Independent author C. Chancy*, who also goes by Crossover Queen due to her penchant for blending two or more franchises together in her fan fiction stories, had an interesting post up on her site not too long ago. The main topic was threat perception. It explains that what the hero considers a threat differs from what the other characters in the same scenario perceive to be a threat, and vice versa. It was a good piece and a more than timely reminder, yet it made me think of something else. Specifically, this passage here:
Here’s where the writer’s choices make a big difference. How much sympathy does your hero have for the average person? How much imagination, to view a situation from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have special skills, and is probably having the worst day of their lives?
What makes Batman stand out as a hero has nothing to do with how many criminals he takes down, how acrobatic he is, or how he’s always one step ahead of everyone else. What makes him heroic is his concern for the victims. He takes in orphans. He tries to make sure that while criminals go the jail, the mentally ill get help. He’ll sit with a crying child and let them get it all out, so they know someone was there for them.
If you’ve never seen Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, or Batman Beyond, then Ms. Chancy’s statement may not immediately put you in mind of this scene:
The video above is from the finale for Justice League Unlimited, which also serves as the closing event in the Batman Beyond series. As a fortunate viewer of all of the above-mentioned shows, yours truly saw the line about “sitting with a crying child” and at once recalled this moment. Of the many scenes in the show that she recalls, this is one of the more prominent and poignant.
It also bears mentioning, before discussing this topic in-depth, how the other characters in the video react when Ace closes off the path Batman takes. Star-Girl (I believe that’s her name) immediately attacks the briar fence, seeing only a threat. I do not know her companion’s name, but she also sees an obstacle rather than a request for privacy. Red Tornado does not close with it soon enough for a viewer to gauge his reaction, but Shiera (Hawkgirl) neither attacks the briar nor attempts to follow Bruce.
Instead, she perches on the top, overlooking the scene, to make certain his path is clear and he can reach his goal unmolested. She trusts Batman to know what he is doing and, more importantly, to do the right thing. Out of all the characters present, she might have had an inkling of his plan to stay with Ace until her moment came. Having known him the longest of the four Justice Leaguers present and seen his compassion, she knows him better than many others, giving her the ability to anticipate – however dimly – at least some of his actions and reactions.
Ms. Chancy’s point about threat assessment is well considered and well taken, as is her reminder that the heroes ought to consider a bystander’s POV (point-of-view). To my mind, this is especially the case when it comes to child characters. They can be friends or temporary acquaintances, but the heroes should be able to empathize with them in some way.
We do not just watch the hero for inspiration or cathartic release. We cheer him on for all those reasons, but we also watch him to learn empathy. To learn how best to see our fellow men and identify where we can be better neighbors, better friends, and better family members. Fiction is a mirror that reflects life back to us. Depending on either the writer or the story, the reflection can be a fun house mirror or a clear glass that shows us what we could only vaguely perceive previously.
One of the failures of Iron Man 3 – and there were many – was the fact that Tony Stark at the time was very bad at establishing believable emotional connections with others. This stemmed primarily from his inability to accept his own vulnerability; if he cannot admit at least to himself that he is weak, then he cannot connect with others through their weakness. It makes watching his interactions with ten-year-old Harley Keener painful in the extreme, since the rapport they have remains unbalanced until the end of the film. Even that final moment of recognition feels somewhat off-kilter due to Tony’s inability to acknowledge his human frailty out loud.
Steve Rogers, on the other hand, has a much easier time convincing viewers that he can “walk with kings – nor lose the common touch.” Remembering Dr. Erskine’s point that a weak man would always respect power because he knew what it was to be powerless, Steve has little trouble putting himself in another’s shoes. It’s why he is capable of inspiring strong loyalty in others. The quiet moments he shares with people who feel vulnerable (Natasha in Winter Soldier and Wanda in Civil War) prove this. Steve, after joining them in their vulnerability, lifted them out of it and enabled them to become better people. He has never forgotten what it is to be helpless, and this allows him to connect with others when they are at their weakest.
Children, being naturally defenseless, are typically used in fiction to illustrate a hero’s capacity to see the world from another’s POV. Once upon a time there were specific episodes of series dedicated entirely to heroes befriending young children and helping them with their particular issues. Some of this was wish fulfillment, to be sure, and more than one such episode tended to be a bit “preachy.” The literary trope, however, has a greater point: to show that the hero could look at the world “through the eyes of a child.” That he could remember what it was to be weak, and to help someone who was vulnerable by lifting them out of that position with their own strength to help them reach a better situation.
