Superheroes and social relations: why “the real me” is a fake

I was having a discussion on Twitter with someone about how fed up I am with every superhero now having to be a whiny, introspective emo who is terribly tortured and conflicted about his powers. This being prompted by reports of plans to “reboot” Superman, with a film which will apparently focus on “Clark’s Gethsemane moment” when he has to choose between wealth and fame versus service and self-sacrifice. Whatever.

As I commented on Twitter:

It’d just be nice to have the young Clark Kent say, “WTH? I can fly! How cool is that? Take a look at this, girls!”

I’m currently reading Slavoj Žižek’s First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, in which he talks at one point about this trend for “humanization” in recent superhero blockbusters such as Spiderman and Batman:

Critics rave about how these films move beyond the flat comic-book characters and dwell in detail over the uncertainties, weaknesses, doubts, fears and anxieties of the supernatural hero, his struggle with his inner demons, his confrontation with his own dark side, and so forth, as if all this makes the commercial super-production somehow more “artistic”. (p.43)

Žižek links this with a wider tendency to claim that the “richness of my inner life” represents who I “really am”, in contrast with my outward actions in public, on which he comments:

The first lesson of psychoanalysis here is that this “richness of inner life” is fundamentally fake: it is a screen, a false distance, whose function is, as it were, to save my appearance. … The experience we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is thus a lie – the truth lies rather outside, in what we do. (p.40)

One example Žižek gives of this is that of Reinhard Heidrich, the architect of the Holocaust, “who liked to play Beethoven’s late string quartets with friends during his evenings of leisure” – hard to think of a more extreme example of an attempt to offset the “richness of inner life” against the truth of one’s public actions.

A more benign example given later in the book is that of “Western Buddhism”, which Žižek discusses in the context of “fetishes” which people unconsciously use to mask their true ideological commitments:

“Western Buddhism” is just such a fetish: it enables you to fully participate in the frantic capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it, that you are well aware how worthless the whole spectacle is, since what really matters is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always withdraw… (p.66)

I suspect it’s all-too easy for Christianity to function in much the same way, not least those versions of Christian faith (such as the “emerging church”, or bloggers prone to quoting the likes of Jacques Ellul…) which self-consciously contrast themselves with the mainstream of “bourgeois” Christianity. When this happens, the Christian may well be like the “Western Buddhist”, who is

unaware that the “truth” of his existence lies in the very social relations he tends to dismiss as a mere game.

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18 Responses to Superheroes and social relations: why “the real me” is a fake

  1. Mark Nikirk says:


    Interesting thoughts. It makes me think about how the dichotamy (false?) of our inside/outside perspective plays out in our religious practices. ‘What does it matter what I do as long as I have correct belief?’. Apart from the warnings of James, I would think that Jesus parable about the rebellious son who is commended for saying one thing but doing another, would be a good lesson for me to follow. Even though I may say all the right things, our religion is practiced outside and /into/ the body, just as much as it is practiced inside the body.

  2. John H says:

    Mark: I think certainly what Zizek is saying here cuts across a tendency to see the essence of Christian faith as being an inner disposition that in some way cuts us off from the world or our own sinful actions, giving us an alibi.

    We cannot look to “the real me, inside” to escape from the truth that is spoken about us by our actions – we need to look to the other truth that is spoken about us in the gospel, as an external word brought to us in the proclamation of the gospel and the sacraments.

  3. Isn’t the Gethsemane moment (or the temptations of Christ might be a better parallel) pretty much a staple of myths and stories since the year zero?

    Anyway, about the “real me,” I too find it a nebulous concept. My biggest concern is that it stifles people’s growth because they’re always looking forward to some future moment when they’ll be their true selves, instead of living in the present and accepting what IS. Seems to me a great way to waste a life. I’m sure whatever the real me is, it’s a mixture of good and bad, light and darkness.

    On the other hand, I don’t think the answer is to say that our real self lies solely in our outward actions. (Though that may have been the perception in Jesus’ day.) We’re more complex than that.

  4. John H says:


    I don’t think the answer is to say that our real self lies solely in our outward actions.

    Agreed. I think that’s a reflection of Zizek’s Marxist materialism: the “real us” being determined by “social relations”. However, I think he is right that we cannot use our inward dispositions as an escape from (or alibi for) our outward actions. We cannot disclaim our outward actions or our social relations in a “detached” way.

  5. Mark Nikirk says:

    You’ve been on an escapism kick lately. 🙂 Yesterday, I think you were talking about how the broader culture is preparing itself to escape happily its Christian undergirding. Today, its using your inward life to escape the guilt of your outer life. Feeling trapped at all? 😉

  6. Brigitte says:

    This reminds me of Lewis’ Screwtape letters #6.

