The birth of the superhero appeals to instincts both primal and superficial


June 21, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Always a godmother," laments Fran Liebowitz somewhere in her intermittent oeuvre, "and never a god."

Gender adjusted appropriately, it's a cry that many of us have uttered in the secrecy of our minds. And the movies understand that with a commercial zeal.

Godhood -- at least in the secular sense of the power of omnipotence and invulnerability, the sense of bringing terrible justice to the world, the sense of having a really great body without working out -- is at the very heart of popular culture, particularly in fantasies of omnipotent males -- "Batman Returns" is only the most recent example -- that the movies have made fortunes exploiting.

But the movies are not really to blame. It's a tradition that &L predates Hollywood; it can be traced back not merely through the history of cinema, but also through the history of philosophy -- Nietzsche codified the concept -- and the history of man, perhaps even further. To be sure, there are superficial attractions of the superman personality. In its omnipotence, it appeals to the powerless, unformed adolescent in all of us. The pleasures of empathy with the all-powerful are not to be disparaged; when we enter the world of Batman or Superman, we vicariously experience the pleasures of force and power in a way that is otherwise unavailable except, alas, by packing a 9mm in the old waistband. Thus, at one level, people will flock to "Batman Returns" to feel the buzz of power and to watch him crush his enemies.

But possibly there's a deeper need with which the superhero motif connects. Essentially the yearning that the superman character reflects is womb-nostalgia. The classic superman is a man who literally is the world, as is the embryo in the womb. From his somewhat limited point of view, there is no other than himself in creation: floating in amniotic fluid, breathing through gills, taking nurture from the richness of the placenta, his will is absolute. He wants for nothing because he is everything. He can even fly; or at least, he has the illusion, as his mind swims toward consciousness, of weightlessness.

In some diluted form, this sense of being the world is continued for the first eight months or so postpartum. After the rude shock of birth, the human child is restored to his illusion of centrality and omnipotence. He learns quickly to manipulate and exercise his will: If he yells, a soothing voice comes to calm him and bathe him in radiant love. If he defecates, that mess is removed. If he is hungry, a nipple is thrust into his toothless gums and nourishment, warm and sweet, thunders down his gullet. What a life!

The most profound psychic dislocation any human being must endure is that moment of betrayal when he separates the universe into two phenomena, him and it. Fortunately, at that raw stage, the child doesn't yet have the language to codify the immensity of the betrayal, or to, therefore, lodge it in the wall of memory. Still, it's hard not to believe that somewhere in the reptilian part of the brain, the ancient brain, Freud's id, there doesn't lurk some inchoate constellation of most pleasant sensations affiliated with the sense of omnipotence the embryo and the infant feel.

Up in the heavens

That's the core of the superman thing, which perhaps explains why we can see it in all cultures. Superheroes aren't the invention of Saturday morning television. The Greeks looked at the stars in the sky, convinced themselves they saw patterns in the random whimsy of the shards of light blinking from a billion light years away, and created stories that would account for such celestial extravagance. The stories reflected the same fascination with omnipotence that Hollywood beats like a drum in our own time, and at the same time revealed their sense of human flimsiness. A god was a man, with appetites and lusts, with an inner life, a history, a memory; but he was also a god who could fly through the sky, fight monsters, and generally enjoy powers beyond the reach (but not the imagination) of mere men. He never got hurt; he never even got nicked.

Even before the Greeks, superheroes moved through the popular culture of the times: As early as 4,000 B.C., one Gilgamesh was kicking up a ruckus between the Tigris and the Euphrates. He was a superman-wannabe, wandering the known world in search of a miraculous plant that would confer it upon him -- that is, confer immortality, the central perk to supermanhood. He made it, too, but he got sloppy, and a serpent stole the plant and presumably ingested it, perhaps explaining for the mythologically minded the permanent presence of evil in the world.

Superman revisionism

PD One of the significant ironies in superman literature is that it

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