By Jonathan Waits
So I’ve probably mentioned before that I’m a sucker for superhero fare. I don’t just go see all the movies, if possible; I buy a copy when they release them to the public. I have all the various shows set to record on my DVR. The only hard part with all of this is keeping up with the latest!
In any event, the newest show this season is Supergirl on CBS on Monday nights. In the series, Supergirl — whose real name is Kara Zor-El — is the older cousin of Kal-El, more familiarly known as Superman. She was sent to earth from the planet Krypton just after Kal-El and just before the planet exploded. Kara was 12 at the time and her mission was to protect the infant Kal-El as he grew on earth.
Unfortunately, Krypton’s explosion knocked her ship into the Phantom Zone, a parallel dimension used by Kryptonians as a prison for the worst offenders. She remained in a kind of hyper-sleep there and did not age. Many years later her ship somehow exited the Phantom Zone and finally made its way to earth where her infant cousin was now a grown man and world famous superhero and she was the one in need of protection. With his help she grows up with a loving foster family and lives as normal a life as possible until she finally decides that she’s ready to reveal her powers to the world.
At just a few episodes in the show has been pretty good. Producer Greg Berlanti has some experience with this kind of thing by way of Arrow and The Flash, and Supergirl has so far stayed pretty close to his already successful formula.
Everything would be smooth sailing if not for a moment in the first episode that could have ruined the whole series. About midway through, Kara learns that her earth-sister is really an agent with a secretive government organization designed to help protect the earth from alien threats (don’t forget: this is a superhero show). At first she’s hurt at being kept in the dark, but by the end of the episode the two have mostly worked things out. Their reconciliation is capped by her sister sharing with her a recording her mother, Alura Zor-El, sent to earth with her.
In the message Alura tells Kara how proud she is and expresses her confidence that she will accomplish great things on earth. So far so good. But then she says this: “There is no correct path in life. You will lose your way many times. What’s important is that you find your way back to the brave girl you always were. Be wise. Be strong. And always be true to yourself.”
The moment is paired with stirring music and the emotions of Kara getting to see and hear her mom — even if only in holographic form — after having been separated for so many years. Her mom could have read her the phonebook and it would have felt inspiring. Perhaps she should have gone with that, because when you think for a minute about what she actually says it becomes clear that her message is just as pointless. What she expresses is little more than the relativistic nonsense that characterizes much of our culture. The problem here is that if this kind of drivel were really true the whole reason for the superhero genre would vanish.
Think about it. Alura states that there is no one correct path but then goes on to encourage Kara to be brave, wise and strong. Yet if there is no correct path what makes those particular values better than cowardice, foolishness and weakness? Alura encourages Kara to be true to herself. But what if she becomes convinced that her truest self is the one that murders the weak and conquers the rest? Surely she would consider this to be an incorrect path.
Now, someone might argue that the point here is not simply that all paths are correct, but that there are many different correct paths. But still, by what measure are we to decide which is which? What makes the set of correct paths correct? Is it not because they fall into accordance with some higher standard by which they can all be judged, what we might boldly call a single correct path? We can debate another time just how close you have to get to this one correct path in order to be counted as good enough to merit the label “correct,” but the point is that this is not what Alura said; it’s not what our culture teaches.
This is all Relativism 101 and is little more than well-dressed nonsense. If all paths are equally valid then things like moral improvement become not merely impossible, but meaningless. The very notion of improving suggests that one path is not as good as another which can’t be the case if relativism is true. More importantly for the current context, if relativism is true the very notion of a superhero becomes utterly incomprehensible. Sure we could still call someone who goes around saving people from various kinds of accidents a superhero, but the traditional ideal of a superhero as being someone who protects innocents from “bad guys” no longer makes any sense. Even calling them “bad guys” doesn’t register because if there is no correct path in life we have no way of legitimately characterizing their path as less morally acceptable than any other. Yes, they have perhaps crossed some societal boundaries, but these are entirely contrived and offer nothing objective by which to judge them. Who’s to say the behavioral boundaries and expectations of one society are any better than any other? Perhaps they are just being consistent with their home culture and shouldn’t we be more tolerant of that?
And yet, the whole premise of Supergirl is that she is saving the people of earth from the threats of evil people — well, aliens for the most part — but the logic still applies. Indeed, the main villain in the pilot episode was prepared to murder hundreds or even thousands of people if she did not cooperate with his demands (namely, to allow him to murder her). In the second episode we are introduced to an alien who thinks nothing of killing people who hinder his desires and the woman who will serve as the main villain for at least the first season (Kara’s aunt and identical twin to her mother, Astra) whose plan is to subjugate the entire planet to her rule.
Our natural moral instinct tells us that the path these characters are on is not the correct path. More broadly speaking, there are things we all know to be wrong without anyone having to tell us. Now, we may ignore that in favor of what we want, but let us dispense with this nonsense about all paths being equally valid. They aren’t. Some paths are better than others. Some cultures are better than others. Some religions are better than others. Some worldviews are better than others. If nothing else, ISIS has made that abundantly clear in recently days.
The thing is, while relativism sounds nice in theory and a whole lot of folks are theoretical relativists, it always fails in practice. People are happy to claim all paths are equally valid as long as it plays to their favor But, as soon as one of these other equally valid paths comes up against the path they are on and causes them trouble relativism goes out the window. At the point of conflict we all become moral absolutists. We can see this in the show most notably in the fact that before Krypton exploded, Alura was a judge. Her job was to judge some paths as less correct than others and hand out consequences.
So then, why the message that rings so dissonantly with not only the show but what we intuitively know about reality? Because Hollywood is driven by a relativistic worldview. If you want to play in their sandbox, you’ve got to pay the price. Once you’ve demonstrated proper fealty you can go about making your show however you’d like. But you will demonstrate proper fealty.
It’s almost like worshiping the empire in ancient Rome. You could believe whatever you wanted as long as you toed the cultural line. The Christians who refused and proclaimed a different (and better) way of life paid a high price for it. We still do today, but pay we must because we offer sanity to a culture gone crazy.
The simple truth is that superhero fare like Supergirl is really popular today because we are a culture in need of heroes. Not necessarily the kind who fly around in capes, but those who nonetheless recognize evil when they see it and oppose it at every point, those who recognize that there is a correct path and that life is found at its end.
Let’s stick with what Supergirl does rather than what her mother said and bring life to a culture very much in need of it. And let us point people to the One who is the best superhero of them all.