Sunday, August 5, 2007

Who Wants to Be a Supermensch?

So, let me begin by saying that I pretty much avoid all reality TV these days. To be fair, I did watch some of it when it was a new concept, followed a couple of seasons of Survivor, more or less, and a bit of Big Brother, The Amazing Race, The Mole, etc. But I soon lost interest. It's kind of like what Thoreau said about newspapers reporting on crime, once you are familiar with the concept of what happens, who needs all of the individual cases? Also, over the years, the amount of quality television, especially on HBO, Showtime, and the SciFi Channel, has increased significantly, and there's a limit to how much TV I can watch.

But there is one reality show that I do get a kick out of, one coming from the aforementioned SciFi Channel. It's Who Wants to Be a Superhero? The title is a take-off on the game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, which enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity several years ago, followed by a fast plummet, as so often is the case. So is the SciFi series a parody, as seems to be suggested by its title? Somewhat, but not entirely, as it provides an interesting mix of the ridiculous and the, well maybe not sublime, but certainly the sincere.

The series is hosted by Marvel Comics guru, Stan Lee, and plays on the fantasies of being a superhero that all of us, okay many of us, all right then, some of us, a few at least, had in childhood. Prospective contestants make their own superhero costumes, chose their own names, catchphrases, and overall themes, and come up with their own stories and powers, abilities, and/or hi-tech gadgets for their characters. So it really is about the kind of imaginative play that comic books have inspired in children, coupled with the adult's ability to put real money and skill into creating costumes (although they are later provided with professional reworkings of their original self-made uniforms).

There's a touch of American Idol at work here, as contestants have tryouts where they are interviewed, and presumably the most original, interesting, and heroic are chosen. They include a relatively short overview of the contestants that didn't make it at the beginning of the first episode, with more clips available online, but in my opinion this is a missed opportunity, because the early losers are the best part of American Idol and would make for good television here as well. Anyway, there's also a bit of Big Brother also incorporated into the program, as the contestants chosen then are given a "secret headquarters" where they (presumably) live, waiting to be summoned to perform various (superheroic) tasks.

The characters can be quite silly, the first season included characters like Cell Phone Girl

and Fat Mama

and this second season includes a housewife with the identity of Hygena, "fighting crime and grime!"

And the tasks and plot lines tend towards the melodramatic, especially with the appearance of supervillains. Everyone gets to take it semiseriously, strike heroic poses, rush off on missions, etc. This is the parody element, also deriving from the comic aspect of comics.

But there is a serious element as well, underneath all of the fun. While it is of course impossible for any of the contestants to have any real superpowers, they are subjected to various tests of character, to see whether they are heroic in the more human sense of the word, willing to help others, do good deeds, act in a selfless manner. This keeps the show from being a joke, and gives it some real punch, because often the tests of character come as a result of misdirection. For example, in the first episode, while the apparent task is to replace the tires on their vehicle, only a couple of the contestants noticed that there was a little old lady who needed help getting her walker out of the trunk of her car and a deliveryman needing help with carrying big, heavy packages, and therefore went to their aid (and no one picked up on the little lost dog tied up on the sidewalk).

There is added poignancy because, while some contestants are in it for the goof, or to promote themselves as actors or models, there are a few for whom the opportunity to become a hero is truly meaningful. Last year's winner, Feedback, explained that his father died when he was a kid, and that he found solace, and even moral guidance, in the comic books that he had read, and that Stan Lee was a surrogate father-figure for him.

Having lost my father when I was 9-years-old, I understood exactly what he was talking about, the longing and need for father figures, and the comfort derived from comics. I don't think it was as extreme for me as it was for this fellow, everyone seems to comment that he appears to be wound very tight, but I can understand what he was talking about. This year, there's a contestant called Whip-Snap, a 31-year-old African-American woman who is similarly quite emotional, extremely grateful just to be there, having made her way through a difficult and disadvantaged childhood, pulling herself up by her own bootstraps to become a security officer in real life. My money is on her to win.

And that's what is really significant about this otherwise silly, but nonetheless entertaining show. I've mentioned in previous posts how Ernest Becker, in books like The Denial of Death, discusses the need we all have to shore up our self-esteem against the knowledge of our own mortality, and how culture works to compensate by making us feel like heroes, the heroes of our own stories not just in the sense of a central character, but as heroes who accomplish something of significance, defend others, defeat some form of evil, improve the lot of our fellow human beings. The moral of this show is that the real heroism is not about costumes and powers, it's about character and compassion. Not bad, Stan Lee, not bad. You sir, are quite the hero yourself.

