Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Do Villains Have Secret Identities?

On Sunday I preached a sermon that used the classic superhero motif of identity/alter-identity as a way of exploring the issue of identity in our own lives.  On the way out of church two people had two very intriguing comments.  One asked, "and how many identities does the Joker have?"  As I thought about it I realized that a great many of the comics' villains have only one identity.  The Joker is the Joker.  He had once had another identity, but now all he is is the Joker.  Same with the Penguin, Two-Face, Mr. Freeze, Harley Quinn, Victor Zsasz, Killer Croc, Bane ... the list could go on and on.  Yes, Catwoman is Selina Kyle, and there are a few other, yet even those who do have an alter-ego rarely are depicted as having a secret identity.  It seems that everybody knows that Edward Nygma is The Riddler and that Jonathan Crane is the Scarecrow.

I can think of several reasons for this.  First of all, the stories are generally about the hero with the villain serving primarily as the hero's foil.  The villain exists to give the hero something to do, to provide the necessary challenge that every hero must face.  (See Joseph Campbell's concept of the monomyth if you have any doubt that all heroes must have trials to face and obstacles to overcome.)  To the extent that this is true, then, the villains don't need to be as fully fleshed out as the hero.  It's true that if you stay with the characters for a while they are shown to be more than cardboard cut-outs, and there are certainly more than a few stories told from their points of view.  Yet predominantly it's not their internal struggles that we care about.  And in terms of these archetypal mythological figures helping us explore our own lives?  We're more likely to identify with the hero than the villain.  I relate to the Batman -- or his first protégé, Nightwing -- far more easily than I do to Poison Ivy or Clayface.  

Of course, as in any dream, all the archetypes in these stories are intended to reflect dimensions of the human condition.  This is as true of the villains as the heroes.  The disinhibition of the Joker, the quest for power of Bane, the conflicted nature of Two-Face -- all of these reflect experiences we know.  So perhaps there's another reason that so many villains have only one identity.  Perhaps that's the reason they're villains.

In my sermon on the heroes I said:
Superman needs Clark Kent.  The Batman needs Bruce Wayne.  And you and I need those parts of ourselves that we would rather not acknowledge.  We need to be our whole selves, not just those parts we think are acceptable or that project what we think we should be like.  Years ago the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen popularized the phrase, “the wounded healer” as a way of capturing the idea that it is precisely our wounds, our woundedness and our weaknesses, that are our greatest strengths.
That’s not exactly intuitive, is it?  Not, apparently, logical.  Not even, if you’re anything like me a good bit of the time, all that believable.  Yet apparently it’s true.  Superman and Clark Kent need each other; Bruce Wayne and the Batman need each other.  And you … well … you need …you.  We can’t split off part of ourselves and still be whole.
Perhaps the reason that the villains are villains -- aside from whatever origin story they may have -- is precisely because they don't have an alter ego.  All they are is chaos, or greed, or unrestrained power, or manipulation, or revenge, or vanity, or what-have-you.  So perhaps they too tell us that we need to have at least some kind of balance in our lives; that our whole selves are needed.  Perhaps they provide cautionary examples to us.

Pax tecum,



PS -- I'd said that two parishioners left the service on Sunday with intriguing feedback.  I'll deal with the other in my next post.

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