Thursday, March 15, 2007

Do Superheroes Lack Character?

One of the most interesting books I've read recently is Lack of Character by John Doris, which sets out to debunk a conception of human nature that is part of our everyday ideas about people, and is also popular with many philosophers.

Most of us believe that individuals have character--that they possess inherent personality traits, such as honesty, trustworthiness, or avarice, that play a large part in determining what actions they will take in various circumstances. A generally helpful person will do generous things for other more often than a less helpful person; a generally honest person lies less than a less honest person; and so on.

But Doris argues that there is no evidence that general personality traits such as these exist, and that our actions are actually determined almost entirely by the circumstances at hand. He cites voluminous amounts of psychological research to bolster his claim, including experiments demonstrating that people are much likely to help a stranger after they find a dime in a phone booth than if they find no dime. Studies such as these would suggest that seemly irrelevant factors (including seeing a pretty face, smelling a pleasant smell, etc.) are more determinant of our behavior than personality traits, supporting the case for situationalism. (Many philosophers have written responses to and critiques of Doris' work - a quick search on Google or the Philosopher's Index will find many.)

Besides the relevance this has for my academic work on the will and economic choice (including my chapter in Economics and the Mind), I think this is very interesting for the behavior of superheroes and our opinions of them. I'll pick two in particular: Batgirl (Cassandra Cain) and Iron Man.

Let's take Iron Man first - I'm no Marvel expert, I didn't read Civil War (except the last issue), but I've followed the events and reaction to them online since the beginning. The common feelings amongst fans is that Tony Stark is a - well, let's say schmuck. But his schmuckiness apparently varied within the series and the 734 tie-in issues, and I don't think yesterday's Civil War: The Confession cleared much up (no spoilers - see here if you want to know what happened).

But what I hear a lot is "Tony wouldn't do that," or "this isn't the Iron Man I know," or "now which Iron Man will be see in this issue?" Readers believe that there is one character named Tony Stark aka Iron Man, and that (fictional) person will behave certain ways in certain situations because of who he is. John Doris would disagree, saying that Stark's actions were all responses to the matters at hand in any given situation, implying that the character of Iron Man (or any hero/villain/bystander) actually has no character that transcends specific temporary circumstances.

Broadening our focus, many fans have argued that some Pro-Reg heroes really should have been Anti-Reg, or vice versa. (There was even a Newsarama thread about which sides the various DC heroes would have taken if there were a Civil War in the DCU.) So though they may not all agree, fans have very definite ideas about the personalities and character traits of their favorite superheroes, based of course of how writers have portrayed these characters over the years.

That brings us to Cassandra Cain, the latest Batgirl. Her fans went nuts when she reappeared OYL as a villain, leading the League of Assassins, framing Robin for her death, apparently trying to kill Supergirl, and then joining Deathstroke's Titans East team. "This is not Cassie!" came the collective cry, and websites sprouted out of the cybersoil to plead for - well, her character.

A little background - Cassie was spawned by the unholy union of two assassins, David Cain and Lady Shiva, to be the perfect assassin. Shiva disappeared, and Cain raised Cassie from birth, teaching her not to communicate in verbal language but instead in body language, eventually being able to anticipate an opponent's every move. Her first "job" was as a small girl, and after she recoiled at the reaction of her target's face as she ripped his throat out, she fled Cain's home and wound up in Gotham City, becoming an information scout for Oracle (aka Barbara Gordon, ex-Batgirl) during "No Man's Land" (post-earthquake Gotham City). After proving her skills and heroism (character trait!) by saving James Gordon's life, Batman and Oracle agree to make her the new Batgirl (giving her the costume ever so briefly adopted by the Huntress in the spirit of "striking fear into the hearts of evildoers").

Throughout the No Man's Land event, assorted appearances in the various Batman titles, and her own series (which lasted 73 issues), she was consistently portrayed as unfailingly heroic and absolutely resistant to killing, the latter as a reaction to her upbringing by David Cain and her single experience as an assassin. But after Infinite Crisis and the "One Year Later" jump, Cassandra Cain reappears in the pages of Robin, leading the League of Assassins and apparently having gotten over the whole "aversion to killing" thing.

Fans have either denounced this turn of events as a betrayal of her character, or have tried to reconcile this change with events at the end of her title's run: her home city of Bludhaven was destroyed by the Soceity during the Infinite Crisis, she did kill her mother, Shiva--but hung her over a Lazarus Pit, practically ensuring her resurrection--and Cassie taking a dip in said Lazarus Pit herself, which has been known to make people cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. In fact, her justification for killing Shiva was Shiva's promise that if allowed to live, she would kill again. Plus, Cass was exasperated over the senseless slaughter of the residents of Bludhaven, and the villains in the Society who simply kill and kill again. But that would justify her turning into a Punisher-like vigilante, not a villain--nothing seems to explain that.

None of this matters, Doris would say. Circumstances for Cassie simply changed, and that is enough to explain her behavior. And as it turns out, one circumstance in particular actually seems to have explained it all, though certainly not to everyone's satisfaction: Deathstroke drugged her. That's it. Problem solved. (Apparently, we'll see exactly when and how this happened in one of the World War III issues coming out the same week as 52 Week 50.) (By the way, SPOILERS for Teen Titans #44: Robin administered an antidote to Deathstroke's drug, so now Cassie is "cured": except she still wants to kill Deathstroke. (Gotta tweak that formula a bit, Tim.) END SPOILERS)

So it seems that along with our natural aversion to dropping the idea of personality or character traits for real-world people, we also don't want to abandon the idea that superheroes have character as well. We feel we know these "people," that we can understand and to some extent predict their actions. We don't like to think of anyone as just as automaton with buttons to be pushed to elicit certain types of behavior - well, Paris Hilton maybe, but not most people. ("Press button 1 to say THAT'S HOT, press button 2 for drunken dancing.")

We want to regard people, especially heroes, as steadfast against the pull of temporary circumstance. The concept of a hero is meaningless without a concept of character. Stand up, don't back down, don't give in, unless you consciously and deliberately decide to. Sure, Captain America surrendered in Civil War #7, but he also gave his life to save a US marshall from sniper fire when he died in Captain America #25.

If that doesn't restore your faith in character, then nothing will.

1 comment:

Carsten said...

On this subject I simply have to recommend Will Brooker's excellent study of Batman, "Batman Unmasked". Brooker provides an interesting discussion of how, and to what degree, we can reconcile the many different, and apparently inconsistent, interpretations of Batman, which has emerged since his creation back in the 1930's. He does a particular excellent job in arguing that the much despised queer-readings of Batman should be regarded as an essential part of the Batman-mythology.

This discussion is very relevant for the question you raise concerning the existence or non-existence of coherent and lasting character traits: The problem of whether we can ascribe such character traits to human beings seems quite similar to the question of whether we, despite appearently conflicting presentations and interpretations, can ascribe a coherent character to a fictional person like Batman.