NOTE: As the blockbuster movie season continues with Wonder Woman drawing millions to IMAX 3D screenings, I’m revisiting “Deus ex Superman,” an essay I wrote in June 2013.
In 1817, Samuel Taylor Coleridge told us how to really enjoy summer blockbusters about robots, transformers, aliens, and super heroes.
As every fastidious English major knows, Coleridge suggested a “willing suspension of disbelief.” He meant the act of will that enables us to believe the unbelievable in fiction, film, Fox News, and professional wrestling.
It’s that willingness that makes the ridiculous sublime. Sure, we know Mary Martin and the Flying Nun didn’t really take wing, and there are no vampires sustained by True Blood extract. But it’s fun to pretend, and it’s good exercise for the left side of our brains to briefly embrace what cannot be. When Alice tells the Mad Hatter she sometimes believes six impossible things before breakfast, she is at the height of her mental health.
Vivid imaginations and active fantasies can be good for you, and millions of moviegoers will emerge from 3D IMAX viewings of super heroes as happier, healthier persons because of their 144-minute break from reality.
Superman, for example, is an unambiguously messianic character (see my 1979 commentary about that here), and Wonder Woman is herself an actual goddess.
Most of us nerds know Superman was created in 1938 by Jerry Siegal and Joe Schuster, nice Jewish boys from Cleveland. The creation of Wonder Woman is less straight-forward, according to historian Jill LePore, whose Secret History of Wonder Woman is summarized in this tantalizing paragraph in the New York Times:
On the other hand, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is fundamentally a biography of Wonder Woman’s larger-than-life and vaguely creepy male creator, William Moulton Marston (1893-1947). He was a Harvard graduate, a feminist and a psychologist who invented the lie detector test. He was also a huckster, a polyamorist (one and sometimes two other women lived with him and his wife), a serial liar and a bondage super-enthusiast.The current cinematic incarnation of Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot, is as leggy and sexy as her comic book counterpart, although unlike the cartoon WW she does not submit to frequent bouts of bondage that tantalized young comic book readers and appalled critics.
It’s fun to willfully suspend our belief and enjoy the Wonder Woman ride. (It helps to suspend what we know of Gal Gadot herself, an Israeli whose views on Palestinian rights border on apartheid.) But stark reality awaits movie-goers outside the theater doors and the reality we suspended crashes down on us. When the show is over, we’re thrust abruptly back to real life. What do we do with the fantasies that were so exhilarating?
When we are children, we are far less concerned about separating fantasy from reality.
My experience with Superman dates back to early childhood when I believed everything I saw. I never doubted that television showed real stuff.
One day in 1952 I happened to be sitting alone in front of my family’s 12-inch black and white Admiral TV. I tuned-in mid-way through a show that seemed to be a cops and robbers drama because there were people sitting behind long steel bars in a jail. Suddenly a man dressed in skin-tight pajamas with a long dark towel trailing behind his neck jumped into the scene and pulled the bars apart so the people could escape.
That I remember this scene so vividly after 65 years shows what an impact it had on me. I was stunned and ran to tell my father about it: “And there was this really strong guy, and he bended open the jail bars, and he ran away …” If I had stayed in front of the TV long enough to see him jump out a window and fly away, I would have probably wet my pants.
What I was watching, of course, was The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves.
Looking back, I realize how lucky I was to view this scene at a time when I couldn’t tell the difference between fact and fiction, when the most mundane things were mystic and magical. I didn’t have to willingly suspend my disbelief because it was perpetually suspended. The long years that followed have been, as they are for us all, harsh reality baths that convert us from starry-eyed children to jaded adults. But how wonderful it is to be able to remember how we viewed the world when it was enchanting and new.
My most vivid childhood memories, in fact, are of those times when I struggled to tell the difference between what was real and what was pretend.
The Sunday school of the small-town Protestant church I attended was a perfect laboratory for this struggle. In post-World War II America, my teachers spoke admiringly of Jesus and General Douglas MacArthur, often using the same words in the same sentence. At 4 or 5 years of age, I had difficulty deciding if Jesus and MacArthur were different people and at one point theorized that Jesus sometimes wore dark glasses and smoked a pipe.
My working image of Jesus, of course, was Salman’s Head of Christ. When Pastor Bergner said in a sermon that Jesus was coming back, I envisioned Salman’s long-haired Jesus dressed in a tailored black suit, sitting expressionless behind the pastor waiting to be introduced to the congregation.
When I asked Mrs. Dutton how Jesus died, she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “He died on a cross of nails.” I don’t know why she put it quite that way, but I immediately imagined Salman’s Jesus in his white robe, laying on hundreds of nails hammered into a large white X that looked like a Yogi’s bed.
Eventually I developed a more traditional Christology, but all of these images remain in my head.
I did not, I should make clear, think of Superman as a Jesus-like figure sent by his loving father into the world to champion good people and fight evil.
Even so, there was something thrilling and enchanted about the Man of Steel as George Reeves portrayed him in the 1950s.
And the Action Comics that brought Superman’s and Wonder Woman’s adventures to newsstands provided a tangible religious experience for me as a would-be cartoonist. In my lonely teen years, I spent hours in my room, drawing and re-drawing Superman. I conscientiously copied the work of artists Wayne Boring and Kurt Swan who set the standard for Superman iconography. To me, these guys were no mere cartoonists but artists whose depiction of the human form in action provided free lessons as I traced them with my nubby pencils and broken crayons.
Of course it is also true that Superman taught moral lessons. He set high standards of conduct, brought evildoers to justice, and never abused his super powers for selfish reasons.
Too, he was always available to persons in need, cruising cityscapes and villages to save people not only from criminals but also from fires, floods, earthquakes, and airplane malfunctions. He was a deus ex machina – a God in the Machine – who swooped into dramas at the last minute to rescue people from certain injury or death.
This is what makes Superman and Wonder Woman messianic figures. a messianic figure. In our dark and confusing reality, we yearn for messiahs in blue tights or bangled bustiers to burst through our gloom to save the day.
That will require a willing suspension of our disbelief that the whole idea of Superman is absurd and was made up by a couple of cartoonists from Cleveland in 1933. And Wonder Woman is the scion of a bondage-loving polygamist who advocated women’s rights.
But that willing suspension can provide both a healthy respite from the realities of life and an opportunity to open our minds to hidden realities that are not dreamt of fun our philosophies.
For 80 years, Superman has been a morality tale that points us in the direction of greater truths.
Beneath all the legends, special effects and imaginary scenarios, there is an actual loving father who sent his beloved son to earth to rescue us from evil and death.
That son, Jesus, is the original Superman.
And one way to comprehend the real messiah is through a day at the movies that renews our childlike imagination and childlike faith.
That imagination and faith are the most powerful gifts we have because they exceed the capacity of any cartoonist or film maker to open our hearts and minds to the ultimate reality: the loving God.