Now that you've seen Man of Steel, writer Larry Tye, author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero, now out in paperback, contributes this essay exclusively to Hollywood.com on the ways in which Zack Snyder's film differs from established Superman lore.
Now we know. The Man of Steel who for 75 years has emblemized the American way really is a Brit – a native of the Channel Islands and a product of a Buckinghamshire boarding school. Gone, too, are the red underpants our hero has worn outside his leotards for so long they became as central to his identity as the "S" on his chest. Then there is this: Superman is a born-again Christian, one so hell-bent on saving his adopted humanity that he might as well be Jesus himself.
Oy vey. Thankfully Jerry Siegel isn't around to watch Hollywood's latest take on the Jewish-American hero he dreamed up in the spring 1938.
This isn't the first time a live-action Superman has embraced Christ as his role model. In Christopher Reeve's first movie in 1978, a Godlike Marlon Brando dispensed to his son advice straight out of the Book of John – to "show the way" to the Earthlings who "lack the light." On stage in Godspell, Jesus wore a Superman shirt. And in the opening episode of the Smallville television show, a young Clark was hung on a crucifix by a gang of football players. Never before, however, has Superman-as-Christ been as unambiguous as in the new Man of Steel film, where he poses in postures of crucifixion in the air and water, then consults with a priest before a stained-glass portrait of the savior. In case anyone misses the hints, Warner Bros. has commissioned "sermon notes" to help ministers connect the dots for congregants.
Was that what Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had in mind for the muscle-bound hero they dreamed up in the 1930s? Not by half. Evidence of Superman’s actual ethnicity starts with the name his creators gave him on his home planet Krypton: Kal-El. El, in Hebrew, means God, while Kal connotes a voice or vessel. Together they suggest the alien superbaby was not just a Jew, but a very special one. Like Moses. Much as the baby prophet was floated in a reed basket by a mother desperate to spare him from an Egyptian Pharaoh's death decree, so moments before Kal-El's planet blew up, his doomed parents tucked him into a spaceship that rocketed him to the safety of Earth. Both babies were rescued by non-Jews and raised in foreign cultures – Kal-El by Kansas farmers named Kent – and all the adoptive parents quickly learned how exceptional their foundlings were. The narratives of Krypton's birth and death borrow the language of Genesis. Kal-El's escape to Earth is the story of Exodus.
Clues mount from there. The three legs of the Superman myth – truth, justice, and the American way – are straight out of the Mishnah, the codification of Jewish oral traditions. "The world," it reads, "endures on three things: justice, truth, and peace." The destruction of Kal-El's planet rings of the Nazi Holocaust that was brewing when Jerry and Joe were publishing their first comics, and it summons up the effort to save Jewish children through Kindertransports. A last rule of thumb: when a name ends in "man," the bearer is a Jew, a superhero, or in this case, both.
What about Superman's trademark costume – red briefs over blue full-body tights? The bold primary colors and unforgettable uniform made him look every bit the circus acrobat, only stronger, more agile, ready for action. A sure sign of his innocence and confidence was that he didn't mind appearing in public with his underpants showing, much as he chose an alter ego who kept pursuing the prettiest girl even though he seldom got her. All that is flipped on its head in this latest movie, as Superman-Clark lands the alluring Lois with hardly an ounce of effort and with no sign of any underwear he has on.
But Man of Steel's most dramatic departures from script are its choices of story and storyteller. The former is a fusion of origin epic and slam-bang action that it hopes will draw in a new generation to the Superman saga, reel back aging devotees, and set up the sequels that fans embraced, albeit with diminishing enthusiasm, in the Christopher Reeve four-pack. The storyteller, meanwhile, disguises his English brogue but his British roots make clear that the Man from Metropolis now has a global reach.
All of which begs these questions: Will the changes fly, and should they?
The truth is that change is central to the Superman mythos, as over the decades he has evolved more than the fruit fly. In the 1930s he was just the crime fighter we needed to take on Al Capone and the robber barons. In the forties he defended the home front while brave GIs battled overseas. Early in the Cold War he stood up taller than ever for his adopted country, while in its waning days he tried singlehandedly to eliminate nuclear stockpiles. For each era he zeroed in on the threats that scared us most, using powers that grew or diminished depending on the need. So did his spectacles, hair style, even his job title. Each generation got the Superman it needed and deserved. Each change offered a Rorschach test of the pulse of that time and its dreams. Superman, always a beacon of light, was a work in progress.
Superman also always has been a citizen of the world. As early as the 1960s, forty-two countries from Brazil to Lebanon were translating every issue of his American comic book into their native tongues, which gave the Swedes a hero called Stalmannen, the Mexicans a caped cousin named Supernina, the Dutch an intrepid lady reporter whose byline read Louise Laan, and the Arabic world an undercover male reporter named Nabil Fawzi who worked for the newspaper Al-Kawkab Al Yawmi. By now this flying Uncle Sam has written himself into the national folklore from Beirut to Buenos Aires.
