Monday, March 19, 2012

Why We Care About Superman

Ok, so, first of all, the four people reading this from Morroco should check this out:

Basically I wanted to show this off because its singularly awesome, and it turns out that the narrator/host guy is John Landis’ son! Who knew?

What’s weird is I had actually seen another of his videos about a year ago and had no idea it was him. But he did a similar kind of thing with the Knightfall Batman arc (though it seemed like he liked that one a little more than the Death of Superman arc); except that one was done while he was apparently college, its production values are a bit less complex, oh, yeah, and in the intervening years he apparently built up enough pull to get Mandy Moore, Elijah Wood, Simon Pegg and Ron freakin’ Howard in his YouTube videos.


He also directed the new movie Chronicle, which I have not seen but have heard is pretty damn good.

Now first of all I just want to say that the entire video was uniformly awesome, hilariously, understanding the insanity of comics and why that makes them cool, while also chiding DC on some of their myopic editing practices. So yeah, I love this video: it’s great.

But I do take umbrage with one thing. A statement, he makes at the beginning:

No one gives a fuck about Superman. You don't give a fuck about Superman. Even if you think you do.”

And while I applaud Max Landis for being one hundred times more successful than me, having a truly wonderful appreciation and understanding of comics, and apparently a very long and rich career ahead of him, I will have to respectfully disagree with the above statement. In fact, I’ll go so far as to turn it around completely. I believe that everyone cares about Superman. Even if they don’t think they do, they do.

I just get the feeling that very few people realize it.

And it’s really a pretty complicated issue, because our appreciation of Superman doesn’t stem from his powers—because as Landis states, they are pretty basic. Nor does it stem from his pathos—which, as Landis also states, is not as deep as many superheroes, and when lots of people do try to give him pathos they fumble it badly.

No, the reason why we appreciate Superman and care about him even though we may not realize it is that while we may pokes fun at him and his weird red underwear, we also, whether we want to or not, need him.

Because Superman represents something that no other superhero represents. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Superman represents something that almost nothing in Western culture after the beginning of the 20th century has readily represented. And that is nothing less than the indefinable, endlessly complex, but very real specter of “good.”

Now what does good mean? That’s a huge question. But in Superman’s case, what good is is loyalty. Kindness. Compassion. Strength. Fairness. Truth. Justice. The American Way. At his very, very, very core, Superman is an archetype of purity, of honor, and of salvation for the people who aspire to him.

And really, that’s why so many people find him boring.

Because the word archetype has become almost anathema; it’s getting close to being an insult when a character in a work of fiction is referred to as an archetype. It has been sadly overused and its definition blurred until anything condemned with being an "archetype" is usually a character that's one-dimensional, hackneyed, trite, and tedious. Characters that are called archetypes usually have just one defining characteristic: they are “the funny one,” or the “cocky one,” the “brooding hero,” the “sour villain,” the “damsel in distress.” And frankly, as Landis says in his video, a large amount of culture has outgrown such shallow characterizations. We want pathos in our main characters, we want backstory and hidden secrets; we want dark and brooding and tortured protagonists and antagonists alike. We want grit. We want pain. And Superman doesn’t really represent any of these things; and that leads to the misconception that the character in his entirety is not compelling. But he is compelling. Oftentimes, he’s just not written that way.

It’s honestly amazing to me that the very people writing Superman oftentimes just don’t seem to get him. Here is a character in fiction who is the last of his kind. His very home planet has been destroyed and he has been sent to piddling old Earth to help mankind achieve its destiny. He has to deal with the bifurcation of his heritage: is he Kryptonian Kal-El, or is he Terran Clark Kent? Who are his true parts, Ma and Pa Kent, or Jor-El? He has to deal with romance, his tortuous relationship with Lois Lane. He has to deal with the prospect of her getting hurt, and the inevitability that if they become serious, he won’t be around very often when she needs him, because he’ll be off, you know, saving the world and all that boring stuff.

