Man of Steel: Why it's Just Fine It's Not Called "Superman"

Man of Steel promo posterImage at left courtesy the Man of Steel Fan Facebook page.

About an hour ago, a friend of mine wrote to me to ask my opinions on Man of Steel, Zack Snyder's upcoming Superman reboot. Besides my status as "comic book guy" to most of my friends, this particular person had met me and known me for years as an employee or manager of her local video store (back then, you used to go to a store and...nevermind, ask your parents), so it's likely I just seemed like a good candidate to have a strong opinion on the movie. Apparently I did, as without really meaning to I dashed off an e-mail that's part sermon, part history lesson and part reflection on my expectations for Man of Steel. Around the thousandth word, I figured I would copy and paste it here, sharing it with my readers as it's a reflection of why the word "Superman" being absent from the film's title doesn't bother me as much as it has many of our readers. I'm going to present the e-mail here with minimal editing, so there will be some of this that dedicated Superman and/or comics fans will already know. "What are your thoughts on the new Superman movie?" She asked me. "I like the casting but am not sure about keeping true to the mythology." My response: First of all, I apologize in advance for this. You asked a simple question.

Superman Unchained variant by Dave Johnson

How do you mean not sure about keeping true to the mythology? Either remaining true to it or deviating both present challenges for the filmmakers, and Superman's mythology is a living document. I think the end result is what matters: Is the movie GOOD, and does it retain the spirit of Superman? Then it worked, regardless of whether Perry was black or not along the way. Nobody much knows the answer to that question yet, of course. Grant Morrison, widely accepted as one of the great Superman writers of the last 20 years, was recently asked about changes to Superman's mythology in Man of Steel and to Iron Man's (much more significant) changes in the third Iron Man film. His response was one that I liked so much I'm hanging onto it for the future: "In Australia, Aboriginal artists, every generation goes in and repaints the cave paintings. And they all tell the same stories over generations. And that's what we do. The human species tells the same stories over and over again. Stories of heroes and villains. And I think we have to update them for each new generation," said Morrison. "Any fans who cling on to maybe a version of something they read when they were children are really just hanging on to a past. The world's moved on. There's new children. They want their version of it. So I think it's very important to freshen these things up and to update them and to move them forward and to look at them in the context of all the things we're interested in now."

Superman Unchained #1 variant cover by Jerry Ordway

Honestly, my "version" of Superman, the one that I connect with and the character I think of in my head when someone says "Superman," has been gone since around 1999 or so, his history and attitude quietly changed until he was unrecognizable to me in order to appeal to a different demographic. The version that replaced him vanished in 2011 when they rebooted the whole publishing line. And my version, in turn, sprang to life in 1986 after the previous one was deemed too quaint for his own good. So it's cyclical, and it has been for years. Before we had giant, continuity-altering, time-travel stories to "force" the change, we had the simple act of a writer consciously changing the depiction of a character to better reflect the times. Superman, when introduced, was like Tom Joad, except bullets bounced off of him. His first nickname wasn't "The Man of Steel," "The Man of Tomorrow" or "The Last Son of Krypton"--it was "Champion of the Oppressed." In that issue, Superman saves a woman who is going to be executed by finding the real killer, he stops a man who was whipping his wife with a belt and he confronts a lobbyist who is trying to get the United States involved in World War II. In his earliest appearances he fought fat-cat bankers who gamed the system and screwed the little guy...but twenty years later he was busting on "commies" just like any other American pop-culture hero. In the '70s, his book became increasingly science fiction-oriented, which continued until the '80s when they officially hit the "reset" button the first time.

