Yeah, that’s Richie (The Late Mr. Kent)

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It’s November 1, 1997. The top song is Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 1997; Usher, Leanne Rimes, and Boyz II Men also chart. The top movie is teen slasher flick I Know What You Did Last Summer; lower in the top 10 are The Devil’s Advocate, Boogie Nights, and Gattaca.

In the news, since last episode NASA launched the Cassini-Huygens probe to Saturn, The New York Times had its first front-page color photo, and in Massachusetts, British au pair Louise Woodward is found guilty of shaking a baby to death, which I recall as the first time I ever encountered the term au pair.

The person who variously goes by Kal-El, Clark Kent, or Superman is, as we have observed repeatedly, a trauma survivor. His entire world was destroyed, and as a result his identity fragmented. He tried for most of his life to suppress his other self, to be “normal,” but he couldn’t. He was raised human, but he isn’t human; he’s Kryptonian, and he needed a way to express his Kryptonian-ness or else “go insane.”

I put scare quotes around the phrase–one I normally wouldn’t use–because it is used in this episode, to describe what would happen if Superman tried to live without Clark Kent. He isn’t one or the other; he’s both, because both are expressions of fragments of an underlying self that shattered with Krypton, and neither is able to express all the fragments. When, for example, Clark tries to play the role of the hero who saves the day, which he describes as being driven by an egotistical desire to have a victory go to his credit as Clark, he is “killed” by a car bomb. Only the lucky break–the one witness having extremely poor eyesight–permits him to return without having to reveal his secret to the world.

Superman is sometimes accused of being too perfect, too invulnerable, but he’s not. Oh, there’s very little which can hurt him physically–the fight at the end of this episode, when Detective Bowman shoots him with the helicopter’s cannon and missiles, is utterly devoid of tension for this reason–but he can still be challenged. Before we get into that, though, let’s unpack that: Superman is invulnerable, but so are essentially all action heroes. Tone is a thing; it is usually possible to tell from pretty early on in a narrative work whether the protagonists’ success is guaranteed, and there are entire genres where it almost always is. The tension in such works is not whether the protagonists succeed, but how and at what cost.

The issue with Superman’s vulnerability is that if, say, Batman is shot at with automatic fire, we may know he’ll escape harm, but we don’t know how. With Superman, we do: the bullets will just fail to hurt him. So any tension in that particular scenario must focus on the third question: at what cost? And in the fight with Detective Bowman, no one else is around who might get hurt, so we know the answer is “little or none.”

The car bomb is thus a perfect example of a Superman action sequence well-crafted to evoke tension. We know the bomb can’t hurt Superman physically, but we don’t know what it might cost: the explosion or immersion might damage the evidence disk, for example. The moment we see the fisherman watching the car plunge into the ocean, another possible cost is added: Superman might be exposed. We know, of course, from the episode’s title and first scene that at some point something will cost Superman the ability to live as Clark Kent by convincing the world that he’s dead, but we don’t know how or when that will happen–so that tension is present here, too.

Essentially all of the possibilities happen: the evidence is destroyed, meaning we no longer know how the execution will be prevented; Superman is unable to emerge near the fishing boat for fear of exposure (so the cost of potential exposure creates a brief second challenge, which Superman resolves by sneaking around); and as a consequence of trying to avoid exposure, Superman is unable to prevent the appearance that Kent’s car exploded and went off a cliff, ensuring Kent’s death.

The result is that Superman is in danger of “going insane.” He might lose the ability to express half his identity, and thereby be forced to deny his humanity and disconnect from the world, only ever seeing it from above. This is a fairly serious consequence and a genuine vulnerability, more than able to sustain the episode, especially since the episode takes pains to show us just how much he’d be losing, in the form of Lois Lane. She confesses to Superman that she genuinely likes and respects Clark and regrets not telling him that while he was alive, reminding both him and the audience of the friendship (and, we know, sooner or later, romance) that he stands to lose. Of course Lois likes Superman, too, but it’s difficult to imagine her affectionately teasing him or viewing him as a respected rival.

Lois shines in this episode, independently pursuing the cause of Clark’s death, finding the bug in his apartment, volunteering to confront Bowman with her suspicions and get him to confess so Superman can nab him. She is brave, determined, resourceful–it’s clear why Clark/Superman likes her so much, and that in turn makes it clear why he needs so badly to be Clark.

Heroes, one of my college professors was fond of saying, make terrible neighbors. They’re violent, noisy, and constantly getting into trouble and making messes; really the best thing to do with them is to just point them in the general direction of your enemies and hope they win but die tragically on the way home. Superman is no one’s neighbor; he lives in the sky, or alone at the North Pole. But Clark can have an apartment, coworkers, and friends.

Without Superman, Clark cannot be the protector he feels the need to be. But without Clark, Superman cannot connect to others–without Clark, he has no one to protect.


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2 thoughts on “Yeah, that’s Richie (The Late Mr. Kent)

  1. You know, the fracturing if identity as a response to trauma is a minor theme of the first DeMatteis era of Spider-Man and a major theme of the second. I get into this more next week.

    Like

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