Superman and me: yesterday and today

Being a fan of Superman was easier as a kid than it is as an adult.

I've followed his adventures since I was a kid, and know how hard it is at times to be a fan.

I feel bad for Superman. I'm sorry, but I do. Not because he's the last son of Krypton and thus all alone; not because all of his friends and enemies on this planet seem incapable of recognizing him for who he really is, despite that his only real disguise is a nice tailored suit and a set of dark-rimmed glasses; and not because the current installation of his adventures, playing at a multiplex near you, is somewhat flat and listless, its nine-figure grosses notwithstanding.

I feel bad for him because, after having followed his adventures in one form or another since I was a kid, I know how hard it is at times to be his fan. Maybe it's not so tough if he's actually saved you from plunging into Niagara Falls through his super-speed, or stopped you from being smooshed by a falling girder through a judicious dose of his heat vision, but because I live in the real world, I suspect that such interventions will be highly unlikely, so I'll have to focus on Superman as a fictional character.

It's not always hard to be a fan, of course; when you're a little kid it's the easiest thing in the world. At a point in your life when you pretty much can't do anything – as adults will hasten to remind you, saying things like "Jeremy, you can't drive a car until you're older," or, "Jeremy, human beings can't see through walls, no matter how hard they look at them," – Superman can do absolutely anything and everything. (Actually, I've never seen Superman drive a car. But I bet he could.)

And the things he can do are of particular interest, it's fair to say, to little kids. For example: when was the last time you really wanted to set something on fire by just looking at it? Or really, really wished you could fly? Not "boy, wouldn't it be great if I got a surprise upgrade to business class" fly, or "maybe I can use my frequent flyer miles to score a surprise trip to see the family" fly, but just, you know, fly. Probably not as recently – and certainly not as devoutly - as any five-year-old boy you know.

Superman is also just plain good, and when you're still at an age when things come in lots of simple good and bad categories, he fits pretty easily into that sort of framework. Think about the movies – both the old Christopher Reeve ones and this one – where much is made of Superman never lying. When you're at an age when you're looking for moral absolutes to admire, Superman's way up there, up in the sky.

But things change; seasons pass, and tender youth gives way to bitter experience. The cute boy of five becomes the prickly adolescent of eleven, and all the things about Superman that were so admirable then become, well, a little grating. Everything is – or at least feels – much more complicated, and the simplicity of Superman's moral code seems a bit like kid stuff at a time when it's much harder to figure out right from wrong. And Superman himself? Polite, well-behaved, always getting along with the authorities? Not particularly cool, at a time when cool matters a lot; other heroes take center stage, ones that are a little more...rock and roll.

And speaking of rock and roll: though I'm not quite of the school, as some are, that everything in the world can be divided in terms of the two leading Beatles, it's pretty clear that Batman – the driven, angry, on the edge, darkly complex Batman – is John, and Superman – sunny, optimistic, harking-back-to-old-values Superman – is the Paul of the superhero family. And, when you're a teenage boy, everyone knows you become a John fan. So that sound you hear is the sound of teenage boys picking up Batman comics in droves.

And now, in adulthood? I'll be honest: even though it's been some time since I've been a teenager, I still find it kind of hard to really like Superman. But the Beatles comparison is still instructive, I think: even though, if pressed, I would have to admit to giving John the edge, I've realized again how beautiful Paul's melodies are, and how the images and ideals Paul creates in his finest songs – of simple love, of honest joy, of a country of friends and neighbors and good sentiments – is something worth wishing for. Batman (and John) tell us how dark and complex the world can be, and as readers, watchers, and listeners, we get the subtle pleasure of having our worst fears confirmed. But what about our best hopes? Where do we get them from?

One of the more interesting ideas in the new movie (although it's not handled as well as I would have liked) is that Lois Lane had written an article called "Does the World Need a Superman?". I don't know. But I do know the world needs more Superman fans – more people who can truly get behind someone who stands, simply and unironically, for truth and justice. I hope I'm one of them; that way I won't have to feel bad for Superman for much longer.

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