    “Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. the great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.”

  7. Kletos Sumboulos says:

    Nothing like having children to cut through one’s finely-tuned defense mechanisms. Ask me what I value and I’ll tell you about my family and my Lord and my Vocation. However, my daughter recently commented on how I’m “always” on the computer. The best predictor of future behavior is not attitudes (giving to my Alma Mater is good) or even intentions (I will give to my Alma Mater this year) but past behavior.

    We have humanistic psychotherapy to blame for the idea that we have a positive, growing inner self yearning for expression. I do use the concept of the “real” self, but when I use it I mean, the actual self that is available to others in contrast to the “ideal self” and the “feared self”. Traditionally, discrepancies between the real and ideal selves tended to make people anxious. In our post-modern society we don’t seem to experience cognitive dissonance when our real and ideal selves don’t line up very well, possibly because we have learned to say things like, “If you only knew the real me”.

    I see this in the distinction made between spirituality and religiosity that I hear thrown about. Religion, being what I do is denigrated and spirituality as some inner quality (that often doesn’t impact behavior) is lauded.

    I need to get beyond some things I’m doing at work right now and get you to make me a reading list, John.

  8. John H says:

    Wait: you’ll get me to make you a reading list? Shome mishtake, shurely! 😉

  9. Rick Ritchie says:

    So according to Žižek, our superheroes should be judged by their social relations rather than their inner selves?

    What kinds of social relations can a superhero have? Always the lone benefactor, and never the one who must cooperate or persevere over time to achieve. I think James Bowman does better when he laments the fact that adults in our culture watch without shame movies which appeal to adolescent fantasies. To worry that the superhero is wasting his power is a bit like worrying that your friend is mentally miisspending the millions he will win in the lottery. The true adult does not mentally spend his winnings better. The true adult wastes little time thinking about the lottery.

    Some superhero stories may be worthwhile, but more likely for exploring mythic dimensions rather than either power fantasies or social relations.

  10. Lee says:

    I’ll have to cut Zizek some slack since maybe they don’t have comic books in Romania, but anyone who’s familiar with Marvel Comics–especially the original 1960s ones penned by Stan Lee–knows that they’re all about existential angst and uncertainty. This was, in fact, the main thing that distinguished them from the DC comics (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) of the day–that the heroes were very much uncertain about what they should do. Spider-Man is the archetypal example of this. Just saying.

  11. John H says:

    Lee: point taken, though I don’t think it affects the overall point re our tendency to locate “the real me” in the existential angst rather than the external actions. It just says it’s been going on longer than just the latest round of film adaptations – and raises the equally interesting question both of why this “return to angst” has occurred, and why in the meantime people preferred a more straightforward, less anguished type of superhero.

  12. Phil Walker says:

    I’d not thought of Zizek as a covenantal Calvinist. 😉

  13. Tim Boerger says:

    One the things I liked best about the first Spiderman movie was the combination of awkwardness and glee as Peter Parker discovered his powers . . . and his very teenage idea that he might be able to leverage those powers to buy a car.

    This is sort of tangential (so I hope you’ll forgive my thought process), but a nice contrast to the “interiorization of the real,” if you will, is the work Jane Austin, where people’s character is always defined by their actions within their social settings. Even in P&P, Elizabeth misunderstands Darcy, not because she doesn’t see his rich inner life, but because she doesn’t know the full scope of his behavior and context. I’ve often thought that the popularity of Jane Austin among contemporary women is partly due to the fact that, in their day to day lives, they know so many men who have rich interior lives but who _act_ like jerks….

  14. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » I consume authentically, therefore I am

  15. shea says:

    That’s a great comment, Kletos. (we miss you in the BHT) I can’t stop thinking about it since John tweeted it the other day. I’m looking to temper it with “simul iustus et peccator”. Yes, that peccator is the real me and I’m not the one I style myself to be. Very convicting. But I’m also a child of God, I’m also a new creation and I can’t stop telling myself that and one day it’s reality is going to be more clearly and consistently seen, right?

  16. Brian Auten says:

    Lee —

    I would heartily agree that early Marvel characters were depicted with many more human foibles and warts than DC’s heroes from the same period. However, I’d argue that the origin of the current trend re: Žižek’s “humanization” of heroes is located in the work of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman. It started in comics in the 1980’s (taking off in the mid-to-late 80s) and, now that the teens and 20-somethings of those years have attained middle age, you see those “humanized” heroes making their way into movies.


    Brian Auten

  17. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Time for some “disciplinary terror”? Try again.

  18. Pingback: Why We Shouldn’t Trust Our Stories | Alastair's Adversaria

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