So, now, you may have noticed that the title of this post includes a Yiddishism, mensch, which means more than just an adult, it's someone who acts in an exemplary way, who has excellent character, someone who takes responsibility--one of Stan Lee's enduring quotes is, with great power comes great responsibility--in sum, a hero.

So, well, one of the contestants this year is Yidden himself, ta daaa, Mr. Mitzvah!

Watching the show with my son, who thinks the program's silly but still wants to see it, there's a certain pleasure about seeing one of our own up there. There's also a certain amount of discomfort, coming from all those centuries of not wanting to call too much attention to ourselves, lest it result in new prejudice, persecution, or pogroms. And like many other ethnic groups, there's a concern about falling into negative stereotypes.

So, how does Mr. Mitzvah measure up? Well, the way he talks reminds me of comedian Jackie Mason. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it definitely emphasizes the ethnic identity. And I certainly wouldn't hold against him the fact that I really don't care for Mason, as a public persona with decidedly conservative politics, or for his humor--I recall distinctly a routine where he was going on about Jews not knowing how to use tools, and while it does apply to me, I will admit, it also ticked me off because my father was quite handy, and worked in an automobile body shop after immigrating to the U.S. (his real ambition was to design cars), and further Jewish-Americans were very much a part of the working class for much of the 20th century, and very much a part of the unfairly maligned labor union movement in this country.

Mr. Mitzvah himself is a rich man, a multimillionaire, having earned his money the old fashioned way, by inheritance. So, there's nothing wrong with that per se, although it potentially contributes to stereotypes about Jews always having money. But he's not flaunting it or acting spoiled or (God forbid!) cheap, or anything, and he's being identified as a Bruce Wayne type--that's Batman's secret identity, in case you didn't know, but it has been a common formula, a kind of noblesse oblige where a rich man who has everything (including leisure time) decides to devote himself to fighting crime, generally using money to buy equipment and aid that compensates for a lack of any special powers, . Now, that's pretty cool to see Mr. Mitzvah in that role, as that heroic type has traditionally been a WASP (who else but those of English ancestry would be old money rich, upper class types that feel this strong connection to American society and willingness to risk all to defend it? that's the cultural logic behind it, anyway).

As a rich playboy, he's often shown making remarks about the dating potential of various women, even supervillains like Bee Sting! On the plus side, it goes against the stereotype to depict Jews as sexy, on the minus there is a tendency to portray all others, non-whites, non-Christians, even Europeans and especially those of Mediterranean descent as lecherous. But overall, I think this comes across more as cute than as perverse.

And he's funny. He's a comedian. Okay, that's another stereotype, but it is a positive stereotype, and no one complains about positive stereotypes, so I won't either. After all, I'm funny too... right? right? right?

But here's the thing. In true superhero fashion, Mr. Mitzvah has a secret identity. I don't mean that his real name is Ivan Wilzig--oops, was I not supposed to reveal that? But what I mean is that there is much more to this guy than meets the eye, real depth. How typical as well for Jews to hide our serious side, tragic backgrounds, etc. Is it any wonder that the pioneers of superhero comics were Jewish, and that one of the mainstays of the superhero formula was the secret identity?

What am I talking about regarding Mr. Mitzvah? you may ask. Well, let me share with you an article from the North Jersey Record published on August 1st:

'M' is for 'Mr. Mitzvah,' superhero of peace
Wednesday, August 1, 2007


The 7-year-old boy looked down at his father's arm, at the 6-inch string of characters and symbols. He did not understand.

His father made light of it, told him it was his phone number and that he had written it down so he wouldn't forget it because he had a bad memory.

At school, one of the boy's friends bragged that his father had served in the Army. Another friend boasted about his dad's tenure with the Marines. The boy did not know what his father did during World War II.

"Tell them I was a lieutenant in the French Navy," his father said.

The father did not cloak his identity forever. When the boy was old enough, Siggi Wilzig unlocked the door to a world of horror.

He told his firstborn son, Ivan, that his family lost 59 relatives during the Holocaust. Ivan's grandmother was sent to the gas chamber. His grandfather was beaten to death. Twenty times Siggi Wilzig faced the cold stare of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. According to Ivan Wilzig, a jerk of Mengele's thumb to the left would have sent his father to the gas chamber.

"He told us at an age when we could absorb it without being terrified," Wilzig said.

