Like many people in their mid-forties, I am young enough to embrace some of what is new in our popular culture, but old enough to have hoarded by now a heavy, rain soaked, chiseled wood chest of nostalgia. I keep this nostalgia chest up in the attic with everything else meant to smell musty over time. We often think of old things as cobwebby, stale, or grey, etched by death long before they are dead, as if the Grim Reaper can lay claim to his treasures years or even decades before he returns to snatch them. There is some truth to that. Old things after all belong primarily to the past. Even if kept around so as to be used again in the future, we shall use them primarily to rekindle some past feeling, like pulling out a record player to play Johnny Mathis on vinyl rather than the same song on iTunes.
Death is only part of the story, though, because the damp, rotting wood smell that hits us when we first creep into the attic is even more pronounced than the cobwebs up there. It is the smell of fermentation, something new being born out from decomposition, the swampy goo out from which hideous, hunchbacked, but perhaps also novel or good, ideas may crawl in search of sunlight. As a storyteller, I am more inclined to see the past in this manner, which is why I always advise would be writers and filmmakers to immerse themselves in old stories before attempting something new. When we learn how to break down the rotted past, and to create new and better stories as a result, we really are the modern day alchemists turning straw into gold. The past breathes life into wisdom, but it also conjures up magic, and equal amounts of both frankly are necessary for the storyteller to tell a tale that actually touches us.
Superman (1978) is the greatest superhero film for many reasons. One of those reasons is the way it handles the underlying, and unavoidable, tension between the past and the present in the life of the most dispossessed man ever. Superman is an orphan separated from his family by unbridgeable chasm of death. Even if he were to fly those hundreds of millions of miles in outer space back to where Krypton had existed, he would find nothing out there. There are ghosts, of course, encapsulated in holograms that he can activate with radiated crystals. Like fading photographs in an old family album, these holograms can teach him something about his past; but the lessons are ultimately sterile. He can never touch or feel them, as one of the holograms of his father laments that he can never touch him. The one thing that Superman can touch from his past, Kryptonite, will sicken him. His hero’s journey, taken on foot and in the cold of winter, is in pursuit of the past. It leads to a palace of solitude etched in blue ice, a lonely place where he can walk among the ghosts of a dead planet’s wisdom. My sense is that if he had decided to remain there, the palace of solitude in time would have become a kind of Kryptonite for him. Rather than decomposing, like rotted wood up in an attic, his past would have become too real, an inscrutable and yet also touchable idol, a Communion with the Body and Blood of Krypton. Therefore, as much as his hero’s journey had been in pursuit of the past, his greatest act of heroism is in leaving the past behind to embrace the present. He flies out of the palace of solitude as Superman, and though he wrestles with the lessons from his past (principally the lesson that he should forever remain an orphan in his new world and thus not attempt to change the course of human history) he ultimately abandons them when the circumstances of the present day so demand (interfering in human history even to the extent of reversing time so as to undo the nuclear detonation that had killed his beloved Lois Lane). We believe that Superman can fly, not because the special effects are so great in and of themselves (though in fact they are beautifully done), but because first and foremost we believe that he is a man. We have seen how he learns from his past, but is not imprisoned by it, and how he creates out from the icy dead palace of solitude a new identity for himself. Superman is the story of a man overcoming his fate (the ghosts from his past trying to mold him into a creature that they would bless) in order to stand alone in the present. He is alone, hidden behind his Clark Kent alter ego, set apart from any normal human loving relationship (that is, until he abandons his superhero identity briefly in the sequel to start a new life with Lois Lane), but he is alone in a present day of his own choosing (quite literally, after he turns back the world a day). That is what it means for a new life to emerge out from the primordial, musty sludge of the past. This new life is iconoclastic, heroic or villainous depending on the choices made thereafter, but it is also as human as it is larger than life. The myth is real, truly embedded in the life story of a singular man, and so we believe that that man can fly.
The lesson for other superhero films is clear enough: If the filmmakers want us to believe that a man can fly, then they need to give us characters whose heroric struggles resonate with us. We believe in heroes. We do not believe in CGI animation no matter how sophisticated. I am admittedly often skeptical about CGI animation versus old fashioned models and in-camera effects, but that is ultimately beside the point. What matters is the story. Give us characters who are real, and situations that are compelling, and we shall believe their superhero power.