Listen to/Watch entire show:
Each summer, like most Americans, the Urban Man seeks out the sweet reassurance of the superhero movie. Sitting in the dark, I too fly with careless abandon. I too survive magnificent catastrophe. I too become the mild-mannered citizen reluctantly donning spandex to save the earth.
I figure a really good superhero needs three superpowers: not just a kickass ability, but a pure heart and a short attention-span. He can't be wasting his time sorting through moral ambiguity when he finally lets loose with laser eyebeams. And he can't worry about, like, cleaning up the mess.
Again tonight, I take my boys through the gaudy lobby of a great cineplex, past the rows of remorseless arcade games and the massive cardboard displays of coming mayhem. We listen for the muffled explosions echoing out into the hallway. Here the very smell of popcorn promises violence, and the walls of each theater seem barely able to contain the havoc.
I do not actually crave the violence. I crave the pure heart of the hero who somewhere towards the middle of the film puts aside all remorse, all uncertainty, all personal issues, and revels in the giddy splendor of his strength. I crave that moment when he becomes wonderfully free.
Okay, I know the superhero is a blunt metaphor for American global power. I know he symbolizes our imagined ability to transcend not just the physics, but the history and culture of a corrupt world. I know he represents our American dream of naïve masculinity, of friendly and forthright invulnerability. I know that when we see him slice through some tangled knot of crime and politics to express a simple and undeniable justice, he is expressing our own manifest destiny.
And if just now our media is awash in spandex; if just now we are experiencing a superfluity of telekenesis and telepathy, of super-stretching limbs and super-magnetic powers, a superabundance of form-fitting chest pieces and long armored gloves and magic whips and mysteriously bulked muscles; if we are desperate to find more and more, and yet more superpowers hidden under every bed and in the back of every closet in America—well, I know it's because we ourselves have gone deep into one more really tangled knot of history and crime.
In fact, halfway through tonight's film, which features an American with a glowing heart of power, I realize the superhero represents less a form of escape than a form of…prayer. I turn and look at the faces of my fellow citizens scattered in the dark, their eyes bright with the ever-shifting lightning of the screen, and I imagine them fervently murmuring, "Oh lord, let us also recover the lost innocence of superpower."
The faces of my own two boys are focused, intent, and lit handsomely with the spectacle. And I want to say to them: "Go ahead: Pray for innocence. Pray for strength. Pray for a just cause. But don't forget to pray for that short memory." In the end, the superhero's ability to lift an oil tanker or project rays from the palms of his hands represent mere technology. His real superpower remains the fantasy that he can accomplish all that without funerals or tears, post-traumatic stress or post-war inflation. His greatest achievement comes not in the moment of violence, but the moment just after the violence, when he, like the movie-goer himself, exercises his super-ability to forget the flames and the broken vehicles and the screams of the dying.
And yes, briefly, as I imagine such a prayer on the lips of my sons, I do feel the slight, cold touch of kryptonite. For a moment, a genuine American tragedy echoes dully toward the rear of the theater. But then the Urban Man turns his eyes back up to the screen and watches one more fellow citizen suit up.
Copyright © 2008 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
Engage & Discuss
BROUGHT TO YOU BY