We had to stand in line for two hours to get into the movie. I considered asking Ken to sneak us in at Splendid Speed, but I knew he would never use his powers for his own advantage.
The movie wasn’t worth the wait. Like all these movies they’re making about Splendid Heroes these days, it was long on violence and special effects, and short on character and verisimilitude. And like all its ilk, it portrayed the hero as tough and vengeful, rather than noble and just. I felt Ken squirm beside me several times and suspected he felt as did I. The crowd seemed to love it, though. I guess there’s no accounting for taste.
The only good thing about the movie was Lance DeWilde, the unknown actor who had been cast to portray the Man of Splendor. I reflected on the irony that his name was so reminiscent of Tyrone DeBold’s, the actor who had played Splendid Man in the TV show all those years ago. But where DeBold had been broad of frame and rather craggy of feature, this new kid very nearly mirrored Splendid Man’s panther-like grace and classic good looks. Not to mention how uncannily he captured the vaguely effeminate air Splendid Man assumes in his secret identity of Ken Clayton.
Ken seemed pensive when we left the theater. I was about to ask what was the matter when a young autograph hound ran up crying, “Hey! Aren’t you Lance DeWilde?”
Ken simply said, “No.” I had never seen him so curt with anyone before.
A few blocks later, after the crowd had thinned out, we were finally able to talk.
“I’m not like that, am I, Will?” he asked.
“It’s only a movie,” I said. “You know how they always butcher good stories when they make movies out of them. Look at Cheaper by the Dozen.”
“I don’t mean that,” he said. “I mean the way they portrayed me. Tell me, Will, do you think I’d stoop to beating the bad guy insensate? Do you think I’d take personal retribution on some poor twisted soul who felt a life of crime was his only recourse?”
“But that’s how they always portray Splendid Heroes in movies these days. Look at that Dark Catman movie they made. We both know Catman would never douse the villain with gasoline and set him on fire.”
“I can’t believe the way the audience reacted,” he went on, as if he hadn’t heard a word I’d said. “Is that what people want from me? Do they want the self-appointed guardian of mankind to use his Splendid Powers to vindicate himself on personal enemies?”
I’d never seen Splendid Man so upset, not even when he’d told me of how he had been unwittingly responsible for the death of his foster-parents, Joseph and Mary Clayton, when he’d taken them vacationing to a deserted Pacific atoll having forgotten that it was to be the site of an atomic bomb test.
“And another thing,” Ken said. “Do they take my vow to mankind so lightly? Do they think I’d give up my Splendid Powers just for the love of a woman? Tell me, Will. Would you marry a woman who demanded that you give up writing?”
“I thought not. I’m very fond of Pepper, Will. Have no doubt about it. But what makes these filmmakers think that after years of dating I would suddenly give up everything for her hand in marriage? Do they think that after decades of preserving my secret identity through innumerable clever ruses, I would give it away by absentmindedly sticking my hand in a meat grinder? And besides, is it fair to Pepper? It’s just going to get her hopes up again, and you don’t know how it distresses me to see her get hurt.”
“Maybe you should view the movie as an imaginary story, such as the comics used to feature,” I suggested. “Like the one in which Pepper is rocketed to Strontium as a tot and becomes the Splendid Woman from Earth. Or the one in which you’re injected with a serum as an infant which causes you to grow into the High Rise Splendid Boy.”
“You know as well as I do that comic book sales are down, Will. Millions of people out there will see this movie and take that picture of me for what I really am, instead of the picture my pals at AC/DC Comics have been faithfully painting of me for all these years. That guy who wrote the movie, that Jerry Jacobs fella, he’d really be in trouble if I were the kind of guy he made me out to be. I’d fly down to Hollywood this minute and let him have it. Pow! Right in the kisser!”
We came upon a cafe that was open late. When I suggested that we get a cup of coffee, Ken followed me silently. It was one of those places that tries for an old-fashioned decor. It even had a revolving door.
Ken brooded silently at the table. I tried to cheer him up. “Think of it this way,” I said. “Sure the movie showed you being petty and thuggish. It shouldn’t have. But at least it showed good triumphing over evil.”
“Did it, Will?” When the coffee came, Ken sipped at his listlessly. He looked so depressed, I wondered if there might not be some silver strontiumite secreted nearby. ”Did it show good triumphing over evil? It showed a hero, who is supposed to represent good, giving in to all sorts of self-indulgences. Of course, everybody is tempted by revenge and sex and cutting into a long line. But part of standing up for goodness is resisting those temptations, doing what’s best for mankind.”
“That’s true,” I said. “But a lot of teenage moviegoers would have trouble identifying with that.”
“That’s the trouble with this world!” yelled Ken, pounding his fist on the table. People stared. Fortunately, even in his anger, he held back his Splendid Strength, and the table wasn’t reduced to sawdust. “Why can’t youngsters identify with someone who commits himself to the good of other people? When I was a boy, growing up in Turnipville, my friends and I thought of nothing but what was right. If it ever appeared that my parents or my boyhood friends Roswell Smutts or Patti Pert or my loyal Splendid Dog Stronto had done some wrong, it was invariably either a misunderstanding or the scheme of some dastardly villain! And the villains were always defeated! They were evil to the core, and doesn’t good always defeat evil?”
When he finished his tirade, the cloud came back into his eyes. “I don’t know,” he said, stirring his coffee idly. “The world was simpler then. Maybe I’m just out of date.”