Superman Unchained #1 variant by Dan Jurgens

I'm slightly bummed that "my" version (1986-1999 or so) never got a major motion picture, but I won't let that sway me against the new movie. I'm enthusiastic about this film. One of the things that they seem to be doing right is getting to the heart of who Superman is and why he does what he does. In the past, it's always been that he was a generally good guy and was raised right but they didn't really give much beyond that. And ultimately that's fine, as not much is needed. But exploring Clark before he was Superman has some value, and I'll explain why: One of the things I really like about Superman is that he isn't driven by revenge or loss or any of the typical things that you need to thrust a hero into action. Superman's a bit more like a parent figure; he does what he does because "why in the world wouldn't I? I've got all these gifts...". He sees superhero-ing as essentially being a millionaire and giving to the food bank or the collection plate at church when they come knocking. It's less a sense of duty than just doing the right thing, making the right decision, from one moment to the next. That said, a fundamental part of Superman (or at least the modern interpretation of Superman) has never really made it to the big screen (although they communicated it fairly well in Smallville), and it looks like this movie will deliver on that score. There's an adage among comics readers that Batman is the real guy, and Bruce Wayne is the mask he wears in the daytime. Superman, meanwhile, is a costume that Clark Kent puts on. Batman is driven by guilt and rage and his truest, most recognizable self is the one who dresses up in body armor and pummels people who remind him of the guy who killed his parents. He wears the costume to strike fear into the heart of criminals who are, by nature, "a superstitious and cowardly lot." Superman, on the other hand, wears a costume to protect Clark Kent, and to give himself a chance at a normal life in the off-hours. Clark is who he is, and Clark is a hero in his own right. He's an award-winning investigative journalist and when he's occasionally found himself without powers, that hasn't stopped him putting himself in harm's way for a story. Dressing as Superman, and NOT wearing a mask, is a calculated move. If he were wearing a mask, there would always be a question of who's under it, and so he would always be worried about protecting his identity. Not wearing one, and going out in public, gives people the impression that this is his life. The hope is that they assume when he's not Superman, he's off on another planet or in his Arctic Fortress or something. They don't think he's even got another life because, why would he? (Seen in that light, incidentally, the idea that changing your hairstyle, posture and wearing glasses might ACTUALLY be a legitimate disguise for Clark, since nobody's looking for Superman to be anywhere else. I mean, we have no reason to assume that President Obama has a second life, either, so if you saw someone who looked a lot like him, would you accuse him of being President? Would people try to assassinate him? Probably not.)

Clark Kent

This is also why he's seen in one of the trailers, as a kid, crying to his mom about how his heightened senses manifest themselves. "The world is too big," he says, and it's an echo of a famous scene in the comic book miniseries The Man of Steel, in which he comes back home to Kansas after having just saved the experimental aircraft that Lois was flying in (his public debut, at least at that time). When he landed, he was mobbed by people. Press wanting interviews, people thinking he was a miracle worker and could heal their whatever... He flew back home and sat on his childhood bed, crying, telling his father, "Everybody wants a piece of me," fearing that his life would never be normal again. Not that it would have stopped him doing what he had to do--it's a bit like Christ, who called out to his (His?) dad for the burden to be shifted to someone else just before he (He?) was taken into custody by Pilate's men. He wants, deep down, to be Clark Kent and ultimately he needs to be, too, because that's what really grounds him.

Kingdom Come example #10comments

Enclosed, find two images, both from the 1997 miniseries Kingdom Come by Alex Ross and Mark Waid. The story, an award-winning and best-selling one, used big action set pieces as an excuse to navel gaze on the notion of what makes Superman important. At the start of the tale, he's retired, and has been for ten years--living in seclusion while a generation of kids with powers call themselves "superheroes" and go act out their adolescent power fantasies, blurring the line between which ones are supposed to be good or bad and causing TONS of property damage. Wonder Woman comes to Superman on his "farm" at the South Pole and asks that he come back in response to a global crisis that's brewing. "Our generation takes its lead from you; it always has," she tells him. "If you don't face this then neither will the rest of us and it just goes on." He is, at first, not won over by her pleas but comes around once he turns on the news and sees how bad things are. I maintain that part of why he's hesitant is that she calls him by his Kryptonian name--standing on ceremony at his insistence but failing, ultimately, to speak to the part of Superman that's most important--Clark.

kingdom come 4 pg35

The second, from the finale of the story, sees Superman enraged by the United Nations. They tried to kill him, for reasons I won't get into. He survived but lots of other people around him were killed and he's...not happy. The man speaking is a minister, who serves as the point-of-view character for the story. In the company of an angel, he spends most of the book watching from an unseen plane, but demands that the angel let him be seen and speak to Superman just once. "Listen to me, Clark," he says. "Of all the things you can do...all your powers...the greatest has always been your instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. It was a gift of your own humanity. You never had to question your choices. In any situation, any crisis...you knew what to do." This speech brings Superman back from the edge of madness and despair, connecting with his humanity in a way that Wonder Woman completely failed to. And that's been the thing about the film adaptations up until now: "You will believe a man can fly" was the most important thing. SUPERMAN was the most important thing. Clark was secondary--at best--and frankly it left the character a bit shallow and aloof. Because without Clark Kent, Superman is basically just a costume.