The Corner of Hollywood and Sinai Summer Series: The Hero

In ancient Greece, a hero was a man who died in battle and, in doing so, brought glory and posterity to his name. Today’s hero is more likely to be a man who fulfills his dream against all immeasurable odds, minus the dying, hopefully. Sometimes a hero is one who upholds the law against those who would challenge it; sometimes the hero is the very one who challenges the law. A hero can be an ordinary person who, in the face of the unordinary, does the extraordinary. A hero can be an extraordinary person who, in similar situations, does the same. A hero can be real or fictional, fantastic or fantastical. In the movies, though, a hero tends to mean one more thing: big box office sales in the summer.

For the next few months, The Corner of Hollywood and Sinai will be focusing on the portrayal of heroes, a popular central theme in summer movies. We will be considering what the definition of a hero is and how this definition parallels, both positively and negatively, the Jewish definition of a hero. During the course of this series we will be deviating from the normal format. We will also be joined by guest critics to offer fresh outlooks on the chosen focus of our series. It is, after all, rare to find that everyone is in agreement when it comes to heroics.

Batman versus Anakin Skywalker:
The Battle Scene You Don’t See on Screen, Unless You Choose To

In Jewish thought there is a powerful caveat on free choice – it is said that all is in the hands of God with the sole exception of fear of God. In line with this thought, there are numerous references in Jewish tradition to the choice a person can make to fear Man or God. In other words, God can make us feel or do anything with the one exception that He cannot (or, at the very least, He created a universe in which He does not) make us fear Him; He does not control our fear. Furthermore, until we control our fear, we cannot properly fear God. In very other words, only we have the power over our own allegiances, a power which is greatly determined by the direction of our fear. The choices we make based upon what we fear, the choice we make to fear at all, are entirely in our own hands.

That is why Anakin was responsible for his self-indulgent journey to the Dark Side. (In fact, the power we are supposed to have over our fears is also the reason why I can even use the word “self-indulgent.”) That is why Bruce Wayne can be applauded for his self-possessed journey from the dark side. And, that is why, the direction of the protagonists’ journeys aside, the most obvious distinction between “Star Wars: Episode Three” and “Batman Begins” -- that the former is most possibly one of the worst movies this year and the latter is most likely one of the best -- is so unfortunate, unfortunate because the cautionary tale always has the potential to reach more people than the inspirational. Star Wars could have taught so many of us what not to do if only the acting, directing, script, costumes and, possibly even, lighting had been better. Instead, those few of us who have the guts will learn the infinitely more demanding lesson of what to do from the king of ‘actions without words’ – Batman.

Think about it for a minute; isn’t human nature more likely to lead a person away from evil if he or she is shown what will befall those who do evil than if a person is shown the difficult, albeit admirable, life of one who does good? “If you allow yourself to be overcome by fear you will end up encased in a black suit with a dead wife and a son who will eventually kill you” is sure to build a decent amount of Jedi supporters whereas “if you overcome your fear you will live a life devoted to fighting injustice and may change the world against all odds” is not going to get many people donning the cape and cowl. However, that is the whole point – fear will guide us away from Hell but fear won’t get us into Heaven.

Still, what does the metaphysical fork in the road have to do with light sabers, batmobiles and a few hours in a darkened theatre watching two of the sci-fi/fantasy world’s newest contributions to the seemingly endless, special-effects-clad metaphors for the battle between good and evil? Some questions really do just answer themselves but, for those of you who got lost in my clever language, the answer is: everything. Although the most prolific producer of colorful villains is the world of science fiction and fantasy, the true fight always returns to the eternal internal struggle. Little angel versus little devil. Id versus superego. And, as every attentive yeshiva kid knows, Yetzer Harah versus Yetzer Tov, evil inclination versus good inclination. 

For the same exact reason that we like to imagine two little figures duking it out in our head, we enjoy watching Luke Skywalker overcome Darth Vader, Batman wipe the floor with the Joker, Superman bury Lex Luther, and Harry Potter send Voldemort packing. That reason is, appropriately, fear. If the war is entirely inside ourselves then it is totally our responsibility and there is no escape. Better that our enemies dwell out there where we are not to blame and where we have every excuse not to go. We fear our own limitations. Our limitations become our excuses. And, at the risk of sounding like Yoda, our most damning excuse is fear.

