I mentioned last week that I’ve been writing an essay on Superman. I gave it up for a recollection of the ’96 Olympic Games, but the essay has still been on my mind. Then, the other day, a friend of mine posted an outraged link to Newsarama’s list of the 10 Worst Comic Book-Based Movie Performances of All Time, number 9 of which was — if you can believe this — Christopher Reeve as Superman.
And I thought, oh, screw Newsarama! They messed with the WRONG FAN!
Fortunately, someone else at Newsarama was quick to write an excellent op-ed championing Reeve’s performance as Superman, so I don’t need to go there. (Seriously, though, read the op-ed — it’s great.)
But it made me want to finish the essay I was writing, so here, it is. Word of warning, though: it’s messy and disorganized and flamboyant and overly reverential and silly and ROUGH. Just like a first draft should be. 🙂
When I went to watch The Dark Knight Rises
earlier this week [last week], I was as excited to see the first teaser trailer for Man of Steel as I was to see the movie itself. Not that I was really all that fired up about this particular film — prior to the trailer, I had all sorts of misgivings about the choice of actor, the redesigned costume, the ridiculous still of Superman bursting through a bank vault. But I am a disciple, and I will always look forward to any reboot of the Superman franchise.
The trailer itself is a spare minute and a half, just a few vague shots of a kid in a red towel cavorting in a backyard, a lonely Clark Kent roughing it on a sea trawler and hitchhiking in some cold blue backwater (echoes of a powerless Kent trekking across Canada in Superman II), all with an authoritative male voiceover. In one trailer, it’s Jonathan Kent; in the other — the one I saw — it’s Jor-El. And then Superman flies.
And I wept.
I couldn’t control myself. Intellectually, I wasn’t sure exactly what I thought of the trailer. A bit indistinct, all tone and no plot, the finale shot of Superman rocketing into the sky at a distance, our hero tiny against all that blue. In my brain, it was intriguing but a bit underwhelming.
But emotionally, I was undone. My chin quavered, fingers over my lips; my chest caved in. I couldn’t see the giant screen for all my tears.
I felt absurd, but only for a moment, because then I realized what was happening.
I read an article in Wired several years ago, in the run-up to the first Michael Bay Transformers movie, about the importance of Optimus Prime to guys my age. Prime, the article argued, was our proto-hero, my generation’s John Wayne, the cowboy and the pickup truck and the shotgun all rolled into one awesome being. But he was gentle, too, and honorable, and caring. In the afternoon cartoon, he spoke to young Spike with love. He was, according to Wired, every young boy’s surrogate father figure.
And I agree with this whole-heartedly. I adore and revere Prime, I feel protective of him, I want to evoke him in challenge to schoolyard bullies: my Prime can beat up your Prime! I have all the important Prime toys, too: the G1 Prime with trailer, the giant 1986 animated movie Prime, the giant 2008 movie Prime, even the big plastic helmet that lets you speak with Peter Cullen’s awesome voice. I have taken each of these out of the box, transformed the toys into trucks and back into robots, worn the helmet. But I do not play with them — I treat them like statues.
So yes, I think Optimus Prime is our surrogate father figure, or mine anyway.
But my generation also grew up with Superman. Not just the animated version kids know today, not Lois & Clark or Smallville, not even the fun but silly Richard Pryor movie or the absurd fourth film where even the costume looked tired. No, we grew up with the first two movies, the iconic Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve two-part epic.
And if Optimus Prime was our fictional icon of manly fatherhood, then Superman was our God.
The Donner films — and Bryan Singer’s reverential Superman Returns — play this angle heavily. The early Superman origin stories sold him as an American Everyman who happened to have super powers, the ultimate good Samaritan; or a national symbol, everything that is good and pure in America made manifest in super-dense, indestructible form. One nation, indivisible indeed. And over the years he has come to represent many other things: the story of the American immigrant, the waxing and waning role America plays in the world, the new manifest destiny of American space exploration, Reagan-era Cold War politics and nuclear deterrence, the authoritarian police state . . . . But the Superman I grew up on was unequivocally a Christian messiah figure, the human-looking only begotten Son of a white haired Being in the Sky who had sacrificed His Child in order to save mankind. My Superman wasn’t quite omnipresent (though he was damned fast), wasn’t exactly omniscient (though he was plenty smart, and man did those crystals in the Fortress of Solitude contain a lot of information), and was almost omnipotent. He wasn’t exactly the God I learned about in Sunday School, but he had enough of the right qualifications, as far as my young mind could comprehend, and so he was close enough to God the other six days of the week that when someone shouted “Look, up in the sky!” I wasn’t expecting the Second Coming any more than I was looking for a bird or a plane. I was praying for Superman.
This sounds facetious, I know. But I’m not kidding here. I still remember vividly a dream I had in third grade in which I was lying in bed — in the dream, I mean — looking up at my ceiling, distraught about something (a bully at school, my parents arguing, something along those lines) and praying, actually saying out loud in the dream, Please, help me. And then Superman flew through my bedroom window and hovered over my bed, looking with such love and protectiveness down at me, saying, “Tell me what you need.” I woke in that moment, sitting upright in bed, and I felt such security, such comfort. My little heart ached that it had been a dream, but I believed — I truly had faith — that if I ever needed help, Superman would be there for me.