Maybe this explains why there's a 51-year-old man standing on the roof of a nine-story apartment building in Soho. Maybe it explains why that man is wearing a gold jacket, gold gloves, gold boots and is carrying a black paddle with the Star of David.

Maybe this explains why former Clifton resident Ivan Wilzig -- musician, playboy, philanthropist -- is playing Jewish superhero "Mr. Mitzvah" on the Sci Fi Channel show "Who Wants to Be a Superhero?"

The second season of the show features contestants proving their mettle in superhero-themed challenges for the chance to be immortalized in a real-life comic book of their own. On this season's pilot, the 10 characters broke into teams of five and had to find a way to shut off twin out-of-control water valves.

A real-life Bruce Wayne

In other words, it's perfect for Wilzig.

"If not Ivan, who else?" said Gabor Harrach, a European television producer and longtime friend of Wilzig. "Who else lives this life like a real-life Bruce Wayne, living in a castle? Ivan is not putting on a costume pretending to be something. He believes it. He lives that. Ivan puts on superhero costumes and goes to nightclubs, to parties. He walks on the street with it. He really lives that character."

Wilzig has three homes: one in South Beach, Fla., a castle in the Hamptons and a loft in Manhattan. He is the heir to a banking empire that made his father millions. Siggi Wilzig died in 2003, but Ivan is paying tribute to his scars, to that identification number that was written on his arm.

"I decided that it was an homage to my late father who was an Auschwitz survivor and was a superhero not just to the Jewish people but to the planet," Wilzig said.

This fascination with superheroes began when he was a pup. His mother, Naomi, remembers the comic books -- "Captain Marvel," "Superman," "Batman" -- cluttering her Clifton home. She said his personality made him a natural performer.

"First of all, he's always been, let's say, a little bit of a flamboyant character," she said. "He's always been out there. He's never been introverted. He's a total extrovert."

Angered by violence

She was not surprised when her son turned to music in 2000, when he began wearing capes, when he pursued a spot on this Sci Fi series. Angered by the violence and horrors that populated the front pages of newspapers, infuriated by suicide bombings in Israel, Wilzig took up the cause for peace.

He wore capes emblazoned with the peace symbol. Friends and fans began calling him "Peaceman." The persona stuck.

"It was easy to say when it was just Jewish hands and arms and legs that were being blown off on a daily basis," Wilzig said. "That, too, changed quickly after Sept. 11, after the towers came down, and it was no longer innocent Jewish men, women and children being blown to bits and murdered but every nationality, every religion and decent folk from all over the world.

"Then the world finally woke up and realized that evil is evil, and that there is right and wrong, and there are the bad guys versus the good guys."

He is one of nine heroes left on "Who Wants to Be a Superhero?" The show eliminates one contestant a week. Wilzig ... er ... "Mr. Mitzvah" knows that each week he survives breathes life into his father's memory.

"He had this quote that was engraved in marble over the fireplace in the boardroom in his office in Jersey City," Wilzig said. "It said, 'Free men who forget their bitter past do not deserve a bright future.' He didn't just say this; he lived it."

Up on the roof of a Soho apartment building, a 51-year-old Jewish man in a gold jacket, gold gloves and gold boots glances down at the city, wondering where trouble will strike next.

So, this guy is just a little bit older than me, and like me, the son of Holocaust survivors. And I can understand the feeling that he must have, knowing the incredible ordeal that your parents went through, and wanting to measure up to that. My only hope is that some of this back story is revealed before he is eliminated from the competition (as I have already indicated who the winner will be). By the way, the same article included the following boxed-off "stats" about him:

Ivan Wilzig

Age: 51.

Born: Newark (raised in Clifton).

Hometown(s): Miami, Manhattan.

Superhero identities: Mr. Mitzvah, Peaceman.

Occupation: Musician.

This and that: Heir to his father's banking empire. ... Frequently appears on the gossip pages, usually for throwing wild parties at his castle in the Hamptons. ... Had a hit song with a techno remake of John Lennon's "Imagine." ... Has filmed a pilot for a show called "Peaceman," which he says is a combination of reality, scripted material and animation.

So, he's interested in entertainment, and media? Stereotypical? Well, maybe, but, what the hell, I say: Godspeed, Mr. Mitzvah, kick 'em in tuchus!

Oh, and the SciFi channel website offers a hero creator! It was acting glitchy when I tried it, so things didn't come out as well as they should have, but how could I resist sharing?

And what else is there left to say, but:

Up, Up, and Oy Vey!!!!!!!!!!

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