‘Scuse me while I nerd out, but Superman is my favorite hero. With it raining comic book movies, I find myself ruminating on why Superman has held my and the world’s attention.
I feel privileged to remember Christopher Reeve’s take on the Uber Mensch. From George Reeves to Tom Welling, no one ever nailed Superman’s dual identity like Reeve. His Clark Kent was lovable and goofy; his Superman every bit the hero. Reeve succeeded in proving that behavior is the true disguise – act like a milquetoast and no one will notice that you’re 6’4”. I liked Henry Cavill’s portrayal, but there will never be another Christopher Reeve. Sigh…
Let’s get back to the fake world. On the high school campus of comic book heroes, Superman is starring quarterback. Most Likely to You Name It. We’d call him Captain America if the title wasn’t taken. He’s pink-faced and wholesome, upbeat, fearless. Not to mention secure in his manhood to don such a costume. We know what makes him ‘super’. Or do we? The first thing you think is red sun, gravity, dense molecular and so on (you thought I was kidding when I said ‘nerd out’, huh?). But a good question to ask is – what makes a hero in the real world?
One firefighter might bench 300 pounds, while another does 250. But if both of them run into a burning building, who gets more hero points? At this point we realize that physical strength has nothing to do with it. We don’t praise them for how much they can lift – it’s their moral strength, their willingness to overcome their fears and do the right thing, that makes us cheer.
But Superman’s impervious to fire. The wretched dwellers of the Marvel universe would kill for his optimism. And there’s no way he could out-emo Batman. Why would he need to? He’s gorgeous, universally adored and incapable of failure. Kryptonite schmyptonite. And he just so stinkin’ nice. Sure we like our conflicted, brooding Heathcliffs. Making heroes more human has also kept them marketable. So how has Superman, like some supervirus, resisted the attempts to make him over? Because, like the planet from whence he came, he is millenniums ahead of his fellow crusaders.
Imagine him in his Fortress of Solitude – ‘I’m so glad I didn’t give up this place. I need it to get away from all the whining! “Waa waa, my parents were murdered.” “My wife was murdered.” “My uncle was murdered.” Does anybody hear ME complain? Forget parents – my PLANET was murdered! Bruce Wayne’s trippin’ over Mommy and Daddy? At least there’s, y’know, other HUMANS for him to talk to. Try being the only one of your kind in the entire universe! Do you know what a downer it is to bring up planetary annihilation at parties? Oh yeah, and don’t forget my ‘perfect’ upbringing in Smallville. It’s bad enough that every person I am remotely related to was evaporated – I got to watch my adopted father drop dead! And don’t get me started on these powers. The very sun that enables me to be sooo strong destroyed my home planet. You think that doesn’t mess with my head?’
It’s not the steel-bending or limitless speed that makes us love Superman. It’s the fact that this guy with every imaginable trauma thrown at him makes a choice. Instead of wallowing in angst and self-pity, instead of obsessing over all that was taken from him, he picks himself up, puts on his cape, and saves the world. Someone who could have been the ultimate victim chose to be the ultimate hero. Grief counselors tell us that exercise, community involvement and helping others will see us through a loss. That’s just what Superman does. And all with that cute little curl.