"What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended? What if a child aspired to something greater?"
Truth, justice, and the American way. Strangely enough, I learned a lot about Superman from my mom, who in turn had learned it through osmosis from her brothers when she was young. Back when comic books were books, and not recognizable intellectual properties ripe for mass-marketing, they represented a kind of simple math that a kid could understand. Superman was the simplest, so much so that most people, young people especially, are untucking their shirts and sneezing directly at the idea of Man of Steel coming out in June, because while The Dark Knight Rises was a French revolution allegory, what in the blue fucking hell could boring-ass Man of Steel possibly bring to the modern discussion? These days, we have Batman, and Wolverine, and The Avengers, and Robert Downey Jr, who is a genre unto himself. Superman's a boyscout. Punch the Commies, save the cat in the tree, last son of Krypton, Moses-allegory, defend the defenseless so they can live in peace, and on and until the day is done. Superman was conceived in 1933 in a time before the term "nuclear family" had been added to the American lexicon, nevertheless, he was the hope, the aspiration that even though we aren't invincible like he is, America, and all its promises, won't burn out if we stick together and keep driving forward.
Goddamn, Superman is as boring as watching iTunes update. Know what isn't boring? A story about a mysterious man that uses his obscene wealth to piss off the stuffed-shirt establishment by throwing lavish parties every summer night, all the while trying to win back the heart of the woman he loves, while trying to elude his haunting past. Huh, that's like 2/3 of the plot of Batman Begins, but no, it's actually The Great Gatsby, an adaptation of a classic American novel, and it's coming out in very close proximity to Man of Steel.
I was killing time late on a Saturday back in October. We were standing in what could be described as a glorified window box attached to in haste to my friend's apartment by a landlord looking to up the square footage, and we were bouncing ping-pong balls off of the bricks that used to be the building's exterior, watching how they caromed at weird angles.
We had been drinking cheap beer since early afternoon.
One friend described how much he hated The Great Gatsby. His argument was succinct.
"Blerrhhh! Daisy!" he spouted. "You represent the American dream, and therefore, I cannot obtain you. Now I must die! Blerrhhh!" I tried to persuade him that was the exact reason why the book was great. That, and there was slightly more to it.
How much more? Well, that's a big question. As big as America is dumb. The dream, man. It's something a nine year-old rolls out of bed hoping for, red cape knotted about the neck. There's this idea that if you can show up, and stay focused, and keep your nose clean, and keep your eye on the prize, America will be there for you. It will be party-time, all the time, for you and your best friends! Now, understand that party-time might involve throwing ping-pong balls against a charred-up brick wall, if you can accept that, and there's the rub. Americana might be a tragedy. I work in marketing, and, damn, if that pitch isn't a buzzsaw to the brainpan. America: it's grandiose, ambiguous, and it all plays out inside the crackling head of whomever sees it.
It will be more fun than kicking a bag of dry dogfood until it spills open everywhere. We are Americans and Americans are exceptional!
"Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope."
To paraphrase comedian Louis C.K., "why would anybody have hope? Hope is literally stupidity to believe in something that is very unlikely to happen." I really think it would be neat to pay some scientists a bunch of money to put their heads together for a few years, maybe conference call in some guys in from Switzerland, test out some prototypes, and then let me ride the time machine they build backwards to the mid-60's, and find out if all that peace and love bullshit was real, or, if they were all just super-high. Was there ever a moment when it was proven this American grandstanding was a proven commodity? Something that we really could bank on with lemonade stands and red wagons?
Was American stupidity, in all of its earnestness and delusion, acceptable? Was it really that stupid? The hope wasn't. Isn't. The expectation that there won't be a fight is stupid.
The Great Gatsby, the movie version of which is coming out next week on May 10, is already promising to be more fun than taking turns with a friend to hack apart a frozen piñata with a electric turkey carver. Check out the gonzo old-money party these dapper flappers are going to throw! It's a ruse built to rob rubes, though. America, man, it's all about painting brass gold and selling it so we can feel what it's like to float on a mattress in a pool in celebration of our unfortunate, gargantuan, tragic egotism. The sun's going to come up, and The Great Gatsby promises that, and in the cold light of day, we're at the mercy of reality.
Gatsby isn't a role model. He's a great tragedy and a brilliant character. Now that's identifiable! Holy heck, he's just like me!
"They were careless people... they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."
There is nothing more American than being thrown to the dirt and told you can't hack it. It's sickening to face Nick's revelation at the end of The Great Gatsby, as he regrettably accepts that you can't fix the established order, things that make sense are overridden by assholes, and old money always wins. It's even more sickening to see a guy like Gatsby try to reinvent himself by any means necessary -- because American society demanded it of him if he wants to make money and to have a shot at getting back with Daisy -- only to be stonewalled. His is the tragic tale of the Great American Robin Hood, and since it's American and it's tragic, he ends up dead and the narrator has to go back to the midwest. I can imagine no worse way to end.
I can think of a more American way it could end. He could have lived, and moved on, and realized that Daisy is an awful character and a naive airhead, and he could have reinvented the American dream. But awful characters make for good drama and drama is dream-fuel, and that is why Leonardo DiCaprio was so watchable in Inception (BOOM! that's the link we were looking for!). This reality, this craggy, immoral, amorphous landscape, which my Millennial generation didn't get a look at until recently, is not the one my history books promised me. I do not have an office, or a lawn, or garage with two cars, or an electric turkey carver. Even worse, I don't want any of that stuff, with apologies to Kal-El. My American aspirations aren't the ones I was schooled to have. I finally get what Gatsby and Fitzgerald were getting at, and hell if I don't identify more with Jay than Superman, because fuck Superman, he doesn't get how hard it is being an abused, disrespected generation at the mercy of those big jerks over in East Egg!
To clarify, please read the previous sentence as if it were spoken by Jerry Seinfeld, circa 1992. America is equal parts tragedy and hope. Frustration and self-deception. Sometimes they're in imbalance, and one is almost always more entertaining, which is why there's a negative view of Superman as a "character." He's hard to make tragic. The only difference between a comedy and a tragedy is that one ends with a wedding and the other ends with a funeral, thanks to Shakespeare.
Ironically enough, with Christopher Nolan producing Man of Steel (fresh off directing The Dark Knight Trilogy), and his fingerprints all over the story, the simpler Superman character actually represents a maturation and a generational shift in the genre. If Batman and The Dark Knight Trilogy represent the fear, chaos, and anger of the tumultuous early '00s, then maybe Man of Steel represents the dawn that The Dark Knight Rises promised. No, America isn't fucked, no we aren't failures, we aren't a tragedy waiting to happen. In fact, we're only just waking up.
"You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders."
Superman is as American as Gatsby is. Less tragic, of course. We need that dichotomy though. We already are both. We aren't going to get to be one without the other. We need the tragic fall so we can rise in beautiful ascent! I don't want to think that we're stuck forever in the tragic half, or that the hopeful half was etched in stone hundreds of years ago, unchanging, and as dorky as Superman. We can't be persuaded to be hopeful when we're learning so frequently to comply with the magnified tragedy around us. Complacence is self-inflected. It's not satisfaction, it never is. It's acceptance. When is any person ever truly satisfied? We aren't built that way -- humans aren’t built that way and Americans aren't built that way.
I've got some movies to go see. Oh, also, Iron Man 3! Now there's a great American tale right there on a bunch of levels!