Superman is an alien.
And the new Superman movie Man of Steel never lets us forget it. In fact, the entire movie is about how Superman is an alien and an outsider. A large chunk of the intro is set on his alien home planet Krypton, and for the first half of the movie the hero is a mysterious bearded man traipsing around the country in flannel under an assumed name and disappearing after raising eyebrows or ire over some superhuman feat or other.
Frankly this first half of the film was the better half. Intermixed with scenes from a bullied outcast childhood, the first half of the movie reinstates the memory of Superman’s origins as an alien, created by American outsiders.
It’s shockingly something that we often forget when we think of Superman. He’s too much the “American hero”, and decades of his morally upstanding heroics and that freaking perfect hair have created a pretty effective amnesia of his Kryptonian heritage in all but the most dedicated comics fans.
But, indeed, Superman is an alien, an alien created by two young, bullied Jewish kids, the sons of immigrants, growing up between two wars in the 1930s – Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. (Check out Jay Dietcher‘s great series “With Great Chutzpah Comes Great Responsibility” for more on the fascinating history of comics and the influence of Jewish creators).
As war sent young American boys overseas, Superman went on to become the iconic American hero, flying in his red cape and blue tights, like the American flag itself, flying for justice and equality. With the Kryptonian symbol for “hope” on his chest, this super man lent young soldiers a little guts and escapism. As this moral beacon and idealized American symbol, Superman enjoyed decades of supreme reign over the dominion of superheroes and comics. He’d outgrown his outsider origins and became the ultimate insider, the ideal of America.
However, somewhere along the line, the hero became a little dated. The underwear-over-tights look decried his juvenile innocence, his upstanding citizen act was a relic of wartime hyper-patriotism. Between the televised brutality of the Vietnam War that politicized an entire generation of young Americans and the racial violence and revolution of the 60’s, what place could this sweet, dimple-chinned patriot hold?
Comics fans moved on from the Captain Americas and Wonder Womans to more revolution-minded heroes like the X-men or even morally-driven outsiders like Spider-man, hated by the cops and the press but ultimately fighting for truth and justice. Meanwhile studios tried several times unsuccessfully to bring Superman back to prominence. The first two Christopher Reeve films in the 80’s were box-office hits, but they were followed with failed movie after failed movie until the 2006 Superman Returns, which received positive reviews but didn’t pull in the box-office numbers Warner Bros. had hoped for. So, the superhero was shelved once more.
But then.. but then… Henry Cavill‘s abs! — Ahem. Er- I mean, superhero movie pros Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, and Zack Snyder took the reigns and Man of Steel earned a June record $125 million in its opening weekend and it keeps pulling in the crowds.
That said, critics haven’t been too kind. The film is practically rotten on RottenTomatoes, and prominent comics creators like Mark Waid, gave it a vehement thumbs down. But love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Man of Steel finally made Superman at least relevant again.
In today’s increasingly diverse America, where so many are cultural outsiders in a society still fraught with racial and religious intolerance, the story of a gifted young man who didn’t fit in and who later hides behind his glasses to avoid the xenophobic hate of a nation that’s “not ready” for him hits home for many. It’s a narrative that reflected the experiences of the children of Jewish & Eastern European immigrants in the 30’s and 40’s and it’s the story of so many people in today’s even more colorful U.S.
Aside from the story itself, you could even see the acknowledgment of this new U.S. in the diverse cast (down to the extras) and in the treatment of the female characters. It’s hardly perfect, but it sure did a lot better than one can say of the other superhero films out in the past few years. Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor in chief Perry White and Harry Lennix as General Swanwick had (gasp!) respectable screen time and a good deal of non-tokenized speaking lines!
And Amy Adams as Lois Lane was all the hard-hitting journalist and none of the swooning damsel (ya, so he rescued her a few times, but he swooped down and carried some soldiers too). She even had some action-ish scenes, although those don’t compare to the actually hard-as-hell hitting Faora-Ul (played by actress Antje Traue). Even Diane Lane‘s Martha Kent got a little beaten up and just stood up and dusted off her shoulders, like meh!
Whether or not it’s a critical success, the film can at least boast that it created (and partially destroyed) a Metropolis that looks demographically more like the U.S. metropolises it symbolizes than any other iteration has done, and it created a Superman that fits in such a world. Man of Steel returned Superman to his outsider roots and made him much more a superhero for today.
Or maybe it was the simple stroke of genius someone had to lose the external underwear that did it…
Either way, it’ll be interesting to see how future films manage to keep him relevant. Maybe (hopefully!) they’ll bring back the beard…