Like all love letters penned from the heart, this one finds difficulty in its commencement. For truly, how does one write a love letter to Superman?
The thing is, I’ve always ALWAYS had a soft spot for heroes. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting them all my life—- Harry, Skywalker, Jason, Perseus, Neo, the Avengers, Wonder Woman, Frodo and the fellowship of the One Ring, Buffy. I’ve even seen two Spider-men fer cryin’ out loud.
But nothing compares to the very first hero I’ve ever met. And you know what they say about firsts.
You never forget them. EVER.
I remember watching you in the Richard Donner Superman starring Christopher Reeve ages ago. And yes, it must be said that it wasn’t just the first Superman movie I’ve ever seen. It was, in fact, the very first movie I have ever seen in a movie house. What can I say? My parents have good taste. Imagine them exposing their eldest kid (at a very impressionable age, mind) to what would be an iconic figure. Oh God. I remember the jeepney ride home—me hanging about the jeepney handle bars, complaining out loud about the way Superman saved Lois from that faulty helicopter. And my parents repeatedly asking the younger version of me, I bet to impress the other passengers, “Ano nga ang sinabi mo tungkol kay Superman?” (What was it you said about Superman?) and me, with all the charms and innocence of a budding fantasy/sci-fi geek would always say, “Ang tanga-tanga ni Superman! Na late sa pag-save! Inintay pa na mahulog yung helicopter!” (Superman is so lame! He was late in rescuing Lois! He had to wait for the helicopter to fall!”)
Of course, that was all talk. That little girl was simply articulating in a very feisty way what she was feeling and quite helplessly trying to bottle up and perhaps trying to process at the same time.
She was in love.
Yes. Christopher Reeve was my first celebrity crush. He embodied for me what Superman and ultimately, what a hero is and should be.
And now, many decades later, I have, once again, come face to face with my hero.
It was a long wait, but the wait was all worth it.
I can wax poetic about the visual energy of it all—-the kinetic, almost lyrical fight scenes between Superman and General Zod took my breath away. Or how about the first time Clark wore his suit and then tries out his strength with it? Man, the way he breaks the sound barrier with his speed is poetry in supersonic motion.
I can wax philosophic about the moral issues that hound you as you try to meander your way about this planet, amidst people not your own. Seeing your teen self reading Plato was just too much for this scholar who espouses Platonic teachings whenever possible (much obliged to the great Professor Emeritus Dr. Emerita Quito who taught me everything I know about that Greek dude). I actually wondered at that moment, given that scene, what particular dialogue were you reading? Charmides, perhaps since it was all about Temperance? Or Laches (Courage)? Or maybe one of the Republic dialogues? It is tempting to imagine you reading the Symposium, since it’s one of my favorites, but hey, why not? Visualizing Clark trying to understand the nature of human love is worthy of my wildest imaginings.
I can wax romantic about Herny Cavill. Oh. Dear. God. Almighty. He is Superman. Of course he is handsome. Of course he is amazingly cut and physically fit to don the suit. Of course he is brilliant, and amazing, and wonderful, and all other similar adjectives you can think of. At one point, in fact (this was during that moment when you were trying to destroy the alien machine), I thought I saw Chris Reeve in Cavill. Or maybe I was just trying to see something, trying to force a vision that may not be there.
Or maybe not.
The thing is, what I saw at that moment was not the ghost of Mr. Reeve. What I saw was something else. I saw the hero I met many years ago.
I saw Superman.
For Superman, no matter the numerous incarnations, stand for something. Something quite extraordinary. Something that is larger than life, but intimate at the same time.
Sure, the filmmakers (led by director Zack Snyder, screenplay by David Goyer, and story by Goyer and Christopher Nolan) changed a few things here and there (the purists and the fanboys would probably argue endlessly about the suit change, or the very nature of the suit, or heck, the seemingly unrelenting presence of Jor-El [Russell Crowe] in the narrative to name a few) but thank heavens it worked. It all worked.
Some would say this Superman has assumed a darker tone. Is this courtesy of Nolan? Whatever and whoever the source of this change in tone doesn’t matter, at least not to me. Why not? Because it worked. The comic-book, sometimes-bordering-on-silly representations of Superman (especially the early ones) belong to a long gone era; back to an age when people were more innocent and more trusting. Superman needs to be upgraded. No, not in a major way, of course not. You should still be the epitome of goodness, of perfection that we human beings always strive for (and most of the time fail at).
