December 21, 2014

Reflections on Superman and Mickey Mouse

I was reading a film review by actor James Franco of the new Superman movie, which I saw at the midnight premier right before I hopped on the flight out to California for the weekend.  My family wanted to go, and I’ve always like Henry Cavill’s work since the adaptation of the seminal work of Alexander Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo, so I thought it would be fun.  When we were in the theater, the talk turned to the actual character of Superman. 

Basically, what Franco says almost perfectly encapsulates what the group of late-20’s to early-30’s people were saying as we debated the origin of the comics.  He gets straight to the heart of it:

I missed the whole Superman-film phenomenon. I was more a fan of director Richard Donner’s Goonies and Lethal Weapon. I can understand the appeal the original Superman comics had for the WWII generation and its need for a hero to rid the world of evil, but in my days as a young man, this appeal was long outstripped by the cheesiness of the character’s suit and his douchey invincibility.

There it is.  That’s it; the ethos of the zeitgeist.  The character of Superman seems hokey, like the sort of thing that had appeal to a naïf, completely ignorant of the realities of the world with childhood delusions of god-like power; a cultural symbol that spoke to generations for whom America did no wrong, the government was always looking out for you, life was black and white, and a man coming down in tights and a cape – a ridiculous getup on its own but one that would make the aerodynamics of flying far more difficult as well as encumbering rapid movements – seemed awe-inspiring.  It’s the same, worn tiredness of post-Depression-era relics that are empty shells as the ability to connect with the most primitive part of the brain is lost.

It doesn’t resonate.  It’s like a dead religion that’s lost its power to inspire; hymns to Zeus that no longer elevate the soul.

Superman Man of Steel Henry Cavill

Today, you have billions of people who have been exposed to far more basic science and, for good or bad, the nuanced nature of the world.  The X-Men film franchise did a very good job illustrating this.  Despite having many of the same powers Superman did, and in some cases, exceeding them, it permitted the suspension of belief because the premise was based upon human evolution; the moral decisions not entirely clear.  Was Magneto actually evil?  While he sometimes did evil things, no.  He wasn’t.  Having lived through the concentration camps of World War II, he would never again be part of a minority numbered, counted, imprisoned, and executed; even if that meant he had to kill to protect his own kind.  You could empathize with the characters.  You could understand the actions of frightened parents who were harming their children even though they were acting out of love.

The recent film installment of Superman did mitigate some of those problems; namely, the villain is not actually malevolent despite wanting to murder 7 billion people.  Rather, by not completing the genocide, he is knowingly condemning his own planet to death, therefore it is a matter of which life is more valuable, entering the territory of moral ambiguity under the harm principle.  That was refreshing.  It faltered in other ways; namely, an over-reliance upon special effects and an attempt to reveal the soul of Superman while failing to form emotional connections that made the journey seem meaningful, though this seemed almost entirely the fault of the screenplay and director rather than the cast.

The question I am trying to figure out, then, especially in light of all the Disney case studies I have been doing lately: What is it that can make a 65 year old break down into tears of joy at watching Mickey Mouse put on a magical hat and direct dancing brooms as shooting stars go overhead, but roll her eyes at Superman? 

Something in there explains a lot about humanity. 

It explains a lot about our values. 

It explains a lot about our psychology. 

It even explains a lot about why some businesses, and intellectual property, do very well over time while others are only relevant for a short window, at specific inflection points in a culture. 

Is it that Mickey doesn’t take himself seriously?  That he is winking with us?  That he’s out there, smiling, say, “Let’s go have an adventure” so that the audience member is in on the joke?

Is it that our culture has grown so wise, so educated, and so experienced relative to the past that we can no longer tolerate the doe-eyed innocence upon which Superman’s adoration depends?  When Superman was introduced, flying in an airplane was a fantasy for most of the world’s population.  Are we jaded by advances and technology?

There is something huge here.  If I can figure out the reason one symbol resonates so deeply, and so profoundly, on a universal level across all age groups and cultures, while the other borders on delusions of grandeur and irrelevance, a ghost of generations now in the ground, it will be a valuable insight. 

This is what is on my desk, and my mind, this afternoon.

  • FratMan

    I think the promise of Superman is greater than the promise of Mickey Mouse, and hence, the disillusionment. Superman pretty much promises to save the day. When my grandma was my age, she would actually sit by the radio and listen to FDR’s fireside chats, believing he would play the hero and make all well. She, in her heart of hearts, saw FDR as a paternalistic figure that would fix everything. If we had 9/11 part two tomorrow, do you really think I’d be glued to the television thinking Obama is going to save me? No, I’d be sitting in a chair, thinking, “We’re gonna lose some more freedoms, one way or another.” Maybe that’s too anecdotal and has too many variables, but I think Superman promises more than he can deliver, and our subconscious knowledge of that fact leads to disillusionment.

    The promise of Mickey Mouse is much more subtle and achievable. He’s just going to show us a good time and shake the blues away. I don’t expect him to conquer the world and save the day. I expect him to be smiling, happy, and dancing. The expectations for Mickey are much lower, and he is able to deliver on the promise of a good time, and perhaps that satisfies our subconscious in a way that Superman does not.

    Just some errant thoughts.

    • Lovelogic

      I agree with Fratman!
      Joshua, I really enjoyed your description of a solid relationship in the article
      welcoming another Kennon. I sent it to my new wife. Thanks for making my day, as usual!

  • http://ianhfrancis.blogspot.com/ Ian Francis

    I just think it is because Superman is boring. He has no real conflict. And the conflict he does have doesn’t relate. I have never thought “I wonder how Superman is going to get out of this one.” He is going to fly at hypersonic speeds, or go into space, or just stand there, impervious to bullets, missiles, or lasers. Who cares then? A good story has a protagonist, who has to deal with some sort of conflict, grows to become a better person, and wins out. That basic story arc doesn’t exist in Superman. They try to create conflict by introducing villains who usually have the same ultra-powers Superman does, which just doesn’t relate to people.

    Superman really reminds me of a comic I found hilarious in high-school, God-Man. These are hilarious. It is just like Superman, but in a more comical fashion. http://web.archive.org/web/20070808050826/http://www.salon.com/comics/comics4961223.html

  • Kurt

    I realize I’m commenting on an older article, but I really just found out you existed and I’m loving all of the distillations of investing advice.

    Anyway, here is the answer to the whole thing. Mickey is magic. Superman is science.

    Mickey, Harry Potter, or whatever wizard from fiction can do ANYTHING if he sits in a magical library and reads enough books. But it wills suspension of disbelief because, magic can do anything, only governed by whatever rules are in place by the fictional universe.

    Superman is science-fiction. An entirely different genre governed by rules a lot closer to reality. This rubs a lot of people wrong when he starts defying gravity and bending steel.

    Look at your own descriptions when you explain Superman, “the aerodynamics of flying”. Mickey is animating dead tree matter and there isn’t a mention that if he can move things by just waving his hand, why doesn’t he move the dirt directly. Science and magic.

    This might also be relevant reading:
    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ClarkesLawForGirlsToys

    I also think the Superman franchise isn’t really well handled. I had a great deal of joy reading some of those stories growing up. Now he is portrayed as an angry, benignly impotent force getting pushed around and held back because of his values. Hmmm… maybe he is America after all!

    Anyway just something to think about.

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