Supermen & Virtues

Stratford Caldecott on the Appeal & Value of Superheroes

The modern comic-book store is no longer necessarily a place one would want to take one’s children, but in years gone by, constrained by the Comics Code Authority and the cultural norms of a less salacious age, Marvel and DC comic books were relatively wholesome fare. Admittedly, they were aimed at a readership made up predominantly of teenage boys, and on every second page or so there had to be some kind of punch-up to set the muscles rippling, but that convention aside, the stories were—by and large—moral tales.

The best of the comics were like modern fairy stories, or even a kind of tongue-in-cheek mythology. Jack Kirby invented a whole range of characters that possessed a dazzling archetypal purity and emblematic presence, from the Fantastic Four (representing the elements of earth, air, fire, and water) to the New Gods and the Forever People. His highly stylized drawings seemed to many of us to capture the pure energy of the human imagination. His explosions put you in touch with the fundamental forces of physics.

Other artists developed very different styles: The lean, sinuous lines of an anatomically precise Neal Adams drawing contrasted with the playful cartoonish strokes of Steve Ditko. (Of course, none of these Americans held a candle to our own Frank Hampson, who drew Dan Dare, but that’s another story!)

Searching for the latest work of my favorite artists from one newsstand to another, I began to see the world around me in a new way, my mind alternately highlighting the shadows, the colors, or the outlines of things in the graphic style of each artist. Over the intervening years, I have managed to hang onto examples of their best work, and every so often I dig out my collection and feast my eyes—though mostly I just like to know it is still there.

In the last two years Hollywood has been busy resurrecting some of the greatest comic characters in close to their original, wholesome form, thanks to the advances made in digital imaging. Film versions of Spider-Man, Daredevil, X-Men, and now the Hulk, to be followed by the Fantastic Four and probably the Silver Surfer, are absorbing tens of millions of dollars and making even more gigantic profits for everyone involved.

But what came as a pleasant surprise to many of us was the degree to which many of these movies reflect traditional morality. The filmmakers seem to have realized that to give a story the lasting mass appeal they are looking for, it needs to be not just about violence and wish-fulfilment but about the solution to an ethical dilemma, and that the most attractive heroes are just that: genuinely heroic, mastering their own selfishness, willing to sacrifice themselves for others, motivated by love. Pure sensationalism may get a few million people into the cinema, but it won’t get the same people to come back for three or four viewings of the same film, which is what pushes the box office through the roof.

God’s Agents

In Spider-Man, the plot turns on the hero’s moral development from someone who wants to exploit his new-found strength and agility to make money and impress his girlfriend, to someone who realizes that “with great power comes great responsibility,” someone who, at the end of the film, renounces physical love so as not to bring the girl he loves into danger. At the heart of the movie is a scene in which Aunt May prays the Our Father, and is dramatically interrupted by the Green Goblin at the words, “Deliver us from evil.” The meaning of the prayer springs to vivid life, and Spider-Man effectively becomes God’s agent in that deliverance.

In X-Men, one of the characters is a rosary-wielding Catholic mutant who relies on prayer rather than powers. In fact the movie is partly about the need for prayer, the preparedness to forgive one’s enemies despite persecution, and the willingness to give one’s life for one’s friends.

As for The Hulk, one of the most impressive films I have seen in the last few years, some of those who bought tickets expecting a shallow fantasy-action movie may have been disappointed, but who cares? One of the greatest living directors, Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Ride with the Devil; and Sense and Sensibility), has captured the elusive appeal of the original comic, with its innocent, misunderstood monster, and developed it into a parable about the relationship between science and violence—and more precisely the link between violence against nature and the rebellion against God. Scientist Bruce Banner turns into the 10-foot-tall green Hulk when provoked to anger, but his anger is righteous, and he is hardly to blame for his father’s attempt to use the monster’s strength to help him escape from the limitations of mortality (“to go beyond God’s boundaries,” as the film puts it).

On the small screen, the greatest superhero of them all (and the only DC character mentioned so far, since I am trying to avoid reference to the ghastly Batman movie series) is alive and well in Smallville. This series tells the adventures of Superman while he was still at high school. You may laugh, but I have rarely seen such a carefully crafted, consistently well-acted drama anywhere. The cliffhanger that ended the recent season had all the Caldecotts gasping on the edge of the sofa. I won’t deny that tears were shed.

The premise is familiar enough: Young Clark Kent, the last son of the exploded planet Krypton, has been raised by decent, God-fearing country folk on a farm in Kansas. But the writers have introduced a number of important twists. Gradually, as he grows through adolescence, his “powers” mature. He does not have them all at the start, and he doesn’t necessarily know what to do with them when they appear. He can move at super-speed but cannot fly yet, for example (in fact, he has a fear of heights). His heat vision—the ability to shoot heat energy from his eyes—first manifests itself when he starts to look at a woman with lust, and he rapidly has to learn how to control it. He manages to prevent himself from gazing into the girls’ changing rooms with his X-ray vision.

