Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Why We Still Believe in Superman

Superman's first appearance. 
I once, some time ago, mentioned the fact that the MGM lion, in the introduction to the film Ben Hur, doesn't roar because the filmmakers did not want to seem irreverent. This is true. Sure, it may have been driven by MGM's fear of alienating ticket-buyers, but the perception that a roaring lion might be seen as irreverent in the intro to a religiously-based film was still something that came to mind in 1959.

Fast-forward to 2015. Over the last few weeks, I have seen both a killing and a rape in church. Not in real life, of course -- in media. The killing (committed, by the way by the game's hero) was in the game Assassin's Creed: Unity. The rape, in the decidedly mediocre (and historically clueless) TV series Salem.

The fact that these things appear in media of two kinds leads me to conclude that people are just not thinking the way we used to. Being irreverent is no longer a fear (nor is it, if we're being honest, all that exciting now that it has become so run-of-the-mill) in the minds of producers and designers. In short, in the modern film, TV and video game culture, nothing is sacred...

George Reeves, TV's Superman
...except one thing: Superman, who I happened to have encountered again, right after having seen the two pop culture desecrations I mentioned above. As far as I can see, Superman is the only thing American filmmakers still hold sacred.

The other night (behind the times as usual) my family and I watched the movie Man of Steel. (Contrary to what I heard from some of my friends, we thought it was very good.)

Christopher Reeve
Superman is the only comic hero I still have any interest in and his are the only comics I really read as a kid. I was of the perfect generation (ten, when the first came out)  for the Christopher Reeve films, so I have always loved them, as well. Now, my sons also watch them.

We all know about Superman: truth, justice and the (old-fashioned) American way. He's always been a force for ethics; a non-lethal evener of the odds for the downtrodden; a stand-up guy; good to the core.

And it would seem that in an age in which we are constantly barraged with half-baked "conflicted" anti-heroes, Superman is one of the only who is still allowed to be a good, old-fashioned good guy. This reverence is refreshing in a boringly irreverent world.

In my memory, Brandon Routh followed the good-guy mold in 2006's Superman Returns. In the latest incarnation (Henry Cavill -- who I thought was great) is not much different that Reeve or than the guy in the Action Comics issues of the thirties and forties. In fact, not only hasn't anyone dared to write Superman as an anti-hero, but they seem to keep implying (and it isn't hard to connect, what with the powerful guy coming from the sky thing) that he is a "Christ figure" in the literary sense. In the 1978 Richard Donner film, Marlin Brando's Jor-El sends this message to the baby genius Kal-El (Superman to-be):

"They [people of Earth] can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son."

In Man of Steel (2013) Clark/Superman, talking to his parish pastor, has a discussion about good and evil, each shot of Superman clearly backgrounded by an image of Jesus in the stained glass over his shoulder. 

And he makes things clear to his "captors"  in the military: 

"You're scared of me because you can't control me. You don't, and you never will. But that doesn't mean I'm your enemy."

Brandon Routh
And we know -- maybe we need to know -- that no one has anything to fear from Superman. (Do we always feel the same about Batman?)

There may be some comic collector out there who can point to an issue in which Superman cheats at cards or pinches Lois in a naughty place, but, in film, the man is still, well, Christ-like. His attraction is that he is "complicated" in that he is a good person who struggles with many of the things we all do (and many that we don't, like complete superiority on a physical and mental level), and not because he is, say, forced by circumstance to become a bookie to support his little daughter after the death of her mother at the hands of mobsters. Apparently, at least with Superman, it is okay for someone to have tremendous power and not abuse it.

Why, then, does Superman remain inviolate in an age in which no one seems to care much about literary desecration? Why does he seem to be safe from the ubiquitously irreverent pens of former English majors who think that the only way a character can be interesting is if he is "damaged"? Could it be that we need him?

Could it be that we need someone to look up to (literally and figuratively) now that we are, as a culture, turning away from religion? -- someone who, fictional or not, we can always trust to take care of us? We, as a culture, might fancy ourselves too hip for church, but our ongoing reverence for our most beloved mythic hero proves one thing to me: We still need to believe. We still want to look to the sky for a savior.

Henry Cavill
I have said this before, but, when I showed my sons the 1978 film, Superman: the Movie, for the first time, I actually had to fight back sobs when Reeve appeared on screen in his Superman outfit. Besides introducing my boys to part of my boyhood, I was happy that I was putting something in front of them that would teach them well; a model of a good man who could (as he does in the film) rescue a little girl's cat and also divert a nuclear weapon when he needs to -- a rocket that he diverts before diverting the one headed for his love Lois Lane. Why? Because he made a promise. If that doesn't choke you up a little...

Stay with us, Superman. We need you now more than ever.



    To me there is only ONE real Superman, George Reeves. All the rest are phonies!

    Now I've got a lump in my throat remembering how I loved that guy!

    1. Hi, Bex -- Thanks for reading! As a wrote, it did occur to me that old George should have had a mention, or at least a picture... In your honor, I shall add a picture of a true American icon to this post...

    2. Better, still -- the very pic you chose!

  2. For what it's worth, a corrupt (or at least compromised) Superman appears in Frank Miller's 1986 graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns," where he's a reluctant tool of the U.S. government. I remember finding his role in that book rather striking at the time, because it's such a departure from type, but despite the popularity of that book in revising the Batman story, I think Superman's reputation survived it mostly unscathed.

    You're right that irreverence doesn't even register in the culture anymore. I've decided that when I'm reverent, which is often, I'm no longer being stodgy or square; I'm being literally countercultural.

    1. Ah, how the pendulum swings... Very true. I remember when that book came out... I remember refusing to read anytihing in which Batman defeats Superman. But someone just summarized if for me on Facebook. In the end, isn't Superman in cahoots with faking his death and everything? I might have to find and read it...just to know...