He has to deal with having powers that most humans would describe as godlike, but powers that still don’t mean he can save everyone or be everywhere at once. He has to deal with failure—a person jumping from the bridge before he can get to them, a murder that occurs just beyond his reach, the thousands of lives that are not being save at the very moment that he is saving one—I mean, the man can hear just about everything; meaning he can hear the cries of agony and calls for help that even he realizes he can’t answer. He’s fighting a losing battle wherein the people expect him to always be there for him, but he, for all his abilities, is still only one man; and he cannot save everyone.

But he tries to anyway.

How can that not be compelling?

I think Superman also suffers from writers who can’t toe the line between badass douchebaggery and blemish-less perfection. Superman has to be honorable, noble, even pure—but he does not have to be perfect. He can get angry, get enraged, feel disappointment and despair. But what matters, mainly is that he always tries to do the right thing, and to help people. His inability to do so and the creeping suspicion that no matter what he does, humanity’s going to pull the same old bullshit can also be means by which the big blue boy scout can be more compelling than popular culture likes to make him nowadays. Superman does not have to be—and I would go as far to say should not be—“gritty.” It’s what we desire nowadays—or what we think we do, but I’ll get to that in a minute—but the fact is it’s not appropriate to everything, and it’s not appropriate to Superman. But what Superman can be is relatable, and thereby compelling in a different way. We can feel for his plights and failures and what haunts him—and we can do all this while he remains good and honorable and optimistic about the future and humanity’s place in it; while he believes in second chances and mercy and forgiveness; while he does his best to help everyone from the richest of the richest to the poorest of the poor without bias or reserve. He can do all this, while still being compelling.

And in my mind, he needs to be this way. In my mind, we want him to be this way, even if we say otherwise.

Because there is something deep in the human subconsiocus. I don’t know what it is and I don’t know if it can be tangibly qualified, but it is there. The works of Joseph Campbell and much of Carl Jung were dedicated to exploring the concept. There is something that links us as common human beings. Something deep and resonate and entirely unnoticed until something affronts it. Jung called it the collective unconscious. You can call it whatever you like. But from it springs these certain modes of thought: the archetypes that have become such a taboo in the realm of many serious narrative critics. And while archetypes oftentimes have become trite, are inappropriately used, and sometimes even offensive, I believe with my whole heart they have a purpose, and a place.

In fact, archetypes can be hidden where no one thought they could be. And they can be built around even three dimensional characters. Star Wars is a really good example of this: I don’t think anyone could legitimately argue that the characters in Star Wars aren’t three dimensional (Note: Many people would say they are, but when you really dig down to it, I don't think they really have a compelling argument as to why. I think think the idea that Star Wars' characters are mere archetypes stems from the original argument that all archetypes are inherently inferior. But that's another post. --E): they have depth, and emotion; we learn a lot about their pasts, their angers, their sadnesses. Their regrets and decisions. The way they think and react. But ingrained in these three dimensional characters are the seeds of the archetypes from which they sprung: Luke is the Hero, Han the Rogue, Leia the Damsel in Distress, Obi-Wan the Wise old Sage, and the saga itself an Epic Quest. The characters still have intrinsic depth and complexity…but they are rooted in archetypes that have affected human beings for as long as sharing stories has existed.
So let me say right off that just because something is an archetype does not mean it’s not a complex character—it’s just the word has been used so often to describe one-dimensional or shoddy characters that its true meaning has started to rust. So Superman is an archetype, but as I (hopefully) illustrated above, that does not mean he can’t fail, have flaws, have emotions, or be any of the other things that dynamic, three-dimensional characters require.
So the fact is, he is an archetype.

But he is an archetype that we need.

