Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.
Something happened on June 10, the Man of Steel returned and he’s… the same but different.
“Man of Steel” is of course the latest reboot of Superman, directed by Zach Snyder (“Watchmen,” “300”) and produced by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy.)
Superman was created in 1933 by two nerdy high school students from Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, and first appeared in Action Comics in 1938. Superman may have been the first of the comic book superheros, though preceded into print by their lesser-known creation “Doctor Occult” in 1935.
There are good-sized libraries of books written about the meaning of Superman as modern myth. The whole comic superhero genre was the creation of a handful of artists and writers who were the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants such as Seigel and Shuster, Bob Kane (Batman), Will Eisner (The Spirit), and Stan Lee (Marvel Comics.)
The 1930s were a bad time for Jews in Europe, and even here they were not yet seen as fully American. Superman is the immigrant in the heartland trying to find his place in America. He’s just from further away than most.
And it doesn’t take a Freudian psychoanalyst to see significance in the murder of Siegel’s father in a robbery the year before he invented a bulletproof champion of truth, justice, and the American Way.
From diverse sources these outsiders created the most American symbol of America since Coca Cola and spawned an industry.
“Man of Steel” takes the basic storyline of the 1978 “Superman” with Christopher Reeve, fills in a lot of backstory, does away with the campy tongue-in-cheek element and makes some significant changes.
They’ve done away with the red jockey shorts over the blue tights, originally based on circus strongman costumes, and made the suit a deep midnight blue. The costume is explained as a kind of Kryptonian uniform. The big red ‘S’ is their sign for “Peace.”
Lois Lane (Amy Adams) knows Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) from the beginning, isn’t fooled by a pair of glasses, and in fact invents the name to go with the “S.”
She’s also a lot more likable character than the original Lois Lane, who was often ruthless, self-centered and cruel to Clark.
Krypton is not a utopia destroyed by natural catastrophe, but a decadent civlization that once explored space but were destroyed by their short-sightedness.
On Krypton children are conceived and decanted from artificial wombs, genetically designed to fulfill a specific function in society. Jor-el (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) conceive Kal-el, the first naturally begotten child on Krypton in centuries, and send him to Earth as Krypton is destroyed in the midst of civil war.
Kal-el becomes the beloved foster child of Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) in Kansas.
Warned by Johnathan that people fear what they don’t understand, Clark becomes a drifter in his early youth doing an assortment of jobs under assumed names, until he finds an ancient exploration ship from Krypton and the secret of his origin.
Once he activates the ship with his father’s high-tech amulet however, it sends a distress call that brings his Jor-el’s enemy General Zod (Michael Shannon) looking for vengeance – and a chance to build a new Krypton on the ashes of Earth.
Kal-el/Clark Kent/Superman must save the Earth, and make a choice for humanity against enemies who are not villains in their own eyes. General Zod was literally born to protect Krypton and its race, he doesn’t really have a choice.
But Clark has a choice, and his choice is, “Krypton had its chance.”
It’s not news a lot of religious symbolism has been read into Superman. His name contains a Hebrew name of God (“El”), his origin is like Moses’ and his powers like the demigods of myth. Snyder is not subtle about showing you this in one scene in church with Superman’s profile shown next to a stained glass image of Christ.
Maybe Superman and his ilk are the heroes and demigods of classical mythology, reimagined to meet the needs of a secular age. You can ponder this over the next several years, because “Man of Steel” is setting box-office records and is rumored to be the first installment of a trilogy.
If you’re the type who’d consider seeing a superhero movie at all, you’ll like it.
Note: After I filed this I found out I was wrong – there are a number of people who like superhero movies that didn’t like it. Some Superman fans didn’t like the reboot. I was more of a Marvel guy growing up, so messing with the canon didn’t bother me, in fact I thought it was an improvement.