“For some reason I can’t explain or understand, and probably never will… everything comes from Superman.”
The quote above (from Infinite Crisis #5, April 2006 by Geoff Johns) encapsulates both the ardent loyalty and the challenge in approaching Superman as a subject, especially when it comes to the cinematic versions. Superman is THE icon, serving as the template for every comic book hero that succeeds him, as well as the ideal for what is universally recognized as a ‘superheroic’. I recently wrote a review for Man of Steel at DZI: The Voice (http://dzi-thevoice.com/2013/06/21/grounde-but-soaring-man-of-steel-review/). Check it out; I’ll wait… So, let me say from the beginning, I think that it’s a damn good movie, and yes, you should go see it!
Just about two years ago, DC Comics’ entire continuity was relaunched with 52 titles, featuring mostly new takes on their established characters. This included a Superman that was, at once, back to the basics (think late 1930’s/early 1940’s strongman, primarily concerned with social action) and simultaneously grounded in contemporary (think post-911/new millennial crusader) mores and actions. As such, things have changed/shifted/modified. For example, this new-52 take on the Justice League was still founded by seven of the world’s greatest heroes, but the seventh roster spot is filled by Cyborg instead of the Martian Manhunter (and yes, there is a post forthcoming that expounds on my feelings about this).
For Superman, the most superficial change is the lack of red underpants as part of his costume. Yet there are more substantial changes that have come with the new continuity. His adopted patents, Jonathan and Martha, who had been confirmed as active parts of Clark Kent’s life since 1986, have once again been documented as deceased, prior to his career as Superman. Likewise, his relationship with Lois Lane, to whom he had been married since 1996, was undone and Lois and Clark have not had the slightest romantic relationship since the relaunch. The current iteration of Superman in the comics is one who has embarked on journey of self-discovery and through it, fashioned himself into the Man and Hero that best serves the world, just as is reflected in Man of Steel.
It’s at this point that I’m obligated to announce: SPOILERS AHEAD, if you haven’t seen Man of Steel…
I am fully cognizant of what DC Comics has committed to as a publisher. It was, to say the least, a risky proposition to relaunch their entire catalogue, including the three titles that were, at the time, the longest running, continuous comics in history. It makes perfect sense that DC would want all forthcoming depictions to reflect the “now” (sorry Marvelites) in associated media. It’s no surprise that we’re seeing the New 52 Justice League in the Target commercials. Even though Man of Steel gives a great explanation to Superman’s updated costume, I’d wager it has more to do with visual continuity than the movie’s storyline. So, just as in the comics, Superman is initially unsure of his place and prowess, but committed to being the hero. In this pursuit, Superman seems more proactive and willing to do almost anything to save the Earth. I get it… Superman will do what he needs to do, depicted in a more “realistic” manner than in previous incarnations.
Here’s the Thing: SUPERMAN DOES NOT KILL.
I think we all can agree that, in many ways, Superman is THE example of the superheroic ideal. And, in the last few scenes, he’s placed into a difficult, no-win situation: the life of innocents weighed against the life of his enemy. The pragmatist in me recognizes that in that same situation, we have seen many other heroes make the same choice as depicted in Man of Steel. At the risk of overstating it, other heroes are not Superman. A “realistic take” is fine, but one of the inherent appeals to Superman is that he has the capability to rise above and beyond the limits of the masses. In fact, we fully expect that Superman can and will find a way to conquer the impossible situation. This thought that he can represent the very best of human character is one that has sustained him for seventy-five years.
I realize that it’s been a decade and some change since What’s so funny about Truth Justice & The American Way? (Action Comics #775, March 2001, by Joe Kelly) was published. If you haven’t read this particular gem, I can’t encourage you enough to go pick it up. Therein, Superman is faced with a group of heroes that find his methods outdated. When it appears that Superman has crossed the line and killed and neutered his opponents, even one of these new, contemporary heroes exclaims, “You c-can’t do this! You… you’re Superman. You don’t do this.” And he’s absolutely correct.
DC Entertainment, Zack Snyder, David Goyer, Christopher Nolan, and whomever else might be listening: you expect us to suspend our disbelief that a man can fly, why wouldn’t we likewise believe that our hero will not resort to the death of an enemy, regardless of the situation or circumstance? Of course, I’ll continue watching and supporting this fledgling franchise, but you have to understand that I’ll be doing so rather warily, and with the thought that I’ve finally, very reluctantly arrived at, “sigh, but it’s not really my Superman.” It is part of what makes me a Tragic Fanboy…