It’s Superman – The Superhero and Society

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Superman emerged in 1930’s USA. It was depression era and the nation was in crisis. On top of all the economic woes another threat loomed large, war. It was a decade of painful self-reflection, change and uncertainty, and as it has been since antiquity, in times of crisis the superhuman emerges to foster hope. He is a figure with god-like powers, a saviour who can restore order and right wrongs. In this circumstance, Superman is a survival response, a mental game that fosters hope, courage, fortitude and good conduct in hard times.

My first Superman was the 1950s TV serial version. By the time it made it way to me in the late 1960s it was already a relic from another era and looked shabby. George Reeves, a big corn fed guy dressed in ill-fitting cotton underpants, played an earnest and one-dimensional Superman before dying in mysterious circumstances in 1959.

Hollywoodland is a 2006 film that examines his last movements and speculates on the cause of his death. Ben Affleck ‘s Reeves is a simmering portrait of a man losing his grip, and while Affleck reminds us what a good actor he can be, a veil is lifted on the mythology of celebrity and fame, offering us a barbed glimpse into a world that appears prettier than it is.

(Other notable films about Hollywood and fame include Sunset Blvd. 1950, The Sweet Small of Success 1957, A Face in the Crowd 1957, Elmer Gantry 1960 and David Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive).

 

My second Superman was the 1970s comic version. I didn’t like the comics enough to buy them myself, I was more inclined toward The Phantom: The Ghost Who Walks, but I enjoyed dipping into my cousin’s extensive collection them whenever I got the chance to visit them. This Superman was a nice but dull. His emotional life, bound to an endlessly circling three-way love affair, is limited, and like his war against injustice, dogged if uninspired.  It was all too ‘white bread’ for my tastes. This Superman had no depth; it was all smoke and mirrors.

Lois and Clarke is a TV series that dates from the early 1990s. Lois is sharply intelligent, ambitious and sassy and Clarke? Well, he’s just Clarke, earnest and reliable and hopelessly in love with Lois who, sadly for all involved, is so bedazzled Superman that Clarke may as well pack his bags and go home to Smallville. The result was an entertaining if uninspired romantic comedy.

The first live action Superman hit the big screen as a serial in the late 1940s and finally as a stand-alone film in 1951.  Superman and the Mole Men, starring the unfortunate George Reeves, is a forgettable low budget affair of middling proportions. It wasn’t until 1978 that the big screen version got its act together with the Christopher Reeve helmed Superman, a money tree that spawned three sequels and made Reeve into a huge star, albeit one destined for a fate little better than his predecessor and almost namesake, Reeves.

Since then, reboots have wooed audiences with a special effects driven circus and little else. The latest big screen Superman Henry Cavell is like his predecessor Brandon Routh handsome, heroic and painfully earnest this earnestness being Superman’s fatal flaw. It makes him a bit boring as a personality something you could never say about his counterpart Batman.

Smallville ran on TV from 2001-11 and is perhaps the first real attempt to add some emotional complexity to the subject. First and foremost Smallville is a soap opera, a drama about a group of people who find themselves connected by a series of circumstances that act as a catalyst for self-examination and personal growth. Smallville is also a morality play; one interested in love, desire, values, virtue and good conscience. Smallville offers us, for the first time, a wholly ‘human’ Superman, one who is dealing with life’s emotional complexities while trying to come to terms with the ‘strangeness’ of his existence.

It is no surprise to discover that writer Tom De Haven is also a fan of Smallville. His novel, ‘It’s Superman’, shares a similar emotional tone, and like the show, seeks to make the Superman legend more credible. In his quest, De Haven takes a scalpel to dodgy narrative and consigns the clichés to storage; the result is an absorbing and often thrilling narrative that leaves no stone unturned in its quest for authenticity.

De Haven’s Superman is as much about America as it is about anything, a celebration of all that is good about the nation and it’s people, but one that never flinches from the dark side of the American dream: a world of greed, racism, prejudice, fear and ignorance, the precise conditions required to instigate the re-emergence of the Superhuman saviour.

This American story, (with overtones of the Grapes of Wrath and Kerouac’s On the Road), begins, as always, in a small Kansas town, with an unusual boy and his kindly guardians.

Jonathan and Martha Kent are decent folk: fair, humble and honest with a strong moral compass; values they lovingly bestow upon their strange charge. Their purity of heart is the touchstone for the emerging man-god who is all at once frightened, bewildered and worryingly excited by the promise of his power.  The Kent’s remind us, that though America is flawed, it does posses conscience.

Photographer Willy Berg, (who replaces the half -baked Jimmy Olsen), has been falsely accused of murder and is running for his life when he stumbles into Smallville and Clarke. Berg is an ambitious artist with an eye for the chance. Sometimes he is self-serving sometimes he is selfless. His heart is innately good, his motivations complex. He represents America’s evolving cultural aspirations and desire to be a force for good in the world.

Lois Lane is ‘oh so sure of herself’, except when it comes to love. After a series of men she realises that she loved them but was not ‘in love with them’. She wrestles with her tempestuous nature and is confused by her own worst tendencies. She knows she more gifted than most and this both thrills and unsettles her. Lane is juxtaposition. Both confident and fearful, she represents the faltering steps of a nation entering its adulthood and coming to terms with its power, obligations and responsibilities

Lex Luthor is a subtly drawn portrait of a Psychopath. He schemes for reasons he does not understand; seeking something he knows not what. Craving power for its own sake, he represents the dark side of the American dream. He is ambitious intelligence gone awry, operating without regard, conscience or higher purpose.

Clarke is a young man enduring the trails of life while trying to remain true to his authentic self. Fortunately he has a robust temperament and a steady heart. Through Clarke, De Haven’s reminds us of the best of America.

