Saturday, May 26, 2012

I Am Not Captain America

There’s something about The Avengers that works.

When Thor tries to persuade his brother to reconcile and come home, when Captain America blasts Iron Man for his selfishness and arrogance, when Black Widow is willing to do just about anything to save Hawkeye, we cheer. Courage, determination, self-sacrifice…it’s all there, and we love it.

I want to say that it’s because we believe in these things, deep down where it matters, in places where only stories can reach us. And maybe we do.

But we also traipsed along with a band of unruly pirates for four movies, cheering for the very dishonorable Jack Sparrow because, well, he was funny. We rooted for bare-faced revenge when the one after it was Inigo Montoya. And very few of us would describe James Bond as a man of character.

Our cinematic protagonists aren’t always, or even often, very admirable. So I can’t honestly say that fiction will always show our better side by reminding us that we ultimately want good to triumph over evil. It’s just not the way things are.

Eventually, I have to face it: I’m an idealist trapped in a messed-up world.

My heart says that people are good, that humanity in general defends what is right, and that we will only get better.

My head says, “We aren’t, we don’t, and we won’t.”

For every old man who refuses to kneel to a dictator, there are hundreds of thousands who will look the other way and let evil win…as long as it only affects someone else. History tells us that deep down where it matters, we are not good. We are not heroes.

But we want to be. That’s why I think superhero movies work. Courage, determination, self-sacrifice…those things don’t come from within us, or if they do, they’re only reflections of something above us. All of us wish we acted like Captain America, but I, at least, know that I usually don't. Even at our best, we humans are a mess of wrong motives, pride in our own abilities, and eagerness for glory.

“For I do not understand my own actions…I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:15, 18-19) Bruce Banner doesn’t have the lockdown on internal conflict. We’ve always been our own worst enemies.

I have a hard time understanding exactly how sin nature and the image of God interact post-Fall. It doesn’t make sense. We are incredibly fragile and unexpectedly strong, capable of acts of extreme devotion and extreme cruelty. Our hearts break easily, but we muster enough strength to keep fighting back over and over again before our spirits are crushed. Adversity strengthens us, acts of bravery inspire us, and heroes make us hope we would do the same in their place, even though we know we probably wouldn’t.

And we have something else, too. Agent Coulson told Loki the reason he would lose is because he lacked conviction. We humans have a great capacity for conviction. Even though it doesn’t seem to be of any immediate survival benefit, we find ourselves wanting to believe in something, looking for answers, trying to find purpose.

So what does it mean to me as a writer to have conviction?

It’s not just writing happy, fluffy things. A writer has to believe in good in the face of evil for there to be any conflict. And it’s not about writing empty, depressing things. A writer has to believe in evil’s eventual destruction by good for there to be any purpose. The best writing is marked by both an honest look at what is and a hopeful vision of what ought to be.

That’s conviction. And I think that's what The Avengers had that made it work.

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