A few years ago, this guy by the name of Aristotle wrote a book called “Poetics”. Oddly enough, it wasn’t about poets, or poetry, or even Edgar Allen Poe. It was, instead, about the nature of storytelling and theatre, and the power they have to make us better people.

The Mirror

In the Poetics, Aristotle talks about two concepts: in modern (English-language) theatre, they are known as “sympathy” and “empathy”.

Sympathy is the ability of the audience members to see themselves reflected in the characters—to “identify with” them. In ancient Greece (and many other times and places), this was usually accomplished through the use of “archetypes”—simplified characters who represent one or two well-known aspects of personality or situation. The persecuted person, the outsider, the hero, the mother, etc. In modern storytelling, good authors have learned to be more subtle and complex in the depiction of their characters. Even so, the most memorable characters can usually be boiled down to a simple set of semi-universal characteristics. The more familiar a character is to us—the more of ourselves we see in them—the more we become invested in what happens to them.

That’s Empathy. Empathy is the act of investing our own emotions into the characters—on the page, on the stage, or on the screen. We “become the character”. We react, physically and emotionally, to the events which the character goes through. We smile when they’re happy, we cry when they’re sad, we worry when they’re in danger, and we rise up when they find the strength to overcome their obstacles (and every man instinctively flinches any time a character is kicked in the gonads).

Advertisement

The purpose of sympathy and empathy is to get us invested enough in the characters to deal with...

The Fire

Catharsis is the “cleaning”. It is sometimes described in theatre criticism as “passing through the fire”. The idea is that, by investing our selves in the character, when that character triumphs—over evil, over adversity, over themself—all of our “sins”—our fears, doubts, insecurities—are also vanquished. The purpose of the hero is to shoulder our burdens, defeat our enemies, and make us better people. He doesn’t “do it for us”, he shows us how to do it.

Advertisement

The New Gods

We no longer believe in the Greek gods. But we do—in a way—believe in their grandchildren: Superheroes.

Advertisement

Today, Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, and Captain America serve to fill the roles of Hercules, Jason, Athena, and Hermes. The philosophical differences between the “Big Two”—Marvel and DC—can be summarized in who their heroes represent. DC presents us with gods—beings powerful and perfect, whom we should aspire to be, even though we never can. Marvel presents us with heroes—humans granted amazing gifts (“by the gods”), who struggle to be worthy of them.

Each approach has value, and serves a grand purpose. Assuming it’s handled correctly. When it comes to the depictions of these concepts on the screen—whether silver or small—the application has been... “widely varied”.

Advertisement

The Sympathetic and the Pathetic

There’s been a lot of discussion about the disparate responses to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the DC Cinematic Universe (DCCU).[1] It boils down to one thing: Are the characters sympathetic?

Advertisement

The success of the MCU can be directly tied to the fact that we understand the characters. We might not always like them, but we understand them. We get their motivations, their fears, their joys, and their jokes (“I get that reference!”) They are who we imagine we would be if we had those amazing powers. They may have all these amazing powers, but they still go jogging, they brag to their friends, they sweep floors, they eat shawarma. Their doubts and fears are real to us—because we have the same ones. And when they find a way to overcome those doubts and fears to emerge victorious and righteous, we understand that we can do the same.

The failure of the DCCU has been that they’re showing us the “battles of the gods” (on the silver screen), and the sheer stupidity of the gifted (on the small screen). We can’t understand the concept of being “too good and perfect” and having to hide it. Nobody worries about being “too good and perfect”. And we certainly don’t want to be Barry Allen or Oliver Queen, who keep repeating the same stupid mistakes over and over and over.

Advertisement

Where Marvel’s TV shows have been about the “Hero’s Journey”, DC’s TV offerings have been a flaming slip-and-slide into self-loathing.

A Bright Island Amidst the Fog

Advertisement

Wonder Woman has been the one bright point in DC’s Silver Screen offerings[2]. For the first time, we’re presented with characters who are sympathetic. From Steve Trevor’s need to “do something”, to Etta Candy’s realization of her worth, to the Howling Commandos’ back-up singers’ insights into humanity, to Diana’s growth in comprehending the difference between “knowing” something and “understanding” it... all of these are things with which the audience can identify. We can see ourselves in these characters. They are us.[3] 

Our Path to Victory

As we go forward with this rich tapestry of stories about these new gods—these superheroes—it is up to us, the audience, to let the story tellers, and those who choose them, what we want to see. We need to emphasize the value of good storytelling—apart from our politics, agendas, prejudice, and bias. We need to make them understand that 30 seconds of honesty which inspire a young woman to stand up for herself, or a young man to believe in himself are worth more than $30 million worth of CGI battles.

Advertisement

We don’t want to see bigger and more unbelievable destruction.

We want to see the best of who we are... And we want it to become a part of us.

Advertisement

—-

[1] For the sake of simplicity, I am including the various live-action TV shows in both of these universes, even though the integration with the “silver screen” versions is often questionable—if not out-right separate.

Advertisement

[2] Supergirl—while suffering from problems—is still fun to watch. We can only hope it stays that way.

[3] I’m a middle-aged, middle-class, white guy from Wisconsin, and Diana resonated with me as someone who was, in many ways, the same as me.