By now you may have seen and enjoyed Superman Returns, one of the summer’s best movies. I’ve been meaning to write a detailed follow up regarding an element of the film but I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t be giving away any spoilers for those of you who haven’t gotten around to seeing it yet.
Shame on you, by the way.
To set the scene, Superman has been gone from Earth for five years and returns to find a darker and more depraved world than the one he left behind. Instead of jumping back into “knight in shining armor” mode, though, he opts to make his first appearance as Clark Kent – mild mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper.
Yet as the movie unfolds, Lois Lane gets intro the usual sort of trouble that prompts the man in blue to come in and save the day. This leads to a majestic snowball of action around the globe as the Man of Steel makes his presence once again known to a world in need of hope. The people respond with cheers and awe – perhaps as many of us did watching the film – for the idealism and morality of such a powerful being is needed now, more than ever.
And yet… Lois has changed a bit.
She isn’t quick to embrace the superhero as quickly as she once did. Out of anger at Superman for having left her, she has “moved on.” Not only is she in the arms of another but has even written a Pulitzer Prize winning article entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”
Shame on her, by the way.
Although later she wonders about the antithesis of that story in an article called, “Why the World Needs Superman,” I’d like to write a response to both the movie and the character of Lois Lane.
The real article that needs to be written (in my humble opinion) lies below.
Up, up, and away…
Why the world needs Clark Kent.
I grew up with a red towel tied around my neck and dangling down my back. Whenever possible I would find large appliance boxes and carve out an entrance so I could run in to my “phone booth,” do a quick change, and emerge as someone who could fly. Once I even tried to get my mom to make me a colorful outfit that I planned to wear around the neighborhood so people would know there was a hero in town they could look up to. (Thankfully, she refused… saving me perhaps several beatings from local kids.)
Growing up, I was Superman.
At least, I thought I was.
In reality, I was actually Clark Kent.
Bumbling. Tongue tied. Nice. “Swell.”
Clark Kent is a geek. He wears glasses, is often clumsy, and seems a bit simple in most social situations.
Not exactly a superhero.
That is, until someone is in danger.
Then the John Williams music kicks in…
“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…Superman!”
we don’t live looking up at the sky very much, do we?
We live with our face on the logistics of life, from the job we have to do to the fast food we need to pick up. Then there’s the soccer practice we have to get to or the email we are compelled to check in order to make the next deal we hope to land or pay the bills in a timely manner. Throw in a few scattered relationships with those inside and outside our house and we simply just don’t have time to clock the speed of bullets, measure power compared to a locomotive, calculate leaping capacities in human to building scales, or gaze up and wonder whether or not the passing blips are birds, planes, or something else entirely.
We know we need “Superman” – someone or something to enlarge our vision and hope - and yet we often live lives to the contrary.
Keep in mind, I “love” Superman. Rather, I enjoy the feelings I experience when the man-made character of Superman creates a sense of the greater Story I am a part of with my real hero of Jesus Christ.
But when I get into the fictional world of Superman I subliminally start to believe fictional things about myself and life. Perhaps the “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” mantra is but a magnified version of my country’s “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” creed. What kind of a sick society pursues its own happiness? I want to be a part of a culture that pursues redemptive goodness worldwide instead, but somehow the idea that America’s way is the best way dominates our worldview.
Brad Meltzer, a noted writer for Superman and DC Comics, commented on it this way:
"Just as the Greek gods represented their society, Superman is like the avatar of the United States. It's how we want to see ourselves. That's why he gets more powerful and that's why he gets more handsome. It becomes our own wish fulfillment."
Keep in mind, I “love” America. Rather, I enjoy the feelings I experience when the man-made country of America creates a sense of the greater Story I am a part of with my real citizenship in the Kingdom of heaven.
In this sense, perhaps we no longer need Superman… for we have become Superman.
And so what I really need… what the world really needs… is Clark Kent.
Here is a man whose life is lived down to the lowest common denominator of simplicity. While he has the strength to demolish planets he instead chooses to walk Earth’s soil and tenderly shake the hands of others. Rather than using his X-ray vision in inappropriate wayss, Clark humbles his eyes in order to convey a respectable and quiet manner around others. As an alternative to utilizing his might in a way that would make us slaves, he allows mankind the freewill to make his own choices while joining in humanity’s annals (which we get to read about in the Daily Planet).
Man… props to Pa and Ma Kent! Imagine what it must have been like to raise a child who could rip apart the house if he threw a tantrum. What kind of speeches did it take to help this young man understand that his powers were not for selfish gain but for humanitarian assistance? When young Clark didn’t like a rule and didn’t want to obey it, how in the world did they get him to do it anyway?
