*The following contains no spoilers*
Well June 16th has come and gone and so has my first viewing of this summer’s most controversial and culturally divisive film. No, I’m not talking about The Great Gatsby or Hangover 3. Nor am I referring to Star Trek into Darkness ( although that movie is certainly not without its share of public outcry ). I am talking about DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Studios’ film……Man of Steel. Directed by Zack Snyder and produced by Christopher Nolan ( who himself rebooted the character of Batman in three films ) the film is a retelling of the origin of THE gold standard of comic book superheroes, Superman.
Unfortunately, it is his existence in our pop culture as that gold standard that has saddled Superman with being viewed, one dimensionally as a character, by the fan base through an unyielding black and white lens. If there is one recurring remark regarding die-hard comic fans criticism of this picture, it’s “That is NOT Superman”. Or, more specifically….”Not MY Superman”. It seems that to “comic purists”, and an opinion that is held by the more morally ambiguous character Batman, Kal-El / Clark Kent is the perennial “Boy Scout”. He is a being who inspires hope through a positive and courteous demeanor. A man who conveys power but in the most humble of terms. And last, this means that he holds to a rigid code of conduct in regards in how far he will go in saving a life. And if any creator in print or in film deviates from this uncompromising norm, the fan response would be such that you’d think religious sacrilege had been committed.
An interesting question to be asked is what Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, would think of this moral evolution and canonization of the character by 75 years worth of the public readership. Most of the fans were up in arms over the somber mood of Snyder and Nolan’s film. They were not able to reconcile the questionable actions of the film’s Kal-El, with their own ideas of how Superman would traditionally act. However, I wonder if any of these fans remember, in detail, issue one of Action Comics ( Superman’s first appearance in print ). Take the cover of that issue and compare it, to say, Detective Comics # 27 ( Batman’s first appearance ). On the cover of that issue, Batman is swinging from a Bat-line over the rooftops of Gotham with a crook in his arms. How do we know its a crook? Because his “shady looking” accomplices are in the foreground, one of them brandishing a revolver.
Take a look at Action Comics # 1, however, and you can see Superman’s status as a benevolent protector is not so clearly defined. On that cover, we see Superman smashing an automobile against a rock. Now this artwork goes a long way in conveying his strength. However, the artist chose to add another element in the form of three people in the throes of terror. Two running away and another kneeling in front of Superman as he smashes the car against the rock. None of these terrified people are carrying any weapons nor are they dressed to give the impression that they are criminals. In short, it looks like the Man of Steel has gone on a rampage. Of course it’s unfair to judge a whole character on a single cover depiction, but there are other instances in the issue that raise a few eyebrows. When Lois Lane lays eyes for the first time on Superman, she has a look of terror on her face, despite having been rescued by Superman from gangsters ( which, eventually, turn out to be the three “victims” from the cover ). He also takes advantage of her flustered state, by slightly intimidating her into not reporting his existence in the Daily Planet newspaper. This is a Superman who fights for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. However, he goes about it in an aggressive way.
75 years of various creators from different eras have added to the Superman mythos, but that uncompromising view of the character’s ethical code has remained unchanged. That may have, if you pardon the pun, flown in a pre- 9/11 world. Unfortunately, for those who’d like the character to remain timeless, comic characters need to be interpreted for the times and realities. I’m not saying that the writers should take the character and totally deviate from the norm. However, Superman needs to prepare to do the unthinkable if the situation he finds himself in forces him against the wall and it is for the greater good.
This essay is in response to writer Mark Waid’s ( Superman: Birthright and Kingdom Come ) own blog ( http://thrillbent.com/blog/man-of-steel-since-you-asked/ ) on his opinion of the film. In the movie’s most controversial and climactic scene, Superman is faced with the aforementioned situation and he chooses to do the unthinkable. It was at that point where Waid, in his own words, said “THAT’S IT, YOU LOST ME, I’M OUT”. However, in taking into account all the events leading up to that moment, I can’t see how Superman could have made any other choice. Unless Waid feels that the only situations writers should place Superman in are those that have a low threat level and are emotionally without conflict ( like saving a kitten in a tree ), there’s no way the character can sustain my interest for long. Sure, Superman is NOT Batman… but then again he’s NOT a saint. And, hopefully, NOT a one note character.