I love Superman. I always have. Sometimes I wonder if I love him too much. One Christmas, I received Superman underwear from three different family members. That was in 2014. When I was 35 years old. I’m sure Freud would say that even me attempting to be a writer is just so that I can try to be Clark Kent, too. My kids know it and have embraced it. When they see any image of Superman out in public, be it a mug, poster, cereal box, or bumper sticker, their immediate, unquestioning response is, “Daddy, it’s YOU!” When they do this, I instantly reward them with a small snack and $50.
Seinfeld once said, “…when men are growing up and are reading about Batman, Spiderman, Superman…these aren’t fantasies. These are options.”
So it is with me. I have countless memories from my life where I would feel a surge inside and I’d wonder if that might be it, the moment I’d stretch up to my toes, eyes closed, chest to the sun, and my feet would leave the ground. It’d finally be time to bring something more to the table in this world. If I’m honest, I still assume it’ll happen at some point.
Recently, though, Zack Snyder’s “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice” hit the theaters. I will hitherto refer to the film as BVAFM (Batman Versus Angry Flying Man). I am not a film critic. The only time I come close to voicing an opinion on the technical aspects of any film is to declare–although I can’t remember why–that I hated Little Man Tate when I saw it in the theater in 1991. There, that’s my 14 words of film critic fame.
However, when I walked out of BVAFM, I wasn’t mad or disappointed or frustrated or confused, though there’d be cause for all of those emotions. I was sad. I was sad and I couldn’t figure out why. I was going to write an article about it, and then Devin Faraci wrote THIS and Fr. Mike recorded THIS. Taken together, they said everything I was going to say, only better. Go, now. Read and watch them. Revel. I initially asked if I could just post links to those two pieces and let that be that; however, my editor insisted that I might have something unique to say, so, because I try to be an obedient boy, here we are today.
Superman has played a deep, pivotal role in my life since I was a child. I never had a lot of comics, partly because we didn’t have much money, but mostly because we lived in the middle of the woods and the only corner store was the one my sister and I created to sell cattails that we’d mashed up and soaked in water.
However, I do still have the first comic I ever received. Right here, close by, on the bookshelf next to me. It’s Superman, issue #462 from August of 1976, and features an Andromedan semi-villain named Karb-Brak (KB) who, in order to save his own life, sends Supes back to 1776, where he forgets his life in Metropolis and ends up working for an editor named Benjamin Franklin. There’s even a picture in issue #463 of Clark present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Good stuff, I tell ya.
KB’s situation is that the only planet he can stay alive on is Earth, so he shows up and demands that Superman leave. “Will you leave earth and let me live, or stay here and doom me?” This puts our hero in the familiar situation of having to make the difficult choice of whom to save and how. You’re drawn into the puzzle by the first page, which challenges you to figure out how you would “resolve this agonizing life-or-death dilemma” and to “make your decision–and then compare it with Superman’s”.
That’s the thing about Superman. Even when you’re not told to, you’re always doing that anyway: figuring out what you would do and seeing if you measured up to his response. Even in my first comic, though KB is violent and the solution seems cut-and-dried, either kill him or leave, Superman finds a way to cure him of his physical condition so that they can live peaceably on the same planet. Basically, when there’s no visible third way, he finds one anyway. All the time. Even when the dude is trying to kill him, he doesn’t lose sight of what is right and true:
I was a very small, scrawny child. I got picked on and made fun of a lot. When I was in 11th grade, I was still smaller than most of the 7th graders. I went to an incredibly tiny private Christian school where there were three other guys in my grade all the way through graduation. I got teased by the boys and the girls alike. I was gangly. I was painfully awkward at school or in front of people. I never knew what to say and I blushed like a rose whenever I was on the spot.
So, I endlessly entertained myself by wondering how I’d respond if I were more than what people saw in front of them. While they laughed at my exterior–my thick glasses, my trips-n-falls, my obvious penchant for chewing on wood–what if my interior contained so much of the unexpected that if they knew, they wouldn’t know which emotion to express? What if I possessed more than they could process, so I just held it all in?
When I’d get pushed or hit, what if I could have hit back and hurt them, but I chose not to? When we were all walking back from somewhere and the kids would, as a collective, tell me not to walk with them, what if I could have flown past them on that dirt road, swirling dust in their eyes, but I chose not to? When the girl I liked laughed when the other three boys teased me (because they liked her, too), what if I could’ve quieted them all down by silently floating a foot off the ground and bending a desk into a knot, but I chose not to?
I assume it’s natural to feel that way. It makes sense, because there is always more worth and dignity and strength inside of each of us than can be glanced at or mocked on the outside. However, that’s not what I learned from Superman. It wasn’t that he had all these powers and abilities, yet chose not to harm others with them; it was that even though he was literally light years beyond everyone’s perception, he didn’t want to lord over others or laud himself. In my hypothetical life of hidden identity, that was what I gleaned from the Metropolis Marvel. I didn’t want to react. I didn’t want to hit, kick dust in eyes, or even be impressive. I never wanted to flaunt the super-ness. Truth be told, if I had shown my stuff in any mental scenario, it’d have been because I just wanted people to get past themselves and stop the idiocy.
When I’d listen to my parents argue through the vent in the wall between our bedrooms, I always fantasized about stepping out of my window, hovering in front of theirs, and tap-tapping them out of the argument and in to something else, something bigger, something better. Part of me thought that if I could harness the sun, then I might save their marriage.
Even as an adult, I have something inside that wishes I could be all things to all men. I fantasize that, being faster than a bullet, I could blur the world, helping family, friends, victims, and villains, consistently maintaining a balance that the entire world says is impossible, yet sees with its own eyes. That’s what the hero does. The hero lifts off and touches down in peace, bringing peace, leaving peace, instilling peace. The hero doesn’t leave a second of doubt in people’s hearts as to whether or not good exists in this world. The hero stops explosions. The hero bears everything, believes everything, hopes everything, and endures everything. That’s the hero I’d want to be.
Because, in that alternate universe, the one where I join the hero, so do you. People change. They follow suit, even if it is made of spandex. From the onset, that’s what I always found in Superman and wanted for myself. No one was left unaffected. In that possible world, the scrawny and the bully, the beautiful and the broken, they all squint upward, crane their necks, and rise. They join the hero in the sun.
And that hero is nowhere to be found in BVAFM.
All plot holes aside, all poor script writing aside, all good and bad aside, I left the theater sad that my hero was absent in this generation. Angry Flying Man always crashes down and sonic booms away. He grimaces, he’s grizzled. He’s pouty, whiney, and distractible. He seriously considers not helping those in need. He’s told by his parents that he should maybe let people die instead of help them. I used to want us to be like him, but now he seems a bit too much like us. I am sad for this generation of youth–bullies and beever-toothed alike–because they don’t have what I had. That is sad. Every kid, even a 38-year-old one, needs an emblem, a symbol, a shield, a hero, not just to look to, but to aspire to be, to follow. Everyone needs a constant reminder that we’re bigger, grander, and stronger that we all give each other credit for. We can’t forget that we come from here and from elsewhere.
There are multiple theological threads and conclusions that could be drawn in this, but Faraci and Schmitz already did that for us. What can you take away from this article? I’d say probably only two things.
- Go ahead and see Snyder’s film, but know that Superman is not in it.
- Someday, one of these days, you might see me flying by, on to the next thing. When that happens, stop what you’re doing, face the sun, take a breath, and get those toes off the ground.