Comparatively, we live life trying to maximize every possible angle to do whatever we’d like to do. If someone encourages us to tame our tongues or turn down the volume of our choices, we claim them to be judgmental. Likewise, if anyone questions why we speak our mind whenever we want to we get all hyped up on how we’re just being real and not wanting to live in a closet about anything. People talk about being real and speaking their mind as if it’s a God-given mandate. But what would the world look like if we said everything we wanted to 24/7?
There is a difference between being real and being responsible.
Which in an odd way is what Clark Kent does. In a scene that was deleted out of the 1978 Superman movie, Kal-El has a dialogue with his dad in the Fortress of Solitude about his identity as Clark and Superman.
SUPERMAN: (awkwardly) I don't know what to say. Look, I -- I just -
JOR-EL: (quietly) Enjoyed it?
SUPERMAN: (nods, ashamed, not looking at him) I guess I got carried away
JOR EL: (gravely) My son, I foresaw this. I knew -
SUPERMAN: (impassioned) No! You couldn't imagine -
JOR-EL: How good it felt!
SUPERMAN: How good it felt -
JOR-EL: ....to feel yourself. Very well. You are revealed to the world. But still you must keep your secret identity. First of all, you will need it as an escape valve. You cannot be special twenty-eight hours a day -
JOR-EL: Or twenty-four as it is in Earth time. Furthermore, if you will reveal yourself, your enemies will have a way of getting at you where you are vulnerable: by hurting the people you care for. (sadly) Ah, this Earth...this world you live in, Kal-El... (suddenly impassioned) Resist its temptations, its rewards, especially its political system.
SUPERMAN: There are none of them any good anyway.
JOR-EL: And it is forbidden for you to interfere with human history. All you can do, Kal-El, even now that you have...found yourself...is help them to evolve. Set an example. Show them they must strive towards the light. And... remember us...
Is it possible that Superman remains a hero not because of his superpowers? What if his appeal as a comic book hero was all about what his heart reflected whether he had the cape or the glasses on? Doesn’t Lois Lane even seem a bit intrigued in Superman The Movie when she asks Clark Kent, “So are there any more at home like you?”
Superman was iconic to the people of Metropolis… and yet Clark Kent was their buddy.
In theological circles, this concept is often noted of Jesus Christ as the “Incarnation.” Since he was fully human and fully divine, a link was created between humanity and God. Yet even as I type this I am reminded again that no one is in need of another church service explaining this in as much as they instead need people who are willing to be the church to them. Explaining the nuts and bolts of Christianity won’t do it anymore – our world needs people to be the nuts and bolts of Jesus to them. In doing this perhaps a soul awakening will occur unlike any other.
Jesus wept, cried, had body odor, and needed to get His hair cut. He also defied the laws of physics (that He created) and appeared in a resurrected nail-pierced body to many. Perhaps what is most amazing is that the perfect feet of God got dirty on this earth as he walked through the mud in order to live alongside us. If we could grasp the powerful truth of the Christ-child crying in a poop-filled environment while unseen angels sang in praise over it all, we might more fully grasp the redemptive life he offers us.
Jesus could have come to earth and made us follow him. Instead he opted to live life down to the lowest common denominator of simplicity. While he had the strength to demolish planets he instead chose to walk Earth’s soil and tenderly shake the hands of others. Rather than using his divine vision in inappropriate ways, Christ humbled his eyes in order to convey a respectable and quiet manner around others. As an alternative to utilizing his might in a way that would make us slaves, he allowed mankind the freewill to make his own choices while joining in humanity’s annals (which we get to read about in the Bible).
You don’t have to have unexplainable powers to make a difference in the lives of others or allow the pebble of your life to cause a ripple into human history.
In my opinion, Superman isn’t “super” because he can leap tall buildings and run faster than lightning. Rather, he’s Superman because somehow he didn’t submit himself to the most carnal and meaningless purposes for living. This runs true in Jesus’ life, too, exemplified in his continual desire to submit himself to the will and glory of the Father.
So perhaps you don’t have to be a superhero to be a hero. Maybe all you have to do is live life in such a mild-mannered way that it allows those alongside you to feel inspired, special, and seen.
Sure - there will be a “secret powers” moment when whatever you’re good at will shine through. In the meantime, though, perhaps we should keep bumbling around like Clark Kent and know that we are positioned in just the right place to make a difference.
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11, MSG)