7.14.2016

About Empathy

Story time.

After a robbery at a Metropolis museum, thieves fled to Fawcett City - home of Captain Marvel. Superman arrived and the two collaborated and defeated the bad guys. Superman and Captain Marvel found a mutual respect for each other and flew to Mount Everest where they talked about their powers and had a Step Brothers moment.

image courtesy of Columbia Pictures

However, Superman refused to talk about his civilian life. He considered his alter-ego to be separate from hero duties.

Alter-egos can be a tricky thing. Superman put on horn-rimmed glasses and became Clark Kent. Captain Marvel's alter-ego was easier to disguise. When in costume, he was an eleven-year-old boy named Billy Batson; a homeless orphan living in the subway, granted the power to defend himself by an old wizard named Shazam. All Billy had to do was speak the wizard's name to be transformed from a preteen into a full grown adult with super strength, speed, and the ability to fly. Uttering the word "shazam" again reverted him back into a child.

Captain Marvel's arch-nemesis, Dr. Sivana, hired a meta-human tracker who discovered Billy's secret. Hit-men were sent to kill the kid, but Billy shouted "shazam" before he could be harmed. Captain Marvel won the fight but his alter-ego's best friend was caught in the crossfire, gravely wounded. Captain Marvel took the injured child to the ER but the doctors failed to revive the boy.

Tormented by grief and guilt, Captain Marvel went on a rampage with the strength of Superman and emotional maturity of an eleven-year-old. He attacked the police station where a suspect was being questioned, fought against officers trying to stop him, and assaulted the hit-man inside the interrogation room. The killer revealed the name of the person who hired him and Captain Marvel left to seek revenge. He destroyed the top floor of Sivana's office building and choked Sivana; he wants justice but couldn’t bring himself to kill the man. Still troubled by the loss of his best friend and the damages he caused, Captain Marvel fled.

Meanwhile, Clark Kent wrote a news story about the successful team up of Superman and Captain Marvel. The article was published just as Clark learned of Captain Marvel's violent quest for vengeance. Clark shed his glasses and changed into his Superman costume. He believed that the rampage through Fawcett City was wrong and wanted to bring his friend to justice. He found a distressed Captain Marvel back on Mount Everest. There, Superman demanded an explanation.

This story played out in Superman/Shazam: First Thunder - one of my favorite titles from DC Comics. What started as a typical action filled comic book about superpowers and crime fighting quickly turned into a morality tale about the emotional toll and personal responsibility of being a hero.

The second scene on Everest is one of the saddest I have ever read in comics. Captain Marvel provided his reasons: assassins were sent to kill him, but they killed his best friend instead. In response to Superman's anger, Captain Marvel revealed his secret identity, "shazam" returned to his normal eleven-year-old self. Filled with grief, Billy remarked how it might be too dangerous to be himself. In light of Billy's revelation, Superman's questioning changed from "What did you do" to "Who did this to you." He began to see Billy as the victim instead of the perpetrator.

Superman left Everest to confront the wizard, Shazam, who he now blamed for Captain Marvel's actions. Billy returned to Fawcett City and moved residence from the subway to an abandoned apartment building. While Billy sat in loneliness, Superman discovered more about Billy through his conversation with Shazam. Superman's argument was that the role of a superhero is one that should only be chosen by an adult - it shouldn't be thrust upon children.

image courtesy of DC Comics

Shazam agreed; Billy was just a kid, one who needed guidance.

Sure, the powers that Shazam gave to the young Billy were more than a kid could handle. It might be unfair to force such responsibility on a boy not yet old enough to make that choice for himself. Yet, at the same time, Shazam's gift was an act of compassion. He saw a lost child who needed help, needed power so that he could survive the harsh realities facing homeless youth. Shazam gave what he could but recognized the boy still needed something that the wizard could not provide: guidance. A role model. A mentor.

Superman covered his costume and found Billy's new home in the abandoned apartment. Instead of approaching the child as a hero, he entered as a normal man. Now wearing glasses and a nice suit, Billy did not recognize his friend; he thought this strange man was a social worker coming to get him into foster care. Clark Kent and Billy chatted briefly, then Clark loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt to reveal his secret: the big red S on his chest.

image courtesy of DC Comics

Superman sat down next to the boy and said "My real name is Clark." After the grief, the emotional turmoil, and all of the trouble, Clark finally saw the boy inside Captain Marvel and realized that he could give Billy the guidance that Shazam could never offer.

Superman's first instinct was to pursue justice - something that is righteous and noble. Yet in the process, he learned that justice isn't always served through harsh rule of law. He went looking for a super-powered man who clashed against police and destroyed an office building, instead he found a child who was scared and alone.

Sometimes, a little empathy and vulnerability heals more wounds than punishment.

The empathy that Clark Kent demonstrated in the final pages of Superman/Shazam: First Thunder is powerful. Unfortunately, that kind of power is lacking in our society. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we made more effort to see people for who they really are beyond biases and first impressions.

If we could see African American citizens as a group of people who matter just like the rest of us.
If we could see the beauty of the LGBT community as they were created in the image of God just like the rest of us.
If we could see behind the badge of police officers that they are human and make mistakes just like the rest of us.
If we could stop being scared of anyone we think is different: Mexican immigrants, or Syrian refugees, or gay people, or cops, or gun owners, or feminists, or teens roaming around town while playing Pokémon Go.

I would be willing to bet, if we are vulnerable enough to bare our secrets and we compassionately see the humanity in those around us, we could begin to tear down the walls that divide us. We could see each other as equals. We could fix the tensions in our cities. We could learn what it means to actually love our neighbors.

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