Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Why Superman?

Our schedule this week is crazy, and is keeping Karen and me from seeing Superman Returns for a few more days, at least. To prepare myself for this momentous occasion, I watched the 1978 Richard Donner Superman film a couple nights ago.

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.

So here's what I've learned about Superman. We need him.

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.


  • At 6/29/2006 6:44 PM , Anonymous Matthew Ellis said...

    Wow, I'm so happy for you. You're life will be very different now :)

    I love superman for all of those reasons. To me, he represents so much more than just a guy who can kick the most butt. He is the ultimate hero who teaches us that we should always be giving everything we have, whether big or small, to aid others. The other DC heroes even call him the "Big Blue Boy Scout", which he doesn't take any resentment to (he loves boy scouts!)
    About the religious thing though, if you are bothered by messianic parrallels, you probably won't like Superman Returns. Brian Singer not only touches on them, he almost harps on them. This is nothing new. Donner was critisized for making Superman christ-like (and Marlon Brando God-like), but its nothing new for Superman. The story goes that Siegal and Shuster, two Jewish boys, wanted to write a messiah they could really appreciate! And space aliens and mastermind criminals for him to fight could be fun too! This character has always dealt with such issues. However, superman is a titan. His roots, unlike your, Marvel heroes, in comparison, are in comic book stories that wanted to create mythology. Superman's stories and much of DC treats the heroes like Homer treats Achilles. Larger than life and unlike mortal men. His story survives because its so unbelievable its fun to tell. These heroes are what we want to be and can never aspire to because we're NOTHING like them. Like the Gods of the ancient world and even the Gods of this one, Superman is a symbol that represents a light in the world that cannot be matched.

    Lastly, I have a comic book theory that involves Superman and Batman. Batman's identity IS Batman. If you asked his soul who he was, he would answer "I'm Batman." Bruce Wayne is his alter ego. Superman, on the other hand, would answer "who are you" with "I'm Clark Kent." He wants so much to be a part of our world, but consistently must fulfill his destiny to protect us. Deep down, he really wishes he could just be a farm boy from Kansas with a beautiful reporter for a wife. But he puts on the cape every day, not for him, but for the people he protects. I like that.


  • At 6/30/2006 9:57 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    It's not that the messianic parallels bother me, it's the potential for them to bother other readers that has me shying away from the issue. The messianic Superman issue is one of the few satisfactory storylines in The Kingdom, if I recall correctly.

    I like your image of Superman putting on the cape the way a coal miner puts on his helmet, or a steelworker picks up his sledgehammer.

    The other great thing about Superman is the relief Batman puts him in. While some of the storytelling in the Superman/Batman series has been poor, the whole series has been worth it for the contrasting inner monologues.

    I probably won't get to Superman Returns until Monday. I am, however, planning on buying and watching Superman II Sunday while Karen is at rehearsal for Follies.

  • At 7/05/2006 4:18 PM , Anonymous Phil said...

    I'm drowinging in a sea of comic book geekdom!

  • At 7/06/2006 9:07 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Hey, man, it's a geek golden age with these fantastic superhero movies of the past 10 years. Get with it! Geek is chic!

  • At 7/06/2006 9:08 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    also, what does "drowinging" mean?

    Ange Hamm
    -makin' fun of your typo

  • At 7/08/2006 2:09 AM , Blogger Larry Belew said...

    Judie and I saw Superman Returnslast week and it was powerful! A mutual friend said he wept in places. The beating scene took me back to Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. By the way, Andrew, I should have asked your permission, but I just successfully added a link to your blog on Larry's Lines.

  • At 7/08/2006 10:36 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...


    You of all people don't need to ask permission.

    And I've finally posted a review.

  • At 7/09/2006 9:11 PM , Blogger Larry Belew said...

    Oh Andrew, I thank you soooooooo much for saying, "Our schedule this week is crazy, and is keeping Karen and me..." not "Karen and I." I'm hearing more and more misuse of that objectionable objective on television, in private conversation and I even heard a well educated pricipal tell her staff that they could address quesiontions to, "Janet and I." I was afraid that they had changed the rule; thank you for confirming that a few people still use it correctly. (There's my rant for the day.)

  • At 7/16/2006 5:55 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    I'm so glad my grammar pleases you. I take unnatural joy in it. I still have problems with "lay" and "lie," though.

  • At 9/29/2006 3:17 PM , Blogger PhilBiker said...

    Dude, have you seen the new DC Comics USPS Stamps? Cool.

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