When I was six, I believed a man could fly. I believed I was that man.
Standing on that windowsill in my hospital room, looking out over the grassy areas far down below, I surveyed the wide world before me and wondered how hard it would be to find my house from the air. Not that hard, I reasoned.
After all, I was Batman. And Batman could fly.
While my grasp on physics remained lamentably weak, it was inspiration from Batman and his pal Superman that powered me onto that windowsill. I get the feeling there won’t be much of that sort of inspiration in too many young children after the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This movie features a world that hates Superman and an angry Batman who vows to bring down the horrible alien powerhouse. I don’t see a lot of hope there, nor anything to inspire a child to believe he could fly.
That day, I was as certain of the simple, indisputable fact that Batman could fly as I was that Santa Claus needed my help. I leaned forward, over the sidewalk four floors below, and prepared to fly.
Dimly heard screaming and thumping exploded behind me, but I wasn’t worried. I’d been hearing stuff like that ever since I’d come into the hospital with fever and inflamed tonsils.
When Nurses Go Wild
The nurse rampaged across the room, slammed into the railing beside me at exactly the same instant she wrapped her beefy left arm around my waist and pulled my six-year-old self back inside the hospital room.
She threw herself away from the balcony, landing hard on her back. I bounced off her ample stomach and rolled across the floor. I quickly tangled in the Batman cape my grandmother had made for me. I glared at the nurse, angry she’d stopped me. Now who would help Santa?
Not me. The nurse made sure of that when she tossed me into the bed and raised those stupid rails on the sides.
“Stay,” she growled, her finger pointing shakily at me. She closed and locked the window and drug away the chair I’d used to climb into the window. Tired, I closed my eyes to the serenade of the nurse screaming at my parents.
I stretched out on the mattress, smiling. So close. I’d get it next time.
Learning To Fly
I never did learn to fly, but that was not for lack of thought and wishing. Not as much leaping out open fourth-floor windows, so my parents were happy about it. I was a true believer. Comic books were to showcase everything I wanted to be.There was nothing I wanted more than to be a super hero. I settled for reading about them.
These four-color wonders stoked a fire deep inside me, reminding me that heroes did the right thing and acted heroic. More importantly, I learned anybody could become a hero. Surviving my stint in the hospital with those oh-so-tempting launch windows wasn’t easy, but I finally was convinced by my mother that it was Superman who could fly, not Batman. She showed me comic books that proved it. If it was in the comic, then it had to be true.
At times, it felt like I was the only one in the world to even come close to thinking that. When I grew up, we didn’t have fan communities or ways to talk to anyone that didn’t include a string and two cups. Or possibly dinosaur mail. That didn’t really matter, though, because what was inside the covers of each comic book was worth having to live in the boring real world. Comics, then, made a huge impact on how I lived my life. I grew up certain the subterranean Mole People would invade any day now and wondering why I never developed spider powers despite getting, like, twenty bites.
Comic book stories aren’t only about violence. Often times, they play out across the page as modern morality tales. They weren’t always the most complex of moral codes, but they were codes that I, as a young kid, could understand and emulate. For years now, my wife has said that even though I’m not religious in the slightest, I’m the most ethical and moral person she’s ever met. I smile humbly, shuffle my feet a bit and demur about taking all the credit.
Doing the right thing is a bit easier when Superman rides around in your head, personality almost fully formed from decades of reading about him. I know his fictional self so well, he acts as my own conscience. I’m quite glad he’s no top-hat-wearing cricket. Though I can’t say the outside-underwear thing is all that appealing.
The idea this fictional Superman represents used to be so amazingly powerful, it inspired entire generations, even if they didn’t know it. I mean, think about the inspiration to be good when you read about a being who could do anything and chose only to do good. Simply because it’s the right thing to do.
When written well, Superman is capable not only of the most amazing feats of strength, but feats of emotional power. This powerful man is there to help, but not to lead. He is there to offer assistance, but not to take over. In many ways, the way I think of Superman as an individual is the way I wish the United States could be on an international level.
Heck, he’s so amazing, even killer robots from deepest space bent on world conquest admire Superman.
It’s not easy to live up to that example. The thing is, Superman is about the trying. So many of the parts of myself I consider to be essential and essentially good I can trace back to lessons from comic books. The never-quit attitude of Peter Parker and his alter ego, Spider-Man drove me back to graduate school. Acceptance of those different from me comes from the X-Men. Always looking for the truth comes from Batman. Capt. America taught me it’s okay to be corny when you believe in something.
I worry, though, that the folks behind Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice might have learned the wrong lessons from these once-inspirational heroes.
In the movie, the people of Earth are afraid of Superman (after the damage and deaths from the Man of Steel film, all of which can be traced directly back to Superman’s presence on Earth) and he ends up fighting against Batman. I understand that, to many, the idea of a Superman hated by the world is more realistic. I wonder, though. . . Do they realize they’re complaining about realism in a movie about a man who can fly, another man who dresses up as a bat, a super-powered woman who comes from an advanced, hidden civilization, a cyborg and a human living under water?
I understand that emotional realism is what allows us to accept these fantastical elements in the movie world. I only think it’s possible to achieve emotional realism with a main character who actually inspires hope rather than fear. The problem is, I don’t think the writer and director behind this new slate of movies based on DC Comics characters really understand that. Even glossing over the idea that a man who famously does not kill, ends the first movie killing someone, these men don’t get it.
When everyone on Earth would have been demonstrably better off had baby Kal El explosively decompressed somewhere beyond the orbit of Neptune, I think the filmmakers substantially misinterpreted their main character. I and many others left the theater after the Man of Steel movie depressed and tired. I ask myself if I really want to get my hopes up and then have them dashed by an overly violent and cynical movie. I really don’t think the answer is yes.
If given a choice, which would I rather have? Leave a movie theater depressed, cynical and ready to hide while the world becomes worse and worse? Or leave the theater uplifted, grateful and wanting to make the world better?
I know which one I would choose.
But, then, I believed a man could fly.