Why I Love Superman (Part 1: How I See Him)

I watched The Dark Knight Rises this past weekend. It was great (EDIT: Having seen TDKR multiple times since, “great” is not the word I’d use now. Impressive, perhaps. Maybe even entertaining. But “great” is giving it too much credit). One of the previews we got to see before the movie was a minute and a half teaser for The Man Of Steel, Zach Snyder’s Superman movie. Since the movie won’t be released until next summer, there obviously wasn’t much interesting footage. What little I did see disturbed me, though. Right from the beginning, the logos for DC comics and the production studios were displayed in the same black and gray as they were before The Dark Knight Rises. Then we see gray overcast skies and a depressed, bearded Clark Kent working as….a fisherman I guess. Then we hear Kevin Costner give a voiceover about how Clark has to decide what kind of man he will be. Then a reeeeallly short clip of Superman flying, and that’s it.

Like I said, they probably don’t have much footage to work with at this point, and certainly not enough for me to make a definitive statement about the quality of the movie. But, until I see evidence to the contrary, I now have no reason not to assume that this new Superman film will be grim and full of angst (similar to what Tim Burton was planning to with the character for his failed Superman Lives film). And that’s too bad. Because I love Superman, and I don’t want to see his character altered to reflect the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Maybe that is what most moviegoers want to see. Maybe they want all of their heroes to be flawed and unstable and perpetually brooding. Because that’s the only way they can be “interesting”, right? Well, I don’t think so.

Apparently Superman killed Mystique and wears her skin as a trophy.

You see, I love Superman. I’ve always loved him, and I always will. Not so much for what he can do (which is admittedly awesome) but for what he represents: our potential. I don’t mean flying and invulnerability and heat vision. No, I mean our potential as a species to become better people. Someday maybe we can also be selfless, compassionate, and noble. Those are the characteristics of Superman I most admire. I’m less interested in the Man of Steel than I am in the Man of Tomorrow. To me, Superman symbolizes everything that is good about us. He is all of our best qualities externalized. Maybe that’s part of the problem.

We don’t like being reminded that most of the time we aren’t living up to our potential. We want heroes who are like us instead of heroes who are what we could be. We’d rather have a hero who is motivated by negative emotions and a tragic past, who copes with his issues instead of trying to overcome them. There are valuable lessons to be learned from those kinds of characters, it’s true. But I don’t believe we should be content merely with heroes that cope. We need heroes who learn from mistakes (whether their own or others’) and move past them, heroes who grow and change with time. We need heroes who do what they do to help people, not to make themselves feel better. Superman is a hero for all of the right reasons, and he is a hero in all the right ways. So how should movies depict Superman? How should comics be depicting Superman? Well, here’s my take:

When I think of the Man of Tomorrow, I think of him as being the synthesis of two of my favorite fictional characters (maybe these choices will seem a bit random to you, but I grew up watching both of these guys on a regular basis, so I can’t help jumping right to them). The first of these is James McKay, the main character of William Wyler’s 1958 western film, The Big Country. He is a retired sea captain who moves west with his fiancee, only to discover that everyone there, including said fiancee, expects him to constantly prove his manhood in public displays. But McKay has sworn off this foolish behavior. His father died years before in a pointless duel of honor and he doesn’t want anyone to go down that same path. He has a quiet determination, he’d rather talk than fight (but fight he does when he finds it necessary), he shows mercy when he has the chance to kill his enemies, and he tries to broker a peace between two warring families of ranchers.

Movie posters used to be WAY cooler.

I’d highly recommend you watch The Big Country if you want to know more about the movie. It really is a gem. The thing that stood out to me the most, even as a child, was how cool McKay was. He’s not a western hero in the traditional sense, but that’s the point. His conduct throughout the movie essentially shows the audience that traditional western heroes aren’t really that admirable. Far more admirable is a man who wants to solve problems with words rather than guns. He doesn’t show favoritism to either side, providing solutions to their problems and pointing out their foolishness when they need to hear it the most. By the end of the movie, McKay’s actions and his sincerity have convinced many of these antagonistic ranchers to hear the wisdom in his words. Some of them don’t, or at least, they don’t care. But that’s the way it always is, right? (Psst! That applies to Superman!)

