Being Superman, Being Jor-El

full SupermanBy Koun Franz, Deputy Editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly

As a kid, I never really got into comic books. We just didn’t have them around. But now, as an adult, I have an unabashed enthusiasm for superheroes and superhero movies. As silly and over-the-top as they can be, they speak to me on a deep aspirational level. I feel as inspired at the thought of those stories as I do by the stories themselves. They’re like my emotional Kryptonite.

I am moved by the tough, selfless, against-all-odds determination of Batman, and touched by the youthful courage of Spiderman, but I have a special weakness for Superman. I always have. It’s not about all the things he can do — it’s how perfectly he embodies his function.

I know that some people didn’t like 2006′s Superman Returns, but there is a moment there that defines the character in a way nothing else can. Superman flies up into the atmosphere and stops at that line between blue sky and dark space, and closes his eyes. And he just listens. In that moment, he is Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion (whose name in Japanese, Kannon or 観音, literally means “witnessing sound”). Avalokiteshvara hears all the cries of the world and responds with 1000 outstretched, skillful hands. Superman makes a choice to find this vantage point, hovering between the world he protects and the perfect, unrestrained freedom of space, and he listens, and then, in a flash, he turns and speeds toward Earth, toward one of the millions of cries he just heard, to respond. We cheer for him, and we know as we watch that this is not his first time to come to this place or to listen in this way. This is what he does. It’s all he does.

The beauty of superhero stories, for me, is that they invite us to identify with the superhero, to imagine ourselves with those burdens, but also with those capabilities. When I watch Superman, I allow myself to be Superman; when I watch Batman, I let myself become him. When the stories take us to their inevitable and unchanging conclusion — that “with great power comes great responsibility” — I hear that as a message to myself, as a reminder, even a scolding. We underestimate what we can do. We make excuses. I do. I know I do. But for two hours in a theater, I know how it feels not to. I try on the weight of that responsibility. I sense that awesome power.

So naturally, I got excited about the release of the newest Superman movie, Man of Steel. (It’s now on DVD, et cetera.) And in some ways, I got that same feeling I’ve gotten my whole life, that same resonance. But this time, there’s been something new in the mix, something almost unbearably powerful and sad.

Most of the trailers for Man of Steel strongly emphasize the relationship between Superman and his fathers: Jor-El on Krypton, and Jonathan Kent on Earth. In a few cases, the ads are even set to the fathers’ voices. What I find — and what today, seeing the trailer below, left me a little shaken — is that as I watch, I am also identifying, for the first time, with the fathers. For 60 seconds, I am watching Superman as my own son. I am sending him into that fight, into that danger, hoping he is ready, wanting to say or do exactly what he needs, to offer the words that spur him to embrace who he most needs to be, who the world needs him to be. Instead of flying into the fight myself, I’m watching my son as he disappears into battle.

It’s wrenching.

It can’t help, of course, that Boy, as I sometimes call him, has taken to dressing as Superman. He has a Superman t-shirt and Superman underpants. (The combination is known among us as “full Superman”). When he wears them, he feels a little stronger, a little more grown up. I love this, and I take every opportunity to remind him that Superman’s job is not fighting bad guys: it’s protecting everyone else.  “Protect” is a word we use a lot here. He likes to protect his little sister. He likes to protect his friends. Being Superman, he gets to play that it’s his job. And then, if he’s tired of it, he can take it all off and just be a crazy boy.

Girl, on the other hand, doesn’t want to be a superhero. But she is at a magical age — she is starting to gain autonomy in the world. She can do new things every day, all by herself. She makes mistakes, and she gets frustrated, but more often than not, she completely overestimates herself. She thinks she can do anything. It looks as if she’s testing limits, but really, she’s bumping into them. Until she does, she has no idea that they’re there.

I want these things for them. And when they’re older and their temperaments no longer tend toward play-acting, I want for them to find, somehow, how not to let go of this, how to keep this sense — not only of responsibility and purpose, but of the power to make it all real. Whether they ever frame it in Buddhist language or not, I don’t care. If they feel it deeply enough, perhaps all that talk will just be extra. But it’s my language, and so I think in those terms — I think in phrases like “all beings.” So I want them to feel that call, that pull to offer themselves to all beings, everywhere.

At the end of the trailer below, Jor-El says to his son, “You can save them. You can save all of them.” And he means it. And his son knows, in that moment, that it’s true.

This is what I most want to tell my kids. This is what I want to tell everyone.

It’s what I want them to believe.
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Koun Franz is the Deputy Editor of Buddhadharma and a Soto Zen priest. This piece previously appeared in slightly different form on the Zen-and-Parenting blog One Continuous Mistake, which he writes with his wife, Tracy.

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