Metropolis. A group of walking citizens suddenly stops on the street and stares hopefully toward the heavens.
“It’s a bird,” one begins, like the first one to stand at a sporting event.
“It’s a plane,” two say simultaneously, responding to the cue, raising their arms high to point at the sky.
But the wave does not take; the prospect of the glee of the mob has been dashed against the rocks, stillborn.
“Fucking Mr. Majestic,” one mutters as they walk away, but it could just as easily have been Supreme.
You see, this is Metropolis. We are in the house that Clark built. And there are those of us who remember the glory days when that red cape and stylized “S” sailed through the air, out to stop some evil enslaver from outer space or perhaps to pull our beloved cats from trees. You see, those of us who have lived in this shiny city of super-heroes since those days past all remember some time when we encountered that god who sailed down from the skies before us and smiled warmly as we dwarfed in his presence. We remember Superman.
But we don’t see much of him these days.
In the late 1930s, Superman invented a genre — or canonized it, as super-powered beings had been favorites of our species for millennia. There were, of course, the pulps from which Siegel and Shuster, those two Jewish boys during the Great Depression, drew the most direct influence. And there were the films, the serials, with horrible tales of powerful monsters, demons of the dark, of science and humanity gone awry. Before them, we had Martian invasions, literary beasts who stalked London and skulked in Gothic palisades. They too had their ancestors on this family tree of wonders, once sacred and deified but now horrible and profane: in the Middle Ages, these two branches mixed as tales of saints and their miracles, of the Flying Friar and the incorruptibles, existing simultaneously with folk tales of monsters (whose descendants would populate modern nightmares and horror films), grim tales of witches and werewolves, whispered to children to scare them into parental obedience and sexual repression. In even earlier eras, the miracles were less about transforming water to wine for a marriage ceremony, or of dying to metaphysically change the world, and more about heroes made invulnerable save their foot, of efforts so gargantuan that their achievers’ names have passed into common usage as adjectives Herculean. Then too were there oracles, furies, and witches feared for their ferocity, but in a different age with different ways of constructing meaning, the tone was more directly victorious than the dark piercing of a man-god’s side. There were beasts crouching in the shadows hungry for human blood. Oh, Superman had a rich and long family tree indeed, one we have yet today to barely rediscover. But for us, it was that stylized “S” of red, that new universalism, that classical freedom, constrained enough by 20th-century morality so as to inspire rather than to scare by plenty.
He went through changes. In the 1940s he was a vigilante of heavy steel, bounding powerfully over ruptured dams, smashing saboteurs, nationalistic, melancholy in love but inspiring in the image and in disembodied voice. There were the bad years, the years of inherited momentum, of transition, of black-and-white television growing old and stale. When the actor shot himself, the white hairs, the creeping wrinkles, the sagging fat of middle age too much to bear for a man cast from a deity, it was not so much a suicide as an exorcism. The icon, you see, had to shed its skin, to rid by bleeding the weighty blood of World War II, of post-war nuclear anxiety and demonstrations of domestic bliss applied like make-up over the heaviness of Soviet and Korean and American killing fields. Out of this shedding gradually came a new esprit, light as a feather, one of unaided flight, as easy and minimalist as Pop Art but as unendingly various as jazz.
In 1960, he hovered, his nationalism easy, his unrequited love more humorous, his life a game, a comedy inspiring to joy and wonder rather than the steeled nerves of his past incarnation. Here, weightless, was the thin body of a god, his might infinite but never visible. It was a time of grace, of imagination, of wonder, as fleet as the ideas of a child at play among mirror selves and bottled cities. And he had accompaniment in this airy symphony, a girl as light as him, their pets, a child self at play with magic and devices so thoughtlessly possible that they felt the same. It was a pantheon of light, of bizarre inconsequence casting cultural shadows equally interesting.
