I have spent a good bit of time laying out (in several parts, with a couple posts yet to be finished) how Superman comics are our very own American myth — how Superman and his stories often broadly reflect the American psyche at the time of writing. The Man of Steel’s stories can tell us quite a lot about our own strengths, flaws, aspirations, fears, and even a lot about our history. From his days as a New Deal Democrat to his role as a staunch defender of the status quo, Superman comics tell a distinctly American story.
And now, with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, we have yet another Superman story to give us a glimpse into our own national values.
But let’s jump back a bit, to 1978, when the Man of Tomorrow burst back onto the scene in a big way with Richard Donner’s blockbuster film, Superman: The Movie. The movie was incredibly successful, and solidified its role as the gold standard of Superman films for decades to come. Today, Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer awards the movie a 93 percent, and describes the consensus view of the film thusly:
Superman deftly blends humor and gravitas, taking advantage of the perfectly cast Christopher Reeve to craft a loving, nostalgic tribute to an American pop culture icon.
Richard Donner succeeded in a way that none of his successors in the Superman film franchise would: Superman: The Movie combined both solid filmmaking with a story that resonated strongly with the American people. The 1970s was a very turbulent decade for Americans, with Vietnam, Watergate, the Nixon impeachment, oil shocks, an energy crisis, terrorism, and stagflation. Americans faced, in the words of President Jimmy Carter, a “crisis of confidence.”
President Ronald Reagan would seek to restore national confidence and represent the hopes of an American renewal, helping usher in a new “morning in America” in the real world. On film, however, Superman would embody the dreams of a resurgent America.
Superman: The Movie hit all the right beats. It was nostalgic, allowing Americans to reminisce fondly about ‘the good old days.’ It had a strong, confident hero who was proud of his American heritage — indeed, he literally clothed himself in the red and blue. And, while oil prices in the real world skyrocketed, the film cast as its villain a greedy speculator who was trying to game the housing market in order to make a quick buck at the expense of millions of Americans.
The film, in short, captured the American desire for renewal and told Americans that they were much stronger than they believed. And it did so with a smile.
Contemporary Americans have also seen their share of crisis, terrorism, and scandal. And while part of me sees the success of such Marvel films as Iron Man and The Avengers as evidence that Americans still appreciate some upbeat ‘can-do,’ I also can’t help but notice that Man of Steel has done incredibly well at the box office, despite mixed reviews.
It seems that this Superman film has resonated with people, perhaps in a way not seen since Superman: The Movie. And that, for me, raises a few discomforting questions.
This blog post won’t discuss any of the merits or flaws of the Man of Steel as a film. That’s another topic entirely. Suffice it to say that the movie did some things well and other things poorly. This post is solely about how Superman: The Movie and Man of Steel resonate with audiences and what, if anything, that says about America.
Beware, here be spoilers.
Man of Steel pays much homage to the idea that Superman embodies the hopes and dreams of a society. The famous “S” shield that the Man of Tomorrow wears on his chest, in this film, is literally the symbol representing the Kryptonian word for “hope.”
The film also makes absolutely, positively certain that you know Clark Kent is a savior figure. Beyond the natural implications of the story and script, the film also has Superman floating through space with his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross and, in another scene places a stained-glass Jesus directly behind Clark as he talks to a pastor. (No one will ever accuse Zack Snyder of subtlety.)
But throughout the film, we see this embodiment of hope — this American savior figure — partake in the complete destruction of both rural and urban America. At no point does our Superman attempt to, say, lead General Zod or his Kryptonian allies to a less populated location.
At some points, obviously, this is out of his control. The World Machine and the Kryptonian ship both stake out their locations regardless of Superman. But at other points, where the villains are wholly intent on finding and fighting Superman, he does nothing to lead them away from populated areas. Neither does he do anything to mitigate the huge loss of life and property that clearly result from these battles. To the contrary, at several points he is directly responsible for these losses.
By the end of the film, Metropolis has essentially ceased to exist. And while, yes, Metropolis takes a beating in pretty much every Superman incarnation ever, the destruction in Man of Steel is much more complete. (Though, on the other hand, this definitely makes the introduction of Lex Luthor much easier for the sequel, because I can absolutely see why he wouldn’t trust an unstoppable demigod who took part in the annihilation of an American city.)
And then the climax.
General Zod, the movie’s Kryptonian villain and resident exposition machine, says to Superman something to the effect of:
There’s only one way this ends, Kal. Either you die, or I do.
It’s an ultimatum that one might hope Superman, being Superman, would defy. This challenge is set up even earlier in the film, when lower-level villainess Faora tells Superman:
The fact that you possess a sense of morality and we do not gives us an evolutionary advantage.
All of this makes it that much more painful when Superman proves both of them right and snaps Zod’s neck in order to stop him. Superman kills, rather than defying the odds and finding a way to prove both Zod and Faora wrong.
In a way, this message that, well, sometimes moral boundaries are gray when you’re keeping people safe is the exact opposite of the message found in one of the best Superman stories, “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” (Action Comics #775). In that story, Superman faces a new, popular team of ‘heroes’ who take justice wholly into their own hands and execute supervillains.
In contrast to Man of Steel, the Superman of “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” makes sure to take his foes to a moon, in order to avoid any collateral damage. He then defeats his enemies physically, but also wins the moral victory by describing for them and the world the importance of his strong moral code.
At first, in the comic, it appears that Superman has crossed the line and murdered his foes. However, in time, it is revealed that he simply staged it that way so that the world could see just how frightening a Superman sans morality would really be. Here’s what Superman says:
It frightened me. When I decided to cross the line…do what you do…I was terrified. Thought it would be tough—but you know what? Anger is easy. Hate is easy. Vengeance and spite are easy. Lucky for you…and for me…I don’t like my heroes ugly and mean. Just don’t believe in it.
For Superman, it would be easy to kill his enemies. But what makes him Superman is that he always finds another way, even when it seems impossible.
That is because Superman is not just some superhero from the planet Krypton. He is more than that: he is our American myth, the embodiment of our values and beliefs as a society.
And that is why it is somewhat unsettling to me that this film seems to have resonated so strongly with audiences. Because Superman seems almost oblivious to the complete destruction of an American city. Because Superman — while he technically ‘saves the day’ — does so by violating the very code that defines him, by lifting himself above society and taking justice into his own hands. Because Superman failed to find another way.
If Superman: The Movie told the story of a confident, renewed America ready to face its foes on its own terms, then I have to wonder what Man of Steel says about us.
I’ll finish this post with Superman’s last line from “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”:
Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul, I swear until my dream of a world where dignity, honor, and justice becomes the reality we all share—I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.