You know those flashback moments in this film, I loved every minute of it. There was no pressing need for us viewers to follow (once again, like in the Bryan Singer Superman) the childhood of our hero, your childhood. At least not in the way we probably expected it. Gone were the fun recollections of a young boy trying out his powers, of him leaping over cornfields and water tanks. We know all that anyway. This time we see the other stories that were kept away from us. Recall, if you will, the young Clark first realizing his special powers and the fears that come along with it. The fear of knowing that you are different. Or the sorrow in the knowledge that the parents you have come to love are not really your own. Or the torment in realizing that you are alone (and not in the emo, “I’m alone in this world” sentiment), not just in this world, but in this entire universe.
Imagine all that, multiply it by a thousand, and you are not even close. Heck, you’re not even in the car park next to the ballpark. For truly, how can anyone put himself/herself in the red boots of Superman?
We now see the humanity of our hero. We have waited so long for this and now it’s laid out for all to see. And heaven knows we have earned it, every bittersweet moment of it. We now see all your attempts to not just be human, but to hide that side of you, the alien side, with so much difficulty it practically broke my heart. And being alien, all your attempts to be human, to be normal, are always in doubt. Must you be constantly untrue to yourself? Must you always be mediocre, at least in the eyes of many? Must you always blend in? Don’t you have the moral imperative to do good, nay, to be better?
I mean, people! Isn’t that the very core of our humanity? To strive to be better?
This internal conflict is the very thing that draws me, that has drawn me to you for decades. You try so hard to be like us, to be human, despite all of humanity’s flaws. You are an alien without a visa, yeah.
But quite possibly, the very best thing for me in this movie is the treatment of the main character’s secret identity. This is what I always tell my students (for some of them need constant reminding, yeah). Imagine all your heroes—-the Batman and the Spiderman (and all the other bug/animal combo with a human resulting from a radioactive something, or falling into a vat of something, or swimming in your parents moolah kind of hero). Bruce’s secret identity is the Dark Knight, hence the mask. Peter Parker’s secret identity is the Spiderman, hence his own mask. But Superman? No mask. No hiding. For Superman came first. That is who he is. His real name is Kal-El. That’s our guy. Clark Kent, glasses and all, that is his secret identity. Never the other way around. That’s what makes this guy, my guy far different from the rest. He is not like us. You are not like us. But no matter. You are still family. For you may not be born of this world, but you belong here, with us. I’m telling you, I have never been so excited to see Superman’s secret identity. And the reveal here was just so spectacular it made me smile and tear up a little at the same time.
There is this one short scene in this movie that made me smile even more. You see, Superman’s narrative is replete with Christian allusions, and mentioning it may be too much for some who may not want the allegory discussed for some reason or other. But I want to mention it, so booyah. Anyway, back to that scene. There is this moment in the film when our hero is being hunted by Zod, and it is up to him whether he should keep on hiding, or to surrender and hopefully save all of humanity. He can’t trust Zod, but he is also wary of human beings. To clear his mind and hopefully find some answers amidst the impending chaos, he goes to a church. And there’s this brief discussion with a priest about him not trusting anyone and he was told to just take a leap of faith. All that while our hero is in the foreground, and Jesus Christ (yes! Another superhero!) is in the stained glass window behind him, in a moment of contemplation and prayer. What a visual allegory! For yes, Superman, given his back story, was sent here to Earth by his Father to help human beings realize something about themselves, and is a reminder for us of a messiah of another persuasion.
Superman is indeed our savior.
It’s not the fabulous red cape. It’s not the gorgeous hair. It’s not the cleft chin. It’s not the bulging muscles. It’s not even his gentle persuasion. It’s what he gives us mortals that makes him, truly, our redeemer.
He gives us hope.
You give us hope.
And with that, I thank you, Man of Steel for being part of my life, of our lives. You are our better. It’s been quite a ride, and I am just glad to be part of it, in my own little way.
You will always be my first hero. My first knight in shining armor. My first braveheart. My first and only super.