Sunday, April 13, 2014

Parenting in "Star Trek" and "Man of Steel"

 
I'm a Star Trek and Superman freak. I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a "trekkie," though I did see the late James Doohan at the University of Texas a few years ago. I was so accustomed to his Mr. Scott, it was a shock to hear him speaking without an accent. I also saw George Tekei at a science fiction convention, once. Superman and I have yet to meet, but that doesn't rule out the possibility. You never know, he might decide my hayfield looks like a homey place to stop by, en route to an adventure somewhere else. 

I'm especially fond of the reboot versions that have appeared over the past couple of years and watch them every chance I get. As a matter of fact, I was watching Man of Steel (2013) for the umpteenth time this past weekend, when I began noticing similarities between Superman and Captain James T. Kirk, particularly in their relationships with fathers and father figures.

Both characters, for example, experienced the loss of their biological fathers at or near the moment of childbirth and under similar circumstances. Kirk's dies in the process of trying to secure the safety of his wife, newborn son, and crew, while battling the renegade Romulan, Nero (Star Trek, 2009). Superman's father, Jor-El, is killed by General Zod, while sending his son to safety on Earth. Both men are subsequently raised by step-fathers, with somewhat different outcomes.

Technically-speaking, Kirk never has a "step-father" in the sense his mother remarries. In Star Trek (2009), we find him, his mother and brother, living with an uncle with whom their relationships are conflicted. Our introduction to a teenaged Kirk occurs in the scene where he "steals" a vintage Corvette Stingray his uncle claims is "his," and drives it off a cliff. It looks like a typical case of adolescent acting-out, but as the deleted scenes indicate, the car actually belongs to Kirk and his brother, an inheritance from their father. Its destruction, however, reveals how much Kirk resents his uncle and the way he treats his nephews.

Superman is raised by adoptive parents after his spacecraft crash lands on their Kansas farm. In many ways, he has a far more functional family life than Kirk. He is the child his step-parents wanted and never had. He is loved and protected from the misunderstanding that may result from the premature use of his powers and his step-father frequently reminds him his presence here is for a reason. Although Superman ultimately learns the meaning of his potential from a holographic representation of Jor-El, his becoming a man of integrity results from the influence of his step-parents.

Kirk needs an experience like that of Superman, but it doesn't materialize until his early twenties. He's grown up a "genius-level repeat offender," with little concern for his future until he encounters Christopher Pike, an officer in Starfleet, following a bar fight. Pike offers Kirk what he's always lacked: a strong male role model who sees his potential and challenges him to develop it. 

In Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), we witness Pike reprimanding Kirk for violating the Prime Directive on a recent mission. More importantly, he's angry and clearly disappointed because Kirk lied on his mission report rather than accept responsibility for his actions. Pike has expectations for Kirk that exceed those he might have for any other officer; they're the expectations a father has for his son. Nevertheless, when Kirk is relieved of command of the Enterprise, Pike goes out on a limb and argues he's worthy of a second chance. It reminds me of something I learned from my own father: dads never give up on their children.

Pike does, in essence, what no one has done before, in Kirk's experience. He requires him to live up to higher standards of integrity and behavior. He has confidence in Kirk but he knows his greatest weakness is his ego-centric immaturity. As a father figure, Pike also knows Kirk has yet to realize that mature masculinity must be rooted in something greater than himself. Pike's death is meaningful, not only because it entails losing the only functional father figure Kirk has ever known, but because it represents losing his closest connection with his biological father. His tears aren't for Pike alone, they're for the father he never knew and the life he never had.
  
Superman, in a similar manner, has to come to the place where his life is rooted in something transcendent. His earliest efforts to use his abilities are sporadic and situational. He rescues a crew from a burning oil drilling platform, then finds a job in a bar. He's still bound by his step-father's fears he will be rejected by the people of Earth. Superman's encounter with Jor-El helps him begin integrating who he is as Cal-El, with the life he's been given by his step-parents. In this way he is enabled to create his own vision of himself as one pledged to help humankind.

Death is a key player in the myths of Superman and Captain Kirk. Superman has to risk his life to prevent the destruction of planet Earth. Kirk literally does give his life to save the Enterprise and her crew. Both must also "die" to an immature understanding of themselves in order to become the person they were meant to be. Each received instruction in dying from a father who gave himself for those he loved. They received instruction in living from men who chose to be fathers for their sake. I'm not sure anything we do possesses greater significance than how we raise our children. Kirk and Superman show us why.  

(Creative Commons image of Man of Steel billboard by Victoria Pickering via Flickr)
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