Superman as Allegory (or is it Metaphor...?)
WARNING: UNHEALTHFUL LEVELS OF GEEK PONDERING AHEAD.
I was having lunch with The Last Boy Scout the other day and I asked him if he was going to see “Superman” when it opens next weekend. He kind of shrugged and winced and indicated an overall lack of interest in the Man of Steel. Like me, he was more a Spider-Man guy as a kid, and that shit sticks with you.
I guess I’ve kind of always preferred Superman as an idea, an archetype, rather than an actual character myself. Clark Kent is a pussy and Superman is stronger than everything. Not much there for a gawky little kid to identify with, at least not when we had the option of the then-novel teen-angst angle of the Spider-Man character.
Still, considering TLBS works for the local Christmas Island GOP and is a true Mom-Baseball-and-Apple-Pie patriot, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Superman has appeared carrying or next to an American flag more times than W has claimed to have turned the corner in Iraq! His slogan is “Truth, Justice and The American Way” for crying out loud. Huh? Huh?
More shrugging and wincing.
I decided to launch a spirited defense of this character I’m not that actually crazy about just to pass the time till the entree arrived.
I told him the Superman saga (as crafted by creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel) was the story of America at a time when the big news of the day was the persecution of Jews at the hands of national socialism in pre-WWII Europe. How Superman was the story of immigrants arriving here with nothing, having been exiled from the place of their birth in fear of their lives. Then rising from nothing, not even a family, to become the most powerful figure in the world. It’s the story of The American Dream fulfilled!
I also pointed out the almost eerie similarities to a certain coastal state governor’s story and that got his attention...
The more I thought about it afterwards, the more it occurred to me that Superman really always has been a metaphor for America, or at least the way America sees itself: Supremely powerful and morally beyond reproach, the world’s self-appointed protector.
And through his history, the more power America accrued, the stronger Superman has become. He went from “leaping tall buildings” in the ‘50s to flying backwards in time by the ‘70s! By the climax of the Cold War, there was almost nothing Superman/America couldn’t do, except…. just like Superman was vulnerable to the deadly radiation of kryptonite, we had the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads day and night courtesy of Soviet Russia.
Art reflects life reflects art.
Then in 1993, Superman was “killed” by the monster Doomsday, presaging America’s humbling at the hands of fundamentalist monsters by 8 years, and a coalition of his fellow superheroes rose up after the infamous crime to punish the evildoers and maintain the status quo.
So what’s Superman up to these days in the funny pages? Recently caught up in a no-win clusterfuck of epic proportions with an inexhaustible enemy, he got benched for a year then reintroduced as a whipped puppy without any super-powers at all, Clark Kent 24/7.
And I worry that another comic-book storyline is going to end up an allegorical premonition of real world events… but that is a post for another day.
Today we have “Superman Returns” to look forward to. I feel certain this one is going to have me leaving the theater with a spring in my step and a lump in my throat. The movie franchise, unlike the comic books, has to answer to Hollywood’s bean-counters, and to ensure Big Blue ends up in the black, a happy ending will be required.
Truth, Justice and the American Way will triumph again, at least for a couple of hours at a time in air-conditioned auditoriums across the land!