Monday, 13 May 2013

Thoughts on Superman (and America)

Superman: The American we need.
As a comic book fan, who regularly attempts to provoke discussion about comic books, with non-fans and fans a like, one of the trends I've noticed is that people don't really like Superman that much. From experience people seem to feel this way for a number of reasons. He's too powerful, he's too clean cut, too good a guy. In this day and age he's not edgy enough compared to someone like Batman. He's too... Alien a concept for people to aspire to. Not because he's an alien, but because he's too good to be true. Literally.

After several failed attempts to bring success on the big screen since the first few Christopher Reeve movies, they're having another attempt, and I for one am really hoping they pull it off. I like Superman. I like the idea of him. Strange visitor from another world comes to Earth presenting an ideal for us all to strive towards. What's not to like? He's kind of like Jesus, but without the religion. Sci-fi Jesus. Science Jesus.

Superman, while from outer space, is very much an American. Superman is a product of the values that America -should- have. Superman appeared on the scene just prior to WW2 (or at least before the States got involved), starting off as a champion of the working class, created as the embodiment the two Jewish kids' hopes and dreams. Unfortunately they never got their dues for their creation, as they were thwarted by their own version of Lex Luthor (This struggle has been chronicled in the excellent MEN OF TOMORROW by Gerard Jones). Superman later transitioned into the patriot of the WW2 era, eventually tapering off in terms of relevance as the Cold War ramped up and the world seemed to become more jaded. He's always enjoyed popularity, but no longer seems to possess that universal appeal he had in his early days.

Before we go any further, I'd like to state that I have never been to America. I am a New Zealander. The following opinions are of an outside observer.

Internationally I think the failing of Superman is not of him as a concept, but that people feel it difficult to get behind him as an idea because of his inherent association with his adopted country. From the outside, there's a lot not to like about America. It was Bill Hicks who acknowledged them as "bullies of the world." The majority of the developed world is becoming increasingly secular. It's hard to take a country so radically and cripplingly Christian seriously in this day and age as science tells us more and more about ourselves, the world, and the universe. Barack Obama, their own president, seems to be struggling to make real, universally beneficial change as he is blocked at every turn by opponents who have the interests of corporations at heart, and not the people they are meant to serve. The concept of American exceptionalism, the idea that America is the best country in the world and was given to them by god, is frankly ludicrous to anyone outside the country. It is difficult to disassociate the man of steel from his American identity.

Superman however, is essentially the ideal American. The ideal role model. Superman has morals without prejudice. He is the liberal ideal, while still an American patriot and the product of the idealised Midwest rural upbringing. He doesn't kill. He saves people. And it doesn't matter who they are, what they look like or where they're from. Superman is the American we need Americans to be. Perhaps the fact that they're not more like him is the reason he's not that well received. Instead of an avatar, he's a broken promise.

Yet America has given us a lot in spite of these deficiencies. Despite its Christian totalitarianism, America has produced some of the best scientific minds and the best technological advances in the history of the human race. They make great movies, excellent music, great TV, video games, books and novels and let's not forget comic books. I have heard some pretty disparaging remarks about Americans made by Australians, New Zealanders, Europeans and people of other nationalities. However, many of the Americans I have met I have liked a lot as individuals. Sometimes however I too wonder how I can buy in so fully into American comic books, one my favourite forms of entertainment, when they are largely set in America and written for Americans. The way I see it, is that you've got the America that it should be, and the reality. Disassociate the reality from the ideal, and you've got a great concept on your hands.

Previews of this June's Man of Steel have presented us with a promising look at the action unfolding. Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (2006) had a lot of great elements to it, specifically Brandon Routh as the big man himself, and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. It could have worked, but it failed to bring us an action-packed story of Superman punching things too big for the ordinary human to punch. It failed to bring us a Lois Lane that was anywhere as likeable or convincing as Margot Kidder in Richard Donner's Superman the Motion Picture. It relied too heavily on Donner's 1978 picture, by presenting itself as a direct sequel to Superman II. The world has come a long way since then. It might have been better if they had tried something new.

Man of Steel is a reboot. It's also more of an international affair. Directed by the fairly hit-and-miss Zach Snyder (himself from the American Midwest), it is being produced by Christopher Nolan and continuing the emerging trend of casting a British actor as a major American hero. The major American hero in this case. Henry Cavill will play Superman. Kevin Costner will play his human adoptive father, Jonathan Kent. Russell Crowe will play his Kryptonian father, Jor-El (I guess technically making Superman a Kiwi).

Anyway. I think we should give Man of Steel a chance. It's time for a new interpretation of Superman, and the big screen is the form most likely to present this to the largest audience.

I want to believe a man can fly again.

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