Rethinking the Mythology of Superman

I’ve never had a particularly good grasp of the notion of Superman as a “Man of Tomorrow”, as some figure who completely changes the course of humanity with his example. I guess I never really got what being an alien from another planet with super powers who goes around beating people up had to do with bringing all of humanity to a better state or some such baloney.

There are going to be spoilers for Man of Steel ahead. It’s been some weeks since it’s come out, so most of the people who would have seen it have probably already seen it, and the rest have had to tread lightly to avoid being spoiled by the Internet explosion that broke out in the days following its release as people have stepped up and accused the film’s makers of completely failing to understand the character on any level, led by writer Mark Waid. Waid had a lot to like about two-thirds of the movie, but became increasingly concerned as Superman tore up the streets of Smallville while fighting a bunch of minions, as he fought some huge death-machine while another death-machine half a world away tore up Metropolis, as he had a final showdown with General Zod in the ruins of Metropolis, all while showing little to no regard for the people being impacted by the collateral damage of the fight, until finally being driven to nearly walk out upon seeing Superman break Zod’s neck.

As the credits rolled, I told myself I was upset because Superman doesn’t kill. Full-stop, Superman doesn’t kill. But sitting there, I broke it down some more in my head because I sensed there was more to it since Superman clearly regretted killing Zod. I had to grant that the filmmakers at least went way out of their way to put Superman in a position suggesting (but hardly conclusively proving) he had no choice (and I did love Superman’s immediate-aftermath reaction to what he’d done)…But after I processed all that, I realized that it wasn’t so much my uncompromising vision of Superman that made this a total-fail moment for me; it was the failed lead-up TO the moment. As Superman’s having his final one-on-one battle with Zod, show me that he’s going out of his way to save people from getting caught in the middle. SHOW ME that trying to simultaneously protect humans and beat Zod is achingly, achingly costing Superman the fight. Build to that moment of the hard choice…show me, without doubt, that Superman has no other out and do a better job of convincing me that it’s a hard decision to make, and maybe I’ll give it to you…

The essential part of Superman that got lost in MAN OF STEEL, the fundamental break in trust between the movie and the audience, is that we don’t just want Superman to save us; we want him to protect us. He was okay at the former, but really, really lousy at the latter. Once he puts on that suit, everyone he bothers to help along the way is pretty much an afterthought, a fly ball he might as well shag since he’s flying past anyway, so what the hell. Where Christopher Reeve won me over with his portrayal was that his Superman clearly cared about everyone. Yes, this Superman cares in the abstract–he is willing to surrender to Zod to spare us–but the vibe I kept getting was that old Charles Schulz line: “I love mankind…it’s people I can’t stand.”

Eric Burns(-White) went further, dropping a bunch of myth criticism on us to attempt to show that Man of Steel‘s Superman represents a failure to live up to his own archetype:

[Superman] is, in the end, the hero who gets it right. He makes hard choices, and finds another way. He inspires us not because of his great power, but because his great power is not what makes him a hero. If he fails at this? He fails at the archetype. He is an ectype instead. If he acts as Superman but is unable to be Superman, he cannot become Superman. He can still be a hero, of course, but he cannot achieve the archetype…In making their character Superman, they make the question of whether he’s ready to be Superman academic. In the end, their figure is a failed ectype and not the archetype. And at that point, there is no going back. Their ‘Superman,’ in the end, isn’t. And as a result, he can’t be.

This seems to be the common thread in criticism of the film: that it fails so completely in grasping Superman that it presents us with someone who isn’t Superman. Superman has ideals, dammit, and a Superman who isn’t even trying to live up to those ideals, who isn’t saving everyone he can and showing all the virtues we want him to, who just inhabits a dark, drab world like every other superhero movie, is ultimately just another superhero, isn’t Superman at all.

What’s funny about all this is that Jerry Siegel himself had a very different motivation for creating the character:

[M]uch of that premise came out of my own personal frustrations. I wore spectacles and was a high school boy who wrote for the school newspaper…There were some lovely high school girls who I admired from afar. They were not the least bit interested in me. I was not Clark (Kent) Gable. I was just another face in the crowded, busy high school corridors. Those attractive schoolgirls in the classes and corridors didn’t care that I existed. But!! If I were to wear a colorful, skintight costume! If I could run faster than a train, lift great weights easily, and leap over skyscrapers in a single bound! Then they would notice me!

