Saturday, June 22, 2013
Last weekend, I went to see Man Of Steel, the new Superman movie directed by Zach Snyder. I’ve always been a big fan of Superman movies – as a kid I watched each of the old Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve over and over (even the one with Richard Pryor as a computer genius!). In those days, superhero movies were few, unlike today, when you can’t drive by a movie theater without bumping into one (or two playing simultaneously!).
But Man of Steel actually touched me in a way that most other films don’t these days. It had nothing to do with the special effects or the over-the-top action sequences in the last third of the film. Rather it had to do with not fitting in, as a kid or as an adult!
Here are 5 very special moments from Man of Steel for those of us that don’t fit in:
1. A Young Clark Kent asks: “Mom, What’s Wrong With Me?”
Early in the movie a young Clark Kent, who realizes he’s different from other kids and can’t fit in at school, hides in a closet at his elementary school. When his mother (played by Diane Lane) comes to rescue him, you can sense his inner turmoil when he cries out: “Mom, what’s wrong with me??”
Whether we say it out loud or not, most of us who grow up different ask that question at some point in our childhood. In my own case, not only did I not look like the other kids and have a different religion, I was always drawn to geeky subjects (back when being geeky wasn’t cool).
I think that one of the reasons that stories of heroes like Clark Kent (or for a later generation, Harry Potter) appeal to so many kids is that they reassure us that it’s OK that we’re not “like everyone else”. Secretly, it gives us hope that maybe we have other abilities – not exactly superpowers or magic – but other gifts that make us special. Maybe it’s the ability to do math or write computer programs, maybe it’s the ability to dress weird and sing strange songs, or simply the power to imagine whole worlds in our heads that others can’t see or fathom.
Lady Gaga, in her Monster’s Ball concert in New York City, talked on stage about how she still feels like “a loser kind in high school” because of the way others treated her - she clearly didn't fit in. And if like me, you were different enough that you couldn’t get a date in high school, remember words of wisdom from journalist Lester Bang from another film, Almost Famous: “That's because we're uncool. And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem.”
2. John Kent asks: What kind of man are you going to be?
There’s a great scene where a slightly older (but still young) Clark Kent is being bullied by school kids. His father, John Kent, played by Kevin Costner, comes up and the kids move away to reveal that Clark is holding on very tight to a fence and holding back his anger and power. You know he just wants to belt those kids. And you knew he very well could!
Anyone who’s been bullied (whether in the schoolyard as a kid physically, or as an adult verbally by bigoted or opinionated people) knows this feeling of wanting to fight back! As a kid this might mean curling up that fist and smashing them in the face. As an adult it might mean some more sophisticated form of revenge, or maybe, you still just want to belt them! But like the teenage Clark, you don’t, because that’s not the kind of person you want to be.
As John Kent tells the confused young man at that moment: “One day, you’re going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it’s going to change the world.” . I believe we all have to make choices like these and collectively how we choose affects the course of the planet.
What really touched me about Superman wasn’t that he was able to punch out General Zod in the skies of Manhattan and save the Earth. It’s that the young Clark Kent saved all those kids in the schoolbus, even after they had been bullying him and calling him a freak. That must’ve been tough. Forgive, be kind to others, and as Kevin Costner says, “think about the kind of man you want to grow up to be.”
3. Lois Lane tries to publish a story about UFO’s in the mainstream media.
In Man of Steel, when a respectable reporter, Lois Lane, discovers that there is a UFO and an “alien” (i.e. Clark Kent before he becomes Superman) hiding in plain sight, she attempts publish an article in her respectable newspaper, the Daily Planet. The editor refuses to print it, saying “I’m not going to print a story about Aliens walking among us!” She has to turn to some fringe conspiracy website as her only way to get the story out! Now of course, this would never happen in real life...would it?
When respected investigative journalist Leslie Kean got a call from retired members of European military saying that there was something to the UFO stories that have been proliferating and that they were putting out a report about this she got all kinds of warnings from her colleagues (spoken and unspoken) about the stigma around the subject, which she feared might be career suicide. She wasn’t fitting in. Luckily, she kept at it, and eventually wrote a New York Times bestseller that is a great book the subject for believers and skeptics alike: UFO’s: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go On The Record.
