Now let me tell you, I have never really gotten the massive fascination some people have with Superman. My dear friend Matt Ellis is one of the biggest Superman fans around, and I have never had the heart to bring this painful subject up with him. I'm a big comics fan, albeit far more of a Marvel guy than DC, and I have my own preferences for comic characters. I love Iron Man's ingenuity and jet-setting lifestyle, Hawkeye's devil-may-care attitude, Moon Knight's dedication and mystery, Songbird's strength and vulnerability, Hellboy's lunchbox-toting approach. Superman has always been uninteresting to me because there seems to be nothing wrong with him. There are no vulnerabilities, no weaknesses, and no chance of any kind of failure. He has too many powers, and he's too indomitable. The stakes just don't seem to be very high in a Superman story, whereas Iron Man is a recovering alcoholic with sometimes appallingly poor judgment, Hawkeye and Moon Knight must compensate in skill for the fact that they have no powers whatsoever, Songbird is a convicted felon trying to go straight, and Hellboy is, you know, from Hell. Superman has always seemed too perfect to me, and too powerful for his conflicts to be particularly compelling. And, I must confess, I have always thought Superman and Batman fans to be kind of shallow. I mean, aren't these the easiest heroes to be fans of?
Well, Matt, I owe you an apology. I watched Donner's film in my home theater for the first time in 15 years Tuesday night and almost wept with the beauty of it. I mean, I got all choked up and bit back a sob at the glory of Superman--while the opening credits rolled.
I have been converted to the church of Superman.
Yes, it's unbelievable. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; it's a bird, it's a plane, it's Superman. Frank Miller, in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, describes the Man of Steel thus: "There's just the sun, and the sky, and him, like he's the only reason it's all here." When Superman speaks, the heroes listen; when he walks into the room, they all stand up straighter. He is an impossible ideal, something to aspire to despite no one being able to fill his shoes.
Loving Superman is, and I can't think of a better way to phrase this, very much like an act of faith. And boy, do we need faith.
In Donner's film, so lovingly nostalgic while simultaneously tenderly honest (the dialogue and cinematography absolutely scream "1978!"), Superman insists to Lois, "I never lie." And you know what? He doesn't. Ever. Lie. And when Christopher Reeve says that in the film, I feel a rush of warmth and comfort. Of course Superman never lies. Because it's in his nature to be honest, Jonathan and Martha Kent taught him to be honest, and the hologram of Kal-El reinforced its importance. In that moment, the fact that Superman is a combination boy scout and choir boy doesn't come across as shallow and obvious, it's completely natural. Not only is it natural, it's obviously the way the ideal person should be--including me. I missed the next couple minutes of the film because I found myself reflecting on when I lie, why I do it, and how I can remove it from my life.
Of course, pathological honesty does come back to bite Superman in his drawers-on-the-outside butt. Miss Teschmacher (the delectable Valerie Perrine) only removes the kryptonite necklace after securing his promise that he will stop the nuclear missile headed for New Jersey (and her mother) first. She knows that he never lies, and Lois Lane dies for the delay.
The fact that Superman breaks his father's "prime directive" to save Lois is no small thing. All of a sudden, Superman's boy scout badge is tarnished a bit, and the viewer realizes just how very dangerous Superman could be, if he chose to be.
See, that's the thing. Superman has almost limitless power on Earth, and he could do anything. The fact that it is his nature, nurture, and mission to do good works is not something to be taken for granted, as I always have. A person with Superman's powers and even a slightly different ethic would be a complete disaster on Earth. At the risk of sacrilege, I will pose a question my brother Peter asked me once: If God is all-powerful, could he not have chosen to be evil? The Superman-as-God-or-Jesus parallel can get you in all kinds of trouble (much like the Neo-as-Jesus), and can only be taken so far, but I must say that I am grateful that my all-powerful God has a benevolent nature, and I see the value of that choice in Clark Kent.
The late, great Mark Gruenwald trod this ground expertly in 1986 with his masterful Marvel miniseries Squadron Supreme. Following thematically and temporally right after DC's watershed Watchmen, Squadron shows a team of Justice League analogues who decide to become proactive and use their powers to "save the world." They must, of course, conquer it first. Wildstorm's brilliant The Authority has addressed similar themes from a much more blatantly (and gleefully) anti-establishment standpoint, and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski is currently writing a Squadron update for Marvel as an ongoing series. In the current book (which follows 18 issues of Supreme Power and two miniseries as setup), the Superman analogue is Mark Milton, AKA Hyperion, an alien sent to Earth much like Kal-El. But Milton doesn't adjust as well, having been raised and manipulated by the U.S. Government from an early age. (Side note: is there a single comic being published today where governments of any kind do anything beneficial? Not all comic readers are disgruntled anarcho-liberals, guys, and even for those that are it's getting pretty old.) Milton lacks Clark Kent's moral compass, and his efforts to help the world are often tainted by his resentment and alienation there, not to mention the fact that he can get away with anything he chooses.
We need heroes, and we need them to be so much larger than life that they transcend the need for believability. He's Beowulf, he's King Arthur, he's Achilles (because Batman is Odysseus). It's okay if he's unbeatable and impossible, because he's a reflection of the part of us that is also unbeatable and impossible.
Heroes inspire us to do impossible things, and fictional heroes may inspire us even more than real ones. Superman transcends stereotype into archetype, and he is one of exactly two comic book characters who transcend the need to be updated for the times. The other is his closest moral analogue in the Marvel universe, Captain America, for whom I have always felt similar disinterest, but at whom I am now looking with different eyes.
Yes, Superman is over-the-top, with his powers and his morality. Yes, he's static and unchangeable. Yes, he wears his briefs on the outside. And I hope he never changes.
I take comfort in the fact that, if Superman Returns does not meet my moviegoing needs and expectations, I still have Donner's film, Reeve's acting, and Williams' score, all three flawless, to remind me of the wonder and hero-worship I need so badly.