A world without Superman

Superman is one of the most iconic fictional figures of our time. Superhero lore is the closest we have to mythology from the modern era, and Superman is the most prominent of them, the one who started it all. He is one of the few fictional characters whose story has crossed cultural boundaries. It’d be hard to find a place in the world where Superman or his famous emblem was not recognized. Created in 1938, by two Jewish immigrants – Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, it told the story of the ultimate immigrant, an alien baby, who is found and raised by a farmer couple. As an outsider who grows up among us, his story was about embodying the best of humanity, and of always doing the right thing, no matter the cost.

Over the last few decades, Superman’s popularity has been eroding. In late 20th century, more morally ambiguous characters started rising in popularity. Despite being almost as old as Superman, a re-branded Batman, along with newer heroes like Wolverine, were the new face of superheroes. As heroes with limitations, who had to make hard choices, they were, understandably, more popular than the idealistic heroes of the past.

Superman movies always hold a special place in my heart. As a child, I grew up watching the Superman cartoons. Later, the Christopher Reeve movies took my love for the character further, and I have many fond memories of watching them. Since Christopher Reeve’s tragic accident and later death, Superman took a back seat in the public psyche. Superman Returns tried to recapture the Christopher Reeve magic, staying true to the tone of the movies, but with updated technology. However, despite being critically successful, it did not do well with the audience. In retrospect, this was not surprising. The world had grown weary of watching a cheerful, god-like alien who smirks and lectures the bad guys into correcting their evil ways. Everyone flocked to The Dark Knights and the Iron Men that dominated the early 21st century.
In 2013, Warner Bros released a new movie on Superman – Man of Steel. Fresh off the success of the Nolan Batman trilogy, Warner Bros was (obviously) attempting to start a shared movie universe, similar to the wildly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was instantly put off by the “dark” vibe it seemed to convey in the previews, assuming that it was just a weak attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the Nolan movies, despite the fact that Superman was supposed to be a hopeful and inspiring character. This was aggravated by the fact that the other Zack Snyder movies I had watched (300 and the theatrical cut of Watchmen), did not inspire confidence in his ability to make a good comic book movie. I didn’t bother watching it in the cinemas and caught it on TV much later, watching it out of the corner of my eye, while my attention was focused elsewhere. Consequently I missed most of it, and rashly concluded that this was a bigger mis-step than Superman Returns.

However, when Warner Bros announced Batman v Superman, its sequel, I was cautiously optimistic. Warner Bros definitely knew how to do Batman well. The previews looked promising, and showed a Superman who has potentially become a threat (a la Injustice) whom Batman needed to take down. The previews were not alone in conveying that direction in the plot. Zack Snyder pointed out that The Dark Knight Returns was a major influence for the movie, and this was similar to the reason that they clash in that book. All things said, I was excited after watching the preview several times, and recognized several iconic shots from the books. When the movie came out, I watched it as soon as I could. I looked forward to seeing Superman turn into the angry (and misguided) tyrant and Batman, the courageous human, standing up to this alien who thought he could impose his will over the human race. What a bait-and-switch it was! Towards the end of the titular fight, I was completely rooting for Superman. Superman was the good guy, trying desperately to save his mother, and yet, never losing restraint. Batman was the angry, irrational and egotistic vigilante, attempting to kill him in cold blood, for the wrong reasons. I came out of the cinema hall shook, not just by the plot of the movie, but by the realization of how deeply ingrained my prejudices had been, against Superman, against Man of Steel and against Zack Snyder.

I went back and re-watched Man of Steel, paying it the attention it deserved. The movie that unfolded in front of me drove me to further remorse. In a passionate and heartfelt take on the titular Man of Steel, Zack Snyder and his team retell the story of the most iconic superhero of all times, and try to ground that tale in a modern context. By taking the subject matter seriously, and avoiding fan service by referencing the cheerful movies of the past, the movie makes Superman’s tale relate-able. We are shown a young Clark struggling to come to terms with the fact that he’s not his parents son, and that he was different from the children he grew up around. A childhood fraught with bullying, aggravated by his pacifism. A pacifism borne of restraint, being taught that any loss of restraint would be disastrous for everyone around him. That if the world knew about him, it would change everyone forever. He constantly tries to hide his true identity, but is unable to refrain from helping those in need. This invariably forces him to abandon his current identity and move on from place to place. We see this young alien slowly grow into the hero that the world needed. He is unsure of his place in the world, but never on what the right thing is. Despite its flaws, Man of Steel achieved much of its lofty target, of telling a Superman story for the modern era. This story is continued in Batman v Superman, as the world’s opinion is split once Superman goes public. The main plot focuses on the negative impact it has on Batman and his sanity, but we are shown how the world reacts to the question “Must there be a Superman?”. The movie culminates in Superman sacrificing himself for a world that had repaid his goodness with suspicion and hate, and in that sacrifice, inspiring others around him to strive to be better. The story was as much a Batman redemption arc, as it was a second act for Superman’s “hero’s journey”.