The second fictional character I see in Superman is Jean-Luc Picard, my favorite captain of the Enterprise. While James T. Kirk is certainly an awesome dude, I have to say that Picard really lives out the creed of Starfleet and The Federation of Planets the best. It’s pointed out more in Star Trek: The Next Generation than any other Trek show that Starfleet is not a military organization. The crew of the Enterprise are primarily explorers, ambassadors, and relief workers. Occasionally they do have to fight battles, but it is always as a last resort, when there are no acceptable alternatives. Picard, more so than Kirk, really exemplifies those principles.  He has some flaws, of course, but that just reminds us that humanity can always improve, even in the enlightened era of the 24th century.

“Make it so.”

One thing I want to specifically mention is how Picard interacts with less advanced cultures. Starfleets’s number one rule is called the Prime Directive, which forbids interference with the development of alien cultures. While he sometimes interprets the Prime Directive a bit loosely as the situations dictate, Picard upholds the spirit of it at all times. He understands that some worlds are just not ready for the kind of knowledge and power he has at his disposal. Whatever choices they make, it must be them making the decision. If Picard used Starfleet’s technology to solve all of a more primitive society’s problems, they would eventually lose the motivation to solve problems for themselves. This leads to all kind of conflicts within the show, of course. When should the Prime Directive be broken, if ever? How much assistance given to a world that desperately needs it is too much? (Pssst! See how this also applies to Superman?)

I hope you could see how all this tied into Superman. But allow me to spell it out just in case I wasn’t clear enough: this is how I see Superman. Obviously there have been many writers over the years who have tried a number of different approaches to the character, and many of them have been successful. But this is the approach I feel is best suited to The Man of Steel: a fusion of James McKay’s wise outsider with quiet strength and Jean-Luc Picard’s philosophical ambassador of the future.

I don’t know if this makes sense to anyone but me, and if that’s the case I apologize for wasting your time. But do me a favor: if this has piqued your curiosity even the slightest bit (whether you agree or disagree), watch The Big Country, and a few episodes of Star Trek: TNG (“First Contact”, “Who Watches the Watchers”, “The Measure of a Man”, “The Offspring”, “Wounded”) just to get a feel for what I’m saying. If you like your Superman to be more of an action hero than a philosopher, I get that. I do. I know I used to feel the same way. If you like a darker hero, I also understand. Sometimes dark heroes do seem more interesting than “boy scouts.” This post was purely opinion. Anyways, stay tuned for part two, in which I discuss some of the criticisms of Superman and whether they stand up to scrutiny.

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6 Comments

  1. Well, you’ve definitely sold me on The Big Country. I’ve never heard of it, but I’m definitely going to check it out.

    Superman: Red Son explores some similar ideas regarding philosophy. Superman as a philosopher is a more interesting than him just showing up and saving the day.

    I really don’t like the idea of making a dark Superman movie just because a dark Batman series has been so successful. Hopefully it is just a product of the advertising.

  2. I agree with your points. Not all heroes have to be maladjusted, emotionally distraught human beings to be interesting. I’d like to see more films where superheroes are not just superpowered, but super people.

  3. Thank you Nate, I agree with you whole-heartedly. This is the kind of hero that I enjoy to read about.

  4. Welp, you’ve earned me as a new follower. Fantastic post, and one that really makes me want to watch “The Big Country” as well. Personally, I connect Superman to a different Gregory Peck character–Atticus Finch, for the same thoughtfulness, determination, sense of morality, and calm demeanor.

    Also, canonically (as of the Death & Return story at least) “To Kill a Mockingbird” is Clark’s favorite film.

    To me, what Superman represents (in addition to the whole “Do good to others and every man can be a Superman” bit) is the rejection of cynicism. Superman is the counterexample to “power corrupts,” a person with nigh-unlimited power who only uses it to help others. Too bad more Superman writers don’t latch onto that.

    • Thanks Tom! I’m glad we share some views. Your blog is really insightful too, and I’ll be following it from now on. Cheers!

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