The following is a version of the program note I wrote for the production of REALS at Theater Alliance. I hope you’ll all come to the show, pick up a program, and read it while sitting in your seat… but if you can’t make it, here you are.
Do me a favor: take a few seconds to imagine yourself actually stopping a crime. You’re coming out of the grocery store some Saturday afternoon, for example, and you see somebody swipe an iPhone and take off running. Think about dropping your own groceries, chasing after the thief, catching up to him, and convincing him—hopefully without resorting to violence—to give you that stolen phone. Do you think you could do it? Really?
Think about stumbling across an assault: one guy’s got a knife, the other’s been cut, and it’s all on you to resolve the situation peacefully… or to find a way to separate what looks like a very dangerous person from a very deadly weapon. Do you think you could do that?
I suspect we all think that, given the chance, we’d be heroic. I also suspect that only some of us are right. I honestly believe I might just dial 911 myself in both of those situations, rather than trying something that could be (let’s face it) pretty stupid. Sure, I want to be that courageous on a stranger’s behalf. I sincerely hope I would be. But I can’t honestly say that I would for certain. Can you? For real?
Now imagine actively seeking out opportunities to do that sort of thing on a regular basis: going on patrols in the worst parts of town at the darkest times of night, looking diligently for anyone committing any sort of crime. It’s a tough stretch, isn’t it? You’ve got work in the morning, two kids, a basement that needs cleaning… and you still spend three or four hours looking for trouble? Not bloody likely.
Even less likely that you’d do it while wearing an elaborate superhero costume, too, right? Or that you’d love it so much, you’d create an entire superhero identity, with an origin story and a mission and superhero teammates? I can tell you this for certain: you’d never catch me out there.
But you would catch hundreds and hundreds of other people. The real-life superhero movement is growing tremendously. It’s a worldwide phenomenon now. There are HBO documentaries. Scores of YouTube videos. Profiles in GQ. Articles in every major newspaper around the world. There’s even a “world superhero registry.” The real-life superhero is very much a real-world thing.
What do you think makes people that passionate about fighting crime? What are the impulses and psychological profiles that lead people to assume these completely outsized big-ego identities and do what can only be described as very selfless things? Are these people we should admire, or are they people we should fear? Should we praise them or punish them? I don’t know the answer myself. I think it’s a little bit of both.
I do know we aren’t likely to make them go away any time soon. In fact, the world seems to be becoming more and more comic book-like, in some ways, rather than less. Not two months after a man dressed like Batman was pulled over for speeding a few miles away from where I live, a man with dyed-red hair who called himself “the Joker” shot 70 people in a Colorado movie theater… at a screening of the latest Batman film. Who would have suspected such a thing was even possible back in 1939 when Batman was invented? I’ll tell you: no one.
I think we’re long overdue for a serious investigation of the metaphors and images associated with superheroes. I say that, mind you, not as an outsider, but as a lifelong fan. We are living in dangerous times, and tough questions are needed at least as much as, if not more than, tough men and women. We need to ask ourselves why all this violence is happening, and what (if anything) we really want to do about it: not as lone heroes or rogue vigilantes, but together, as a team. My hope is that REALS will help push that conversation along, just a bit. Thank you for coming to see it, if you can: let’s all talk when it’s over.