A new Superman movie, Man of Steel, is in development, and after seeing the most recent trailer, I couldn’t be more excited. The film is directed by Zack Snyder, whose visuals are usually excellent despite so-so story-telling, produced by Christopher Nolan of single-handedly-reviving-the-superhero-film-genre-with-Batman fame, and stars Henry Cavill, who appears to have been genetically engineered for the role.
Judging by the trailer alone (some say I have too much hope), it seems like the film has the potential to become something really special: a big-screen adaptation of the ultimate superhero that does justice to what he means to many fans (myself included). The excellent narration of the trailer, provided by Superman’s biological father, Jor-El (played by Russel Crowe – there is another version featuring narration by Jon Kent, played by Kevin Costner), sets a lump in my throat and my eyes to watering, and captures perfectly the purpose and significance of the character:
“You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”
Superman, a.k.a. Clark Kent, a.k.a. Kal-El, is an incredibly complex character both in terms of his comic book incarnations and the public’s perception of him. Weighed down by decades of campy adaptations, inaccurate Christ comparisons, and sub-par storytelling, Superman is poised for a comeback on the more serious dramatic stage set by the recent Batman films. And given the relationship between the characters as two of the most popular of all time, it’s impossible not to compare them. It is common among people my age to dismiss Superman in favor of the Dark Knight, and that preference is an interesting touchstone with regards to the state of Western culture’s psychology.
If it wasn’t already clear, I am a fan of Superman, though not at the expense of my Batman fandom (friends know my faithful feline companion’s name to, in fact, be “Batman”). But it makes me sad to hear the tone of derision and cynicism with which many in my generation speak about Superman. I encountered this over the summer when the Man of Steel trailer above played ahead of The Dark Knight Rises. Despite the trailer’s obvious earnestness, it was met with murmurs of dismissal and scoffing. I was dismayed.
Like any good character, Superman has evolved since his creation and the most significant iterations have been fantastic (see Superman: Birthright, All-Star Superman, Superman: Secret Identity, and more). But for many, he is unfortunately nothing more than a cliched Boy Scout Christ allegory, without a place or relevance in today’s more hard-line, knife-edged age.
The gritty, depressing terror of the Batman films has dominated the pop-culture conversation regarding these types of characters and brought into question what they mean to the culture at large. Don’t get me wrong: I love Batman. The darker, more pragmatic side of me identifies with and idolizes the character for his ingenuity, steadfastness, seriousness of purpose, and many people obviously feel he’s very relevant.
But Batman inhabits a world of pessimism. Though he’s highly-skilled, the man in the suit is emotionally wounded. He rectifies wrongs, fights injustice, and helps others cope with the unfortunate ramifications of crime, but he cannot prevent crime. His most admirable qualities are generated in response to a world that reflects our own, but I find myself wondering if his is the kind of example we should seek to emulate. Any thoughtful reader or viewer knows that there is always too much injustice to combat permanently, so although we are entertained and satisfied by the stories, what do we take away? When we internalize the actions and ideals of a character like Batman, what do we do with his example? Is his path the one we need to walk?
Superman, on the other hand, offers the complete opposite, and although they differ, the characters are often presented as two sides of the same coin. Where Batman accepts a cynical reality, Superman encourages optimism with a vision of the individual as we would like ourselves to be. Where Batman is a human who is more super than any human will ever be, Superman is an alien who at his core possesses a humanity we wish we could emulate. Where Batman is distrustful and reticent, Superman is honest and joyous.
Superman is a metaphor that soars among the clouds, unhampered by the world that is, bringing into existence a fictional world we all wish could be reality.
As a recent ComicsAlliance piece demonstrated, the ideological significance of Superman cannot be understated. To celebrate Suicide Prevention Day, they posted a page from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman graphic novel. The page deals poignantly with a young woman’s intended suicide. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, she mistakenly concludes that no one – not even the doctor she came to trust – cares for her. Before she can kill herself, Superman assures her otherwise: “It’s never as bad as it seems. You are stronger than you think you are.”
Morrison wisely doesn’t have Superman show up in time to catch the girl after she’s jumped, making a cliched show of superheroics. Instead, Superman prevents disaster by offering a more human and inspiring solution: kind words and a hug. With this, Superman demonstrates the superheroics we could and should all engage in on a daily basis; to save a life is the kind of wonder we could and should all hope to achieve.
Sure, I may be ascribing more hope and credit than a big-budget film deserves, but the character of Superman – like the legends Robin Hood, King Arthur, Musashi, Gilgamesh, and countless others – holds special significance for culture and history. And sure, the stories from the comic books and movies don’t always embody the lofty paragon I’ve described here.
But in a time when you don’t have to work hard to witness the losing battle good, thoughtful people fight against true evil and horror every day in the real world, I personally cannot wait and sincerely hope that Man of Steel does what Superman has always done: Inspire hope for a better tomorrow among countless new and old fans everywhere. And that’s something I think the world could really use right now.
And if that’s not enough, bolting through the sky at the speed of sound is unarguably awesome.