You're probably thinking that "real heroes" in this post's title refers to the oft-cited "real heroes:" firemen, police officers, paramedics, soldiers, etc. Not to say that those people aren't truly heroes, but this time I mean something perhaps less literal.
For as long as I can remember, I've always thought of Superman as an example. Mark Waid (the brilliant writer of such works as Superman: Birthright and Kingdom Come) said it best:
Here is a guy with the power of a god, someone who can rule the world starting today if he desires. Who can have anything his heart longs for and get away with positively any deed imaginable, all without one single threat of reprisal. But with the totality of time and space subject to his slightest whim... he chooses only to help others. That is Superman's greatest power. When presented with the opportunity, he takes action to make things better — and that's a power that lies within us all.
No, we don't have Superman's physical powers, but that's the entire point of Superman as a metaphor: he's meant to represent an ideal we can aspire to.
Unfortunately, there are some who aspire to other ideals.
So, as I'm sure everyone knows, there was a shooting in Colorado at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. The day after the shooting, Robert texted me:
"This is why I have never been comfortable with Joker impersonations."
At the time, I didn't know all the details. After doing some research, apparently this is how it went down.
The shooter concocted a freakishly intelligent plan. He rigged a timer in his apartment to set off loud music shortly before the movie so that the police would respond to a noise complaint and break into his home. His apartment was booby-trapped with a large amount of explosives. After the explosives went off (doubtlessly injuring or killing the officers there), the firemen and police would be diverted there, far away from the theater. If all had gone according to plan (and there was every reason it might have), the shooter would have been virtually free to slaughter everyone in the theater, and might have even escaped. As it went, apparently the police never went inside his house and set off the explosives, so they were plenty free to catch him—but only after he'd shot 70 people and killed 12. When the authorities found him, he'd dyed his hair like a clown and told authorities he was the Joker.
This guy is a legitimate wannabe super-villain. A literal psychopath murderer who took on the persona of a character that is almost-literally the embodiment of chaos. Now, he's not at the real-world level of a comic book villain. His plan didn't go off without a hitch, and he didn't even know enough to dye his hair the right color to match his supposed character inspiration (one of the reasons many suspect he's faking insanity in order to dodge normal sentencing). But the fact is that he literally is an example of how someone can take inspiration from a simple story and do extreme things with it.
Going back to Robert's point, this is why, in some ways, it's very much not funny when people obsess over villain characters, especially the more sinister ones like the Joker. There really are people as twisted and evil as that out there, and they shouldn't even playfully be imitated.
Earlier this week, I was in a conversation online with a friend of mine while discussing the teaser trailer for the new Superman movie, Man of Steel.
Keri: I personally think Superman is the most overrated superhero out there so I could care less about how much or little the trailer showed.
Aaron: ...Well, if you're judging based entirely on past movies then I can't blame you. But really, truly, Superman is the greatest superhero of all time, and I hope this new film can finally show that to everyone.
Keri: Past movies and comic books. He's too....perfect, and perfection is boring.
Aaron: He's not perfect; he just chooses to do the right thing, just like Batman chooses to never give up. He's not boring if you see the right stories where you really get in his head and understand that he's having to make the right choices in life just like we do.
Keri: Eh. He's not my superhero. I'm a Batman kinda girl.
Aaron: Let's see what you say when the movie's out.
To be clear: I don't mean to say that everyone needs to love Superman, or that Batman isn't still amazing. I love Batman. But what I found poignant is that there are people out there who feel that Superman "isn't interesting" because he's too perfect. In truth, Superman isn't technically perfect; he often struggles with doing the right thing. But the fact that he ultimately does the right thing in the end—rather than resorting to anger, vengeance, self-loathing, or unnecessary violence—is the very thing that makes him special. There are honestly very very few superheroes that do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. Most fight the good fight because they either have a personal interest in the outcome (Iron Man, the X-Men) or because they're driven by guilt or anger over a past tragedy (Batman, Spider-Man). That doesn't mean they're not still heroes, but it does mean that they might sometimes be fighting for the wrong reason. Superman does what he does because, more than anything else, he cares about people. Out of nothing less than unconditional love for anyone and everyone, friend or stranger, Superman chooses to routinely give up personal gain and instead live a life of service to others.
One of the best Superman moments of all time. Click it.
Help one another. Love one another. Be kind, gracious, and humble, but fight (sometimes literally, if necessary) to uphold truth and justice. Apparently there truly are villains in the world. It's our job, then, to do all we can to follow in the example of heroes.