This post was originally published at blogs.starwars.com/kesseljunkie on August 8, 2006. Working on another blog that’ll be coming out soon (and which I didn’t have time to work on this weekend), I was reminded of it because I started thinking about Superman. Specifically, I started thinking about Superman Returns and how I feel like I was one of only about 100 people that likes that film as much as I do. But naturally, I thought about the two heroes in the context of comparing them, and this is what was born out of that.
No, this is not some silly powers-against-powers, fight-to-the-death, dueling-geek-fanbases blog. This is a blog about philosophies, of hero vs. hero.
I have seen Superman Returns twice now, and something that struck me both times, is how the philosophy Kal-El is so very similar to Anakin Skywalker’s. But this same philosophy is a fatal flaw for the latter, while a lauded principle for the former.
If you think back to the original Superman with Christopher Reeve, the thing that spurs him into action is the death of his adoptive father. Before then, he keeps his powers concealed and does nothing spectacular with them. After his father’s death, he goes on a mission of self-discovery, wherein he ignores the advice of his birth father and participates in shaping human history. For this, Superman becomes a man worthy of praise and admiration. He saves people from death, and even turns back time to save the life of the woman he loves.
Anakin takes a decidedly darker path, but the principle is the same. He is spurred to awaken his awesome power in the wake of his mother’s death, an emotional loss he cannot handle. In tears, Anakin asks why he could not save his mother. He should have been able to, he laments. Superman echoes Anakin’s own sentiments at Jonathan Kent’s funeral, “All my powers, and I couldn’t even save him.”
Is our condemnation of one and embrace of another a function of time periods? Does Superman belong to a bygone era, when we all could relate to the thought that with just a little more speed and a little more skill, we could save the ones we love from horrible fates – and maybe even make the world, as a whole, a better place? Is Anakin, crafted loosely in the 1970s but cast in the mold of the post-Modern anti-hero, our new hero, whose only value is to teach us the error of our ways? Why is one a hero and one a villain?
Superman acts against senseless and avoidable tragedy. He is not trying to change anyone’s ultimate fate, or stop a natural death; he acts to save the cop who walked in front of the wrong crook, or the planet itself from being torn apart.
Anakin, instead, is unable to accept that death happens to anyone he cares about. He does not weep for Dooku, nor show him mercy. He does not act to negotiate an end to war. He acts specifically to spare himself the pain of losing someone he loves. He reveals his own nature when he says of the Sith that “they think inwardly, only of themselves.”
The key difference is selflessness, instead of selfishness. Superman is motivated by his care for others. Anakin is motivated by his care for how they relate to him.
In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin does terribe things to achieve more and more power, all to save himself the pain of losing someone he loves. Superman is willing to say goodbye to those he loves, indeed to his own life, if it means he will save others, even others he might never personally know.
Frankly, I’m glad to see a selfless hero return to the fold. Too long we’ve had the anti-hero and the post-Modern re-envisioning of the hero. It’s time that we accepted the return of the sacrificer, the one who will give up everything just to make sure that everyone – without exception – can see another day.
Welcome back, Superman.
2010 post-script: How depressing to know that they’re talking about making Superman darker in the wake of the Batman successes. I’ll hold judgment until I see it, but it seems no one even wants to believe in true good guys anymore.