The other day a rare opportunity arose – I had the chance to go see a movie. I had just dropped off my wife and young son at the airport to go to Canada for a couple of weeks to visit relatives (I was headed off to Shanghai to teach a summer school the next day), and I realized that my Friday evening was completely free. It didn’t take me long to figure out what to do. While I love being the parent of a two-year-old (really, it’s great!), one of the drawbacks is the lack of free time. Even after my son goes to bed, I usually lack the energy to make the trek into town and do something. And one of the pastimes I miss the most is going to the movies. This being the case, the only decision for me that Friday night was which film to see.
After much humming and hawing I opted for Man of Steel. In the end it wasn’t a difficult decision. The first movie experience I remember was going with my parents to see Superman I, with Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder as Clark and Lois, at a drive-in theater in northern Alberta. Although I was only 4 or 5 years old, I vividly remember both the anticipation and most of the event (I fell asleep after the helicopter scene – you can’t start a drive-in in northern Alberta until about 10:30 pm in the summer because of the long days). I was so excited. Superman! Staying up late! Popcorn! Actually, the popcorn was a bit of a let-down. My mother had made a big deal about how good cinema popcorn was and then ended up popping corn herself and bringing it with us in big ice cream tubs. I think I might have had a minor tantrum about that.
I might have fell asleep half-way through the film, but I kept returning to Superman throughout my childhood via VCR recordings of the original and the sequels, especially the third with Richard Pryor as a computer genius. Maybe it was my childhood naiveté – I haven’t seen any of them for years - but I loved those films. Sure they were a bit camp, and the time-travelling solution to the first film was probably the goofiest thing the screenwriter could have thought up, but they were also funny, charming, exciting, and captivating, full of eccentric villains and protagonists you really felt for. On another level, they were also a window on the late 1970s and 1980s, highlighting the era’s fears and frustrations, but also the excitement of the time. As someone who was growing up at the time, they were perfect.
Alas, I don’t think Man of Steel provides much comment on today, or anything else. Much of the story line is essentially a rip-off of Superman II (admittedly, I haven’t seen Superman II since 1984, but it felt pretty darned familiar), there is too much senseless crashing, smashing, and banging into things at the expense of characterization, and worst of all, the acting is about as engaging as 3-day-old porridge. I think I got more emotional sending my son off to Canada for 2 weeks with his grandparents than Russell Crowe did sending his infant son Kal-El to an uncertain fate on planet Earth. Henry Cavil certainly looks the part of Superman, but Chris Reeve, he is not. And as much as I normally like Amy Adams, Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane would’ve wisecracked her back to the mail room in no time at all.
Suffice it to say, I left the cinema a wee bit disappointed. But that’s not to say that I didn’t get anything out of Man of Steel. What struck me most about the film was Clark Kent’s struggle with essentially being the perfect man, which paralleled the planet Krypton’s attempt to build the perfect society through genetic engineering. One of his struggles has to do with being different, of course, but underlying this is a sense of uneasiness about perfection and what this actually means. For as amazing as Clark is, having super senses and being stronger, faster, and in one of the film’s only funny bits, apparently a better lover than anyone else on Earth, he isn’t perfect. He still wrestles with the basics: making difficult decisions, forming and maintaining relationships, determining right from wrong, dealing with the past, even his own discomfort with being invincible. Whereas the imperfections of other superheroes, like Batman the Incredible Hulk, and Wolverine, are worn on the sleeve of their spandex jumpsuit (or in the case of Hulk, his tattered clothing), Superman’s shortcomings are more subtle, but no less challenging.
So why am I writing this in a blog on the history of mental health? Well, thinking about Superman made me think about the history of psychiatric drugs and the 70-year quest to find psychiatric magic bullets to give us a kind of mental invincibility. Now, I know I am painting with a very broad brush here, but it does strike me that this sort of goal, made abundantly clear in advertisements for psychiatric drugs and lampooned in another recent film, Side Effects, is somewhat similar to wanting to be Superman, and expecting that becoming invincible will solve all our problems. Advocates of neuro-enhancement, that is, the notion that it would be a good idea to distribute drugs such as Ritalin widely so that everyone, including people not diagnosed with any psychiatric disorder, could benefit from them, for example, seem particularly susceptible to this kind of thinking. I suspect, however, that looking to drugs for all the answers to society’s problems is a little like Superman looking for solace in a bottle of Kryptonite. There are much better ways, as Clark learns in Man of Steel, of building a better society.