Superman was my Superhero.
When I was a tiny Trott I watched Superman: The Movie with my Dad (We had jelly). I believed a man could fly and instantly had a new hero. I’d run around my house wearing a red cape and imagining all the people I would save; arms stretched in front of my singing the John Williams score wildly out of tune.
I want to write about how I see the character. For context, I should start by saying I’ve never been a big reader of the Superman comics but I’ve always had a strong idea of who Superman was. At least to me.
He was essentially 3 characters in one. Clark Kent, the farmboy; raised to hide his secret until he was ready and above all, to respect life. The all important years before learning of his alien heritage are there not to distance himself from humanity, but to connect him to it. After all, he’s human in spirit and appearance, if nothing else. This element of the character is the middle ground between Clark and Superman; a point where he can be himself both in personality and powers. Essentially whenever he is alone; he is this Clark.
This is important.
To me, Clark Kent is a man that has 2 alter egos. For all the moments he isn’t alone he essentially becomes either a shrunken exaggeration of himself or a God.
Let’s tackle them one by one. So the Clark Kent who works at the Daily Planet is born out of Clark’s desire to tend to his human needs, his upbringing. He can’t be Superman all the time; but more on this later.
It’s because of this necessity to appear bumbling and foolish that he is often seen as cheesy or corny in the older representations of Clark, but to me, this is not only really interesting psychologically, but a massive strength of the character. Here’s someone with good morals and a strong belief in doing the right thing over the easy one. This version of Clark needs to be a wallflower in a bustling Metropolis of no-nonsense city folk, that’s the only way he can remain unnoticed, protect the few people he has let in, and essentially experience some semblance of a normal life.
Like when Clark is alone, Superman doesn’t have to hide his powers. He is free to be the full extent of his potential and cut loose without having to worry about people finding out who he really is. This is because Superman is 100% the other end of the spectrum to the public’s opinion of Clark. He can be proud to show the world his views on life; on what is right and wrong without being shut down or disregarded. A similar liberation of character can be seen in Peter Parker every time he dons his costume; it’s a role, and one that he is born to play. Although Clark could stay as Superman full time if he wanted, he would never get time off to tend to his human side, his needs; he’d always be on the clock. Living for others. You can hardly have a cup of tea with Jimmy Olson if everyone expects you to be there 24/7.
Basically Clark has two jobs and he wouldn’t give up either of them for anything. No matter the sacrifices.
So now I’ll get to Man of Steel and Batman V Superman.
“You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad; he’s going to change the world”
When I saw the first trailer for Man of Steel I have to admit, I was very aptly filled with hope. The images of a young Clark, wearing a cape and running around a field in Kansas, an older Clark travelling alone, trying to find his place in the world cut alongside a sweeping score, and a great quote from Jonathan Kent (Or Jor El, depending on what cut you saw) was enough to hook me.
It wasn’t my Superman, but it looked like it was being treated with care and attention. A new take. I was surprised; Zack Snyder had been a divisive director for me with his previous films. An abridged guide of my thoughts on his work would read like this:
- Dawn of the Dead – If Romero made 28 Days Later.
- 300 – Gladiator if it was shot like an aftershave advert.
- Watchmen – Stunningly lifted from the pages of the novel but slightly off the mark.
- Sucker Punch – Style steamrolling over substance.
The best way I can describe how Man of Steel made me feel can be summed up by two facets of the film. First up is how Jonathan Kent shuffles off the mortal coil. Canonically, this moment in Clark’s life has been a milestone lesson for him. It teaches him that no matter all his powers and his abilities, that he can’t stop Death. People die; it’s natural. Humans die and he’s going to have to make peace with that. It forces him to appreciate that he can’t save everyone; that life is fleeting for humans, so in that brief time if he (with his infinite life) can ease suffering, then it’s his duty. What Man of Steel gave us was a situation where Jonathan died in a bizarre situation that Clark could have saved him from. There were options. The reason he doesn’t is due to a “stoic” glance from old Pa Kent (in the midst of ridiculous gale force winds) that essentially says “Don’t; people will fear you”. What does Clark learn from this? To put his own safety and existence above the lives of others. Even his own father.
This leads me to the second key thing in Man of Steel that shaped my opinion of it; the reaction of one young audience member in the screening during the film’s climax. This boy; no older than I was when I was introduced to the character, turned to his Dad when ‘Ole Zod face had his neck snapped and said (Whilst crying);
“Dad, I want to go home”
I’m not saying this plot point shouldn’t have been in the film, more that we should have been previously presented a Superman that was equally trying to protect human life and reason with Zod. When there was 100% no option left, then, and only then, should he have killed him. The final act is a blur of destruction devoid of hope.
I find it hard to imagine that the crying boy went home and wanted to be Superman. Heck, even Superman didn’t want to be Superman.
It was clear that this wasn’t the film we’d get Clark’s bumbling alter ego, but that somewhat made sense as they semi-introduced it in the closing minutes (with a great final line I must say).
As much as I disliked how Man of Steel portrayed the character; I hoped that the follow-up could use these issues to creative effect. Yes, Superman may have destroyed Metropolis in his introduction to the world, but just imagine how endearing it would be to see that same Superman doing everything he can to earn the world’s trust. To own that he needs to earn it and struggling with being just out of reach of it. The fact that trust only comes when he sacrifices himself would be a tragic twist in the tale.
What we got however was far removed. There are 2 things that stood out to me as wrong with the treatment of the character.
- Martha Kent tells him that he, “Doesn’t owe this world a damn thing”. You know, except his life.
- Clark tells Lois that “He doesn’t care what people think of him”. That’s nonsense. He should care. He should want to save these people and care about the way they see him. That’s a human trait.
Batman v. Superman pitched us a Clark/Superman that that was quite simply clinically depressed. Seemingly little in his life brought him joy. Which, when you consider Man of Steel was about him finding his place in the world and his identity, seems a bewildering choice. What was it all for?
I find it so difficult to watch a character with so much potential portrayed in such a one-note fashion. No person is 100% one thing. We are intricate shades of different thoughts, wishes, and needs. In the midst of our darkest moments, small joys will find a way to break through. Come one, the fella can fly! It’s not all doom and gloom.
I haven’t seen Justice league yet but, is it too much to ask that when the character is inevitably resurrected, that his character is restored with all his facets. Can it be possible that he returns with some semblance of the hope and heroic heart of the character that I grew to love as a kid?
I hope so.
That would be Super.