Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Heroism and Superman

I think about Superman: Earth One a lot, primarily because I do not like it at all. But in light of recent Superman stories, maybe I'd be better off rephrasing: These days, Superman isn't for me. Smallville, the various DC comics, Man of Steel--looking at what the stories have in common is instructive, leading me to figure out why I don't particularly care for Superman these days.

What's the biggest difference between George Reeves in Adventures of Superman and Tom Welling in Smallville? What separates Earth One from All-Star? Man of Steel from Superman: The Movie?

The answer could be multi-faceted; we could talk about mood and tone, about narrative sophistication, about musculature, about time frame, etc. But for me, the difference comes down to conflict. George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Grant Morrison, Richard Donner...all these versions of Superman are confident in their role, they don't have any internal conflict over what they should do. Tom Welling, Henry Cavill, Zach Snyder, and J. Michael Straczynski...they all show us a Superman who hesitates, equivocates, and sometimes just plain doesn't want to be a hero.

I'm not saying that Superman shouldn't be allowed a few moments of doubt, or of weakness. Neither am I saying that there shouldn't be stories about heroes who are reluctant or who flinch in the face of difficult choices.

What I'm saying is that I don't care for Superman in that role. I don't need to see him trying to figure out his morality. I don't need to see him wandering, second-guessing himself or his place.

But that's just me. My Superman was fully formed after a single page of exposition written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster. Even when they had chances to expand--such as in the Superman ongoing series that debuted soon after, or in the newspaper strips--they didn't depict Superman as hemming and hawing about whether or not he'd be a hero. He just is one.

Apparently, a sizeable chunk of the audience does want to see him trying to figure things out, questioning himself. Evidently there's a market for a Superman who is also Spider-Man. That's fine; it's just not for me.

The interesting thing about this, about the current versions of Superman, is to place him into larger contexts. What can we infer about, say, the mentality of the United States based on the version of Superman that dominates pop culture right now? 

For one thing, the United States has a confidence problem. It's no longer sure of its identity. It wants somebody to tell it what to do. Sadly, that somebody seems to be military in nature. This lack of self-confidence and the military nature of our appeal for help  probably reflects the origin of the nation in both genocide and civil war. When in doubt, charge into battle. This nation is not missionaries, it is not compromisers, it is not negotiatiors.

A while back, when I was in full research mode, I went through All-Star and counted up the total number of panels devoted to violence. It's something around fifty (though I'm not going to look for that page of notes within the thousands that are weighing down my filing cabinet). It's not a story about fighting. It's about finding other ways to solve problems, through unity and sympathy. Whole issues go by without a single punch thrown.

In short, I don't think the United States has always been this way. It's tied to 9/11, of course, and reflected in the dominant stories of our time (as stories have always reflected their tellers' situations). Stories like Superman/Batman and Civil War seem to be meditations on how the United States should use its power. As far as I can tell, they're literally arguments between people about this topic that turn into violence.

Wait a second. Are these movies really about gun control?

I guess I'd have to watch them to find out. I might just reread All-Star instead.

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