“As you know, I’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating.” That’s Bill (David Carradine) from Kill Bill: Vol. 2, waxing poetic on his favorite superhero, Superman. “Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.”
Bill explains to The Bride (Uma Thurman) that, when it comes to standard superhero mythology, there’s the hero and then there’s the alter ego. “Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone.”
Bill is of course referring to the fact that Superman didn’t become Superman. He was born Superman. “When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S” – that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume.”
At the conclusion of Bill’s scholarly deconstruction of the world’s first superhero, he touches upon something truly fascinating. “Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak… He’s unsure of himself… He’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”
Why haven’t we seen this side of Superman represented in a film adaptation before? The whole “truth, justice, and the American way” shtick gets old quick. It may have worked in the ’40s and ’50s, but I seriously doubt anything about Superman would reflect the “American way” these days. Superman’s commitment to operating within the laws of man makes him the super-powered equivalent of a kiss-ass. Instead of embracing his alien, God-like nature, he soft-pedals humanity and abides by the rigid confines of authority we’ve placed upon ourselves.
His philosophy has created resentment among other heroes like Batman, who refers to Superman as the “big blue boy scout.” Personally, I’m tired of the goody two-shoes Man of Steel. I want an infinitely lonely, alienated being who appeals to my sympathies and imagination – someone who truly struggles and gets lost along the way. How can you relate to an impossibly powerful do-gooder who never falters?
I don’t want to see a Superman who rescues cats from trees or prevents minor traffic accidents. The Superman of the 21st century should be world-weary, aggravated by the increasing stupidity and pettiness of humanity. I guess what I’m saying is, I want Superman to be… more like Batman, with flourishes of Dr. Manhattan and a little Don Draper. We should see him at his lowest, a more skeptical, more cynical superhero who ascends to greatness, fulfilling his destiny and bringing about true change in our species.
No more real estate schemes. No more time-travel. If Superman can fly around the Earth backwards so fast he somehow reverses time, why wouldn’t he just time-travel to the ’40s and prevent the Holocaust or any other number of atrocities we’ve committed? Instead he rewinds the Earth’s rotation to save Lois Lane. It’s a silly, nonsensical copout. There should be actual stakes involved, and Superman should be allowed to fail.
Now, let me be clear in saying that I’m strictly talking about a film adaptation of the character. I understand Superman has been around since 1938 and has received numerous adaptations by different writers and artists, detailing the character’s pathos with varying degrees of darkness and angst. Unfortunately, we’ve yet to really experience the cinematic equivalent of that.
My first introduction to the Man of Steel was the 1950′s Adventures of Superman television show, which replayed on Nick at Nite in the early ’90s. “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” George Reeves played Superman, who could “change the course of mighty rivers” and “bend steel in his bare hands.”
That brand of Superman worked in the ’50s. Similarly, Christopher Reeve‘s Superman was the perfect adaptation of that character for the ’70s and ’80s, but how do you translate that character for today’s audiences? That was the primary issue with Bryan Singer‘s 2006 film, Superman Returns.
While not a horrible film (Brandon Routh does a great Christopher Reeve impression), Superman Returns was less of a reboot and more of a spiritual successor to Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie and 1980′s Superman II. Instead of establishing a fresh start for the character, it channeled the same spirit of those previous Superman stories and neglected to address the Man of Steel in a modern context.
As much as I would like to watch Lex Luthor play with the world’s most elaborate model train set, I’m more interested in seeing Superman do something super – something dumbfounding and awe-inspiring. It would seem that director Zack Snyder is on the right track with his 2013 film, Man of Steel, written by David S. Goyer and produced by Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas.
By rebooting the character with a new origin set in the present day, it looks like Superman (played by Henry Cavill) will be more promethean in nature – an isolated, less optimistic being. I see this Superman as more of a mix between Silver Surfer and Captain America, with a dash of The Day the Earth Stood Still thrown in for good measure.
In the way that Captain America awakes from his deep-freeze to an America that’s much different than the one he fought for, Superman should come to see that the America that shaped him (small-town Kansas) has disappeared in favor of big business and corrupt politicians – an entire country of greedy, twisted villains – and he should question if we are worth saving… if we deserve him as our savior.
And ultimately, he will save us – but not before issuing a warning, that we will be held accountable for our actions – and that if we should seek to destroy each other, he will not stop us. He can still be faster than a speeding bullet and leap tall buildings in a single bound, but the Superman of the 21t century should reflect the zeitgeist of 2013 America and not the old-fashioned ideals of the past.