Dinengdeng & Pinakbet

“Die a Hero, or Become the Villain”

Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran | Photos courtesy Gil Keith-Agaran

I first read The Lord of the Rings in junior high — a teacher at Doris Todd introduced J.R.R. Tolkien by reading us The Hobbit in grade school.

Unlike some purists, I enjoyed Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation. A crucial point is Frodo Baggins’ Gethsemane-like discussion with the Grey Wizard in the forsaken mines of Moria.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Columnist admired the tone of Christopher Nolan’s Trilogy (Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012)). Heath Ledger posthumously won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2009 for his portrayal of the Joker.

That probably reflects my Weltanschaunng. Borrowing from another truism, you play the hand you are dealt. Sometimes you can win with a bluff on a pair of deuces; sometimes you just gotta fold or clean up a bad result and move on to the next game.

I have a stack of books I keep meaning to finish—finding time is harder than it used to be.

Looking back, a healthy dose of read fantasy and science fiction probably built on that Middle Earthern foundational philosophy (as much as good old Judeo-Christian values from family and church). I devoured books—whether assigned by teachers or not, including C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, various adaptions of Greek and Norse myths, the Iliad and The Odyssey, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, The Borrowers, and Edward Eager’s magic books (Mahalo Scholastics Books and the local Book Mobile that stopped at our campus). I later read a smattering of Great American fiction from various eras: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Last of the Mohicans, The Scarlett Letter, The Grapes of Wrath, All the King’s Men, Fahrenheit 451, The Catcher in the Rye, Charlotte’s Web, A Wrinkle in Time, Slaughterhouse Five, Moby Dick, A Wizard of Earth Sea, and 1984 (my college graduation year so it was not an elective). I have also read Agatha Christie and other mysteries—I am a sucker for series. And I do not turn my nose on Jack Reacher or a mindless James Patterson offering or Young Adult books—I enjoyed Harry Potter, and Percy Jackson and the Hunger Games series.

Bat-Man Family Day during a lighter moment at the 2016 Legislature.

In college, I concentrated my History Major on American Intellectual History. I admittedly had to find an advisor who was willing to sign off on the courses I picked because some would say there is no such thing. Americans, they argue—intellectual or not—borrowed or appropriated their ideas from the Greeks and Romans and Anglo-European thought and even some from Asia. But I did find an associate professor who let me put together something outside of the established American Studies course of study, including Darkness at Noon (Gangster Films and Film Noir), Cowboys and Indians (The American West in Film), American art and architecture, the literature periods I wanted to read and the historical periods I wanted to study.

It is almost a shame that I squandered that education by going to law school.

But the major made me appreciate how American art forms—whether poetry or prose, visual or musical, and stage or screen—convey ideas, sometimes more effectively than more straightforward academic ways. I also came to appreciate that while I enjoy pop culture as much as the next nerd, I bend towards order and optimism. I am a Star Trekker and not a Star Wars padawan (I haven’t appreciated the incursion of chaos in the re-booted Kelvin Timeline, and even some of the Paramount+ the federation ain’t all hunky dory after all storylines—explains why I like Strange New Worlds and Picard Season 3 more than the other series). Sure, the Original Series perhaps at its heart did have a renegade Captain in James T. Kirk—Kobayashi Maru and all that jazz—but it assumes Earth had reached a form of utopian idealism. The Next Generation certainly took that idea further although the best of the spinoffs—Deep Space 9 brought some of that good old frontier tension that made the Western a great American film genre.

I took in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films because I liked to see what everyone else has taken in. I kept hoping someone would make a good X-Men/Wolverine or Spider-Man movie and sometimes they did. I even enjoyed DC films—com’on people, these are based on comic books! Superman, Justice League, Watchmen, The Flash, Aquaman, Blue Beetle, Wonder Woman. Heroes in tights, baby.

A replica of the Christian Bale cowl from the Nolan trilogy.

But it is Bruce Wayne who brings us to reality and remains my favorite character. A guy who dresses like a giant bat supposedly to scare criminals and whose true identity might be the masked vigilante rather than the orphaned billionaire playboy. That franchise—whether in the comic books or graphic novels or the films under Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan or Matt Reeves—has presented what makes Batman the most accessible “superhero”—because he is not. He may have money and gadgets but in the end he must rely on his physical training and brains and, although he may hate to admit, his allies in the police, community and his family (Dick, Tim, Jason, Barb, Stephanie, Cassandra, Damien, Duke, Kate and Selina). And in the best versions, he is never clearly viewed as a good guy by the powers that be.
And sometimes that is true of anyone who takes on the opportunity to make the world a little better than we found it.

As Nolan in The Dark Knight has his Harvey Dent observe, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran remains an eclectic reader and pop culture aficionado. He practices law in Wailuku but clings to a perhaps mistaken belief he has a novel or movie script in him.