Cinematic Discussion: The Superman We Don't Know We Need
by Brandon Lee Tenney
June 7, 2010
I'm not a fan of Superman. I never have been. Sure, he's an icon. He's iconic. The go-to superhero when debating what power you'd rather possess. Idolized by kids the world over to adults of all creeds to the likes of Jerry Seinfeld (and I must agree, there's no reason why the yellow sun of our solar system wouldn't give Kal-El a superhuman comedic ability).
But, for me, he's always been boring. He's a little too good. He's a lot too powerful. And, at this point in time, he's simply stale. Recently, we've learned that David Goyer and the Nolan Brothers are preparing to unleash The Man of Steel on the world yet again at the end of 2012. They have a story. Something, no doubt, that we've never seen before. One that will "address Superman in a modern context" (via /Film).
Well, I have my own ideas regarding a Superman for our contemporary. But first, it's crucial to at least hold a tenuous grasp on the Superman of the past.
The Last Son of Krypton is just that, an orphan of another world ravaged and destroyed. As an infant, Kal-El was sent to Earth by his parents moments before his home planet Krypton's destruction. When Kal-El's spacecraft lands in rural Kansas, a humble couple scoop him from his other-worldly crib and dub him Clark Kent. From that point forward, imbued with strong moral values and a certain salt-of-the-earth charm, he's raised as one of us: a human. Except for the small fact that the yellow sun of our solar system awards him superhuman abilities. Invulnerability. Super-strength and super-speed. Freeze breath. Super-hearing. Laser eyes, super-sight, and X-ray vision. Flight. So Clark Kent decides to use his powers for good, to protect and defend and make better the race who adopted him. Donning that classic red, yellow, and blue costume, "the big blue Boy Scout" from that point forward vows to fight for truth, justice, and the American way!
(Oh, and his biggest weakness is green pieces of his homeworld called Kryptonite, which causes Superman any number of detriments from losing his powers, fatally weakening him, and, most of all, reminding him of his long dead homeworld.)
For an era of more clearly apparent unrest during both World War II and the Cold War, Superman makes sense. He's morally unflinching. He's there to protect us at any cost, by any means, as righteously as possible. He'll show the Axis what for! He'll kick the Red Menace away from these capitalist shores from whence it came! He's a constant, a beacon of good, and the personification of American hope and idealism.
And that's precisely why he's boring. Idealism just doesn't ring true anymore. There's no clear enemy; there are many and they are everywhere. There are so many more shades of grey now than there ever have been that I'm surprised we can see color at all. And those rural, wholesome values don't mean as much as they used to (not that they shouldn't, ’cause they should). They just don't.
So, in our contemporary, where does Superman fit in? For what and for why would Superman exist? Well, let's talk about how first.
And let's be clear, though this may not be the Superman movie you want, perhaps it's the Superman movie we need.
Ditch the orphan infant introduction. The childhood on the farm. The bible-belt morals and his ties to Earth from his earliest memories. Instead, Kal-El comes to Earth as a man. An ambassador of Krypton. His life, family, and all he knows is on his homeworld. He's an alien. Let's treat him like one. Though, when he crashes on Earth in his spacecraft — in Kansas, naturally, helped to safety from the wreckage of his ship by, who else, the Kents — it's not as a mere visitor from another world. It's no accident. He's come with a plea for help.
Kal-El's arrival would mark the first contact with an intelligent, sentient extra-terrestrial in human history. And as humans are of the unknown, we'd be mistrusting. Afraid. The very discovery would shake us to our core. Kal-El, unknowingly of course, would both unite us and fracture us greater than ever before.
Upon inquiry, we'd learn Kal-El is here to ask our help, instead of the other way around. For he's been sent as a last ditch effort to save his race. Sent on a hope and prayer to rally someone, anyone behind him in order to combat the destruction of Krypton. What Kal-El finds on Earth, however, is no help at all. Humans are without the mastery of inter-galactic space travel. Our technology is not as advanced. And we're just as weak as Kryptonians, weaker even.
