Spoiler Alert: You should never go snooping around the house before Christmas, looking for presents. And you shouldn’t read this if you haven’t seen Man of Steel. Unless you want to.
But I warned you, you little scamp.
There has been a lot of debate how Man of Steel ends.
Forty-five minutes of super speed punching between General Zod’s batch of righteous Kryptonians and Superman. Swaths of Metropolis and Smallville are leveled. People, in all likelihood lots of people, die.
Kal-el ends the fight the only way it seems he can. He snaps General Zod’s neck. Then he screams. So the audience knows he feels badly about it.
That doesn’t make me feel any better.
When I was a kid, I probably learned more about morality from comic books than anywhere else.
It’s not that I was raised in some kind of amoral wasteland, rifling through mossy boxes of comic books left out in the alley. (We had alleys. We didn’t leave our garbage at the curb like heathens.) I went to church on Sundays, CCD on Saturdays and an all-boys Catholic high school. But Bible morality was confusing and contradictory. When you want to know if you should listen to the Old Testament or the New Testament and are told that you should heed both, how do you rectify that as an adult, much less as a kid?
Comics were simpler. Moral codes were firm. Heroes tried to do the right thing, even if they failed. They saved people, even if it meant they would be hurt. And they never killed. Not because they couldn’t. Of course they could. But because they didn’t think that they should.
My oldest is four. He’s very into superheroes right now. I’m more than a little responsible for that. But superheroes aren’t a sub-culture anymore. They are the culture. They’ll be in the movie theatre every summer for at leaset another five years, thanks to the arms race between Marvel and DC. That means toys, cartoons and all the other ancillary other stuff is everywhere. All the time.
Jack and I have a lot of discussions, as a result of his interest and curiosity, about what makes a good guy and what makes a bad guy. Superheroes are a frame of reference for him. And how people think of them is increasingly driven by how they act in the movies.
Morality is, sadly, situational. Movies have heroes live and act like they are constantly at war, where things like collateral damage and acceptable losses and torture are justified. Since 9/11, movies have blown up more cities than al Queda ever has. Man of Steel is the latest ad in Hollywood’s long-running “Blow Up NYC!” campaign. It’s a miracle anyone still lives there. I miss the days when movie villains where evil geniuses instead of terrorists. Remember lairs and plots and henchmen? They seem so quaint now, before everything had to get so real and dark and gritty.
I suppose it’s easy to justify Superman’s choice. An insane person had just pledged that he would never stop until Krypton rose again on Earth. Based on the movie’s ‘science’, that is not a simple renovation. Zod was promising to kill everyone on the planet. You see a guy shooting lasers out of his eyeballs, I don’t know you have much choice but to believe him.
There’s a line in Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables. It’s spoken by Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness, toward the end of the movie. “I have become what I have beheld and I am content that I have done right.” I used to love this line, back before I had kids.
But becoming the thing you oppose, that’s a loss. Not a victory. And as much as it pains me, I have to wonder if I should let the boys enjoy superheroes if this is what, increasingly, it means to be a superhero. That saving the day has to be so drastic. And taking a life has such little, lasting effect.
Superman has always been the quintessential American hero. His parents sent him here so he could have a life. He grew up on a farm, then went to the big city to seek his fortune. He created his own identity. (Two of them, really.) And he tried to set an example for all of us to follow.
I’ve read, listened and seen enough of the character in my life to know he’s constantly reinterpreted. He stood up for the underdog in the Depression. Fought fascists. Got domesticated. Got weird and psychedelic. Tried to find himself. Became a yuppie. He’s a reflection, of who we are and where we are.
And now? Now he beats the villain by any means necessary. It doesn’t really bother him. And he has the media in his pocket the whole time, in the form of Lois Lane.
That doesn’t sound very heroic.
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with violence. I’ve never seen the point in it. I was never one for fighting. There was something that scared me about it. Not that I would get beaten up, although that might have been part of it. But that I felt like I would be violating something fundamental if I had to hit someone.
I’ve been lucky. No one has ever threatened someone I loved so immediately that I’ve had to do something about it. I know that impulse is there. I can feel it, banging against its cage whenever someone steps over a line with my family.
It may be an answer to a situation, but it’s never a long-term solution. I believe that. Which is odd, given that I enjoy stories of men who beat the piss out of each other so much. But there’s a difference, between standing up to someone and killing them.
I understand the difference. And it disappoints me that people who taught it to me, imaginary through they might be, no longer seem to. I’d hoped it would be something I’d share with the boys. Jack says, constantly, that he can’t wait to see these movies when he’s older with me and his brother. I’m not so sure they will. Maybe that’s being naive. That’s fine by me.
Because that’s what most people used to call Superman.