When the late John Mack, a psychiatry professor at the Harvard Medical School (and Pulitzer prize winning author), made waves by writing that abduction phenomenon should be taken seriously back in the nineties, he was subject to all kinds of “harrumphing” by his colleagues at Harvard. To paraphrase Alan Dershowitz, a well known Harvard Law professor: There were certain things that you were and were not allowed to study as a Harvard professor. Angels? That was a fine. Aliens? Not so much. Angela Hind wrote, "It was the first time in Harvard's history that a tenured professor was subjected to such an investigation."
Again, you are free to write or study whatever you like, as long as it fits in. Sometimes, I feel that to be considered “respectable”, we are given a modern, socially enforced, equivalent of Henry Ford’s choice about the Model T: you can have any color you want, as long as it’s black!
4. The young Kal-El escapes from a dying Krypton.
The scenes of Krypton in Man of Steel were visually stunning and moving, a virtual “film within a film”. But there was something else about this story that moved me.
The idea of escaping an advanced civilization during or just before a cataclysm is really the latest incarnation of a very popular old idea. Somewhere, in our collective unconscious, as Jung called it, is the mythology of an advanced, dying civilization and the dual archetypes of the wise “old man” who foresaw its destruction and the “child” who escapes. These patterns repeat themselves in stories that humans have been telling for thousands of years, ranging from the Lost Continent of Atlantis, Aeneas escaping the fall of Troy to found Rome, Noah escaping the Flood, the stories of the Anunakhi from the Sumerian texts, and numerous Native American myths of coming from “over the water” or “under the earth” after escaping a cataclysm (of fire, or water) to start a new civilization here in North America.
Most popularly it’s called the “Atlantis myth”, and if you imply that it might be something more than that among historical scholars - well, let's just say you won't fit in any longer! In the modern view, civilization and technology advance linearly from simple to complex (like a very straight arrow). But times like the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome, the loss of complex building techniques after the fall of Egypt, the loss of the library of Alexandria put a lie to this myth – the true path of advancement may be much more circular or spiral.
Whether it’s simply a collective psychological archetypal story that appeals to us, or an actual genetic memory of some long lost event in humanity’s deep past, there is something seriously worth studying in this collective mythos of an escape from an apocalypse (not to mention, in this latest version, as in some versions of the Atlantis myth, the Kryptonians misused the resources of the planet and this was responsible for the catastrophe). How do we know, for sure, that we’re not living in an extended dark ages after the fall of some advanced civilization like a Krypton or Atlantis? Don't ask. You won't fit in.
5. “Come on! I grew up in Kansas. I’m about as American as you get!”
After being very skeptical of Superman, the humans (all Americans in this film), seem to realize that he brings them some benefits along with his “otherness”. But this doesn’t stop them from trying to use surveillance drones on him to find out what “he’s up to”. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Unlike Snowden in the recent NSA spying scandal, the government doesn’t go after Superman for “opting out” of the government spying program. It’s too bad you or I can’t opt out.
In my opinion, this movie depicts an undertone in America against those who are “different” going way back: Irish-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Jewish Americans, Catholic-Americans were all questioned about their “Americanness” and had to “prove themselves”. And if, like Superman, a Kyrptonian-American, you weren’t born here, so much the worse! Hell, in Obama’s case, he was born here but still had his “American-ness” repeatedly questioned (though after the recent spying revelations, you might argue, like the New York Times did, that he’s proving himself just fine by becoming, in effect, George W. Obama).
This last scene of the film moved me personally. In the aftermath of 9/11, I was shocked at the kind of questioning and looks I got whenever I left the big city, simply for being a Pakistani-American. Sadly, I felt I had to be careful and diplomatic, not cause any waves, and not always say what I was thinking. What was I really thinking?
Honestly, I wanted to throw up my hands, as Superman did, and say: “Come on! I grew up in Michigan. I’m about as American as you get!”
These five moments in Man of Steel (among others) had a profound resonance for me (and I hope for others who don’t “fit in”). Maybe that’s why I like speculative and fantastical fiction in general, it allows us to see truths about ourselves without ruffling any feathers since it’s “obviously fiction”!
So, maybe these 5 moments in the story may not be the same ones that appeal to the majority of the movie-going audience, or even to traditional Superman fans. After all, I’m not talking about Life, Justice, and the American Way here.
Or am I? After all, I never was very good at “fitting in”!