Through this experience, I have come to appreciate my childhood hero again. These movies reminded me of why Superman mattered. Not because he was all-powerful, but because he was all good despite being all-powerful. The movies touch upon many social issues, not least of which is the importance of holding onto idealism despite adversities. This is a message that has become quite important in a mediascape which has become increasingly cynical. I felt a similar sense of elation after watching Cinderella (the 2015 live action one). I don’t remember the animated one much, but the main takeway for the new one, is the importance of sticking to your ideals, especially when it is easier to give into hate and pettiness. In fact, that is when it is most important to do so. Any movie that changes the way I feel about the world and how I live in it, always rates highly in my books. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman have done that for me, not just by reminding the ‘why’ of Superman, but by reminding me to not be held back by my prejudices.

We could do with more positivity in the world. We could do with more heroes that we can look up to. I am gonna end this with this panel from All-Star Superman.


In a desperate attempt to stay awake, I pulled out my phone and started checking my messages for the millionth time since I got to the station. Unsurprisingly, no one else was up but me. The dawn was just breaking and the dusty old platform slowly lit up in golden light. Shivering from the cold, I stuffed my phone back into my pocket and looked around. The platform was nearly empty except for a few stray dogs and the odd vagabond or two. The cold was eating through my jacket and I glanced impatiently at my watch. After several minutes of fidgeting in my seat, I noticed that the tea stall had finally opened. With a sigh of relief, I hurried over to get a cup of hot coffee. Clutching the cup in one hand, I managed to wiggle out my wallet from my back pocket and pay the vendor. It was on my way back, that I first noticed her.

She was sitting on the bench beside mine. I hadn’t noticed her come in, even though I had been gone for a scanty few minutes. She looked at me curiously, noticing my stare. I politely looked away and sat down on my bench and gently sipped the coffee. Like me, she had to be waiting for the Intercity Express, since that was the only train expected at this time. It was not a large station with many platforms. The absence of any luggage suggested that she was here to receive someone, just like me. I would put her age to be in the early thirties, though it was impossible to be sure. I stole another glance at her. Her gaze was fixed on something far away. Following her eyes, I realized she was just gazing at the horizon, her mind lost in thought. Her eyes were quite pretty and I found it hard to look away. However, not wanting to get caught staring again, I turned away and closed my eyes, spending the rest of the coffee thinking about her eyes.

My thoughts were rudely interrupted by the blast of the train’s whistle. Finishing off the coffee, I got up and walked towards the approaching train, expertly throwing the cup into the faraway bin. The brakes screamed as the train screeched to a halt at the platform. I started hurrying down the length of the train, my eyes scanning for Raj. In a while, I noticed his familar form struggling with a pair of bags. As I approached him, I couldn’t help casting a quick glance backwards. She was standing now, scanning the faces that had alighted. She looked taller than I had judged her to be. Turning back, I realized that Raj hadn’t seen me yet and was looking around for me. Pushing myself through the crowd,I called out to him. Whipping around, he flashed a quick smile and started making his way towards me. Chucking one of the bags at me, he launched into a tirade of complaints about everything wrong with the railway system. I smiled and nodded along as we made our way out, through the dispersing crowd. I couldn’t help looking back at her and I saw her still searching the crowd.

As we reached the exit, the train was already slowly pulling out of the station. Raj was now going on about the food that he was sure was gonna cause food poisoning, the fans that had to be prodded every now and then, and the sleepless night of battling mosquitoes, and I kept nodding absentmindedly, my thoughts elsewhere. As we stepped out the gate, I looked back one last time. She stood there on the platform, that was nearly empty now. I finally understood the look in her eyes, the sadness and the hurt, as they kept searching.

My december

“This is my December..
This is my time of the year..
This is my December..
This is all so clear..”

I alight from the bus and take a deep breath. Here I am again, alone in the big city. A slight tug in my chest reminds me that this would be the last time. “So it’s all ending tonight“, I muse. I look around at the tall buildings that surround me and let that emotion wash over me, the one I cherish, the one I can never explain, the one that dissolves away my past and my future and leaves me in melancholic solitude. Sometimes I wonder why I crave this feeling, despite the loneliness it brings. As always, I have no answer.

“This is my December..
This is my snow covered home..
This is my December..
This is me alone..”

I close my eyes and take in the sounds of the bustling night life around me. Again, the question arises in my mind – why do I like to come here alone? I love being with friends and it’s not like me to need time off for myself. Then what is it that gives me this inexplicable thrill, the moment I set foot in the city? Is it the feeling of adventure, of uncertainty? Or is it the feeling of new-found independence, and the foolish notion that I am a “big boy” now, and can venture into the real world on my own? Maybe it is all of this, and maybe none of it.

“And I…
Just wish that I didn’t feel like there was something I missed..
And I…
Take back all the things I said to make you feel like that..”

Tonight, it felt a bit different. In a few hours, I would be leaving all this behind forever. Most of my friends have already left. I suppose that is compounding the loneliness. I knew that I was in the midst of tectonic shifts in my life. I knew my heart would linger here for a while, after the rest of my body has departed.

“And I..
Just wish that I didn’t feel like there was something I missed..
And I..
Take back all the things I said to you..”

