Saturday, July 08, 2006

The better angels of our nature

Perhaps the reason we find movie adaptations of comic books so bad is their corny reliance on the cliché of good versus evil. Certainly in our very complex times nothing can be boiled down to such simple terms. And anyone who tries to do this (i.e. George W. Bush) is an overly simplistic buffoon. Yet another comic book has been brought to the silver screen. Superman Returns opened to mixed reviews. One has to wonder why? On seeing this movie I was forced to acknowledge that Bryan Singer has done a thoroughly adequate job. In truth, this movie will not be winning any academy awards (except perhaps for best score, John Ottman does a marvelous job of paying tribute to the great John Williams) but these movies are never created with Oscar in mind. I found myself in my seat making a fist as Superman went about fighting for truth and justice. And that is the point, isn’t it!

You can make all the movies about the Daredevil and Elektra that you want, but they are truly pointless superheroes. Superman and Batman, truly point to something within all of us. Batman symbolizes our flawed desire to be good, but the dark nature that lies within us all. Superman symbolizes our desire to be genuine and purely good. Batman is what we settle for in our heroes when Superman is what we need. Selflessness is all too rare.

Look at the state of our world. Look at the mess that our country has gotten itself into since the September 11th terrorist attacks. We live in a time when fighting is our only recourse. We must actively and aggressively resist terrorists, but our failure is found in our methodology. In order to defeat our enemy, we have become what they wanted; raping, murdering, civil rights and civil liberties violating world bullies. It has, of course, destroyed any goodwill that we had earned in the aftermath of so blatantly evil an attack.

Had the war on terror been executed correctly, no one could have looked at the United States as the bad guys. Unfortunately our Batmanesque need for vengeance made us unable or unwilling to go the route of purity and good.

If movies about good and evil are indeed so corny, why are there so many of them? Look around and you see movies about the struggle of goodness against the forces of evil. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Superman, Batman. We want to draw all kinds of parallels between our fight against terrorists. But I think this misses the point. The theme of good versus evil isn’t as shortsighted as that. I think the theme speaks to an internal struggle going on within us all; the desire to be good and pure but our innate human frailty that makes that goal so difficult to achieve. That is after all the difference between Superman and Batman. Superman comes from another world, he is not human and thus not the victim of our weaknesses and shortcomings. Batman is human and is absolutely victim of such weaknesses. That is why he is so much more a dark and truly flawed character. We all see a little of ourselves in Batman. Superman remains elusive to us.

Superman is a term that is older then Kal-L from the planet Krypton. Taken from Friedrich Nietzsche’s term übermensch, the superman is a human who has battled modern values and overcome the flaws of humanity. This philosophy is open to a lot of controversy. Used to justify everything from fascism, to socialism, to the existence of Marilyn Manson, Nietzsche’s philosophies are often vague and poorly presented.

The struggle in our hearts to achieve the better nature of ourselves is evident in the movie Superman. He is sent to Earth to help our better angels defeat our demons. As Marlon Brando says in the first Superman movie; humans desire to do good and are capable of so much but lack to ability to find their way “For this reason, I have sent them you, my only son." Jesus Christ anyone?

Christianity isn’t appealing to over a billion people for no reason after all. It’s just that we comic book nerds find our symbolism elsewhere (in the fictional realm).

I made a promise long ago not to endorse anything on this blog and I will keep my word. See the movie, don’t see the movie, it is entirely up to you. I found this movie with its simple message of good versus evil and our internal struggle to be better important and timely in an age of pessimism and disunity. It touched the inner child.

Superman’s greatest strength is the ability to unite the people of this country (and perhaps this world) towards that which is moral and just. It is an incredibly wild and oversimplistic view, but one that, while so foreign and alien at this time, is so necessary. Only once before has our nation been more divided. Abraham Lincoln was elected into the maelstrom of a disintegrating union. It was in this situation that he stepped up to the lectern on the steps of an unfinished Capitol to give his first inaugural address. He closed it with perhaps the most beautiful passage ever written, and I will close with it too.

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”


Eric the Papa said...

Nice essay. There is something in most humans that like a simple story of good vs. evil, and films like Superman clearly appeal to it. But such films are mainly attractive to youth and young adults who want the world to be manichean...good vs. evil.
The challenge of politics is to recognize nuance and the need to look for ways of coping with various forms of evil.

missgraciegirl said...

who else looks THAT good in spandex?

Hank S. Velvet said...

Loved the article. Very poetic. I too enjoy Batman more than Superman. The Dark Knight (not to be confused with me) is what we are, but Superman is who we wish we could become.