Even more painful to me than Nick Cole’s continuing love of Superman is my own acute awareness that I hate Superman for all the wrong reasons. Superman is the ultimate paragon of virtue. The result of his absolute power was the opposite of absolute corruption. And I hate him for it. He is, like all the top-tier super heroes, defined by opposition from a villain as famous and powerful as he is – Lex Luthor. Lex Luthor is the American Dream gone wrong – from a humble beginning, he has achieved Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property, just as the framers originally intended before selling out to “Happiness.” He took that dream and turned it into a nightmare, so that the most brilliant man of his generation became a plague instead of one of history’s Great Men. And I love everything about him, he is one of modern literature’s great characters.
It’s not just Superman though, it’s his story that I hate. There is a philosophical question: what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object, but in the case of Superman it’s an irresistible force meeting a perfectly movable object. As Nick has pointed out to me time and again, the real challenge for Superman is in figuring out who to save, rather than how to save them – he must operate in a kind of super heroic utilitarianism.
As compelling and interesting as all of that is, the real objection I have to Superhero films has been well documented – I am bound to be bored to tears by the utterly conventional storyline that takes no risks and breaks no new ground. The Man of Steel is not going to be different, but should it be?
Western Literature ™ is absolutely littered with stories that are more than twice-told. Sophocles had more than one go at Oedipus Rex, so can we blame Zack Snyder if he wants to retrace the steps of Richard Donner and quit a few others going back to Fleischer. That is, after all, how mythology works, and I would be in the good company of Umberto Eco if I made that inference. What that inference does is connect us with the kind of “national conversation” that Hulk was talking about in his discussion of Spoilers. You can’t spoil a story that everyone already knows – you talk about it. It becomes a kind of communal understanding and a framework for discussion.
The usual kind of complaint and analysis thus needs to move past the kind of problems I have with the character and story of Superman, to engage with the myth. Do I, can I, have a problem with the paragon of virtue and the icon of freedom? Well, myths are supposed to teach us something. That’s not necessarily a feature of design – more like an emergent property. We keep and re-tell the stories that mean something to us, even if it’s a bit ambiguous. Subsequent generations have different interpretations, but, we recognise the kernel of something embedded in the myth.
What could I possibly dislike about the myth of Superman, the heroic, the iconic, the virtuous? Well, if we think about the usual kinds of heroes in fictions, we think about wish-fulfilment. The famous description of James Bond is, “the man women want, and men want to be”. But, we don’t want to be Superman – we might want his powers, but we wouldn’t be him. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine using his powers for good, and that is the essence of Superman. No – as a mythic figure, we’re not supposed to be Superman any more than we’re supposed to be Oedipus. We’re supposed to learn from him; and again, by “supposed” I mean a bundle of things not including design.
What does the myth of Superman teach? Other super heroes “teach” the struggle. Spiderman is forever an adolescent, because he’s always trying to live up to his potential. All of Spiderman’s enemies get regular skill and power upgrades – he sticks with biting wit and webs. Despite his super powers, he’s the perpetual underdog. He could lose at any minute if he doesn’t stay on the top of his game. Superman can’t lose.
Spiderman’s message is to fight on regardless. Superman’s virtual omnipotence means that folk just need to wait to be rescued, and hope there’s nobody more important than him, because having to choose between different victims is basically the only way to get to him. Spiderman rescues people. Superman rescues victims. The ordinary person is helpless in both cases, but an intervention from Superman is little short of a divine intervention. What’s cool about that?
What I want from Zack Snyder, therefore, is an engagement with Superman’s stories and the implications of those stories on a mythic level. The problem has always been films trying to engage with him as a person, but he’s not a person, or even a hero, he’s a god.
In a fortnight, I’ll let you know how he did.