I wrote this for Destiny Connect, just trying to make sense of the last few weeks.
I must have been about 5 or 6 years old sitting on the flower-patterned couch of my family’s house in Benoni, when I first watched the blue-caped figure known as Superman, played at the time by Christopher Reeve, flying through the sky, his arm stretched out reaching for the top of the TV screen. It’s one of those images, like the green-shells of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lining up or She-Ra hoisting her golden sword from out of the holster in her back that left an indelible mark of awe on me about just how powerful superheroes could be.
Fast forward a good 20-odd years later, and I find myself in the plush red seat of an AMC Loews on the Upper West Side in New York City, watching a new Superman perform the same action, only now – thanks to the wonder of 3D – his arm is reaching out beyond the top of the giant cinema screen. The little girl in me still squeals in delight, and no doubt many movie-goers will too when the film opens on circuit. Why is it that we are still so obsessed with superheroes, even as adults? So much so, that they seem to be all the big blockbuster movies are about these days.
It’s a thought still on my mind as I stand in the highest heels I own, on a black carpet waiting to interview the cast of the new Superman movie, Man of Steel and the new actor who plays Superman at the film’s premiere, Henry Cavill. And yet on my mind is a bigger concern, relating to a “Superman” of another kind – Nelson Mandela, the first democratically-elected president of my home country, in hospital for the third time this year, his health a worried concern for the whole of South Africa, and indeed the world.
As with previous occasions, South Africa is trying to come to terms with losing him – what that will mean, whether the country would be able to handle it, why he should be allowed to go in peace. Every piece of news is analyzed, every bit anticipated. I keep checking my phone for the latest email, the latest text, the latest tweet.
And so, with Kevin Costner, who plays Superman’s Earth father, Jonathan, standing in front of me, I ask if he’s ever met Madiba. He replies yes, and tells me what I’ve heard many say before: upon meeting him, he found a genuine kindness to the man. “A man of history. Somebody who stood up like Superman and who paid a terrible price,” he says. “But I think it was fortunate for him because he was true to himself that he’s felt the love wherever he’s gone. He’s lived his life always true to himself.”
I feel for a moment silly to have made the comparison between a fictional character and the man who spent 27 years imprisoned for trying to end Apartheid. But it is as if many still want Mandela to be that superhero who saved South Africa from a perilous future. Even now, as he lays in a hospital bed. Because there are so many evil forces, who, like Michael Shannon’s General Zod, claim to have their people’s best interests at heart, but don’t.
There’s a scene in the movie where Clark Kent is talking to his Earth mom about his dad not being around to see him do great things with his life. Diane Lane, who plays the character, soothes her son’s distress by saying: “He already knew what you would become. He already knew.”
We’re worried Mandela’s not going to be around to see it – our democracy truly flourish. But he already knows. He’s done his part. Like Jonathan Kent, he’ll let go when he’s ready. But it’s no spoiler to tell you that in the end Superman had to let go too, to become all that he was meant to be. And it’s no spoiler to say that in real life we have to as well.