Due South*, for example, had its hero Constable Benton Fraser on his way to work one day, realize that the young girl he said hello to each morning had a problem when he found her sitting at the top of the steps and staring down them sadly. Typically, Fraser is the consummate gentleman who routinely holds the door for little old ladies, stands at his post until the last ring of the bell signaling the hour, and greets everyone with a polite smile. Late for work on this day, however, he starts to pass the girl by. After all, she said everything was fine…
Halfway down the stairs, Fraser stops. Sighs. Turns around and goes back to talk to her. If I remember correctly, he did so by looking up at her through the bars of the balustrade. In other words, rather than look down on her, he looked up. Symbolically he puts her wellbeing – her perspective – above his own needs and wants. At the same time, he makes himself weak, makes himself stop and consider things from the position of a lonely little child whose caring father is, for some reason, presently absent.
Peter Cullen, the original voice actor for Optimus Prime in the Transformers franchise, likes to tell a story about the day he went to audition for the leader of the Autobots. Living with his older brother, Larry, at the time, he shared the details with him – that his character potentially would be a “hero truck.” They both had a good laugh at the idea, never realizing where it would go.
Then Larry Cullen, a former captain in the United States Marines, sobered and told his younger brother something the man never forgot. “Don’t be a Hollywood hero who yells and screams,” Larry said. “Those aren’t real heroes. That’s not real strength. Be strong enough to be gentle.”
Any Transformers fan who has heard Peter Cullen voice Optimus Prime knows that he has applied his brother’s advice to the character and continued to do so into the present. The leader of the Autobots is able to see things from the other’s perspective, even an enemy such as Megatron. Optimus is strong enough to lead the Autobots not because of the Matrix of Leadership or because he is the biggest, most physically capable member of his faction. He is, in essence, strong enough to lead because he is strong enough to be gentle – to become weak, see from the other’s eyes, and empathize with them, then offer his strength to bolster and lift them up.
Oscar Wilde summed this up best in his story The Selfish Giant. Initially, the Giant uses his power for his own ends by keeping the weakest members of society – children – off his property, which results in an eternal winter descending upon the garden. The Giant cannot understand this phenomenon until he realizes that the children bring spring. But they have learned to fear the Giant and so stay out of his garden whenever he leaves his house.
Except for one small Child Who cannot climb a particular tree. He is too small and weak, and so distracted by grief that He, apparently, does not see the Giant coming for Him. Not until the Giant lifts Him up and puts Him in the tree.
Most modern retellings of this fable leave out the Child’s identity, focusing on the return of Spring to the Giant’s garden and his change of heart. But there is more to the story; though the Giant allows children into his garden for the rest of his life, he never finds the Child he helped to climb the tree. Not until, one day, the Boy returns – wounded in His hands and feet. “Who hath dared to wound Thee?!” the Giant demands, promising to punish the one who harmed the Child.
“Nay!” his little Friend replies with a smile. “But these are the wounds of love!”
Every time the hero leans down to a child, he leans down to speak to that Child. The One Who became helpless for our sakes, to lift us out of our weakness, to elevate us above our infirmities. When we see the hero of a story speak to a child as a child, then we see a re-presentation of the revelation contained in Oscar Wilde’s story.
That is something sorely lacking in our fiction today. It is something I wish we could see more of, readers and writers. Hopefully, this little post will help return this storytelling trope to its rightful place in fiction.
But the rest – that is up to Him. It is also up to you, and me, as well. Let’s bring back the heroes who are strong enough to be gentle. It is past time they came back to us, chased winter from the garden, and returned Spring.
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If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!
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6 thoughts on “Heroism and Vulnerability – A Reflection in the Garden”
Reblogged this on Head Noises and commented:
Part of why Batman is awesome– but so many of the movies fail to catch it.
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(Comment to clicka da box)
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“Having known him the longest of the four Justice Leaguers present and seen his compassion, she knows him better than many others, giving her the ability to anticipate – however dimly – at least some of his actions and reactions.”
Which is why she was probably the only character for this scene:
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YES! Oh, goodness, this scene! Still makes me tear up….