It must be great to be Batman.
The guy’s a billionaire, he’s got the coolest car on Earth, and he beats up bad guys. It’s a very visceral thing, a bit of a revenge fantasy – you can bet there’s no happy slapping in Gotham – but hey, he takes out the trash. No messing.
On the other hand, it must really suck to be The Hulk. One minute you’re an uber-smart but uptight scientist, the next you get angry, turn green, rip your best clothes and demolish your kitchen. And everyone laughs at your movie. And Batman could take you, given enough prep time.
Arguments like this are the lifeblood of geekdom really – who’d win a fight with who, who has the best costume, who’s kewl, who isn’t – but there’s one character who, in my mind at least, rips up the rulebook.
I mean, his alter-ego’s a bumbling nerd, but even as a superhero he’s Boy Scout, not badass. He saves cats from trees. He’s the guy who invented the ‘underpants outside your tights’ look, and certain writers take great joy in having him beaten up by random characters just to establish some sort of geek-cred. Its so, so easy to laugh at the whole thing, if you’re that way inclined. He’s pretty much a one woman guy, and he sends money home to his parents. He has a dog. A dog that has super-powers and wears a cape. It shouldn’t work. It’s mad. It’s cheesy. It’s Superman.
You can make all the arguments you want against Superman, and some of them will stand up, and you know what? I don’t care. For me, the fact that he saves kittens from trees is what puts him beyond, say, Wolverine or the Punisher. He’s got all these amazing powers, but he’ll hold the door open for you. Thinking about it, that’s one of the reasons that, of all the superheroes I’ve read about over the years, Superman is my favourite. He’s one of the most relevant.
Of course, you say that and suddenly you get a reaction from some quarters – “How can Superman be the most relevant? He doesn’t have issues like Batman. He’s old fashioned. He’s out of date. He’s the Establishment.” Blah blah blah. I don’t care. You want relevancy? Well, when was the last time you fought a serial killer clown? Or a guy who claims to be not just a goblin but a GREEN goblin? Heck, when was the last time you were even in a fight?
I saw Superman Returns last night, and I’m pretty sure I’m right in saying that, like the original Christopher Reeve movie, Superman doesn’t throw a punch. Most of the scenes of him using his powers are about him helping people – catching a falling plane, stopping a runaway car, stopping Lois from smoking – and even when he’s confronting someone armed with a heavy duty machine gun, its more about him stopping the bullets than beating up the shooter. I think that’s part of the reason why, apart from Lex Luthor and a couple of others, Superman villains are pretty much lame. Superman shouldn’t be about two hour long fight sequences, although I’ve got no problem with the odd slugfest. Ultimately he’s all about helping people, and the bad guys just get in the way of that. It’s the same reason I’ll always love Due South, and it’s the reason why the Tim Burton/Jon Peters Superman project seemed to be something from Kevin Smith’s nightmares. At one point, before people with an appreciation for the character showed up, they wanted to cast Superman with “the cold dead eyes of a killer.” That is, frankly, insane. I mean, fetch-my-flying-monkeys insane. Superman helps people and saves cats from trees and he’s the guy you call when giant robots are stomping all over the bus station. And he can take his girlfriend flying. That’s fundamentally cool, and if some people can’t recognise that then well, okay…
Every time a big movie like this comes out, someone somewhere writes an article on the spiritual aspects of it. Superman Returns invites that sort of interpretation, with its positioning of Superman as a secular messiah. Those interpretations are valid, but I think there’s an underlying spiritual response to Superman, and to Spider-Man, and to a whole bunch of other characters too. Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben said it best: with great power comes great responsibility. That’s why I think Superman’s relevant – the guy has all these powers, he can fly, can’t be hurt, has x-ray vision, has HEAT VISION! – and he uses them to help people. It may be a fiction, a fantastic fiction with bald megalomaniacs and Kryptonite continents, but it’s humbling. Because yes, we’ve got powers, gifts, abilities, that’s the spiritual truth of the whole thing – what do we do with our powers? I keep on about Supes saving cats from trees. Well, I can do that too. The only difference is, I’d need a ladder. We have freedom of speech, so we can write to MPs and Presidents and call for justice. We have communication technologies that span the globe, so the least we can do is use them to stay up till midnight offering someone a friendly ear. We have money, and everyone reading this is, globally speaking, rich, so we can use it to help others; buy a Big Issue, tip the waitresses in Starbucks, sponsor a child, whatever. We have economic choice, so we can chose to buy fair trade coffee. We can open our mouths to build up or tear down, laugh at or laugh with. We can save the world or damn it.
And, because I’m church boy, and because I think about these things, it partly tallies with my faith too, a faith that I fail at all too often, but hey, you’ve got to reach for something. Faith and superheroes? As someone way wiser than me said:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blesses are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
So yeah, that’s what I take from Superman Returns. The spiritual message, if you will. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what I think about the movie’s twist, no-one wants to hear my Richard-White-is-General-Zod theory. But we do have great power, for good or bad, and we do have great responsibility, and while that may be Spidey’s catchphrase, Superman is the iconic superhero embodiment of it, an underlying spiritual truth that runs through his story, through our stories. Sure, there would be a momentarily visceral pleasure in striking terror into the hearts of happy-slapping ASBO’s. But if I had to be a superhero…I’d rather be one that can fly.