"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Comic Books, Film
“This store is so negative!,” a woman said in astonishment. She had a kid with her, a happy elementary schooler who was perusing our new comics wall. The young shopper’s mom, perhaps grandmother had ambled her way to the counter to make this proclamation. I asked her why she thought the store was negative and the woman went right to the heart of the matter: violence. There was just too much of it in the store for her to consider this a positive place for her child. Calmly going into “Oh man, what did she see?” mode, I calmly explained that not all comics were for kids and that Batman sometimes has to fight a bad guy or two to make sure they go to jail. She understood, but there was something displayed behind me that got to the heart of the matter: our Fear Itself promotional poster.
“Fear, that’s terrible for kids to see, and all the violence, it’s just too negative for them,” she explained. I looked at the poster, wondering if there actually was something terrible on it but no, no gore, sexual situations or excessive violence. She actually had a problem with the title. I told her the title came from the quote that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, an appeal for strength. How every kid faces a fear at one time or another and why not show them how super-heroes handle theirs? “After all,” I told her, “… you know the good guys win.”
She thought about it and we talked about fear and being strong. In the end, I hadn’t changed her mind entirely but she did admit that saying the whole store was negative was probably a bit rude. The young customer bought something he liked and everyone went home happy. If a robot had carried in a cupcake for me, it would have been the perfect day.
But then again, nothing in this world is perfect, not even my unflinching adoration for one of Marvel’s finest architects (FRACTION 3:16!). But if you boil Fear Itself down to its base elements, you will find jewels of the human spirit expressed in the Mighty Marvel Manner. It may not be the best event book, but I’m starting to think that the core of Fear Itself is one of the most important stories you can read for inspiration.
(WARNING: We will be talking about Fear Itself, including this week’s cataclysmic issue #7, grab your copies and read along)
In an article talking about Doomwar, I said that event book essentials included: 1) a major villain, 2) a global threat, 3) assorted heroes unified to fight numbers 1 and 2, and the most important 4) the human element. When galactic threats bear down on the planet Earth, someone has to stand, look at the sky and shout ‘Holy cats, that’s a Terrible Thing!’ Heroes don’t often get this chance, as they are too busy being heroic and fighting the good fight to get in a word of astonishment at their own activities. Fear Itself is unique in that not only does the common man express his hopes and fears at what is quite possibly the end of the world, but the heroes express the weight of their down fears as they take on impossible odds. From gods to men, they all stare own adversity, face their own fears and dig deep to find the strength to keep going.
Even when they’re not human. Odin tells Thor over and over that he doesn’t have to fight this mortal battle, and that he would see Midgard razed to ashes because, “A world is nothing for your son.” In a similar fatherly gesture, when Skaldi laments that their victory will cause the Serpent’s death, he tells her that when he falls, she will carry on in his name. “This is all for you, darling. This was always just for you.” Even our villain does not fear death and his own defeat, because he is giving his daughter the world in his absence. One man would see it burn, the other would serve it up on a silver platter, both for their children. Come on, that’s kinda cool.
Two human men demand not miracles, but tools and some level of accountability, from Odin himself. Tony gives up something of his own dignity by drinking at the doorstep of the All-father so that he could get the God’s attention, to arm his friends so that they may fight their own battle. When Captain America brings back the battered body of Thor before the final fight, he demands that Odin do his own duty. As much as Odin may want to burn the world to save his son, destiny demands otherwise. All of his efforts and machinations to escape his (and his son’s) fate come to nothing. By the end of the final story, Odin has not only lost Thor, but Asgard has become his tomb as he stands guard over the broken body of the Serpent until the end of time, his brother’s keeper at last.
There is a moment after all they’ve seen, and the oppressive weight of inevitable defeat is on their shoulders that Spider-Man bends to his own fears and leaves the front line. He is worried for his family, for his friends, and as terrifying as the end of everything is, one wants to be with the ones they love. I can’t fault the man, these are some impossible odds! He eventually finds Aunt May and she asks about her nephew Peter. There is some sideways dialogue possibly alluding to the idea that Aunt May knows exactly who Spider-Man is, but once she is assured that her nephew is fine, she tells Spider-Man to keep protecting him and others. “You have a great responsibility, you know, and it wouldn’t be right, me keeping you here away from it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he tells her, and swings back out to continue the good fight.
Parallel to this, there is an everyman threaded through Fear Itself, a homeowner in Broxton who also runs back to his family to check on his wife and child. As they huddle together, this everyman makes his choice and heads back out to do what he can. “If this… if this is the end…? I don’t want to be afraid anymore.”
Later, Captain America has fallen in the midst of battle, and it’s this guy who helps him to his feet. And thus for the bravery of a balding middle aged man in the midst of costumed adventurers, do we understand the point of this seven issue series.
Fear can be many things. You can be afraid of spiders, afraid of heights, afraid of flying Nazis in powered armor. You can be afraid of losing your son, of losing your job, afraid of the end of the world, but those fears are incremental in comparison to what you do about them. Fears say less about a man than his strengths of character, and if there is anything I think kids should be learning about today, it’s that.