Now that Supermanâ€™s new movie has hit the big screen, itâ€™s time for me to delve into my latest reflections on this classic superhero. Iâ€™m sure that other people are doing this too… but most of them probably arenâ€™t tree-hugging anarchists like me, eh? So here goes…
First of all, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I wore my now-infamous Superman costume to the local corporate movie theatre on opening night, where I was greeted with a mix of curious glances, chuckles, smiles, and even friendly conversation from strangers. For a few moments, as I sat there looking up at the pre-movie slide show of ads, I felt a bit restless. After all, Superman usually only busts out the suit when it’s time to go fly off and save the day. But with so many fellow Superman fans wearing T-shirts all around me, I was already in the mindset â€“ and soon enough, the movie started.
Even though Iâ€™d seen half a dozen separate previews, I didnâ€™t know what to expect. But from the moment the classic Superman theme started playing, I felt like a kid again. For over two hours, I watched a great drama unfold before my eyes. Some people might say that superhero stories are too simplistic â€“ and when theyâ€™re poorly done, thatâ€™s a very valid critique. But when theyâ€™re at the finest, superhero dramas leap the giant chasm between simplistic stereotypes and epic archetypal narratives. And the story of Superman, for me anyway, is an archetypal narrative that speaks with tremendous power.
Of course, the anarchist tree-hugger in me has a lot of critiques about certain aspects of Supermanâ€™s story. But I can make these very serious critiques while still adopting a very playful and welcoming attitude toward our good friend Kal-El.
Yes, the whole idea of a superhero is at times paternalistic and disempowering to the â€œcommon manâ€ (and the â€œbeautiful womanâ€) who is being saved. And more often than not, Superman is a rather apolitical (or even counter-revolutionary) figure who simply helps to maintain law and order rather than addresses the deeper roots of crime, poverty, violence, etc.
But even in the movies, comics, and graphic novels, Superman does have his moments where he shines in radical critique of violence, greed, war, poverty, and other political issues. This still leaves a huge gap in the overall character development as Superman usually fails to address most of the greatest political issues of our time… but if you can set aside all of that surface-level buzz for a moment, Superman becomes a very empowering character.
In MY version of the Superman mythos, the potential for political awareness and empowerment of the masses will play out much more fully. But in the meantime, the existing narrative is an incredible story of personal empowerment that every Superman fan can tap into whenever theyâ€™re looking for inner strength and inspiration.
Whatâ€™s so empowering about this story? Basically, Clark Kent is an Everyman â€“ a polite, quiet, often geeky man who tends to be clumsy and often goes unnoticed. On the surface, he seems to be one of the weakest and most unimportant characters in the whole story. But when trouble arises, he discovers an almost invincible strength inside of himself. He sheds the mask of meek propriety and leaps dramatically into the foreground of the narrative. He could easily use this strength of his to become a godlike dictator, bending the entire world to his will. Instead, he chooses to serve humanity, lending his strength and his very life to the service of the common good.
Of course, when taken as a tale of personal empowerment, there are a few glaring flaws. Only one man has this power, and everyone else is saved only through his grace. Other characters, from Lois Lane to Jimmy Olsen to the nameless citizens of Metropolis, can only plead for Supermanâ€™s aid and bask in his glory when he single-handedly saves the day. Therefore, the story of Superman (as it exists so far) doesnâ€™t usually offer us a model for how the people at large can find a similar sense of empowerment and heroism.
Moviegoers who are too meek to embrace their inner Superman are stuck in a perpetual Clark Kent role â€“ looking outside of themselves for a Superman to save the day, and never even realizing the tremendous power that lies just beneath their own mask. And even worse, moviegoers with inflated egos may take Supermanâ€™s sense of power too far, feeling that itâ€™s their personal mission in life to dictate and dominate rather than listen and serve. (Letâ€™s face it â€“ weâ€™ve all met the real life equivalent of General Zod, and heâ€™s really just a dark mirror of what Superman could be on a bad day.)
In a nation like ours that is already sliding deeper into fascism, this sort of lone superhero tale presents a very real risk of reinforcing some peopleâ€™s belief that the USA is a global superhero/superpower/savior that holds all of the power and carries the heavy burden of solving all of the worldâ€™s problems. This very belief is leading many otherwise upstanding citizens to fall into line behind policies and practices that ultimately do more harm than good. But at the same time, Supermanâ€™s deep appeal to our sense of personal empowerment can just as easily be used to turn people AWAY from fascism. If we truly take to heart the message of using our power to help and server others, and combine this with a good dose of critical thinking, then Supermanâ€™s story can become a tale that inspires us to revolutionary action. Lex Luthor and/or General Zod becomes a stand-in for every authoritarian who tries to enrich themself at the expense of the people and the land, and the Superman fan becomes a heroic champion of revolutionary principles such as freedom, true grassroots democracy, ecological integrity, and so on.
On some level, Iâ€™m still a Superman fan simply because the original motion picture and other TV incarnations were such an inspiration to me during my childhood. Out of all of the masculine archetypes out there in pop culture, he was really the only one who truly appealed to me on such a deep gut level. Along with some real-life heroes, and a few other fictional characters such as the Avatar, Superman truly inspired me to believe that I should be a good person, and that I had the power within to do so. As early as preschool, when other kids were saying that they wanted to be doctors, firefighters, or astronauts, I was saying that I wanted to be Superman. And now, as I set about the task of serving my community and my planet in whatever ways possible, I can feel the echoes of that Superman archetype in my life today, even after so many other more developed and epic tales have come to my attention. This is why I write about Superman again now, and why I probably will continue to write about him for the rest of my life.
But on another level, Iâ€™m a Superman fan because I can still feel the tremendous relevance that he has for the people of this culture and all who are touched by it. Positive masculine role models are hard to come by in this culture, and Superman is almost certainly both the most prevalent and the most positive heroic archetype out there for the men in our society. If we continue to embrace him as our own, in spite of certain serious critiques that we may have, then we will ensure that he won’t simply be used by the corporate media as a tool for promoting their own nefarious agendas.
Once I finish my two current writing projects, I intend to write a novel about Superman. In the meantime, itâ€™s been thoroughly enjoyable to see his return to the silver screen â€“ and to a renewed place of prominence in my life, and the lives of those around me.
If you have any thoughts or feelings to share on the subject, Iâ€™d love to hear them… in the meantime, itâ€™s almost 6 pm on a Sunday, so itâ€™s time for me to go up, up, and away to a Big Muddy Independent Media Center meeting. (And yes, I do find it amusing and ironic that a Superman fan such as myself is working on media issues and occassionally acting as an independent reporter. Am I a mild-mannered reporter like Clark Kent? Surely, the real Clark/Superman/Kal-El would feel ethically inclined to drop out of the corporate Daily Planet scene and join the IMC movement…)