America wants the world to share its dreams. Is it going to be Clarks or Luthor’s version?

In the closing act of De Haven’s ‘It’s Superman’, we find Louis taunting Clark with the words “Nicely Nicely.” “Oh look,” she cries, “It’s Clark Kent, Mr Nicely Nicely”………… “Oh look”, she splutters, “its Clark whose just so Nicely Nicely all the time.”That followed by a heavily barbed, Farm boy.” She is horrified by her behaviour but he just annoys her so much and worst part is, she doesn’t know why.

Does she love Clark? No, it can’t possibly be, she loves Superman. Clarke ponders his dilemma. If Lois cannot accept him as himself, then so be it. Instead, he will just love her and use that love as he once used the love of his parents/guardians- as a touchstone; one that keeps him centred and grounded, one that encourages him to seek out the best in himself, because, in Clarke’s mind, to love is to honour.

De Haven received a fistful of flack from critics who felt that his story had diminished Clarke by making him into a vulnerable and flawed figure haunted by the demons of inadequacy and uncertainty.

De Haven responded thus: “He is a young man who grew up in his time and his place and was educated according to the theories and with the tools of that context. (He went to Smallville High, not Phillips Exeter Academy, for crying out loud.) He worries that he’s not smart enough to do the things that he wants to do, feels he should do, but he manages to put aside, if never completely overcome, those feelings of inadequacy, and to me that’s heroic. Why would anyone think a 17-20 year old kid from a tiny farming town in eastern Kansas would move out into the greater world and immediately, instinctively believe he could compete with a big-city politician like Lex Luthor or engage in an easygoing man-to-man conversation with the President of the United States?”

It is precisely this kind of insight that makes ‘It’s Superman’ the fine experience it is. De Haven’s ‘It’s Superman’ is all at once a penetrating character study, a rollicking good yarn and a lovingly crafted portrait of America as it was. The best Superhero novel ever? I think it could well be, for me it least, it’s finally a Superman narrative I can take seriously.

 

The more literary end of the Superhero cannon is sparsely populated, and besides Its Superman, Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ and Michael Chabon’s, achingly beautiful, ‘The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier and Clay’, require a mention.

The latter, like’ It’s Superman’, is period specific story about a popular anti-fascist comic book superhero called ‘The Escapist’ the creation of two Jewish cousins. Powerless but for their creation, they use the Escapist to wage an allegorical war against Hitler on behalf of the suffering Jews of Europe. Like ‘It’s Superman’, this book is also about America,- it’s dreams, hopes, ambitions and dark realities. I listened to it straight after finishing De Haven’s tome and couldn’t have made a better choice.

Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’, another book centred on the American dream, is about ideas and believing in them, in other words, it’s a story about faith and all that faith means. This battle for ‘hearts and minds’ is played out on a metaphysical landscape populated by superhuman’s who, while possessing great and unusual powers, exist only as a manifestation of human faith. This is a darkly comic drama that seeks to examine, in part, America’s obsessions with media and celebrity.

Another superhuman narrative worth mentioning is Robert Silverberg’s ‘Gilgamesh The King’, a retelling of the Gilgamesh Saga, a Mesopotamian poem that dates back some four thousand years.

Gilgamesh is the oppressive ruler of the long-suffering people of Uruk. The gods respond to the people’s pleas for emancipation by creating an equal to Gilgamesh, a figure imbued with the best of human qualities. Enkidu is made  from saliva and clay and through a series of adventures, teaches Gilgamesh how to be a good king and how to live a good and virtuous life.

Silverberg: “At all times I have attempted to interpret the fanciful and fantastic events of these poems in a realistic way, that is, to tell the story of Gilgamesh as though he were writing his own memoirs, and to that end I have introduced many interpretations of my own devising which for better or for worse are in no way to be ascribed to the scholars.”

This is a risky strategy, but one that works. Gilgamesh the King is both an inspiring and prescient story about good conduct and an entertaining history lesson to boot.

 

The Superhero cannon is populated by a cast of characters that include Jesus, the Golem, (hewn from clay by a Czech Rabbi to protect his people from anti-Semitic genocide), Batman, Captain America, The Phantom, Zorro, The Scarlet Pimpernel- just a few of the many names on a list that stretches back into deep antiquity.

The latest superhero on the horizon is artificial intelligence, a life form hewn by from the substance of the earth, much like The Golem and Enkidu, and set free to improve the human condition, but, as science fiction so artfully reminds us, things can go wrong when great power is unleashed, and the power of the self-aware computer could just as easily be a force for the bad as a force for the good. But along with the apocalyptic ‘Terminator’, the dystopian Blade Runner and the misbehaving HAL from Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, there is another story at play, one imbued with conscience, ideas, hope and optimism.

Spielberg’s ‘A.I.’ is a great masterpiece of the genre and asks us, that like Spanish film ‘Eva’, to consider the ethical implications of artificial intelligence.

‘Bicentennial Man’ introduces some important ideas, notably Isaac Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics. The 3 Laws seek to find a creed by which humans and robots can co-exist:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The movie is easily dismissed, but behind the all the sugar coating is something of startling depth that is offering us a positive glimpse of the future.

Otherwise there is the ‘Matrix’: the machines we have created have enslave Humanity but there is hope, whispers of an ‘adorned one’ who will arise and save us. In this case his name is Neo.

At the end of the day, Superhuman story is a warm safe place where the stressed psyche can escape to for healing, guidance and comfort. It is an ever-relevant morality fable that for some, is as import to emotional well being as the god figure is to others. Long they continue, in all their varied glories and conditions, to ‘leap tall building is a single bound’- in service of the weak, oppressed and those suffering the slings and arrows of unrequited love.

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