And, as most people experience with faith at some point, I had my moments of doubt and disillusionment, too. My first movie-going memory is of hiding behind the seats in the dark theater, terrified of the scene in the second film where Superman gives up his powers, his skull showing red in the crystal chamber that, I thought at the time, was killing my hero and protector. I cannot describe the flood of relief I felt when he later regained his powers (resurrection story, anyone?), but still, it was troubling to see Superman so weak, so human.
(As an adult, I find this sequence of Clark Kent’s powerlessness the most compelling part of the first two Superman movies, for many of the same reasons that I find studies about Christ’s humanity far more interesting than stories about his divinity. And Man of Steel, despite any other misgivings I might still have, seems to be doing a brilliant thing by actually beginning its story in the human emotional weakness of Clark Kent. But more on that later.)
As I entered my teens, I began to find the Superman comics of the ’80s tiring, overly simplified or overly didactic or overly expositional. There was no beating Superman, and everyone knew it, so why even bother? And so I entered my period of disillusionment. This peaked with the death of Superman — he could be beaten after all — which, no kidding, happened around the same time I first encountered Nietzsche: God is dead, indeed. Somehow, this felt to me simultaneously a relief and a nightmare, but ultimately, I was glad it had happened. I was too intelligent and too mature for dressed-up fairy tales.
None of this is to denigrate Christianity or any other particular belief system. I had a strong upbringing in the Presbyterian church — my family was active in whatever congregation we belonged to, and I went to a private college affiliated with the church. As I grew older, I made no real direct connection between my family’s religious worship and my childhood idolizing — idolatry? — of Superman. Even amidst the heavy-handed messiah-figure treatment in Singer’s Superman Returns, in which no one can ignore the comparisons between Christ and Kent (watch carefully toward the end: Superman-as-Christ is actually stabbed in the side by a spear-sized chunk of kryptonite before falling to earth, only to rise again and, glory hallelujah, when Mary-and-Martha the hospital nurse rolls back his recovery room door, the tomb is empty!), I still wasn’t thinking, “Wow — Superman is my god!” It was all just an intellectual exercise, a game the filmmakers and I were playing together.
But my connection to Superman is much more than merely intellectual. I have always teared up at anything connected with Superman. I have a visceral emotional reaction to films, tv shows, comics, even toys. I mostly have chalked this up to nostalgia — Zach Snyder is a genius for setting up his trailer’s flight shot with faceless close-ups of the boy in the red towel, the playful stand-in for every young boy in America — well, every young white boy, but we’ll save discussions of Hancock for another essay. For me, that image of the boy primed my heart to leap when I saw Superman fly, and the distance of that final shot, Superman just a speck in the sky, makes us feel that we are in a real world, standing in our own backyard, seeing a man fly the way we’d see a bird or an airplane fly. The whole set-up is supposed to play off our nostalgia.
When I watched that trailer for the first time in the theater this week, I was aware of all this. I knew why I was seeing the boy in the towel, knew I was being manipulated. I was happy to be manipulated, but I was aware of it. So that nostalgia is not the reason my heart leapt into my throat and I burst into tears when I saw Superman flying. The emotional reaction in that moment was much deeper than that — not boyish but soulful.
Today I am a Buddhist. When I sit with my teachers, I feel such reverence for them; when I met monks during a trip to Thailand a couple of years ago, I truly felt I was in the presence of spiritual heroes. And the few times I have had the great privilege to attend public teachings from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, I have felt something rather close to what I feel watching Superman: both a sense of boyish glee (a joy that radiates from the humorous Dalai Lama himself — the man is infectious) and a sense of utter awe, total love, perfect comfort and protection.
Of course, one of the things I love most about the Dalai Lama is that, unlike Superman, he has his feet firmly on the ground. The Dalai Lama is very much a part of this world, a fellow human being.
And this is what makes Superman so godlike, I think. As Clark Kent, he too is grounded, but as Superman, he soars. He is otherworldly, superhuman. He is not just Jesus Christ sent by God the Father; he is also Krishna, divine avatar walking among the people; he is Thor, son of Odin. Even Singer, overtly messianic though his version is, makes a kind of medley of Greek gods in Superman, giving us not only Heracles and Hermes — all strength and speed — but also a reference to Prometheus from Lex Luther, and a visual reference to Atlas when Superman catches the falling Daily Planet from his newspaper’s building. (Unless you’d rather read that image, too, as Christian, because Superman does indeed have the whole world in his hands — a reference reinforced when he descends into the underworld and lifts the entire hellish Kryptonian continent into the sky. Seriously, I could do this all day.)
It’s tempting to chalk all this up to hype, or to hypersensitivity. I wouldn’t argue with that charge. In fact, I couldn’t argue with it, because this isn’t an essay about logic. This is an essay about faith. I believe in Superman.
I don’t know if I’ll like this new cinematic vision of my boyhood god, but I can’t help but wonder if now, after the Gospel according to Donner and Singer, we might finally have in Man of Steel our long-awaited Second Coming.
What I do know is this: watching it next summer, I will weep. In that dark, hushed, hallowed sanctuary of the theater, I will hold my heart in my hands. And I will whisper at the end of the film my childish version of an amen: “Thank you, Superman.”
So, if you want an “exercise,” call this a response, first to the trailer and then to those articles I linked above.
In the meantime, here are both trailers. And if you cry, just consider it a baptism, and I’ll call you my Brother or Sister in the true faith of childhood. 😉