Monday night, I tuned in to watch one of my favorite shows, Supergirl. To anyone who knows me, the Superman story is one of my favorites, and Supergirl is for sure a part of that. I really like the current set of DC shows on TV, and Supergirl was no exception. But Monday night was a game changer, because it meant that Superman was returning to television. Am I a geek? You bet.
What I saw inspired me, and I think actually has a lot to say to our current political and cultural situation. But to understand it, we have to take an incredibly dorky trip through time.
You see, Superman has been around since 1938, and has actually morphed and changed to reflect the culture of his time. Even his sheer existence in the midst of the great depression, someone who was powerful enough to overcome anything, was a reflection of the hopes and dreams of the nation.
Admittedly, Superman didn't change a whole lot in appearance from there for a while. In the 60's and 70s, we got the campy smiley Superman, who met a season of fear and uncertainty in our nation with hope and resilience. He was always smiling at the camera. He was always talking to the kids he just saved, telling them to stay in school or something. We got Christopher Reeve, who is still in my mind the best actor to ever play Superman. Sure, we might look back on these and see campy hokey stuff, but the level of hope Superman brought was undeniable. He fought for Truth, Justice, and the American way, because at that time those were things that badly needed a champion. (Sound familiar?)
Then, see if you can spot the difference in Superman. The change was most evident in the comics, as Superman largely disappeared from the screen. For starters, we killed him and resurrected him as the lead singer in a Bon Jovi cover band:
Edgy, right? But it kept on going, really as Batman gained in popularity, folks tried to make Superman more dark and moody. First we got an emo teenager to play Clark Kent growing up in Smallville:
We followed up Emo Clark with a re-imagining of Superman in the New 52 comics, rarely shown without his heat vision burning red eyes of anger and rage:
Then, right as I stopped caring about what the comics were doing with Superman, they turned the last son of Krypton into the last Frat Boy of IUP (with all due respect to my alma mater):
Movies were an interesting phenomenon too. In 2006, DC tried to bring the hopeful Superman back to the big screen with Superman Returns. The results at the box office suggested that we, the movie going public, wanted nothing to do with a hopeful all-powerful hero. But even here, check out the colors of Superman's costume:
Everything is substantially darker. Then eventually Zach Snyder brought us Man of Steel and Batman V Superman, which were pretty decent movies as they go, but check out again the optics of Superman, particularly his costume:
Go ahead and scroll back up to the first picture, the one of Superman with the car over his head. They're almost not the same guy any more, are they? When I tell people I wasn't overly impressed with Batman V. Superman, for it's many many flaws, I think the biggest one is that Superman was brought down to Batman's level. Dark. Brooding. Tense. Not the Superman I've known and loved all my life.
Which is why the new Superman on Supergirl won my heart Monday night:
There he is!
Now, I am a geek. There can be no question about that. But I point out this trajectory of Superman's appearance through the ages to ask this question: Is our culture actually asking for the more hopeful Superman? I think so. I think things have gotten so nasty, so uncivil, so depressing, that it's actually ok to root for a guy who says Lickity Split. It's ok to have a superhero who smiles every once and a while. It's ok to have hope.
Maybe, just maybe, Superman is showing us where we as a nation ought to go after all of this election nonsense. Maybe, just maybe, our fictional heroes can give some fresh inspiration for what this country can and ought to look like. Maybe, just maybe, we too can find some hope.