I remember that I don’t have much time to catch the bus. I have to hurry. As much as I didn’t want to leave this place, I definitely didn’t want to get stranded here after all my friends had left. A hurried dinner, alone. I look around. I knew I would miss each and every place in this city. So many memories. A quick auto ride, and I arrive at my final destination for the night – the bus. I leave all my luggage inside and saunter around the bus.

“And I give it all away..
Just to have somewhere to go to..
Give it all away..
To have someone to come home to..”

Finally, it’s time to leave. I feel a sharp tug in my chest as the bus starts pulling out of its station. I can’t believe that I am actually leaving everything behind. That all the happiness I have found in this place are soon to become just memories of the past. In my panic, I am alone. No one is near me to hold me and tell me that it is gonna be ok. That life goes on and we have to move on. That this is something everyone goes through, like a rite of passage. I close my eyes and sink back into the seat. Everything that has a beginning, after all, must have an end.

After eleven years

As the bus gathered speed and sped into the long, dark highway, I sat quiet, lost in melancholy thoughts. I was leaving for home from college, for the last time. Four years of fun-filled days, spent in the company of loving friends, has come to an end and travelling back alone, almost felt symbolic. Sadness kept me from falling asleep, despite a rather tiring day of tear-filled farewells. Lines from popular farewell songs kept popping up in my head. Time sped by as I sat in the bus alone, lost to the world around me. Reliving sweet memories of places and faces held dear, I felt my eyes moisten up.

After a while, the bus came to a halt and my mind snapped back to the present. The bus had stopped for dinner, and the driver was yelling at us to be back in half an hour. I got out of the bus and looked around. It was the same “drive-in” restaurant that they always stoped at. I walked in, occupied an empty table and placed my usual order. While waiting for the food, I scanned the room for familiar faces. A quiet face sitting alone at a table at the other end of the room caught my attention. I racked my brains trying to figure out why he looked so familiar. Was it someone I’d met in college? Or a distant relative whose name I had forgotten? With a start, I recognized him. The memories flooded in – painful memories. It was Alagappa. A name that I had not been able to forget even after all these years.

It was eleven years ago. I was quite young, and had just gotten back to school from summer vacation. That year, I had switched from commuting in the school bus, to a private mini-bus service. On the first day back, a strange-looking guy comes up to me and starts talking to me like he knows me. Bewildered and a little scared, I ask him who he is and when he reaches out to touch my arm, I panic and push him away. With a hurt look on his face, he walks away. The rest of the day, I walked around disturbed by the memories of this incident. Who was this guy and why did he behave like that? After a while, it came to me in a jolt. I had met him a month before the summer vacation. He was in the school bus with me, and within a couple of days, we had become good friends. He was a year senior to me and he loved me like his brother. I too liked him and we used to go home together. Then came the two month long summer vacation, and in those two months, I had forgotten a dear friend.

The very thought of it made me sick, and suddenly it was quite obvious why he looked so hurt. I had forgotten him but he hadn’t forgotten me. His face kept haunting me ever since, but I, somehow, lacked the courage to go up to him and apologise. A few weeks later, during the morning assembly, the principal announced that Alagappa would be reciting a poem that day. Hearing the unusual name, many of the students giggled, till the principal’s stern voice quitened them. Trembling and clearly nervous, Alagappa came to the mike and in a shaking voice recited the poem. After the poem was done, Alagappa quickly stepped away from the mike. No one shows any signs of appreciation, and soon Alagappa and his poem were forgotten. After a while, I stopped seeing him around the campus. On enquiry, I found out that he had transferred to another school. None of us knew why. Was he unable to adjust to the school and the people here? Or did his parents have to move somewhere and he had to leave too? I guess I will never know.

The guilt of treating a friend the way I did, of jilting someone who had loved me, haunts me to this day. My young age was hardly an excuse. Ultimately, the emotional damage must have been considerable. Now, providence has given me another chance to make it right. Here he was, sitting in the same room as I was. He noticed me looking at him, but obviously he didn’t recognize me. He still looked quite the same. With trembling hands, I stand up and slowly approach him. I knew I wanted to apologize to him for how I treated him, but I had no idea where to start. Before I could figure out where to start, I had reached his table. He looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face. I ask, ‘Alagappa?’. For a moment he is silent. Then he says, ‘No. Maybe you have mistaken me for someone else?’. I shake my head, mumble a ‘Sorry’, and walk back to my seat quickly. Was I wrong? The face was exactly how I remembered. Was it someone who looked like him? Or was that really the Alagappa I knew? If so, why did he deny it? Had he recognized me and pretended to be someone else? Or had he changed his name, for ‘Alagappa’ had evoked much ridicule?

My thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the food. I slowly chew on my food, hardly enjoying it. I look up to see his face again, and it’s gone. He was gone. I looked around but saw no sign of him. I got up and ran outside but he was long gone. I asked the man at the counter. Annoyed, he replied that someone matching the description left a short while ago. I walked back to my table, only to be reminded by the impatient blowing of the bus horn, that my thirty minutes were up. Quickly washing my hands, I boarded the bus. As the bus pulled away from the restaurant, I looked once more at place where I had seen him, hoping that somehow, magically, he would have return to accept my apology. But the seat remained empty.