Thursday, July 06, 2006

Review: Superman and the Mythology of the American Hero

For the July 4th weekend I decided to see a prototypically American film: Superman. I didn't watch the new one but the older one with Christopher Reeve. This film, and the mythology underlying it, exhibit two related facets of American culture: secularist values and a uniquely American faith in law and order.

When Friedrich Nietzsche famously proclaimed, "God is dead," he saw nihilism triumphing over all of Western culture and decadence ensuing. As the Western world became secularized a vacuum needed to be filled. Some turned to esoteric societies like the Order of the Golden Dawn, others tried to revive religion with fundamentalism, and some turned to Superman.

In the film Superman's mythology follows the broad outlines of ancient hero stories in various religions. He has a somewhat "miraculous" birth by being born on another planet. Like Moses he is allowed to drift away to be adopted by other parents to guide and protect him. He even has a period in his Fortress of Solitude where he learns about his powers and uniqueness. In a parallel fashion Jesus disappeared right before his ministry and Buddha had a period in the wilderness where he strove to find the "truth."

The makers of this film made this into an American hero story. He grows up in a town called Smallville which looks like it lies somewhere in the American Midwest. By the look of the students and the cars he seems to be in an idealized, Norman Rockwell-type of Fifties America. And when he gets to the big city, Metropolis, he is in an idealized New York City.

There are other ways Superman's story is uniquely American. He responds to Lois Lane that he fights for "truth, justice, and the American way." By "truth" he doesn't mean it in the dharma sense or as in philosophic truth, but more like the myth that George Washington never told a lie. And Superman's resolution of problems is not at all spiritual but a matter for the authorities to ultimately resolve. (He rounds up the criminals and sends them to jail). It is almost as if Superman is an ultra-cop.

The film does a good job of summing all this up into something very enjoyable. Without the use of computers they have very good effects--even for today's standards. And by focusing on the mythology and a ready-made story there's not much need to worry about the acting (even though there are some very good actors in here) or the script. The filmmakers relied on the look of the film and the actors and how well the story can be carried along by the mythology. It is a well made piece of American pop culture.

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