But the more time Kal-El soaks up the sun's yellow rays, the more he begins to feel… different. The more he realizes he doesn't have to answer to us humans. His planet, his species, his life is dying out there. We're of no help; in fact, we're a hindrance. Intolerant. Scared. Uncivilized. Morally weak. Krypton may be at the very brink of its doom, but at least its doom is being wrought by an outside hand. Not from within, like this place, Earth. Kal-El pities us. He should.
And now, somehow, he can do extraordinary things. Things that both we humans and himself can't understand. Not yet. While the headlines of The Daily Planet are riddled with fear of his power, Kal-El is infected by hope. Hope for his home.
So he leaves. This superman who came so quickly is gone just as fast.
In space, Kal-El can hear his homeworld crumble. Krypton's screams at the hands of this outside doombringer. Some race of warmongers. But the farther Kal-El travels away from our yellow sun, the closer he gets to Krypton, the less he can hear. The less he can see. The weaker he becomes.
The power he has to make a difference is leaving him. The power to enact revenge, to seek justice… is no power at all near Krypton. Does he continue onward, risking his own death and being completely powerless when he meets the destroyers of his world, or does he turn back and live all-powerful on a world he cares nothing for? He's alone no matter what.
Against all that feels right, Kal-El turns back. To Earth.
Brooding, alone in a fortress of solitude, Kal-El is a man without a home. Without direction or purpose. Resentful of his newly adopted planet. Just when Earth needs him most.
A young, intrepid reporter, Lois Lane, sees something in him. Beyond his pain and resentment, through to the good inside. Just as Kal-El has given up on us and Earth has given up on him, taking him into custody — he's a menace, after all, a weapon — Lois Lane refuses to give up. And that's never been more important than right now. For the same harbingers of cosmic death are heading for Earth next. And just as much as we now need this superman, Lois Lane must find a way to make it clear that he needs us. He needs Earth. And he has the means to fight for it, protect it, save it.
Kal-El, though at first driven by revenge, begins to slowly see the good in us. Understand our fear a bit better and quell it by personifying strength. Not just in power, but in morality, too. The industrial-military complex run by the fear-driven, conniving, power-hungry Lex Luthor begins to be taken over by the kind, gentle, loving Kent couple who pulled him from his spacecraft upon his first arrival. Kal-El sees he can show us the possibility of good and honor his homeworld's values. His parents' memories, if only to aliens who he's just now learning to love instead of pity.
And when the destroyer of Krypton is on the brink of destroying yet another planet — ours — Kal-El accepts the mantle of Superman and fights for all of us the world over. For hope and freedom, life and liberty, truth and moral righteousness. Justice supplants revenge.
And when we look upward from then on, when a spec of something flecks the sky… it's probably just a bird. Then again, it could very well be a plane. But maybe, just maybe, it might be Superman.
Yes, this is not the Superman you know. But like J. J. Abrams did for Star Trek, perhaps a Superman with a bit more emotional depth, one that is able to wield the moral dilemmas much more often than physical threats, and an origin that treats The Man of Steel with a contemporary seriousness I think we all expect is precisely what we need. And don't worry, in the sequel you can have your Superman vs. Lex Luthor. You can explore the oppressive commitment of being Superman all the time. It's there where we can have Clark Kent. It's there where we can explore his further assimilation into humanity foiled by his need to hold on to Krypton.
But for this new era of Superman, something like the above is exactly what we need. A cosmic hero, treated as such. Superman is not a dark character, but that doesn't mean he can't be a serious one. He can be — and should be — a symbol, the same as he has been since 1938, but he doesn't have to be that right away. Let him prove himself to us, to himself. Let us see him struggle with just what he's willing to fight for. Who he is. What he is. Give him the ability and the agency to accept his responsibility after such power is thrust upon him, even if it takes him a while to know just how to use it.
That's the Superman I need, anyway. How about you?