Now, bear with me for a moment because I’m about to violate a rule of journalism; I’m going to change my mind. It is not unfortunate that Star Wars was a bad movie. In fact, thank God that Star Wars was a bad movie. People shouldn’t learn this lesson the easy way, by the cautionary tale. That would be an insult to the very profoundness of these stories. Maybe, Star Wars was a bad movie not simply because it was a bad movie but because it was a wrong movie. Anakin had all the excuses: he was predisposed to power, he lost his mother, the Jedi Council wasn’t exactly being forthright with him, he thought he was going to lose his wife and he had a teacher who led him astray. Yes, Star Wars still made Anakin responsible for his transformation in that he had to die for his sins but that moment in the movie, the one moment that could have redeemed the whole film, the moment when Anakin chooses to let his fear rule him, ends up functioning as one more excuse. That scene, like Anakin’s whole life, is filled with unfortunate circumstances and where there are unfortunate circumstances, where unfortunate circumstances command, there can be no choice.

 Everything is in the hands of God except for fear of God. This is not a statement on the limits of God; it is a statement on the potential of Man. Star Wars denies this; Anakin’s story is an Ancient Greek tragedy – fate made his road and his own fears led him right down that road to his eventual destruction. How can we learn what not to do, let alone what to do, from someone who had no say in the matter? Conversely, “Batman Begins” is all about choice – tough choices. Bruce Wayne also has his excuses: Predisposed to power? Bruce is the “prince of Gotham.” Dead parent? Check, check. Corrupt government? And how. Potential loss of loved ones? Bruce has it worse than Anakin – Bruce’s great fear is the loss of innocent life, all innocent life, not simply the loss of a single innocent life. Finally, a teacher who leads him astray? No, and for one simple reason – Bruce Wayne doesn’t let anyone lead him astray; he only listens to the people who teach him to fight against that path.

“Batman Begins” tells it like it is. No, actually “Batman Begins” tells it like it should be. No excuses allowed in the Bat Cave. Still, at the risk of sounding apologetic, there is one small problem with this movie: it’s really, really good entertainment. Batman does succeed in mastering his fears but every detail that contributes to the greatness of the film is one more gift-wrapped offering on the viewer’s altar of excuses. Of course Bruce Wayne could do what he did. He’s strong. He’s smart. He’s wealthy. He’s fictional. It was easy for him but real people, with our flaws, our obligations, our fears, can’t possibly achieve such heroics.

Well, what about fear? Batman has fear in gallons, just like any one of us, just like Anakin. However, Batman doesn’t try to run from his fear. He doesn’t let it immobilize him or lead him to do evil. Batman doesn’t let fear do anything. Batman confronts his fear. He tames his fears. He channels his fears. And, finally, he enfolds himself in his fear and uses it to accomplish his purpose. This is the lesson of the bat; fear exists and should exist – often it is the only indicator that something is wrong – but it must be kept as a tool with which to act properly and not as an excuse brandished as a shield against responsibility. 

Maybe we can’t swing from buildings, win a fist fight with ninjas or stop an array of psychotic super-villains but the good news is we don’t have to. Batman isn’t about the costume; it’s about the conviction. Life is filled with unfortunate circumstances but it’s up to us to make the choice to rise above the circumstantial. It’s up to us to let fear paralyze us or make fear fuel us. Fear won’t get us into Heaven, but neither will fearlessness; the Force is already with us. We just have to learn how to use it properly. Step one: don’t watch “Star Wars: Episode Three” – some unfortunate circumstances come in the form of trilogy conclusions and the only way to rise above them is to avoid them. Step two: watch “Batman Begins” – let it inspire you; let it teach you; let it remind you of the power you hold in your hands, a power that God, Himself, does not possess. After that, the rest is entirely up to you.

Dodi-Lee Hecht

2005 NISHMA