Thursday, 19 September 2013

Superman's First Day

There is a Simpsons episode - you probably know the one - where Homer somehow ends up in command of a nuclear submarine. After almost causing an international war, he finds himself and his crew surrounded by battleships from all over the world, readying their guns. It’s ok though because Homer says, "It’s my first day!" and, laughing, they all let him off the hook.

Now, I hate to be that guy who feels the need to explain the joke (note: I don’t hate to be that guy), but the reason this is funny is that Homer’s excuse is no excuse whatsoever. The fact that it’s his first day on the job, whether that’s true or not, does not make it ok. It’s funny when they accept his pathetic excuse because, in real life, that would never happen - Homer would be arrested and severely punished.

I bring this up because, now that summer’s over, a number of sites have run Best Film of the Year So Far lists, and that means people are talking about Man of Steel. I’m not doing a list because the winner is so self-evidently GI Joe. If I was to write that list, of course, there is no way in hell that Man of Steel would be on it, but I don’t begrudge anyone who puts it on theirs. I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when these lists say things like, "Sure Superman made a few mistakes, but give him a break, he’s new at this."
Or, to put it another way, "It’s his first day!"

Let’s go back to The Simpsons. In that episode (which Google tells me is called Simpson Tide) Homer, like Superman, makes a few mistakes. His mistakes are firing the submarine’s captain at another submarine, and illegally entering Russian territory. That’s it. And we still know, naturally, that his excuse for this is terrible and that he would not get away with it.

Let’s raise the stakes. I want you to imagine, instead, that Homer’s mistakes had been far more severe. Let’s say that he gets into a fight with another sub somewhere just out of harbour, right by a coastal city. Being Homer Simpson, he probably still fires the captain at them. But then, when the enemy returns fire, instead of running away as he does in the episode, imagine Captain Homer indiscriminately fires a huge barrage of missiles in vaguely the right direction. The harbour explodes in an enormous fireball; one of the city’s bridges collapses; a couple of high-rise waterfront offices collapse into rubble. The enemy ship returns fire, taking out another bridge, the pier, and the entire seafront hotel district. It’s a really sunny day, so keep in mind how busy it is - the death-toll is already in the thousands. Homer keeps firing, though, obliterating the sea-wall, destroying what little is left of the beach, and reducing an enormous residential complex to ash and rubble. And so it goes on…
When Homer is finally apprehended, after he eventually targeted and destroyed the actual enemy sub (presumably because it threatened a family of three that was swimming nearby), he is understandably put on trial. Then, mid-trial, he wriggles out of his handcuffs and punches out the guard holding him. As the judge and assembled military staff look on in shock and horror he says, "Don’t worry, guys, you can trust me. I grew up in Springfield. I’m about as American as it gets." And with that, Homer Simpson strolls out of the courtroom and vanishes into the night. Nobody moves to stop him because, hey, he’s from Springfield, they can trust him. Besides - it was his first day.

People do see that this is what happens in Man of Steel, right? People do understand that? Because the number of people suggesting that "it’s his first day" is a reasonable excuse for mass-murder (or manslaughter if we’re being generous) is simply staggering.

You and me can screw up on our first day, because our screw ups aren’t particularly dangerous. We just get told that it’s wrong and we have to fix it or do it again. It’s not a big deal.
A job that involves guns or explosives or chemicals - where people’s lives hang in the balance - does not work the same way. If an armed cop or soldier, straight out of the proverbial academy, were to shoot up an entire street (or an entire town) of civilians, just to get one criminal, would anyone be ok with that person continuing to be a cop or a soldier? Of course not! We’d want them locked up and never ever let near a weapon again. That kind of screw up is a big deal, and the consequences would be serious.
What about the same situation with a superhero; a guy who can destroy buildings with one punch, and shoot fire out of his eyes. A godlike being with the potential to do far more damage than our cop or soldier ever could. If this guy screws up on his first day, this is a far bigger deal, and the consequences should be far bigger again. Like the rookies above, we’d want him locked away and we certainly wouldn’t want him to continue being a superhero. The bigger the damage and harm that someone can cause, the smaller the margin of error they’re allowed, and the less they can get away with a screw up.

I’m sure there’s a phrase for this exact idea. A saying of some kind. Oh right, that’s it:
"With Great Power comes Great Responsibility."

Peter Parker - Spider-Man - screwed up on his first day, too. He didn’t give any thought to the people on the street when he let a thief run by unchallenged - just as Kal-El didn’t give any thought to the people in the buildings as he punched Zod through them. And that thief killed Peter’s uncle.
Peter Parker has spent every moment of his life since trying to make up for that mistake, and knowing, deep down, that he never can. The weight of that one failure is what pushes Spider-Man to be better than he is - to always do the right thing, no matter how impossible it seems. Because Peter understands that he absolutely should not have screwed up, and that there is no excuse for it. Not even on his first day.
Spider-Man is a hero precisely because he recognises the enormity of his mistake and he wants to do better. Yet we are failing to recognise the enormity of Superman’s mistake just because he is a hero and we assume he’ll do better. To me, one of those seems incredibly backwards.

If Man of Steel is one of your favourite films of summer, or of the year, or even ever, than that’s great. I’m glad you liked it - have fun. But don’t you dare make excuses for it. A hell of a lot of people died in that film and Superman is responsible. It doesn’t matter that he was concentrating on fighting. It doesn’t matter that Zod struck first. And it certainly doesn’t bloody matter that it was his first day.
Superman doesn’t just have great power - Superman pretty much has all the power. And with that, like it or not, comes all the responsibility. Uncle Ben’s famous words apply to Spider-Man, they apply to Superman, and they absolutely apply to the real world.

But they don’t always apply to Homer Simpson. That’s the joke.