Are You There God, It’s Me Clark Kent
When I was a kid, I used to pray to God to give me superpowers. This is embarrassing to state on many levels. But if you can’t laugh at your own past, who can you laugh at? Let me be clear, though. I was very serious about it as a child. I’d like to say I was just a little boy when I did this, but the thought continued until I was twelve or thirteen. Now, in my defense, magically granted superpowers via God seemed like the smartest bet for a long time. I was too science minded as a child to think radiation exposure was an option. And I was pretty sure I hadn’t crash-landed in an alien spacecraft as a baby. So, logically, the best option was to petition the supposed creator of the universe to—you know—create a little more. Maybe it was part of His perfect plan!
Now, let’s avoid unpacking all the implications inherent in assuming that I, of all people, was the best choice for this. That’ll be between me and my therapist. I can assure you that I have learned I would be a terrible choice. But I do think a lot about why I wanted to be a superhero. There were the cool powers, of course. Also, that secret desire of shy people to be important, but in a way that is still guarded. And, of course, there was my insatiable need to problem solve—to be able to write or talk or think my way through the hurt and pain that paraded its way past me. So, yes, a lot of it was about me, me, me. However, the truth is, I just wanted to help fix things. I wanted to help end suffering. I wanted to make sure the bad guys didn’t get away with it. So, there was this honest core of it all that I thought of as purely altruistic.
I still want all those things. I don’t think I’m alone. Unless you’re one of those people profiting off of the death, suffering, and hate you probably want to end it as well.
Truth? Justice? Ha.
There’s been a lot of spilled ink about superhero movies, their place in our world, their dominance, and what all that means. I’m almost loathe to add to the pile. But it occurred to me that part of the appeal of superhero movies is that they present us a world where there is still justice and accountability when it feels more absent in our own by the day. I can’t tell you how many times in the last five or so years I have shaken my head and wondered where all the adults have gone. It feels chaotic. It feels like all the institutions I assumed would keep the vilest of us in check are utterly failing. It feels like we are living in the dystopia right now, it’s just the early stages.
What it amounts to is a feeling of powerlessness. That’s a dangerous place to be—in that feeling of powerlessness. It can break people—causing them to give in to despair or their own dark thoughts. It leaves them looking for someone to blame. The COVID pandemic has highlighted this point. People don’t like the feeling of how easy their mobility could be hindered. Especially when people are so ignorant about diseases and transmission and science in general. People just feel meaner and nastier out in the world. They feel impatient and less understanding—even in day-to-day ways. I had a car nearly run me over in a crosswalk on the way to a retail store. I’m not sure the driver cared if she hit me or not.
I try to be understanding of this frustration. I try to go out of my way to act nicer, tip more if I can, hold open doors for more people, let more people skip in front of me in line, etc. Of course, when that woman nearly drove over my foot, I slapped the side of her car so hard I bruised my thumb. So, you know… I’m a work in progress like everyone else. For me, this ever-increasing sense of powerlessness has caused me to ricochet between cynicism, nihilism, and optimism in head-spinning ways. Accepting that I can’t write or talk or think my way through all of this has been a hard lesson. A harder lesson has been understanding how little my approach to all of this has matured over the years.
I Need a Hero
If the popularity of superhero movies does represent our collective desire to see justice done in the world, why is there not more justice? Why isn’t there more accountability? I think it’s because too many people are like me. Holding out for a hero, as the song goes, instead of just becoming one. When I wanted God to make me a superhero, I settled on energy-based powers. I could change my shape (holographically) to anything I wanted. So, I’d have the body of a superhero that way. Out of shape me would be the perfect secret identity! Also, I could keep my body in energy form so I couldn’t be harmed in any way, only giving my hands physical form when something needed punched or lifted. In a nutshell, not only did I want to be a superhero, but I wanted there to be absolutely no way for me to be physically harmed. You see, I wanted to help but I wanted it easy.
There are people who see the suffering in the world, and they get to work. They dedicate their lives and careers to help. Often without reward or even adequate pay. The appeal of the superhero is that they can swoop in and make a massive difference* and then be on their way to the next crisis. It’s so much more fun to see Iron Man fix everything with a single self-sacrificing finger snap than think about what’s required for change in our world. Because real change requires hard work and time. It’s messy, and sometimes even bloody. It’s rarely ever safe—whether emotionally or physically. There is no head monster to destroy, instantly de-activating all its minions. It requires you to realize that you, in fact, are the adult now. That’s a scary thought, but also a powerful one.
The future will depend on how each of us chooses to use that power.
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*Note: I don’t want to be reductive when it comes to superhero movies/stories in general. There are many such stories where the lines aren’t that clear. But it’s still the general sweep of them all and, I believe, still a huge part of the appeal.