Tom Matlack

Masking our powers

We are all flawed, but lurking within humanity is heroism

By Tom Matlack
May 27, 2010

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MY 5-YEAR-OLD has three black and one blue Batman outfits, which he wears everywhere — including our periodic visits to Gotham, where the security guard at LaGuardia recently whispered into his walkie-talkie, “Batman is in the building,’’ without a trace of irony.

I long ago concluded that peeling off my son’s Batman T-shirt before school is a losing battle, but I am left pondering where the obsession came from and what it means about manhood when otherwise gruff-looking garbagemen hanging off the back of a truck see my boy and shout “Batman!’’ at the top of their lungs.

The more I thought about this male obsession, the more Batman came to symbolize a much bigger problem than outsmarting Mr. Freeze. As guys we have a ton of real-world challenges, from work to war to intimacy and fathering. Batman doesn’t help with any of that. He’s a dodge from reality.

As men (and women), we hold up the myth of the superhero as the ideal man. He doesn’t talk — he just whips out his batarang to deal with his problems. One of the enduring issues we face, with warning signs everywhere from athletes to investment bankers, is to put flesh and bones on the male form.

I do not have superpowers and neither does my 5-year-old. I like to think I am a decent guy, but I have made serious mistakes in my life. I read books, talk to other guys and spend a lot of time trying to sort out what is right. Most of the men I know are like me. They live complex, nuanced lives that can’t be reduced to the ultimate good and evil of the Batman vocabulary.

The societal alternative for guys — at least when it comes to Madison Avenue and popular culture — is to be a moron. Think Bud Light commercials or “Two and a Half Men.’’ Maybe we get a bit more depth, but no less silence and duplicity with Don Draper. Of all the great male athletes doing the right thing in this world, what gets 99 percent of the ink? The guys whose lives have turned upside down by making horrible mistakes. It’s comfortable, because it fits the concept that polar extremes are part and parcel of the male condition—something both women and men have somehow talked themselves into believing.

But I am neither idiotic nor mythic. I am human. So are the guys I have sought out to get beneath the myth to find the reality of manliness in America.

I have been in regular contact with Michael Kamber, the New York Times photojournalist on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve spent time with 14 guys locked up for life inside Sing Sing. I’ve hung out on playgrounds with stay-at-home dads and interviewed teenage boys with no fathers about to become dads themselves. I’ve edited the story of a member of the 82nd Airborne who survived the Gulf War but had to bear watching his toddler die in his arms from a rare birth defect.

None of these guys have superhuman powers. But they all told me the story of their lives, man-to-man, with unflinching honesty. And here’s the thing: In so doing, each one of them became heroes to me in their own unique way. My 5-year-old son isn’t old enough to graduate from Batman, but my 14-year-old son is. He knows about Michael Kamber and former Sing Sing inmate Julio Medina. And he knows that truth isn’t stranger than fiction. When it comes to manhood, truth is way more powerful than any comic book character.

I wonder if that garbage man shouting from his truck saw something in my son’s batman uniform that reminded him not of superpowers but his own human power, of the fact that all of us guys have a story to tell and we all can be heroes even if we will never be the caped crusader.

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of

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