This notion of Superman as wish fulfillment has never completely gone away, as anyone who has ever tried to fly by putting on a cape and jumping knows well, and back when the New 52 happened I suggested that DC revitalize the character by playing up those aspects:

If Spider-Man is well known for the constant tortures both sides of his double life provide him, from the deaths of loved ones to the hatchet jobs in the local paper to just trying to make ends meet, Superman has none of it and is simply happy at how awesome having superpowers is. Superman may be a larger-than-life, mythological figure, but he doesn’t particularly feel like it; he’s just a farm boy from Kansas who happens to be able to lift cars over his head. He may not be the perfect embodiment of our ideals – chances are he certainly revels in the glory his exploits earn him – but he’s far from a supervillain either, if only because saving people is cooler, more popular, and less stressful than oppressing them…In short, I imagine a Superman who reacts to having powers the way we imagine we might react, and who becomes a superhero partly because it’s cool and partly because it’s the way his parents raised him. Not a radical change, but a substantial shift in perception for the better, in my mind.

It may not be a radical change, but some people may see it as borderline blasphemous to give Superman these borderline ordinary motivations. Perhaps most tellingly, though, in (the original) Action Comics #1, Superman is anything but a super-idealized embodiment of high-minded ideals; he implicitly beats a confession out of someone and breaks into the governor’s mansion to deliver it, then takes on a corrupt lobbyist and damn near gives him a heart attack by walking on power lines. Beyond wish fulfillment, Superman’s original appeal wasn’t in the embodiment of high-minded ideals; it was his willingness to stand up to evildoers of all stripes in the midst of the Great Depression, when Hitler was offering his own vision of the “superman”. As with most of the more extreme aspects of the early superheroes, this got toned down pretty quickly, especially once America entered World War II, and Superman became a generic fighter for truth and justice – “the American way” wasn’t added to the spiel until the 50s when the Cold War was seen to warrant it, a somewhat parochial line for someone who supposedly embodies universal ideals. The movies, especially the Richard Donner ones, seem to have stressed the notion of a “man of tomorrow” more than other media, and from that the notion has since spilled over into those other media.

More to the point, what does being a “man of tomorrow” mean? Burns(-White) tells us it’s “because his great power is not what makes him a hero”, as though Clark Kent without powers would be a cop or a firefighter or something like that. Concurring with this, a year ago Chris Sims of Comics Alliance claimed that “morally speaking, anyone can be as Good as Superman; the only advantage he has is that he was brought up by a couple of really nice farmers.” Does this make Superman better than anyone else? Is there someone else that might be as good if not better than Superman as a person? Isn’t this essentially saying that Superman is some iconic, mythic figure precisely because of how like everyone else he is, a nice guy who happens to be a celebrity? Doesn’t this basically make him Mother Teresa with superpowers? Why should this make him some figure that everyone in the world looks up to with awe and reverence and as someone to take their moral cues from, as someone whose example changes the course of all humanity? And in this context, is my proposed revitalization of the character really that blasphemous, or is it actually more true to the great mythic arc people are seeing in him, that Superman is just like anyone else except he happens to have superpowers? In any case, it’s certainly a far cry from Marlon Brando’s barf-inducing speech in the first Donner film (Sims’ article was explicitly arguing against the notion of Superman as a Christ-like figure).

Now, all that being said, I don’t like the notion of Superman killing Zod at the end of the movie. Superman is the one superhero that should never, ever kill, no matter what, and for the film’s makers to have him kill someone, in pretty much the exact same way that caused a storm of controversy when the comic book version of Wonder Woman did it in the lead-up to Infinite Crisis, with barely an ounce of remorse, does betray a lack of understanding of the character that makes me wonder if this is the final bullet in the superhero genre’s shambling corpse, made even worse by the entire rest of the movie hammering home the “man of tomorrow” angle like no film before. But even then, as Sims pointed out, Superman has killed Zod specifically before, both in the very Donner film, Superman II, that Man of Steel was retelling (and arguably even worse then, although with little involvement from Donner himself), and even in the comics shortly after John Byrne’s post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot, though the latter went through the “remorse” story arc that neither film did. Maybe that says more about those stories than it does about Superman or this story, but it still suggests that no matter what the continuity, Superman’s status as ultimate paragon of our highest ideals isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

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