There’s a new superhero in town — or was. He’s not the product of a radioactive spider bite. He’s not an emissary from a distant planet whose last dying gasp from an imploding red sun bestowed super human powers upon his earth-bound presence. He doesn’t employ futuristic firepower, nor does he spring from a nexus of alien worlds to bring hope to mankind.
He doesn’t wear a cape. He wears a cardigan. And he didn’t fly into my heart — he meekly walked into my life and the lives of millions of kids when we learned that there was strength in empathy and that being a good neighbor was the most powerful level of vigilante-ism that one can achieve.
Fred Rogers was the savior that we only recognize now that he’s gone and need him more than ever. The new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about his long-running PBS show for kids rivals anything in the Marvel or DC universe for sheer heroism.
Take the scene where Rogers faces off against Sen. John Pastore. Not since Batman went up against Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” was a battle scene more fraught with psychodrama than this engagement between truth and power.
Rogers’ salvo of manners and soft-spoken self-awareness took only six minutes to totally disarm the obstinate senator into dropping a dime on conservative values, and to give PBS the $20 million in funding that Rogers was championing.
Had Stan Lee produced “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” it couldn’t have been more rhapsodic to the darkness of society and how dependent we are on the hero to bring forth the light. Unlike the recipe for superhero cinema, there was no sense of the antihero. Mr. Rogers was all-positive. He had no alter ego whose persona was flirting with anger management. His powers lay in the innate potential we all have to do good, and to recognize the good in other people. He wasn’t as super human as he was just human.
And now that we are living in inhuman times, the need for Mr. Rogers is felt even more. It’s like the world without Superman after he was defeated by Doomsday. There is a void in the void.
We are living in the time of monsters and we need Fred Rogers back. Our own version of Doomsday rides the chariot of Air Force One to do battle with allies while creating unholy alliances with enemies. Migrant children are still waiting behind chain-link fences for unification with their parents, languishing in the Texas heat where Similac is force-fed to replace the milk from their mother’s breasts.
When will a hero swoop in? He just did — on celluloid at your nearest cineplex.
Maybe through art we can exhume Rogers’ persona and “tug on Superman’s cape” one last time. There is power in empathy. It is the most formidable weapon we have in our arsenal against hate.
Mr. Rogers makes sure that we will never forget that.