I'm not one of those fans who think Superman:The
Movie was perfect, or even particularly great, but there
was a cool moment in the film that got me thinking.
It happens when Lois is interviewing Superman
and asks, "Why are you here?" He answers earnestly,
"to fight for truth, justice and the American way."
I remember the line got laughs in the theater.
After all, it was 1978, and the audience had been through
'Nam and Watergate, and the campy Batman TV show, so this
kind of sentiment seemed written to appeal to a cynical,
ironic sense of humor. And yet, Christopher Reeve delivered
it with such conviction that he came off not as a deluded
doofus, but a genuine, old-fashioned nice guy optimist.
Lois quips that if this is his mission,
he's going to be at odds with every politician in Washington,
and Superman answers not with a knowing wink, or a "Ha!
I was just kidding" attitude, but with another earnest
line: "I'm sure you don't really mean that, Lois."
This shuts her up, and I remember it got
the audience quiet, too. This is the part where we figure
out Superman's character. Here is a guy who really believes
in the basic goodness not just of America, but of people
in general. He's not embarassed to admit he believes it,
and moreover, he knows that deep down, we believe it, too.
Lois the hardened reporter has, like the rest of us, bought
into the ethos of cynicism, which masquerades as sophistication
but at its heart is a kind of deep-seated cowardice, a timidity
that prevents us from changing things we convince ourselves
are beyond changing. But somewhere inside, we still want
to believe that people are basically good, and that things
will eventually turn out well for humanity. All we need
is someone to encourage us to do our part.
Forget the super-strength, the x-ray vision,
even the flying. Superman's real power lies in his ability
to inspire us to be decent people. Here is a guy with the
power take whatever he wants, and instead he uses it to
help others. He believes in the potential of humanity, which
is cool, but he also believes that we're going to achieve
that potential on our own, without him pushing us. That's
why he leads by example instead of just forcing the world
into what he'd like it to be.
And then there's Clark Kent. When Superman
was "rebooted" in the 80's the old "mild-mannered
reporter" was tossed out, like the baby with the bathwater,
by writers who never understood the importance of Superman's
disguise, and didn't have the guts to try to write him.
But they forgot that Clark Kent, that cowering nebbish,
that long-suffering nice guy whom Lois once called a "perennial
doormat" was an essential part of the mythos.
Granted it may have gotten tiresome seeing
Clark fake his millionth stomach ache and run from danger,
but while he wasn't a fighter it's not like Clark was weak
in spirit. He had the same virtuous character, good instincts
and basic decency as Superman, but without the flashy costume
and super-strength to back it up, those fine qualities earned
him the title, "wimp." People took advantage of
Clark not because he was weak, but because he was a nice
guy and an easy target. Why didn't Clark poke these creeps
in the nose? Because that wouldn't prove anything. Beating
up your tormentor just validates his methods; in the big
picture he still wins. Clark just turns the other cheek,
and when those creeps are about to get run over by a train,
he saves them like he would anyone else.
That's Superman's ethos; he saves our bacon
when the power plant melts down, deflects the missiles when
some nut hits the button, or stops a car before its drunken
driver can kill a kid and his dog, but he *doesn't* toss
all missiles into space, shut down all power plants or evaporate
all alcohol with heat vision. And he doesn't let Clark Kent
kick butt on the bullies. Why? Because he's a patient guy,
and he believes that ultimately good will win out, whether
he hastens it on or not. Right makes might, and not the
other way around.
Superman knows someday we're going to be
ready to adopt those beliefs that earn him derision as a
"boy scout" and a naive fool, beliefs we already
know deep down are true; that it's our job to look out for
our neighbors, that doing what's right -- even if it's not
"cool" -- is what takes real courage. And that's
why he'll always be more to us than another clown in cape
and tights. He's an icon.
That's my story and I'm stickin' with it.
- David Morefield
"Nightwing of Kandor"