In fact, the series is largely about restraint, self-discipline, chastity, and the often painful acquisition of virtue. In a freak accident, his powers are transferred to a boy who was brought up in a “dysfunctional” home, whose father was always telling him how useless and horrible he was. The boy runs wild, while Clark proves himself a hero even when temporarily divested of his invulnerability. The lesson is clear: We each have a series of choices, but a good family is the best foundation, and heroism in any case doesn’t depend on physical strength. Other episodes show what is wrong with bullying, jealousy—even euthanasia and human cloning.

But the series is also about deception, and the effect of lies. Even a small sin can lead to great evil. Clark’s best friend in Smallville is the young Lex Luthor, whom we know will later become his arch-enemy. Lex is struggling to rise above the influence of his evil father, the head of the vast family business, Luthorcorp. Clark is his one hope of redemption, yet Clark has grown up keeping from him the secret of his origin and his powers, and eventually, as Lex begins to suspect this, Clark is embroiled in a series of deliberate bare-faced lies. The fibs are well-intentioned, but they gradually corrupt the friendship. One thing leads to another, and by the end of the season Clark is prepared to lie even to his parents. This leads to the death of his brother in the womb, and his own self-imposed exile from Smallville.

The chastity issue is handled beautifully, too. There is real erotic tension between Clark and the girl next door, Lana Lang, but though he has loved her since the age of five, their first kiss comes only after the death of her long-term boyfriend Whitney. The way Clark respects that relationship, never taking advantage of his position or his powers, and the honor he shows to Lana throughout, are exemplary. The unfortunate effect of red kryptonite on his personality makes possible some distinctly less noble behavior (a helpful plot device), but the series uses this simply to emphasize the fundamental points it is making about virtue and vice. It is hard to imagine a more effective and entertaining dramatic presentation for young people on the moral life.

Central Imagery

Now why is all this important? Quite simply, most of us live most of the time in our imagination. Think about the number of minutes of the day you spend anticipating what is going to happen in the immediate or more distant future, and remembering what happened in the past. Our memory, our image-making faculty, is the way we plan our actions and conduct our affairs. More than that, it is the way we assimilate knowledge, and it is the way we build up and encode our assumptions about ourselves and other people. As adults, we hardly notice this: We think of ourselves as primarily rational rather than imaginative beings.

But if we look at children or young people, we begin to notice the centrality of image, of story, indeed of fantasy, in their lives. No teacher will have a long-term impact on her student if she fails to engage the child’s imagination. (I wonder if that is why so many pupils have problems learning mathematics, since the engagement of the imagination with math is not as easy as with other subjects.) Very young children can often only be persuaded to eat if they are encouraged to think of their food—and their mouth—as something else!

All of this has huge implications for everything from education to politics, from art to evangelization. Increasingly since the advent of TV and the Internet, we have been living in an Age of the Image, displacing the Age of the Book. Rationality has been eroded and undermined by over-reliance on the mere psychological effect of images and emblems, brands, sound-bites, bullet-points, and symbols. A deluge of distractions militates against reflection and contemplation—two things that previous civilizations have deemed essential for rational thought.

But through it all, our obsession with stories persists. Stories are not abandoned along with discursive argumentation. Instead, they begin to be told in a different way—less linear, more visual, more apparently chaotic. We see the ascendancy of film, TV, and comics. Stories are not dispensable: They are the way we make sense of our lives, even if we can no longer articulate that meaning abstractly as we once could. But if stories survive, perhaps our situation is less catastrophic than I have been suggesting.

As for the emerging Superman, Nietzsche was quite wrong. The Man of Steel is not post-Christian at all. Christianity has gone ahead of the modern world and defined a form of heroism that transcends hardness and strength, one that is valid for all time. In this respect, Superman can be taken as representative of all the other superheroes that followed him, for all these stories, at their best (and they seem always to be most popular when they are at their best), represent the antithesis of the “blond beast,” the man “beyond good and evil,” that the descendants of Nietzsche have tried to foist upon us.

I can illustrate this by returning to Smallville. Here the latest twist is that Clark has learned the destiny set for him by his “biological father”: to conquer the planet to which he has been sent and rule it with strength, for “they are a flawed race.” Though this is an innovation in terms of the Superman mythos, it has a great deal going for it, not least because it explains symbolically why kryptonite has such devastating effects on Clark. Krypton is indeed the home of the Nietzschean Übermensch. As a consequence, it is a planet that either destroyed itself or was destroyed. No wonder its very rocks cause pain, death, or distortions in personality!

Clark’s true destiny can only be forged in the rejection of the “Kryptonian” type of heroism. He has learned that his true parents are not his biological but his adopted mother and father, the ones who have raised him and cherished him on the third planet of the star Sol. From these representatives of a “flawed race” he has learned that he is in fact free to make his own destiny. The only power that can defeat his biological father’s will, the only power capable of liberating him from Krypton, is love.  

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