Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Interrupting My Own Post with a Question From Yesterday

SUPERMAN, PART 2

If Superman is not a closed text, in other words, if we can tinker with him, at what point does Superman (or Ulysses or Hercule Poiront or any mythical figure) lose his/her Supermanness? What essential characteristics cannot be changed before he disappears. Taking Superman as an example, I'd suggest his weakness in the presence of Kryptonite has to be inviolable. What others are essential?

Sorry if I am boring you, but the whole idea has caught my attention.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Patti - That's a very interesting question, actually. I'd say it really is kryptonite. I mean, the costume doesn't really affect Superman's unique qualities. Any superhero wears a costume...

pattinase (abbott) said...

And maybe his ability to fly is sacrosanct to his myth, too.
He couldn't survive as Superman for long without that characteristic.

Todd Mason said...

Well, what makes him Superman is that once he's free of such impediments as Kryptonite or the light from a certain sort of star, he returns to his previous state of near-invulnerability and near-ominipotence. Batman, after all, is Batman because of his obsession with vigilantism and his abilities as a detective, inventor, and brawler.

Of course, none of these guys is quite mythical (Ulysses is borderline), but if Poirot is senile or suddenly decides to chuck detection altogether for a life of mindlessness, then he's lost his core, and changing certain small identifying tics about him would certainly bland him out.

Perhaps an interesting case in this wise is Nick Carter, which character has been rewritten as all sorts of different detective with some success over a period of at least a half-century. The various Nick Carters have relatively little to do with each other.

A much less successful and much more limited example of a similar process was the Donald Hamilton Matt Helm novels, the films with Dean Martin, and the tv series with Tony Franciosa (iirc), which each featured a Matt Helm who shared relatively little do with the MH in the other media.

Kryptonite is necessary because otherwise Kal-El is without obvious weakness, and omnipotence makes for a bad character.

pattinase (abbott) said...

or God.

Todd Mason said...

(A myth, I think, has to have continual, central currency in its culture...in a way that Superman doesn't quite, Seinfeld jokes notwithstanding...Bacchus wasn't a persistent, relatively trivial entertainment, nor is Shiva, nor Jesus.)

Todd Mason said...

Yes, Jehovah makes a terrible character. Unless delimited in some way, even by its own choice.

pattinase (abbott) said...

James Bond changes with each new actor who plays him. In the area of machismo v. suaveness at least. That's another consideration-people your myth and it has to slip-as you say with Dean Martin or AF playing Matt Helm.

Todd Mason said...

It wasn't solely the actors, in the Matt Helm case...the changes in Matt Helm from serious man about his job (in the novels) to Flynn's drunken brother, only vastly more frivolous, in the films, to an earnest private eye (as I recall) in the tv series...much as with the Bond films, there was an attempt to reshape the films for the times as well as for the leading man in each case.

And one mustn't discount, as some more ideological critics are too prone to do, the varying competences of those who are producing any given example of the work, and the commercial considerations facing any given work in a series about any of these serial characters.

Todd Mason said...

The changes in Matt Helm, as I didn't quite say, are as vast as those in Nick Carter...basically just using a brand name of Matt Helm in the latter cases (the a/v versions).

Deb said...

I seem to recall through the hazy mists of time that there was a Superman comic book in which Superman was, momentarily, impervious to kryptonite. Someone with more fanzine roots would have to tell me if I'm imagining that.

Gerald So said...

There was a time Superman couldn't fly. That's where the phrase, "Leap tall buildings in a single bound" comes from. And I don't think he was always vulnerable to kryptonite. Kryptonite came along as Superman grew more and more invulnerable to other things like bullets.

I'll move away from powers and concentrate on Superman's character. I think what has survived the longest is his sense of justice. For me, Superman wouldn't be Superman if one day he decided to end the "neverending battle" because he can't possibly stop all villains.

