Christopher Reeve’s heir doesn’t wear a cape. He carries a shield.
UPDATED 12/22/16: Captain America: Civil War starts streaming on Netflix on Christmas, so I’m dusting off this good ol’ argument starter…
There’s a truth I’ve long held to be self-evident: Superman is our greatest hero.
Not the “best” mind you. I could come up with 13 reasons Batman’s better, more interesting and easily my favorite. And then 13 more. And then 13 after that.
I mean greater in terms of his historic, cultural importance, what he’s supposed to stand for, how he emblemizes our aspirational ideals.
And I’m not talking about comic books, either. I’m talking about the pop-cultural zeitgeist. Comics readers are a tiny fraction of the population. Everyone else? What they know of superheroes comes from movies and TV.
For more than a generation, Superman was embodied by Christopher Reeve and defined by director Richard Donner (and, to a lesser extent, director Richard Lester). Dean Cain, Tom Welling, Helen Slater and those two guys who played Superboy were variations on the Reeve model.
Reeve and Donner recognized Superman’s inherent appeal in his modern surroundings. They made Superman’s squareness an attribute. The Metropolis he lives in exists in a post-Watergate New York City Metropolis with its daytime muggings and bold Midtown pimps. But in a cynical world, he was the last hopeful man.
Yet even as TV shows kept the flame alive, Reeve/Donner Superman gave way 10 years ago to Bryan Singer and Brandon Routh’s Superman. Their Metropolis was located in Prozac Nation. Superman still did good because it was the right thing to do but he moped and pined like an adolescent whose ex-girlfriend is taking a different guy to the prom — to our eternal tedium. Singer may have loved what Reeve and Donner did, but he didn’t get what Reeve and Donner did.
Then came Zack Snyder and he melted down the Man of Steel even further: Now, he gets the girl but he’s wracked with crushing indecisiveness and self-loathing. His father tells him that maybe he should keep to himself and let a bus full of children die. His mother insists he doesn’t owe the world anything.
If that’s not a reflection of who we are as a society, then I don’t know what is.
But that’s not what Superman is supposed to be about. He’s supposed to be about sacrifice, loyalty, bravery and humble but powerful confidence.
As it turns out, a funny thing happened on the way to the multiplex: Captain America quietly but assuredly walked past the Man of Steel to become this generation’s definitive “super man.”
And it’s because we have, across five movies in the last five years, seen our best selves up there on the screen as embodied by actor Chris Evans, and a series of smart directors and writers.
Rob Kelly wrote here the other day about Captain America: Civil War: “Now that there have been a half dozen films featuring him in the role, I can confidently say that Chris Evans as Captain America ranks up there in the annals of great casting, as perfect a fit of actor and role as Christopher Reeve and Superman was in 1978. And just as important: Like Reeve, you never catch Evans winking at the audience or seemingly apologizing for Cap being so ‘square.’ He’s a hero, pure and simple. And while he’s capable of mistakes (he makes a few here), he ultimately wants to do Good.
“Marvel shrewdly recognized this was essential to making the character work in live action and it has paid off: Evans as Cap is the lynchpin of the MCU. I was heartened to read a few months ago that he essentially went on the record to say he’ll play the role as long as Marvel wants him. For my money, I could watch another half dozen Cap movies as long as Evans is in the role. He’s that good.”
Rob couldn’t be more right about that. After his bro turn as the Human Torch, l was as skeptical as anyone that Evans could pull of such a square role as Steve Rogers.
But now, as Superman wallows in self-pity in Warner Brothers’ decrepit vision of the DC Universe, Captain America leads by example and challenges his friends — and by extension, us — to do better. To stand for what you believe in, to do what’s right and to remain compassionate when all around you is going to hell.
I guess what I’m saying is that unlike the man in the red cape, Captain America is the one who now stands for truth, justice and what I like to think of as the American way.