I was born in 1950. It was a time when Spencer Tracy, Kirk Douglas, Bert Lancaster were on the rise in their careers. Human icons most young fellas looked up to. Cinema was the great cultural phenomenon at that time and the actors became huge.
At that time too, Marvel’s comic book superheroes were very popular in the pictorial cartoon books and magazines. Like any media one read them and loved them through the suspension of belief. It was escapism at its best – a kind of momentary flight, giving a short-term emotional gratification. But it was more than that.
The heroes were super – they had morals, they cared about other people; they helped others. I think they were good role models for any young person, because they created a kind of moral instruction shaping my view of good and bad. Be the magnanimous, kind victor and fight evil wherever you find it.
I can recall the first episode of Dr Who, which on the back of Quatermass and Day of the Triffids (both of which I was banned from watching) became the captor of my imagination in those days. I had learned from Superman that one can enjoy stories based on impossibilities as long as one abandoned reality and one could at times, escape into fantasy to get away from the realities of humdrum studying.
I remember reading Ian Fleming’s Dr No (mainly by torchlight late at night under the covers) when I was 13. I became James Bond in those days. Maybe it was the attraction of a secret life and the power that could bring.
The next leap forward in my fantasy psyche was Star Trek. As a young medical student, I never missed an episode on Wednesdays at 6pm. Nor did the other students in my flat or my girlfriend’s house. Star Trek is interesting because it depicts a very attractive environment – multi-cultural egalitarianism not based on money or the American dream, but on fairness and strict moral codes. None of the characters stabbed people in back streets for gang-related transgressions or stole money.
My Walter Mittie side remained fixed in those days. Little progress came cinematically but looking back now, Superman had moved from comic book to TV and then blockbuster movies. the world was gradually changing and advancing technology meant I could be lazy – relying on a producer or director’s imagination for the escape gratification I seemed to want so much.
The movie Star Wars was pivotal. Looking back now, I realise I was being suckered in, duped. Those stories – landmark epics – were written in the typical myth structure. The hero is ordinary with a hidden exceptional skill. He refuses the quest but is dragged into it by the antagonist. He then travels the dark forest with rising tension and then triumphs over the evil that almost engulfed him. Once you realise that, it all becomes a bit predictable, but what doesn’t go away is the desperate wish for good to triumph over evil and to witness that, even though you cannot participate.
Looking at upcoming films (in an article recently about forthcoming ‘films you just have to watch in 2019’) about 20% of them are Marvel comic book heroes brought to life on the big screen. The baddies are really bad, and the goodies cannot be harmed, except in an emotional way. I think that is the key. Emotional manipulation to let us feel what the hero might feel – forcing us into a kind of apathetic empathy and a desire for our hero to win. I don’t believe you can love a film like Rogue One without feeling that the spirit of good must triumph over evil in the end even if that triumph means they die but give us hope.
I think hope is what we all need in the present world. A desperate desire for things to get better for everyone – all races and colours – from pygmies in Africa to Palestinians in the Middle East.
We need these super heroes if only to teach us to admire their morals and magnanimity. Looking at the world we live in and are gradually destroying, breath by breath, where is Superman? Why can’t he be real?
Truth is we don’t need a Superman, just his image and code of life. Be there for others. Nietzsche felt we all have a superman within us (ok, not the American one, but a superman nonetheless) and we have a duty to release him - stand up for those less fortunate than ourselves and above all, be kind.
So, have a great Christmas and enjoy being a superhero, because the world really does need you!