Almost as important to me, Superman has to care about regular people. This is often shown in the extent to which he immerses himself in the identity of Clark Kent. My favorite tellings are the ones where the Kents have a big influence on the man Clark/Superman becomes. He may be a strange visitor from another planet with powers far beyond those of men, but what he most wants to be is a man. He wants to have the American Dream because that's what his parents had, though they were of modest means.

He falls in love with Lois Lane and wants the chance to marry her and have a family, but his duty to the world as Superman constantly pulls against that.

Finally, I think Superman is an even better embodiment than Spider-man of the axiom "With great power comes great responsibility." Superman has to use his great power to help, not to hurt. Even in his weakest incarnation, Superman could have killed Luthor ages ago. This could have been justified the way police are justified in shooting killers. But Superman at his best doesn't yield to the temptation to harm others. At his best, he can't conceive of putting himself before others, while a man like Luthor can't help thinking of ways to manipulate others to his advantage.

pattinase (abbott) said...

He has always been my favorite action hero because he retains the simplicity of the small town boy, he stays in his Clark Kent persona as much as possible, he's honorable-doesn't go looking for trouble. For a man from another planet, he is very human. He "wears his mantle (or cape) lightly" in other words.

K. A. Laity said...

I would say his essential element is, as Todd suggested, his invulnerability. The mythic aspect -- I always take the mythic as a story that explains something fundamental about the universe -- deals with how to cope with invulnerability. We admire Superman (if we do) because he has immense power and chooses to put it to the service of good.

"Good" of course has to be defined; if Superman had been Übermensch during the war (and yes, I'm pretty sure that storyline's been done long ago) his definition of "good" might well have been different.

In teaching medieval film this semester my students have seen how the American monomyth of individual freedom trumps any supposed "medieval" in most of the films. But such narcissistic individualism would have been not only derided in that time, it would have been foolhardy as communal support was necessary to survival. Our notion of "good" changes all the time.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, and perhaps the stranger from another planet aspect. He's always balancing his "otherness" with his All-American Dudley Do-Right persona.

SteveHL said...

All American Dudley Do-Right? Shouldn't that be All Canadian?

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yep. All American Hero.

Richard R. said...

It does become a little more complicated when there are four Supermen characters operating at the same time... which was the case for a while.

Todd Mason said...

Well, there's always a desire for individualism, as well...narcissistic as it might be even as mindlessly toadying as the collective can be (and it's always funny to hear parrots of individuality dittoing in unison, even as the most powerful make appeals for the benefit of the community which mean actually the benefit of themselves first and foremost when not exclusively). The Magna Carta didn't come out of nowhere.

I think we're getting to the heart of Superman's appeal without stating it explicitly...why would this superbeing want to bother with humanity (aside from the apparent fact that they are awfully close to what his real people are like, and they're gone), and (more importantly to the readers, particularly the young ones) how does the misfit who is in one way or another possibly gifted but certainly different from most folks integrate as much as poosble and as beneficially as possible with the larger society?

And, of course, mid/late '70s SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE wasn't the first to offer an UBERMENSCH story, but theirs certainly sticks in the mind ("he's a Jew!").

Coming as a response to fascism, inspired largely by the likes of Philip Wylie's GLADIATOR and to some small extent perhaps by (or in reaction to) Olaf Stapledon's ODD JOHN, Superman has that kind of issue in his DNA, after all.

wv: mismo (es verdad, como no)

B. Nagel said...

About 25-30 years ago, Superman had become so powerful that he could not be discomfited by anything, could blow out the sun with a single breath and could eat Kryptonite Krunchies for breakfast without indigestion.

Then there was the rigamarole that each writer/artist who ever worked on Supe developed different storylines, backgrounds and personalities. It was a mess. DC tried their best to smooth over the gaps with the Multiverse. Crazy Times!

I would say that the core attributes of Superman are his Kryptonian heritage (his Other-ness) and his sense of decency.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I agree Mr. Nagel. I think those attributes define him. His strength emanates from the other two. Thanks!

Peter Rozovsky said...

I dunno; recent biblical scholarship has stressed the angry side of the god we call Jehovah. That ought to make him (or it) good for a supporting role at least.
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