Knowing, and loving, fictional characters
A little reading around the subject reveals that some of the Biblical stories featuring the Abrahamic God are almost certainly loose adaptations of earlier myths. Noah was not the first character in a story who had to deal with a massive flood, and Jesus was not the first to be born when a woman was impregnated by a god. The figure of the Abrahamic God has evolved from earlier gods, and continues to evolve as new interpretations of the Abrahamic religions or, indeed, entirely new religions, spring up. In one sense, and perhaps because I am a reader of comics, it seems much like the way in which every generation has its own take on classic superheroes through new films and books. New movie versions of Batman, Spiderman, and Superman seem to be perpetually in production, giving new writers and directors the opportunity to tell these stories in their own way. (And in another parallel with religion, these different versions of superhero stories lead to endless discussions about which is the most authentic depiction of a particular character.)
I wrote the above a couple of years ago for the Escape to Narnia chapter of The Young Atheist’s Handbook. The recent re-boot of Superman, Man of Steel, provides an excellent example of this, with many reviewers complaining that the film-makers have misunderstood Superman.
My favourite review of the film has been by FILM CRIT HULK (@FilmCritHULK on Twitter) who has written an epic 17,000 word essay (all in BLOCK CAPITALS) on everything that is wrong with the film. It’s a magnificent piece of writing and well worth reading in full if you love movies as much as I do and want a really coherent account of why Man of Steel is a bad film. Here’s a taste of what FILM CRIT HULK has to say:
WE DON’T NEED SUPERMAN TO PUNCH THINGS, OR TEACH US TO OVERCOME OUR ENEMIES, OR UNLEASH THE CARNAGE OF DESTRUCTION. THOSE THINGS WE KNOW HOW TO DO JUST FINE… WE NEED SUPERMAN TO BE ABLE TO DO THOSE THINGS AND YET NOT DO THEM BECAUSE IT IS RIGHT. WE NEED A SUPERMAN THAT IS MORE DEFINED BY MUNDANE HEROISMS THAT MAKE UP OUR EVERYDAY LIVES. THE COURAGE TO GET UP AND GO TO WORK EVERY DAY. THE COURAGE TO PAY OUR BILLS ON TIME. THE COURAGE TO GIVE PEOPLE A TINY INKLING OF BUREAUCRATIC KINDNESS. THE COURAGE TO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR OTHER HUMAN BEINGS. THE COURAGE TO DO THE HARD THING, WHEN THE EASIER OPTION IS AVAILABLE. THE COURAGE TO BE PEOPLE WHO TELL THE TRUTH WHEN IT IS EASIER TO LIE. THE COURAGE TO BE PEOPLE WHO GIVE WHEN IT IS PREFERABLE TO KEEP FOR OUR OWN. THE COURAGE TO BE OPEN TO GROWTH AND HUMILITY IN THE FACE OF US NOT BEING “BADASS” ENOUGH. THAT’S REAL COURAGE, WHEREAS NOTIONS OF REVENGE AND ANIMOSITY ARE OF LITTLE VALUE IN OUR EVERY DAY LIVES. AND THESE THINGS ARE REAL… THEY ARE MUNDANE… THEY ARE WITHIN OUR GRASP, BUT THEY NEED THAT INSPIRATION MORE THAN ANYTHING TO MAKE THEM REAL. WE NEED A SUPERMAN TO SHOW US WHY THESE THINGS MATTER. WE NEED A SUPERMAN TO SHOW US WHY WE SHOULDN’T PUNCH THINGS.
SUPERMAN HAS EVERY REASON NOT TO CARE ABOUT THE FATE OF HUMANS, YET HE DOES ANYWAY. AND HE DOES BECAUSE HE LEARNED HOW TO BE A REGULAR HUMAN BEING UNDERNEATH ALL THAT SUPERHUMANITY
I love the passion with which this is written. It’s amazing the extent to which FILM CRIT HULK and other Superman fans feel they know exactly who Superman is and ought to be. People genuinely love Superman, or at least, they love the idea of Superman that they hold in their minds, and many have been incredibly disappointed by a depiction of him that seems to get it so wrong. But, at the end of the day, every one of these fans knows that Superman is just a fictional character, right?
I’ve not seen the film and don’t plan on it – a shame as I’ve also been into comics for a long time. Another example I’d suggest is Robin Hood, a character which has evolved and changed as different generations find a new aspect which is more relevant to them.
Maybe it’s odd, but I’d say that many characters from fiction taught me valuable lessons, in life and for it. Robert Heinlein’s stories and characters, flawed and human, made me think even when I disagreed. Ender from Card’s SF/military novels showed me that I wasn’t the only person who could be isolated because of the way he saw the world. Hob Gadling from Neil Gaiman, Vimes from Pratchett, Nightwing and Jesse Custer, Spider Jerusalem and, yes, Clark Kent. As you and FILM CRIT HULK suggest, what makes the Superman idea so powerful is the restraint. It’s knowing when not to fight, when to step back, when to make choices *as* a human, not *for* the humans. Maybe for many it’s the appeal of an imperfect, more human ‘son’ of god. Personally I find sticking with comics makes sure you can’t take the ideas too seriously, because who would suggest that we should kill or maim, judge or persecute based on a fictional character?