Wednesday, February 18, 2015

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Übermensch

Henry Cavill as Superman
People who don’t read comic books probably don’t realize that DC Comics halted, and completely restarted, their iconic Superman character in 1986. During the Crisis On Infinite Earths, the first of three times (so far) DC has shaken out its frequently unreliable continuity, they ironed out other characters’ kinks; but with Superman, they just  chucked fifty years of inconsistent backstory. Christopher Reeve’s beloved Superman simply ended. The current Superman is less than twenty years old.

In today’s crush of franchise reboot movies, 2013’s Man Of Steel seems superficially ordinary. With Christopher Reeve deceased, Brandon Routh’s starring turn in Superman Returns widely jeered, and director Richard Donner basically retired, relaunching the Superman film franchise in accord with the 1986 comics restart probably appeared logical. But screenwriter David S. Goyer and director Zach Snyder actually made probably the biggest change to Superman’s arc ever: they’ve removed him altogether from ordinary human affairs.

Recalling Donner’s iconic 1978 Superman, audiences will probably remember Christopher Reeve ducking into telephone booths to change costumes, emerging to stop cat burglars attacking skyscrapers, and catching a mugger’s bullet intended for Lois Lane. At various times, he caught falling spacecraft, righted tumbling buildings, chucked world powers’ nuclear arsenals into the sun, and re-flew the American flag on the moon. During periods when Americans believed our future was probably truncated, Superman renewed faith in order.

Introduced during the Great Depression, Superman hit American consciousness during years when a combination of organized crime and top-level corruption left citizens feeling powerless. With war brewing in Europe and lawlessness in America’s streets, Superman reassured struggling youths that a pure heart, and occasional well-placed violence, could restore justice to our land. Donner’s film, four years after Charles Bronson’s bleak Death Wish, reignited belief in integrity when officials literally suggested abandoning Manhattan to the Mafia.

Michael Shannon as General Zod
But today’s focus has shifted. One recalls White House whistleblower Richard Clarke, who complained that FBI director Louis Freeh remained fixated on catching bankrobbers and other criminals when terrorism had become America’s biggest threat. A musclebound white vigilante cannot out-punch criminals today, when literal bankrobbers can haul one billion dollars without entering the bank. Note that, in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, when Bane wanted to wreak terror and undermine society, he attacked Gotham’s stock exchange.

Costumed crime-fighters seem naive and passé anymore. Mere crime lacks panache. As Matt Taibbi reports, the financial swindlers who torpedoed our economy in 2008 waltzed because nobody could agree on jurisdictional protocol, while poor and minority citizens face punitive consequences for spitting on the sidewalk. Order feels like the problem, not the solution. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and ISIS threaten America’s interests internationally, while the Sinaloa and Zeta cartels have reportedly established economic colonies within America’s borders.

Therefore, Snyder’s Superman doesn’t fight crime. How could he? Even Superman can’t punch Goldman Sachs, or rustle up decentralized organizations like the Zetas. In comics, Clark Kent’s father, Jonathan, taught his son to exercise social responsibility via his powers; being superhuman gives Superman duties to society. Snyder’s Jonathan Kent teaches young Clark to fear human society. While arguably not wrong, this change reflects a society-wide flight from public obligation in our time of atomized hyper-individualism.

Snyder’s Superman never does anything public-spirited. Truth, Justice, and the American Way mean nothing in this milieu. Even when General Zod appears, and Superman makes himself visible, he does so primarily out of loyalty to Lois Lane. He has no compunction engaging supervillains in massively destructive dust-ups along Kansas main streets, and when Zod’s army of Kryptonian misfits begin terraforming Earth, Superman abandons the massive nuclear crater in Metropolis’s downtown to rescue Lois Lane. Again.

This isn’t the behavior of a superman; this is the behavior of an übermensch. This Superman demonstrates no interest in becoming part of society’s evolution, protecting humanity’s downtrodden, or ensuring law and order. He shows a strictly ad hoc, self-serving moral underbelly, and when he finally fights Zod one-on-one, Superman arguably does as much damage to Metropolis as Zod does. The Superman I grew up with was everybody’s hero. Snyder’s Superman is somebody to fear.

In the final scene, Superman destroys a surveillance drone and demands his solitude. Snyder’s Superman has essentially surrendered any role in human society. And though we’re promised Superman’s involvement in a Justice League movie, that’ll surely represent a major turnaround for a character basically disinterested in justice or order. This ain’t hay, folks; how we depict our mythic heroes matters. The stories we tell about our heroes are ultimately the stories we believe about ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. I quite agree, Kevin. We still have heroes, but they're of a much quieter and less universal variety and that's unfortunate.