Reflection: Your Superman Is Too Small

IMG_1916My wife has a flag in our yard during the warm months. It features the Peanuts gang, dancing their little, undersized legs off, and it’s emblazoned, “Dance like no one is watching.” Many of us are nervous about dancing in front of others. I know I am. I can’t. I have no rhythm. I have no grace. My best dance moves, I was once told by a dear friend, resemble those of a geriatric drag queen.

And yet what is the point of dancing? To celebrate. To exercise. To let go and let the music carry you away. If you’re dancing to impress people, you’re either doing it wrong, or you’re drawing a wage on Broadway. In the latter case it’s fine to dance to impress. It’s what you’re paid for. Otherwise, you’re missing the point. The lesson carries over to many other areas of life. You shouldn’t only dance like no one is watching, you should enjoy all the areas of your life that you’re meant to enjoy without worrying about what others are thinking. Worrying doesn’t improve your performance, and it can only diminish your enjoyment, ever.

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and super-hero comics are all genres which are meant to be enjoyed. They’re also all genres in which, historically, the fans haven’t worried too much about what other people thought of them. We know we’re different. We like being different. We revel in being different.

But, increasingly it seems that both we and the artists who create new works in these genres are becoming very, very concerned with what other people think. It’s not improving our enjoyment as readers, viewers or listeners, and its not improving our performance as writers, artists or producers. Nowhere is this more evident than in the movie I ranted about last week, the box-office-record-breaking Man of Steel. Indeed, I was partially inspired to write this column by a point made by Chris Sims in his excellent review of the film, wherein he says, “Every single problem with Man of Steel has its roots in a desire to be aggressively ‘adult’ in the dumbest possible way.”

Sims nails it right there. That’s my concern. Our genres were our childhood playgrounds, where we contemplated the impossible and improbable with unrestrained joy. We didn’t care what our non-enlightened friends and relations thought. So what if the kid on the bus said that Steve Austin would destroy his spine using his bionic arm to life a bus? I knew the writers had an answer to that challenge, because I knew the writers were smarter than that kid on the bus. More, I knew Steve Austin was make believe. That’s what made him fun. I didn’t need his stories to play by the rules of the real world I lived in. The real world I lived in was kinda boring. That’s why I watched The Six Million Dollar Man, read The Avengers and The Justice League, and fantasized about being aboard the Starship Enterprise or the Jupiter II.

But now we live in an age where our fantastic fiction is intentionally drained of its creative energy so that it will fit inside the tiny little box which some bunch of marketing professionals think defines the emotional and intellectual scope of the public at large. The public doesn’t want too much talk because it bores them and makes them feel dumb. They don’t want too much morality because they want to feel they’re moral enough already. And we (as creators and fans) don’t want there to be anything that can be called silly, childish or (gasp!) unbelievable in our stories, because the general public might then make fun of us.

In other words, we’ve surrendered. Given in. Handed to the bullies permission to look down on us, and promised to try like hell to live up to the bullies’ standards, whatever they may be. The result? We make films like Man of Steel: pointlessly violent, devoid of color, humor and imagination. We’re trying to make Superman (and all the rest) cool enough for the other kids to like them.

The result of the result? Your Superman Is Too Small.

I borrow the title from a work of theology which is older than I am, and which I haven’t read. But it’s a helluva a title: Your God Is Too Small. The gist of that non-fiction work (in case you didn’t know that theology is non-fiction) is that the traditional concepts of God are too limited and narrow, they don’t fit the needs of a modern  human being. Ironically, as noted by theologian Karen Armstrong, one of the ways the human race in the 20th and 21st centuries has fulfilled its need for myth as gods become obsolete is to create fictional deities and heroes. Unlike myths told by previous generations, we know ours are made up; but that doesn’t diminish their power.

It took Jehovah quite a few thousand years to get to the point where theologians began to suggest that maybe the public’s understanding of Him didn’t meet their mythological needs. It’s taken Superman a lot less time: He was first seen by the public in 1938, and the genre of Science Fiction itself wasn’t much more than fifty years old itself when he first appeared. Science Fiction, Fantasy and the stories in comic books fulfilled the need in the reading public’s mind for escapism, for heroism, for a literature (stop snickering!) that thought outside the box. But the reader had to use his imagination to access these stories. If he or she had no imagination, he or she didn’t get anything out of them.

And for a long time it was fun. Then came CGI. Yeah. I blame CGI. CGI made it possible to make SF, Fantasy and Super-Hero stories where you didn’t have to use your imagination, because the fantastic was already realistically portrayed on the screen in front of you. CGI begat the Summer Blockbuster, and the Summer Blockbuster begat novelists and comic creators whose primary goal was not to tell a big, imaginative story, but to craft a property which could fit easily into a two-hour movie script, and whose story elements were not too wild for the everyday viewer.

In the early days of SF cinema, especially super-hero movies and serials, the scope of the stories was pretty narrow. After all, you had to physically build whatever it was you wanted your story to show, and that meant either you spent a lot of money, or you made something that looked fake. Consequently, when Batman went on the screen, he fought bland Japanese spies instead of the Joker or the Penguin. Superman didn’t fight Lex Luthor and his robot monsters, or Brainiac and his shrink ray. That would be expensive. He fought gangsters. The Hulk? The Hulk became The Fugitive, and fought no atomic-powered super-villains. He just turned green at the right time and helped people out of situations that were as old as the radio soap operas.

Part of the reason for this narrowing of scope was budget, but another part was that the TV and movie execs producing these properties didn’t want to make anything too wild, because they needed to pull in a big audience. They assumed that most members of that big audience were really, painfully stupid, and so they wanted to keep most of the stories within the limits of those people’s established ideas of reality. In other words, they wanted to keep these properties fairly believable.

Believability. What’s believable? You’re making shows about men who wear capes and fly, men who dress as bats and fight crime, women who are descended from mythical Amazons and fly invisible planes (though, to be fair, Wonder Woman probably had the best shot, in its first season, at not draining all the imagination away… but it still did), men who got hit with radiation and now become green giants when they get angry… what’s believable in that context?

Anything we want to believe is the answer. And it shouldn’t be our concern if the guy next to us wants to believe or not. If he doesn’t get it, he’s the one who’s losing out. But we’re all too concerned about it. So we’ve taken our heroes and shrunk them, in hopes that they won’t be too conspicuous, too intimidating, too challenging… All in the name of avoiding ridicule, we’ve made our Superman too small.

We should enjoy our fiction as if no one is watching. Don’t worry about what the narrow-minded and dull will think is believable. Don’t worry that you might be accused of being naive, that someone might think your choice of fantastic or speculative fiction is just “wish fulfillment.” In god’s name, WHAT’S WRONG WITH THAT? If you can’t fulfill your wishes in your imagination, where the hell else can you fulfill them? And what is fiction but the ultimate game of “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine?” We share our imaginations.

And our imaginations should have no bounds.

I don’t care if you think Superman: The Movie is corny, too camp or too scientifically implausible. Dammit, I want to believe a man can fly. And I want to believe that, when he does fly, the soundtrack will swell and it will be the strains of John Williams’s beautiful and triumphant fanfare I will hear, not the dark and depressing strains of a Hans Zimmer score, talented as he is.

Enjoy your fiction. Revel in it. Live for it. Dance like no one is watching. Why? Because odds are someone is watching. And if you play your cards right, you might just teach that someone, the poor, dim slob, you might just teach him how to dance.

 

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