’s in a concrete bunker, in darkness. His foe is Superman – his own comrade in arms, now distorted by his own projection of something violent and barbaric.
When Superman (Health) dreams it is lofty, inspirational. It is a reverie in which he has a vision of his father at the top of a mountain.
In Batman’s dream his heart is pierced by Superman.
In Superman’s dream his heart is touched by his father.
He even tells the story of how they their farm was flooded one summer.
“We worked till we almost passed out. But because we held back the flood to our house the neighbor’s got hit even worse.”
Clearly we can see where Clark gets his work ethic – to fight until his last breath, and also the struggle to overcome a world view where all decisions take place in a zero sum game in which someone always has to lose if you win. This is arguably the line that foreshadows his decision to give his life in the final battle.
His father goes on:
“The horses drowned and I had nightmares of them screaming for years.”
“Did the screams ever go away”
“Yes,” his father answers. “When I met your mother and she showed me that goodness was still possible.”
Here Clark is being reminded not to fall for the lie of trauma, that healing and health is possible.
Goodness, without any ulterior motive other than to love, is possible.
It is this very goodness, the goodness exemplified by Superman, that hangs in the films balance. In the most heated part of the film Luthor pits Superman against Batman and asks:
“Now let’s see the holes in your holiness”
This is the crux – the struggle for our traumas and wounds to believe that healing is possible. That health, and goodness is not simply a lie created to deceive us, that it can be pure, and that it doesn’t have to have an ulterior motive.
But even Superman doubts his own goodness.
In the end of course Superman dies and is buried in the season of fall, in his attempts to come to terms with this.
One would hope that his death precedes a rebirth into a more healthy version of what it is to be a healer, and an exemplar of goodness, in a world still struggling to believe that such things are possible.