As you probably know, a new Superman movie opened last week. So familiar is the legendary–and, by now, nearly mythical–hero that entitling the movie simply Man of Steel makes its subject matter and main character recognizable for audiences virtually anywhere in the world.
I am old enough to remember the original Superman TV show that aired from 1953 through 1958. Every kid in my neighborhood could hardly wait to get home on the weekday when George Reeves flew once more across our 14-inch black-and-white screen. Well, sort of flew. When Superman returned again in 1978 in the wide-screen, high-budget film starring Christopher Reeves, the treatment was so exhilarating and imaginative that few thought of the fact that the original super-man, “faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings,” had already been among us for over 40 years.
Why is Superman’s appeal so “grounded” in our culture now, so transcendent of time’s constraints? There is no question that we are all fascinated by the notion of a human-like figure having a full arsenal of the wondrous gifts we’ve been capable of imagining for ourselves at least since the ancient Greeks gave us those gods who took to the ether without a thought. And today, “parked” in oppressive rush-hour traffic, have you imagined yourself flying 50 feet above the interstate traffic, commuting like a great red hawk each day, your Jet-Pack strapped soundly to your back Yes, we want to fly!
But the real appeal of Superman’s story comes from the character’s narrative arc—the growth and development of his character across the sweep of the story as he meets global-sized threats and potential disasters. First, it inspires each of us to think of a person springing from a modest upbringing yet possessing astounding powers: genius can “spring up” anywhere, we think, even in my neighborhood. In addition, we like to follow the actions of a man who, above all else, is a morally centered individual; one who, after retiring into brooding doubt for a time, ultimately finds the emotional resources to save himself and decide to use his powers for the good of mankind. Is that not in many ways a description of the life-pattern of a Mother Teresa, a Martin Luther King, Jr., or an Albert Schweitzer?
Does not the timeless appeal of this Man-who-is-Super also arise from our societal exhaustion at Hollywood’s parading before us an endless stream of powerful monsters-often held out to be members of humankind. Surely I understand that every superhero needs a villain to give some conflict and thus forward movement to the storyline. But Superman transcends that typical Hollywood formulation. He seamlessly and convincingly embodies human awkwardness and doubts, human charm and kindnesses, and superhuman gifts in one credible character. The result is that the immensely creative Hollywood film industry can continue to roll out incredibly successful films about a credible guy who is now more than 75 years old!
At one point in Man of Steel, Clark Kent’s earthly father is trying to help his son awaken to the rare responsibilities imbued in a person possessed of super powers: much is expected, in a hundred ways, of him to whom much is given. His father says in essence, that Clark’s gifts are so extraordinary that whether they are used for good or evil, he would surely be famous. But the pivotal question is whether he would be viewed as a success? History is resplendent with talented individuals who, each in their own time, has been required to make a similar choice–to choose the grasping dark side- trashing the lives around them or choosing a life dedicated to helping others. We don’t consider a Hitler or a Darth Vader to be a success. Being “good” at something wicked and destructive is not good at all.
Is it any different in a company? Folks who climb over colleagues to reach an ever higher status in a company are never respected. If you study companies that die a slow death, you will almost always find that they are infected with a culture where employees are promoted because they are really good at besting fellow employees. But they ultimately fail, having spent so much time and potentially creative energy at this misguided intramural practice that they never learn how to best their real competitors–the other companies out there competing for the business that drives revenues.
In some tangled way we may acknowledge the intelligence and cunning of someone up to no good, but we always reserve our respect for persons who are real-life Supermen and Superwomen. You’ll never, never respect someone you don’t trust!
When Superman was created in 1933 by two high-school students, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Schuster, I doubt the boys considered the substantial life lessons their creation would inspire and model for us over all these years into the future. However, I have little doubt that that is why we love and look to The Man of Steel for our flying lessons, taking the high road over and over again!