My 2010 UU World article needs an update.
Like many people not considered essential workers, I experienced the pandemic as an ambiguous gift of unexpected free time. With both responsibilities and diversions blown away, I often didn’t know what to do with myself.
Some people used that time better than others. Maybe they learned a new language, or finally got around to writing their novel. Some read great literature, or worked their way through lists of movie masterpieces.
I ended up watching a lot of super-hero TV shows: the various incarnations of X-Men cartoons, The Gifted, Cloak and Dagger, Titans, Doom Patrol, Young Justice, Arrow, Runaways, Superman and Lois, WandaVision, The Falcom and the Winter Soldier. I could go on.
Superhero fiction was not a new vice for me. In fact, back in 2010 I wrote a cover article for UU World about what Unitarian Universalists could learn from the changes the superhero mythos had been going through in the previous decades.
Then. Back in 2010, I was looking at this sea change: When I had been introduced to superheroes in the 1960s, everybody was an orphan: Spider-Man’s parents were dead. Batman’s parents were murdered in front of him. Superman’s whole planet blew up. Having no parents was almost a prerequisite for getting into the superhero club. You had super powers and no one to tell you how to use them.
It made a certain amount of sense that the Boomer generation (the one that grew up vowing not to trust anyone over 30) would have an orphan fantasy. Older people, and the institutions they tried to force us into, were sources of oppression. So John Lennon envisioned a future where institutions largely went away: “Imagine there’s no country … and no religion too.” Corporations, universities, governments – they all just wanted to wrap us up in ticky-tacky so we’d all look just the same.
Screw that. Superman may not have appreciated how lucky he was to come from a planet that no longer existed, but we did.
If you fast-forward a few decades, though, everything changes. The X-Men of the 1970s had a mentor, Professor Xavier, and by the 90s, almost every new hero was the inheritor of a legacy that some wise elder could initiate them into. Buffy belonged to a long line of vampire slayers. Witchblade-wielders, Jedi knights, and Star Fleet captains also had storied histories for successive generations to live up to, and if you were lucky a Giles or a Yoda would show up when you needed one. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had their sensei. The Power Rangers had Orson. The age of making your own way, free from adult supervision, was over.
Even the older superhero mythologies adjusted. Alfred became more parental to the young Bruce Wayne, and the Kents of Smallville got ever more credit for how well their boy turned out. In Batman Beyond, the cowl of Batman became a legacy like the mantle of Elijah.
Again, this made sense: Gen-X and the early Millennials didn’t grow up with a father who “knows best”, and many of them probably wished they did. As I put it in UU World: “Needing to figure out how to save Metropolis from scratch, with no received wisdom to build on, isn’t a fantasy anymore. It’s a nightmare.”
My advice in 2010 was that older UUs needed to stop pitching their faith as a refuge for orphans, and instead become mentors of a noble legacy (which we happened to have). If young people came to our churches looking for something they could build on, they weren’t going to be impressed be our assurance that they could believe and think and do whatever they thought best.
Freedom they already had. A little bit of direction might go a long way.
Now. So what has been happening in the superhero world since 2010?
The heroes I saw in my latest binge certainly weren't orphans, but they also didn't need to go looking for a legacy. Instead, parents have become ambiguous figures whose inescapable influence is both good and bad. The forces that shape you almost always also screw you up as well. Nobody makes it to adulthood unmarred.
Again and again, young heroes are realizing that they can’t simply reject their parents, but they also can’t follow them. In Runaways, teens discover that their parents are a child-sacrificing cult. Ultimately, though [spoiler alert], the parents themselves are not the villains; they are in thrall to an evil force that they need their children’s help to escape.
The central conflict of Titans is 20-something Dick Grayson’s (i.e., Robin’s) struggle to make peace with the upbringing he got from Bruce Wayne (Batman). Unsurprisingly, he suffers from unachievable standards, relentless self-criticism, an inability to walk away from trouble, and a disturbing propensity towards violence. He can leave his costume in its case, but if he isn’t the protege of Batman any more, who is he?
Grayson’s attempts to mentor younger people with powers (Beast Boy and Raven) eventually lead him to make peace with his own history: Bruce, he decides, did what he knew how to do. Some of it gave Dick his virtues, and some left him with problems to overcome. He tries not to make the same mistakes with his charges. But his very urge to want to help them, to “take in strays” as one character puts it, is a positive inheritance from Bruce Wayne.
Raven, in turn, is the daughter of a demon that she has to banish to another dimension before he destroys the Earth. Beast Boy’s powers come from an experimental cure worked by the semi-benevolent/semi-abusive Dr. Caulder of Doom Patrol. One Titans character seems particularly on point: Superboy, who is an escaped science experiment with DNA from both Superman and Lex Luthor. He is largely a blank slate, but knows he has it in him to be either a great hero or a great villain.
Where the 90s' Batman Beyond was about struggling to live up to a legacy, the recent The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is about struggling with the legacy itself: What does it mean to be the new Captain America? Can a Black man carry that tradition forward? Should even he want to, given America’s history with his race? What is there about America that a Black man would want to embody?
In short, if the heroes of the 90s wanted to reclaim a legacy, the heroes of today want to redeem a legacy they didn't choose but can’t escape.
Again, it’s not hard to tie that theme to current headlines. What is the debate over so-called “critical race theory” (a.k.a. teaching accurate American history) other than a conflict over legacy? Is America the vision of “all men created equal”? Or is it the reality of slavery and racism? Or both?
Where will you find a bigger bundle of virtues and vices than Thomas Jefferson, who not so long ago figured prominently as a famous Unitarian? He wrote the Declaration of Independence, drew the line between Church and State, founded the University of Virginia, designed Monticello, sent Lewis and Clark to explore the Louisiana Territory he had just bought from France, and (along with the other early presidents) built the tradition of a lawful Republic where power is transferred peacefully.
But he also raped his slave and enslaved their children. What do you do with that?
What do you do with American democracy? It favors the rich. It tilts towards minority rule. Changing anything is incredibly hard. And given recent history, who can say with certainty that the skewed and gerrymandered electorate will not ultimately install some form of fascism?
What do you do with capitalism? It has created a level of abundance the world has never known before. And it’s destroying us. Not one or the other. Both.
We live in a world that has the DNA of both Superman and Lex Luthor. What do we do with it?
Again, the answers of previous generations won't do. “Whatever you want” is not good enough. Returning to our legacy, making America “Great Again”, is also inadequate, because America was never truly great. All the way back, you’ll find nothing but alloys of virtue and vice – never fully good, never fully evil.
Like the Runaways, we are inheritors of a corrupt tradition. Our powers come from tainted sources, and yet they are all we have. There is no singularly virtuous place to stand, and yet we must move the World in a better direction.
What is needed right now is not zeal alone, but also discernment. The redemption of our various inescapable legacies requires an essentially alchemical operation: They need to be reduced to their constituent elements and recombined anew. I revere this Jefferson; I revile that one. This America is the base on which we will build; that one belongs in history's dumpster.
So what should a UU church be in this era? Not a place of perfect freedom for the last sons of dying planets, and not a heroic order whose oath you can take and whose mantle can be passed down to you. In the 20s, a UU church needs to be an alchemical athenor, a crucible where we melt our legacies down to their elements and rework them into something better. We need to account both for what has been done to us and what has been done for us. We need to be both critical and grateful.
Our ancestors did what they knew how to do and left us here, with this collection of strengths and wounds, this ledger of assets and debts. We can’t start from scratch and we can’t go on like this. But we can (and we have to) start from here.