I'm not one of those fans who think Superman:The Movie was perfect, or even particularly great, but there was a cool moment in the film that got me thinking.

It happens when Lois is interviewing Superman and asks, "Why are you here?" He answers earnestly, "to fight for truth, justice and the American way."

I remember the line got laughs in the theater. After all, it was 1978, and the audience had been through 'Nam and Watergate, and the campy Batman TV show, so this kind of sentiment seemed written to appeal to a cynical, ironic sense of humor. And yet, Christopher Reeve delivered it with such conviction that he came off not as a deluded doofus, but a genuine, old-fashioned nice guy optimist.

Lois quips that if this is his mission, he's going to be at odds with every politician in Washington, and Superman answers not with a knowing wink, or a "Ha! I was just kidding" attitude, but with another earnest line: "I'm sure you don't really mean that, Lois."

This shuts her up, and I remember it got the audience quiet, too. This is the part where we figure out Superman's character. Here is a guy who really believes in the basic goodness not just of America, but of people in general. He's not embarassed to admit he believes it, and moreover, he knows that deep down, we believe it, too. Lois the hardened reporter has, like the rest of us, bought into the ethos of cynicism, which masquerades as sophistication but at its heart is a kind of deep-seated cowardice, a timidity that prevents us from changing things we convince ourselves are beyond changing. But somewhere inside, we still want to believe that people are basically good, and that things will eventually turn out well for humanity. All we need is someone to encourage us to do our part.

Forget the super-strength, the x-ray vision, even the flying. Superman's real power lies in his ability to inspire us to be decent people. Here is a guy with the power take whatever he wants, and instead he uses it to help others. He believes in the potential of humanity, which is cool, but he also believes that we're going to achieve that potential on our own, without him pushing us. That's why he leads by example instead of just forcing the world into what he'd like it to be.

And then there's Clark Kent. When Superman was "rebooted" in the 80's the old "mild-mannered reporter" was tossed out, like the baby with the bathwater, by writers who never understood the importance of Superman's disguise, and didn't have the guts to try to write him. But they forgot that Clark Kent, that cowering nebbish, that long-suffering nice guy whom Lois once called a "perennial doormat" was an essential part of the mythos.

Granted it may have gotten tiresome seeing Clark fake his millionth stomach ache and run from danger, but while he wasn't a fighter it's not like Clark was weak in spirit. He had the same virtuous character, good instincts and basic decency as Superman, but without the flashy costume and super-strength to back it up, those fine qualities earned him the title, "wimp." People took advantage of Clark not because he was weak, but because he was a nice guy and an easy target. Why didn't Clark poke these creeps in the nose? Because that wouldn't prove anything. Beating up your tormentor just validates his methods; in the big picture he still wins. Clark just turns the other cheek, and when those creeps are about to get run over by a train, he saves them like he would anyone else.

That's Superman's ethos; he saves our bacon when the power plant melts down, deflects the missiles when some nut hits the button, or stops a car before its drunken driver can kill a kid and his dog, but he *doesn't* toss all missiles into space, shut down all power plants or evaporate all alcohol with heat vision. And he doesn't let Clark Kent kick butt on the bullies. Why? Because he's a patient guy, and he believes that ultimately good will win out, whether he hastens it on or not. Right makes might, and not the other way around.

Superman knows someday we're going to be ready to adopt those beliefs that earn him derision as a "boy scout" and a naive fool, beliefs we already know deep down are true; that it's our job to look out for our neighbors, that doing what's right -- even if it's not "cool" -- is what takes real courage. And that's why he'll always be more to us than another clown in cape and tights. He's an icon.

That's my story and I'm stickin' with it.

- David Morefield
"Nightwing of Kandor"