You just have to decide what kind of a man you want to grow up to be…Because whoever that man is, good character or bad, he’s… he’s gonna change the world.
– Jonathan Kent, Man of Steel
The best superheroes are timeless because they represent a yearning that resides in all of us. Every person believes that, in a way, he is destined to change the world. Every person feels just a little bit different, and it is this separation that leads a person to believe that he is destined to make a difference, no matter how far-reaching that dream is. As we age, and the world begins to wear down our dreams, we find ways to hold on to the belief that we are somehow different, somehow special, and will someday make that difference. The stories of superheroes are universally appealing for this reason. Inside of a summer blockbuster or a colorful comic, we can forget reality and escape back to those crazy childhood dreams, our dreams of actually changing this world, making a difference, being a hero.
Few franchises have been run through the Hollywood ringer as much as Superman. While Hollywood’s latest reboot, Man of Steel, did little to add to the much told tale, it did however adequately advance the true legacy of Superman: humanity.
Unlike most superheroes, Superman is entirely alien. His humanity comes only from his human relationships, from the lessons he was taught by his adoptive parents. If Superman had not been raised as Clark Kent and instead as Lex Luthor, Jr., the fictional world of Superman might have been completely different.
Krypton is destroyed. The evil General Zod has aims to create a new Krypton on Earth. The Nazis had a word for this: “Lebensraum.” It means “a law of nature for all healthy and vigorous peoples of superior races to displace people of inferior races; especially if the people of a superior race were facing overpopulation in their given territories.” That was part of the Nazis justification in attempting to eradicate an entire race of people. Meanwhile, it is up to Superman to stop General Zod and his army.
Metropolis has never faced such evil. The destruction is massive. People run away from a terror that they can’t comprehend and evil that is other-worldly. Invaders rip apart buildings and scatter literally a metropolis of people. Yet in this opera of carnage, there is goodness.
We see a cop, with no regard for personal safety, herding people away from the destruction, not unlike the adoptive father of an alien orphan who sacrificed his life in a Kansas twister to protect the identity of his only son.
We find a cynical newspaper editor taking charge of his people, shuffling them to safety and then risking his own life to pull one of them out of the rubble when she stumbles.
A stubble-faced Air Force colonel lays down his life to save the people he swore an oath to protect. “A good death is its own reward.”
As the climactic scene unfolded, as Metropolis is left vulnerable to the whims of an overzealous alien warlord, I couldn’t help but think of the images that unfolded in front of all of us on September 11th, 2001. The smoke and ash clouded the sky, men and women innocently carrying on their regular lives were suddenly forced to run for their lives. And ordinary men and women ran into harm’s way and sacrificed themselves to save others.
The images are burned into our consciousness and hopefully into that of our children’s. “Never Forget” is more than just a slogan. It’s a reminder of what we are capable of. We can never forget that this happened. We can never forget the ultimate evil that humanity is capable of. We can never forget that we all have a choice. How many lives changed that day, in every country around the globe? We will never be the same. All of us shared that moment. For most, it was utter anguish. For others, those sinister people with venom inside their hearts, there was joy. Evil no longer needed a curtain to hide behind. It made a very public entrance. Yet, on that day that we witnessed unspeakable horror, we also saw unbelievable heroism. On that day, we saw the best and the worst of humanity.
We find humanity in the moments of greatest suffering, and we see heroes around us every day. They don’t wear capes. They look like us. They talk like us. They are us. We are all heroes. We are just waiting for that moment when circumstance challenges us. How will we respond? Will we cower in fear? Will we try and save ourselves? Or will we fight for what is right? There will come a moment. Every person, from a Wall Street banker to an alcoholic hobo, will have that moment. The only question is how will he respond? Heroes are not always made in warfare. Sometimes heroes are made in the smile of a child. A hero is made in the moments when one gives up a seat on a bus, when she digs through her pockets for change to give to a man down on his luck, when he stands up to a bully. We don’t need an “S” on our chest to be heroes. We don’t wear hope as an emblem on our uniforms; we carry it in our hearts. That has been the ultimate legacy of the Superman franchise. We don’t need an alien from Krypton to tell us how to be human or a hero. We are all heroes. If it takes a man in a red cape to show us that so be it. Superman is not humanity’s hero, we are. We have as much power as he does. It’s how we decide to use that power. We can build such beautiful things. We equally have the power to tear those things down. We see evil every day. Will we stand up to it? Will we say “what can I do?” Or will we strive to make this world a better place? We are stuck on this rock hurdling around the sun, all of us together. At the end of the day, we aren’t truly defined by our religion, or our nationality, or our ethnicity. We are, all of us, human. That we share, and we always will. Heroes are human, and we can all be one. The choice is always ours.