“But you continue to be the idol of millions,” I said. “You’ve inspired generations with your never-ending battle for truth, justice, and, until the neo-conservative hijacking of our government, the American Way. The good people of the Earth can sleep secure in their beds, knowing that you are watching over them.”
“Don’t try to cheer me up, Will,” he sighed. “I know how helpless I am. What can Splendid Strength do to slow the spread of religious intolerance at home and abroad? What can all the Splendid Vision in the universe do against the scourge of AIDS? How can Splendid Breath prevent the polarization of the body politic? How can Splendid Ventriloquism stamp out genocide in the third world? Can even my Strontiumese invulnerability turn back the rising tide of homophobia?” He shook his head dismally.
Somehow I had to bring my pal out of his profound depression. I thought I’d been glum over my financial and romantic problems, but now I realized what a burden the hero of heroes must bear on his mighty shoulders. Even the worst days at my temporary telemarketing job couldn’t compare to this. I felt a little selfish.
“I’ve never heard you like this before,” I said.
“I try not to show it,” he said. “It would dispirit too many people. You know, I’ve always had the feeling that my Splendid-Powered pals in the North American Alliance for Meetness look up to me, and I know I’m a big influence on my little cousin Splendid Girl and such other young heroes as the Array of Splendid Striplings and the Pubescent Paladins, that posse of powerful sidekicks. What would they all think if Splendid Man sat around crying into his coffee instead of taking action?”
“Do you feel like this a lot?”
“When something happens to me to make me feel helpless,” he said. “The only way to fight the feeling is to fly. It’s like that book you gave me for my last birthday, Zorba the Greek. Zorba dances, I fly. When Ma and Pa Clayton were vaporized by that atomic blast, I flew. When the blue android space criminal Cerebriac shrank the Strontiumese city of Strontor into a can, I flew. I know what the Strontorians thought: That Splendid Man, he is a madman! Here we are, shrunk into a can, and he flies! But if I did not fly I would burst with grief. No one, my friend, not even a native of Strontium under the influence of Earth’s lesser gravity and argon-tinged atmosphere, is invulnerable to a broken heart. When I look over the Earth and see how miserable people are and how little Splendid Man can do for them, then I have to fly. I have to fight malevolent villains! I have to smash runaway planetoids!”
“But you do good,” I said. “What if you didn’t fight Cerebriac and San Francisco got shrunk into a can of Manwich? What if you weren’t there to perform urgent missions in outer space? Think how much misery there would be.”
Ken lowered his head despondently. “I try,” he said. “But then this movie comes along. It makes me wonder about the whole thing.”
Just then, an aging autograph hunter came to the table, calling, “Hey, aren’t you Tyrone DeBold? I thought you’d jumped off a bridge.”
For a moment, I thought Ken was going to vindicate the moviemakers and hit him. Then he grabbed the man’s autograph book, scribbled something quickly, and shoved it back at him. The man read it, said, “Asshole,” and walked away.
“How did you sign it?” I asked.
“Clark Kent,” he said.
I could see he was becoming bad-tempered. “Listen, what you need is a drink. It’ll take your mind off it.”
“Drinking won’t help, Will. With my invulnerable brain cells, alcohol has no effect on my mood or behavior. As much as I enjoy the taste and social ritual of liquor, I could never get drunk except under an argon-free atmosphere.”
I shook my head. “I guess invulnerability isn’t everything.”
Abruptly he stood up, staring off into space. “Excuse me, Will,” he said, and hurried to the revolving door. He spun himself around the door so fast that he and it became a blur. Out flew Splendid Man, where Ken Clayton had been mere moments before. The revolving door slowly rotated to a stop.
I waited quite a while for him to return, long enough to finish my coffee. At last I got up and went to the men’s room. When I returned, Ken was waiting for me at the table. He looked refreshed.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Giganto the Splendid Mandrill escaped from the distant past in which I had imprisoned him,” he said. “He was wreaking havoc in Municipalitus, seeking vengeance on me, the little red and gold man who originally captured him. Defeating him wasn’t easy, but I had virtue on my side.”
“There, you see,” I said. “How many people would have been hurt if you hadn’t been here?”
“It wasn’t like that movie, I’ll tell you,” he said. “The villain in the movie hit Splendid Man with a nuclear sub and he vanished for twenty minutes before he came crawling back like some ninety-seven pound weakling. But not me! I’ve been hit with much bigger things than nuclear subs in my time, and I’m none the worse for it. I’d like to see that Hollywood Splendid Man tangle with a giant mandrill with strontiumite eyes!”
I could see that the change of pace had perked him up. I said, “Let’s pay the check and go out for a while. Maybe we could fly somewhere.”
He caught my wrist. “Tell me, Will. Tell me the truth,” he said earnestly. “I do help people, don’t I?”
“Yes, you do, Ken.”
“And you believe I do it for the good of mankind, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. We all do.”
“And I’m not like that Splendid Man in the movie, am I?”
“One more thing, Will. Do I really look like Lance DeWilde? I mean, I always gave myself some credit for having character in my face. I’m not really that boyishly cute, am I?”
“Well…er…don’t worry about that,” I said. “After all, DeWilde’s just a movie star. You’re the Man of Splendor. He can’t even fly without machines.”
“I suppose not,” said Ken. “But you know, once or twice in the movie I almost believed he could. It’s too bad they can’t use all that money and all those special effects to make a good movie.”
“Well,” I said, “that’s Hollywood.”
“Yes, and I guess that’s life,” he said, and we left the cafe much happier than when we’d entered it.
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