Adam Mitzner on Batman vs. Superman

Front fender of black Batmobile, with gold Batman logo in center
Batman's iconic Batmobile

Batman or Superman?

The answer to this very important question likely reveals your preference when it comes to protagonists.

I strongly suspect that those devotees of the Man of Steel favor reading about men and women they can root for from page one, without fear of being disappointed in the end. Unreliable narrators and anti-heroes need not apply. These readers like their protagonists to stand for truth, justice, and the American way.

Fans of the Caped Crusader undoubtedly prefer their protagonists with a sharper edge. Like the Batman himself, his supporters are drawn to people with flaws, perhaps the same ones they recognize in themselves. They root just as hard for these characters, all the while never being sure they’re not going to have their hearts broken on the last page.

The picture below is of one of my bookshelves.

So now you know where I stand on the “Batman v. Superman” question, even without reading a single one of my books. I hope you read my books, though. And if you do, I further hope that you’ll come to my point of view that the best protagonists are those with deep fissures in their psyches and in their moral compasses.

In my latest novel, The Brothers Kenney, I started with a character who was at the lowest depth I could imagine someone falling. Sean Kenney once had it all—Olympic hopeful, beautiful wife, perfect children. But that was a very long time ago. When the book begins, Sean is estranged from his family, living in squalor, with no plan for any of it to change.

As they used to say in the infomercials—but wait, there’s more. Things are worse for Sean than even he imagined. There has been a tragic death in his family that requires him to return home and face his many demons.

When I write—like when I read—I put myself in the mind of the protagonist, thinking through the experiences he or she is living. All the while, I ask myself whether I would rise to the challenge or recoil from it. From there, I step into the shoes of the supporting characters, posing those same questions. How would I react if the protagonist were my friend, or spouse, or family member? Would I be supportive or judgmental? Helpful or antagonistic?

In The Brothers Kenney, I tried my best to create a multitude of characters with whom readers could identify—spouses, children, exes, siblings, parents—and imbue them with their own strengths and weaknesses. At every turn, each is forced to grapple with the novel’s central question: what, if anything, can a loved one do that is truly unforgivable?

My favorite part of the book is a discussion Sean has with his ex-wife about that topic. She borrows a little bit from the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume when she provides Sean with some tough love about whether she’s forgiven him:

The truth is, Sean, that I don’t even know what forgiveness means in the context of you and me. I know it doesn’t mean amnesia. Not a day goes by where I don’t curse your stupid name. For the time you weren’t here. For what the girls lost by not having their father present in their lives even before you physically left. And, if I’m speaking my truth here, for what went wrong in our marriage . . . [but] here’s what I think about the whole forgiveness thing, because believe me, it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought about. Recently I read something that suggested that every day we wake up as different people. That’s because the events of the preceding twenty-four hours have changed us. You can’t tell in real time, of course. You still look the same, feel the same. But you know that at forty you’re not the same person as you were at thirty. To say nothing of twenty, right? And when did that change happen? Not all at once, but all the time . . . So, the Sean that needs to be forgiven, the Sean that you think I have forgiven, who is he, really? The Sean who left? The Sean who wasn’t really there even before he’d left? Or the Sean standing on my lawn right now? . . . I’ve never really forgiven those first two guys. But you, the Sean of right now, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Is that forgiveness? Or is it just withholding judgment when you meet someone new?

I feel that way about protagonists too. They may have done horrific things in the past. Maybe they’ve even done terrible things in the course of the book. But with every turn of the page, they—like us—have a chance to be better. It is the hope that salvation lies ahead that keeps me turning the pages.

Those are also the kinds of people I love to read and write about—people who are struggling, trying their best, but uncertain whether it’s going to work out for them, sometimes questioning whether even the trying is worthwhile.

In other words, people like me. Like you too, I’m betting.

Even if our circumstances are vastly different from those in which the protagonist finds him or herself, the best characters provide a window into our own lives. In that way, their journey becomes our journey too.

At the end of that path is the best version of ourselves. That Holy Grail propels us forward even as we know that it is something of a Sisyphean undertaking.

I think even Superman understands the most basic of human imperatives. I know Batman does.

Read more from Adam Mitzner here.

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