So let me delve for a moment into the realm of psychoanalytical criticism, the hero’s journey, and the collective unconscious. Now I’m not going to reiterate these well-trodden grounds extensively: I think it’s safe to say that the expected audience that this blog is ever going to reach, even if it does extend past a basement-dweller's hovel in Canada, is pretty well versed in the basic details of these three concepts: the collective unconscious (a phrase trademarked by psychologist Carl Jung) is the theory that every human being shares a basic set of emotions and psychological responses in regards to stimuli that occurs in everyday life. That is, we all experience fear, and happiness and anger and regret and sorrow, and while our reactions to those things may differ, they are all bound up in the same sort of humanistic force. To quote the Game Overthinker: the person who’s scared of rabbits and the person who’s scared of Cthulu are really experiencing and fearing the same sort of primal, abstract force (1). The hero’s journey, then, is an expression of this type of force; not one of fear, but of perseverance, determination, and hope. It is a demonstration of the similarity of human experience and how certain tropes and narratives appeal to a fundamental root of human endeavor and emotion.
 And while the hero’s journey has been bastardized and misinterpreted and mishandled over the past thirty years since The Hero With a Thousand Faces came to prominence upon the release of Star Wars, the fact remains that stories created in a vacuum still contain these figures, tropes, and story beats (By “in a vacuum” I mean without a group of hack writers going “Hey! Let’s make sure everything fits perfectly into the Hero’s Journey without giving a damn about logic or compelling narrative, and instead letting the narrative flow naturally. –E). And the reason they still contain these story beats in because something that appeals to the human consciousness; and those things that appeal to us are, in fact, archetypes.

In effect, this is why I don’t think a story or character should be automatically dismissed because they’re archetypal. And as I said earlier, just because a character is an archetype does not mean he is not complex or haunted or emotional or anything of the sort. What archetypes truly are are characters and figures boiled down to their essences, and unfortunately many writers forget this fact. It’s fascinating to see how characters boiled down to their essences are similar on a world-wide scale and how that makes us as humans all connected in some way. It’s not fascinating to write a character that’s boiled down to an essence because that character is probably not compelling and truthful and will be disregarded by the audience in the story. But what cannot be denied is that certain archetypes, for whatever reason, appeal to us and inspire us. They are there to lead us and guide us and give us hope and sometimes to show us where we have failed, and the evidence is nothing less than the entire history of human storytelling. From Beowulf to Luke Skywalker, these figments, these heroes, matter to us, even if we don’t realize it.

This is where Superman fits in. It’s why he is important, and why he matters to us. In fact, I will go so far to say that Superman is to Western (specifically American) culture as Moses is to Jewish culture, or Hercules is to Greek culture, or Gilgamesh is to Sumerian culture. It would not shock me one bit if two thousand years from now archaeologists uncover and publish the epics of Superman and what he meant to the fallen Western civilizations, and students in floating university cities like the City of the Gods on New Genesis will get bored and complain about having to study these ancient texts no one cares about anymore.

Because Superman does encompass these same types of tropes and archetypes present in the Hero’s Journey. A last of his kind, savior of a his race, gifted with god-like powers—much has been said of Superman’s origin being very similar to Moses’, and that’s not surprising considering he’s the creation of two Jewish men. It’s proof, really, of the durability of such tales—something about Moses appealed to Siegler and Shuster so much that they re-purposed his story into a different form—which can pretty much be said of most hero’s stories ever since they’ve been told (This, of course, is the true intent of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s not meant as a writing guide. –E).

Basically, Superman is another iteration of these ancient heroes: King Arthur and Hercules and Moses and Gilgamesh, reformed from the collective unconscious of a new American culture and given rise and prominence when America needed him most: in the depression, and after WWII, where the threat of death and nuclear destruction was ever imminent and there was a need for a figure to look to that was good and honest and just and did his best for people despite the enormous power he possessed.

With that all being said, what happened? Why did Superman loose his cultural relevance? Well, in my personal opinion he never really has—but like I said, I think the need for him is subconsciously ingrained desire for inspiration, and so, superficially he doesn’t have the draw he used to. But it probably has a lot to do with what Max Landis mentioned in the video. Superman’s death not only counteracted his most appealing attribute (He’s invincible! He’s a symbol for the inexorable triumph of good!), but was also almost immediately revived by DC, and it sort of turned him and, hell, the comics book industry as a whole, into a joke. Not to mention the boom of the 1980’s and the collapse of the Soviet Union made the ever-present specter of death sort of diminished in the eyes of an entirely new generation of kids that were growing up at the time—including Max Landis.

