HE IS THE WORLD The birth of the superhero appeals to instincts both primal and superficial


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

reached its artistic apotheosis in 1819, and it's been downhill into camp and kitsch ever since. In that year, Mary Shelley wrote "Frankenstein," a masterpiece of superman revisionism. She understood the essential infantility of the superman concept, and that yearning after human perfectibility was the basest of follies and vanities and would of necessity come to ruin. Man was flawed (it took a woman to see this); he was imperfectable by nature and therefore the quest to create perfection was somehow blasphemous at its root.

But later dreamers had no such second thoughts. Friedrich Nietzsche, besides having the only hard name that I can spell without looking up (because it has my initials, sch, encoded helpfully at its center), really vaulted the superman concept into the major leagues, thought-wise, hopelessly screwing up our culture for all time. It's easy to see why. This was one hurting boy: A semi-insane dweeb who hated himself for being a German (he wanted to be French), he wandered Europe in search of health, sinking deeper into craziness. What voices he must have heard!

Thus his almost pathological leap to embrace all the values he could never embody -- he was the classic 97-pound weakling fantasizing (and building a system of thought) around the image of an Arnold Schwarzenegger: strength, health, decisiveness, a sense of destiny, raw power. It took a twisted, self-loathing little intellectual to cook up an image like a superman, a blond beast avidly rampant for spoil and victory, beyond good and evil (his words). But he wasn't without saving moments of clarity: How can you not love a man who could utter in a rare instant of sanity: "Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful." On the other hand, he also said, "I want to teach men the sense of their

existence, which is the Superman, the lightning out of dark cloud man." As George C. Scott says in "Dr. Strangelove," "Uh . . . we're still trying to figure out what that last line means," to which Peter Sellers responds, "Figure it out? There's nothing to figure out! The man is a raving psychotic!"

Superman vs. Batman

Of course in current superhero mythology, the two defining big boys are Superman and Batman. Indeed, the differences between the bat guy and the boy in blue point up the different strains entwined in our current popular super-mythology. These two boys are quite an interesting match: They're the Michael Jackson and Prince, or the Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, of superdom.

Supe is much less troubling, which is perhaps why he was an icon of slightly less troubled times, big in the '50s and the '70s. He's the superhero from Your Town, U.S.A. He's probably a member of Kiwanis. He goes to the dentist, not because his superteeth get cavities, but because you're supposed to go to the dentist. He votes Republican.

A regular kind of guy

He's always been played by regular-guy types -- strapping, bland middle-western white boys, like George Reeves on the tube in the '50s, or Chris Reeve on the screen in the '70s and '80s. He has a face that is handsome but so regular it seems unformed. There appears not to be a neurotic bone in his body or a twitch of doubt or hesitation. In some sense, he is exactly the embryo in the amniotic fluid of pre-birth bliss, with no suspicion that his powers could be diminished, and no true perception of an outside world. His power is almost infinite but somehow childishly deployed: Superman never has the width of vision to end crime and poverty; instead he works on a miniatur

ized scale, going after the small-beer criminals of the Metropolis underworld and an occasional gangster from space. His world view is pathetically limited. He is in some sense an accident: His "super" powers derive from his presence in an alien world; no concept of will attends to them. He has done nothing to earn or hone those powers; they're simply there. His sexuality is undeveloped except for some kind of boy-girl/Ken-Barbie relationship with Lois Lane, but it's certainly unlikely that these two ever do it.

A pure Superman

Batman is another kettle of fish altogether. In the first place, he is a superman -- but at the same time, at least officially, he doesn't have super powers. He's a human being; by sheer force of will and rage, he's ordered himself to become a superb gymnast, a world-class boxer, a stunt man unfazed by gravity's mandates, an incredible jet pilot, a Le Mans class driver. Of course we understand that somehow he has been purified by the rage he feels at his parents' death and beeped up the evolutionary scale several centuries (it also helps that Michael Keaton, who plays him, buckles on a fiberglass torso, complete to awesomely bulging muscles and slat-like ribs). Batman is nutty Nietschze's pure Superman: a higher order of being, decreed so and manufactured out of his own rages. He probably votes Democratic.

The world he inhabits is darkly neurotic; he's a nut case himself. It's a universe derived from German expressionism and riddled with sexuality. It has a Gothic quality to it, full of shadows and alleyways and spires, as if it sprang from the cobwebby dreams of Herr Nietschze's bad nights. It's peopled with grotesques, and threatening sexual imagery is everywhere, either in the form of nubile Kim Basinger or, even more provocatively, in the shape of Michelle Pfeiffer, purring and spin-kicking in the same second, wrapped in some kind of Imipolex-G plastic jumpsuit straight out the sick but slick fashion photography of Helmut Newton.

The man himself wears a cowl and mask, hooding his face from the rest of the world (a piffle of a conceit: like, nobody would notice the bottom half of his face was just like Bruce Wayne's?). He takes his identity from one of the animal world's strangest creatures, a night beast who flutters in and out of dark places and has a long, queasy affiliation with nightmares and the sexual motif of vampirism.

Animal affiliation

But the whole Batman universe, too, is painfully infantile, although in a subtly different way: The affiliation with animals is one indicator, a connection between man and subspecies that is a "magical" source of power. Everybody in "Batman Returns" has an animal co-efficient, from the man himself to Catwoman to the Penguin. The city, as the setting in designer Bo Welch's vistas, is also childlike: It's a kid's view of the Big City, throbbing with power and shadows and darkness.

That might be the key there: Batman seems located, at least internally, right at the instant of childhood's end: Batman represents an infantile sensibility struggling with separation anxiety. Thus, instead of the comforting blandness of the Superman world, bright and well-lit, Batman's world has a nightmarish quality; the universe has suddenly filled with threat. It represents that stage of the infant's development when he understands with sickening intensity that he is not the world; that his every wish will not be automatically served; that his will is not the absolute ruler of the universe. His view of what's out there is therefore grotesquely exaggerated, and the pow

ers of his hero are somehow limited. He's prey to gravity and to bullets and his own lusts and irrationalities. His sleek machines offer solace but no real protection. He's seen through the illusion of centrality, and it scares him.

4( On the other hand, I could be wrong.

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