In the 1970s came the move away from such things, from the freeform to the harsh reality, and those shadows beneath the dance of weightless light and wonder seemed to harbor grubs, worms, poisons, problems. It was the riots, the Black Panthers, the ever-more-visible disaster that was Vietnam, the time when drugs became a social scourge, acculturation impossible, when a President resigned in disgrace and the economy took a nosedive without a hero to grab it effortlessly by the wings and carry it once more into the light. It was a world of terrorism, of Reagan, of Thatcher, of economic practicality and war, war, war: on drugs, on terrorism, on ideas. And so the god of ideas, unbounded, became increasingly real, increasingly manifest, manacled to the world, updated for the times, rendered less imaginary, more concrete, revised for believability — as if one cannot believe in ghosts or gods, as if stories, transparently so, have not power, as if dreams of flight, of freedom, or of rape, of death, were not themselves real. By the middle of the 1980s, the efforts to bind our god to our ground and make his stories cohere as one single, “realistic” narrative being ever hampered by the past, irreconcilable, they killed that past, those stories, and in doing so mistook them for having happened, for history in need of reconciliation. The stories grew longer and longer, an Iliad or an Odyssey almost every one, and all these epics, episodic or not, with even those few short legends and tales, combining into one greater epic whole, an epic cycle that needed policing for continuity errors, lest our god in scene 192 be wearing a tie found absent in scene 193, or holding a cup in his left hand in scene 438 and in his right in 441, no explanation offered. But gods do not lend themselves to single stories, nor to any one man’s dreaming.
There was, it should be said, those other tales shot on celluloid, not expected to cohere with fifty years of lore. The first was a glory, a weightless man of power hidden as he had been of yore, yet bound to this world and to tales of it, to story restricted by itself, as we have come to expect it. His world was one of a device or two, of science fiction wonders placed, magically, in the real, a mélange of 1960s light imagination and 1980 physicality, appropriate to the medium. The billboards proclaimed “you will believe a man can fly,” and we did — we did both believe, in a way with which that silver effervescence had never been concerned, and wonder at this easy flight amidst the clouds, with the woman he loved, as the music reeled our minds and made them dream. The second film, though less in grace, kept that sense of wonder, though more for its villains, for its wondrous stakes, than for our god and his human mate. After this, things declined apace, but there are some things of which are best not spoken, the memory prison enough.
And now, having commenced a new millennium, this 20th-century deity eclipsed by video games and films of lesser gods, the pulpy visual fictions in which he found birth holding him still but lower than newer generations of sons, we wonder. We wonder why our god is known yet no longer read save by the most devout. We wonder why those demigods born in his Metropolis, the city of marvels, long given to the shadows of jungles like Rome centuries after the fall, the city for which he drove the first foundation of its rebirth, now host to new families of sainted wonders, have altars larger and more visited than his own?
It is a puzzlement, yet we can only blame the custodians of his cult as tales that yesterday would have been cast for him are cast for minor gods themselves cast in his resemblance. Their tales are not so bound by history; in them, we can tell new legends as we see fit, unburdened by the demand of the real, craft new narratives of singular vision, tales the length one man might tell but no more. The best Superman stories no longer star Superman, while his cult languishes, continuing its sacred project of the master epic of his life complete, week after week, month after month, laboring on, inaccessible to all but the initiate.
They even made him a resurrection deity, letting him sleep inconnu for three months as Christ slept three days, but still were are unaroused, his Babylonian captivity having recommenced, its style of government hardly altered.
And so we look up, hoping to see him there in all his glory.
There are glimpses, painted stories not meant to cohere with the canon, or of which the priests who guard the canon seem unconcerned.
These days we seem more inspired by newer capes, stranger gods who do not bear the weight of such a history, and who fly freer for it.
And still we crave their progenitor, who changed so much and still might do so.
A god cannot be so bound and live, cannot have his tales cohere so much, cannot have his life all sexless so that his image is as welcome in the marketplace and amongst the moneylenders.
For in his absence, in his captivity, we are busy forming new gods. They may not be so iconic; his history is priceless and not for sale. But we may yet create another god of his mold, guard him more carefully by not holding so tightly, and in time our new god may slay his father and inaugurate a new Olympus.