I’ve always wondered, is it lonely work, being a superhero?
It’s not so bad. I have Robin.
Right, but a sidekick is not quite the same as a friend is it?
Maybe not. But he does admire me, he looks up to me.
My point exactly. A friend loves you, even though they know your flaws. A side-kick presumably follows you because they don’t see your flaws.
I wouldn’t be so sure that Robin doesn’t see my flaws. He’s not an idiot you know, even though he wears those ridiculous tights.
I’m not sure you should be talking about ridiculous tights…
Fair call. But maybe you’re right. It’s not like I’m going to tell Robin my deepest fears. He needs to believe I’m fearless, that’s the deal here.
So you don’t really have any friends?
Not unless you count Cat Woman. And she doesn’t count. So no, I don’t. It’s hard to have friends in this line of work. Work always has to come first and it takes you to places not many people want to go.
What about the whole alter-ego thing. Is that a way to make friends? Keep the ‘hero’ thing under wraps, mingle with the hoi polloi? Make some friends?
You know, I used to think it would work that way, but it’s hard to make friends when you have a whole secret life you can’t share with them. I have acquaintances, but beyond that I have to keep most people at a distance.
This whole ‘secret life’ thing intrigues me. Because on the one hand you have the secret superhero identity – the life of saving the helpless, preventing crime, fighting for justice. But then there’s this other secret – it’s like there is a murky, shadowy secret part of you as well. A part of you that you don’t ever want to have come out, whether you are Batman or your mild-mannered alter-ego. What’s that about? What is it about superheroes that gives them all this dark side?
Now you’re getting into the big questions. Like where do we come from? Heroes I mean. Why us and not someone else? Why are we compelled to save others? And when you start asking those kinds of questions, you always come up against the murkiness.
So are you saying that behind every hero is a shadowy history, some kind of painful past that created this drive to stand against evil?
Well, I haven’t done any kind of empirical research but I know heroes. Most of my friends are heroes, as far as I have friends. And every one of us has a story. If you ask us why we do what we do, we might tell you a admirable story about justice and service. But dig beneath the surface and you will find something less noble. We are the abandoned kids, the jilted lovers, the unjustly imprisoned of the world.
So it’s almost as though the superhero gig is a way to put right what has gone wrong in your own lives?
I don’t know if it is always quite that simple. But I am going to tell you that superheroes are motivated by guilt, shame, fear and anger as much as they are by love, justice and service. We’re a shadowy crew. No doubt about that.
So to come back to my first question – do you think these painful histories are part of what makes this a lonely life?
I think those murky histories are part of what make us lonely people. I think I’d be lonely whether or not I was Batman. Being Batman just gives me a good excuse.
Right, so tell me more about that. How does this superhero role give you an excuse to be lonely.
Well, people want their heroes to be perfect. They don’t want to know that Sir Edmund Hilary lost his temper at Tenzing, or that Batman gets totally freaked out by bad traffic. Heroes are supposed to be above that kind of shit. But we’re human too. So the only way to save the world from the disappointment of finding our just how flawed we are, we keep ourselves apart from the world.
I’ve often wondered that, how is someone like Sir Edmund supposed to come back down off the mountain and be a normal human again. Once people have declared you a hero they kind of expect you to behave like one, right?
So here’s another question. Why do we need heroes? I mean, why can’t we all just take care of ourselves and each other? Why do we need you guys to be bigger, better, stronger, faster than the rest of us? Why do we need heroes to save us?
I don’t think we do. We can take care of ourselves and each other perfectly well and none of us need any superpowers to do that. But somewhere along the way we got the idea that it would be easier if someone stronger than us could swoop in and save us. Maybe it’s some kind of memory of god. Or maybe we’re just lazy.
Or maybe we don’t really want heroes. We’ve just been told all our lives that we need them. What if we’d do a better job left to our own devices? Do you ever wonder that?
Oh totally. I wonder that all the time. I look at an old lady getting mugged on the street and I know that the expectation is that I’ll swoop in to save her. But I can see right there on the street at least a dozen people who would do just as good a job as me. Better actually, because they are her neighbours, and they know her.
So you have misgivings about your own role as a superhero?
Oh yeah. All the time. I’m always asking myself: ‘Do these people even really want my help? Are they just taking it because it’s being given, whether or not they need it? Have I created some kind of superhero-dependency here?” But you know what, I think it’s good to ask those kinds of questions.
Well, sure. It’s good to ask the questions, but then what? Have you ever thought about giving it up? Seeing how people manage without you?
Sure. But once you get into this kind of situation it’s hard to get out. I mean, people rely on me now. If I were just to pull out, they’d be left a bit high and dry. I mean, eventually of course they’d work out their own ways of solving these problems but in the meantime things could get a bit messy.
So you need an exit strategy?
An exit strategy? Ha, I’ve never heard it called that but yeah. That works. I need an exit strategy. And to be honest, I don’t really know what else I would do. This line of work isn’t exactly just a job, you know? It’s been my whole way of life for so many years, I don’t know how I’d even fit in to any other kind of role or setting any more.
And you get hooked on this feeling that you are helping people, I mean really helping people. I don’t know what else I could do that would give me that kind of a buzz.
Well, sure. There aren’t many jobs that’ll give you the same sense of purpose as being a superhero.
So for now I make sure that I’m always asking myself honest questions, like what are my real motivations for this work? Am I really doing it to help and serve others, or am I doing it to feel like my life has purpose, like I’m a good person? And I ask myself, do these people really need my help or am I sweeping in to save people who actually could have taken pretty good care of themselves (maybe even with less broken windows, and less fuss).
So you make a point of asking yourself those questions, but then you carry on with the work just like before?
No, no. Well, kind of. I try to adjust the way I work so that I’m not doing things that could easily have been done by someone already on the ground. Or if I do swoop in, I try to work alongside the people who were already there, you know, boost their capacity to deal with the problem rather than just doing it for them.
And how about the loneliness? How do you deal with that?
I guess I’ve just learned to live with it.
That’s kind of sad, don’t you think?
Yes, I guess it is. But you know, the work makes up for it. Knowing that I’m really helping people.
And when you are not sure whether you are really helping people or not. Does that make the loneliness harder to bear?
You’re a bit of a downer, you know that?
Sorry, it’s just I can’t help wondering whether you are going to regret this one day. Especially if we all realize that superheroes did less good than we originally thought. Then what will justify what you’ve given up? You know?
Yes. Of course. I know exactly what you mean and truth be told, I mostly try not to think about it too much. But the thought is there: what if this all actually isn’t worth it? What if I’m not really helping? It’s not a comforting thought.