So yeah, I think we lost our (superficial) need for Superman for awhile, and in his place came the rise of Batman, buoyed by his excellent television show that this same generation of kids grew up on, and the good movies that came out about him, and, of course, his basic affectation of brutal, no compromise action supported by the fact that he’s, you know, a “normal” human being, and therefore it’s could actually happen! Kind of!

I know that last paragraph sounded a bit condescending, and rest assured that I love Batman and his fans. But it’s hard to deny that his rise in the last twenty years, beyond that excellent properties bearing his name, has been perpetuated by a generation whose fears and expectations differed from those of their parents and grandparents. The children of the 90’s and 00’s had no reason to fear nuclear destruction. Their fears were more centralized, less ethereal and abstract. The bully that terrorized them, the scary man on the street corner, the stranger that offered them a ride in their car, the teacher and counselor that didn’t believe they were worth anything. The solace they got from Batman was a man like them who trained hard and worked his butt off and became something that could clean up the streets and take revenge on these people who had harmed them; whereas Superman was a fantasy of invincibility, goodness, and strength in a time of huge, overarching world battles of GOOD VERSUS EVIL!!!! Batman was more at home within the close confines of the individual experience of the children of the nineties, who grew up more or less without these world-wide concerns. There was an new expectation of long life, really. Strides in healthcare and the collapse of the USSR and America’s newfound worry for protection of the young had made the shadow of death something less than considerable—and the only thing that could interrupt that dream were those figures I just mentioned: individuals that broke the fantasy of safety that most kids in the nineties grew up with. That’s a generalization, of course, but when you consider where Superman finds his most avid support--inner city and low income areas--it's an easy case to make.

Now that’s not to say that inner city kids read Superman comics or have a vast knowledge about the actually stories of the character. But they do understand the archetype: that of untouchable invincibility in the face of odds that would overwhelm mere mortals.
In truth, I think these people are the ones who understand Superman most, even if they’ve never cracked open a comic book. Our world has always been a complex one, but there’s no doubt in the past few years the intricacies of the mad, mad world have exploded with the advent of the digital age. We demand more, as people. We demand more complexity, higher realms of thought, more pathos, more back story, more ambiguity, more everything. And I think that’s what’s truly at the heart of this idea that Superman means nothing to anybody. What they’re really trying to say is that there is no place in this modern world for a person who represents such simple terms and goodness, and honesty and integrity and hope.

But in reality, these great heroes like Arthur and Hercules and Gilgamesh and Moses, they serve a purpose. They offer solace to the beleaguered, hope to the oppressed, a guide to the lost…as long as there is unfairness, neglect, murder, rape, war, atrocity—as long as kids are shot in drive bys on the streets of L.A. and grow up in poverty in the slums of the Dominican Republic. As long as peoples slaughter other peoples based on nothing more than how they look. As long as fathers beat wives and mother’s abandon children and good men get fired for standing up to their bosses and brave men die for their countries, the fact of the matter is, Superman will remain necessary. Because we need him.

And due to the omnipresence of the digital age, everyone can have him. He finds himself in the unique position of being the first cultural hero to be propagated beyond the borders of his creation. There’s a reasons his symbol is one of the most recognized on Earth. He's no longer an American hero. He's the world's hero.

And yes we need the Batman’s and the Wolverines, and the Hotel Rwandas and the A Separations of the world. There’s no doubt of their purpose they serve. They show us what we have to fix; they show the world as it is, and why we cannot rest in making it better.

But we also need Superman. To show us where we have succeeded. To show us where we are true. To show us what we could become, if we wanted.

The cape means something. The invincibility means something. That crazy red “S” means something.

And so, Mr. Landis, I must respectfully disagree.

People do care about Superman.

Whether they know it or not.

Until next time,

Mr. E

1 comment:

  1. Ahhhh this one. This post is great and gets at the heart of something I am so passionate about. I am actually hoping to write my undergrad senior thesis in philosophy on the relation of narrative to truth... hopefully focusing on the archetypes and story arcs that we love so well. Keep on keeping on!