Even mixed reviews like those critics gave Man of Steel are part of the Superman tradition. Christopher Reeve’s first film, which set the standard for both Superman and superhero movies, was in the words of Roger Ebert "a wondrous combination of all the old-fashioned things we never really get tired of: adventure and romance, heroes and villains, earthshaking special effects, and – you know what else? Wit." But Vincent Canby of The New York Times seemed to be writing about an entirely different movie, saying that "to enjoy this movie as much as one has a right to expect, one has either to be a Superman nut, the sort of trivia expert who has absorbed all there is to know about the planet Krypton, or to check one's wits at the door."
The real lesson of Superman's long history in radio and movie serials, TV and feature films, is that the only critics who count are ticket buyers, especially pint-sized ones, who helped Man of Steel nearly cover its huge production tab in just its first weekend and set a record for a June opening. For them, the formula is straightforward and starts with the intrinsic simplicity of his story. Little Orphan Annie and Oliver Twist reminded us how compelling a foundling's tale can be, and Superman, the sole survivor of a doomed planet, is a super-foundling. His secret identity might be annoying if we weren't let in on the joke and we didn't have a hero hidden within each of us. He was not just any hero, but one with the very powers we would have: the strength to lift boulders and planets, the speed to outrun a locomotive or a demonic General Zod, and, coolest on anyone's fantasy list, the gift of flight.
Superpowers, however, are just half the equation. More essential is knowing what to do with them, and nobody has a more instinctual sense than Superman of right and wrong. He is an archetype of mankind at its pinnacle. Like John Wayne, he sweeps in to solve our problems. No thank-you needed. He is neither cynical like Batman nor fraught like Spider-Man. For the religious, he can reinforce whatever faith they profess; for nonbelievers he is a secular messiah. The more jaded the era, the more we have been suckered back to his clunky familiarity. So what if the upshot of his adventures is as predictable as with Sherlock Holmes: the good guy never loses. That is reassuring.
Larry Tye was an award-winning journalist at The Boston Globe and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. A lifelong Superman fan, Tye now runs a Boston-based training program for medical journalists. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Satchel, as well as The Father of Spin, Home Lands, and Rising from the Rails, and co-author, with Kitty Dukakis, of Shock. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, and is currently writing a biography of Robert F. Kennedy.
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More: Larry Tye on How Each Superman Actor Has Helped Keep the Man of Steel Alive for 75 Years ‘Man of Steel’ Burning Questions: Superman Kills? Jimmy Olsen’s Awol? And More! Watch Our Post ‘Man of Steel’ Discussion Google Hangout
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As with seemingly every other tentpole release to hit the multiplex this summer the action thriller Cowboys & Aliens is based on a comic book – albeit a lesser-known one. It’s directed by Jon Favreau whose previous comic-book adaptations Iron Man and Iron Man 2 proved how much better those films can be when they’re grounded in character. Unfortunately his latest effort is grounded not in character but a hook an alt-history scenario best expressed in the language of the average twelve-year-old: “Like wouldn’t it be awesome if like a bunch of 1870s cowboys had to fight a bunch of crazy aliens with exoskeletons and spaceships and super-advanced weapons?”
Like perhaps. The hook was compelling enough to get someone to pony up a reported $160 million to find out and the result is a film in which the western and science-fiction genres don’t so much blend as violently collide. After the wreckage is cleared both emerge worse for wear.
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan a stranger who awakens in the New Mexico Territory with a case of amnesia a wound in his side and a strange contraption strapped to his wrist. After dispatching a trio of bandits with Bourne-like efficiency he rides to the nearby town of Absolution where he stumbles on what appears to be an elaborate Western Iconography exhibit presented by the local historical preservation society. There’s the well-meaning town Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) struggling to enforce order amidst lawlessness; the greedy rancher Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who really runs things; his debaucherous cowardly son Percy (Paul Dano); the timid saloonkeeper Doc (Sam Rockwell) who’s going to stand up for himself one of these days; the humble preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) dispensing homespun spiritual advice; et al.
Jake of course has his own part to play – the fugitive train-robber – as we discover when his face shows up on a wanted poster and a sneering Dolarhyde fingers him for the theft of his gold. The only character who doesn’t quite conform to type is Ella (Olivia Wilde) who as neither a prostitute nor some man’s wife – the traditional female occupations in westerns – immediately arouses suspicion.
Jake is arrested and ordered to stand trial in Federal court but before he can be shipped off a squadron of alien planes appears in the sky besieging Absolution and making off with several of its terrified citizenry. In the course of the melee Jake’s wrist contraption wherever it came from reveals itself to be quite useful in defense against the alien invaders. Thrown by circumstances into an uneasy alliance with Dolarhyde he helps organize a posse to counter the otherworldly threat – and bring back the abductees if possible.
Cowboys & Aliens has many of the ingredients of a solid summer blockbuster but none in sufficient amounts to rate in a summer season crowded with bigger-budget (and better-crafted) spectacle. For a film with five credited screenwriters Cowboys & Aliens’ script is sorely lacking for verve or imagination. And what happened to the Favreau of Iron Man? The playful cheekiness that made those films so much fun is all but absent in this film which takes itself much more seriously than any film called Cowboys & Aliens has a right to. Dude you’ve got men on horses with six-shooters battling laser-powered alien crab people. Lighten up.
Craig certainly looks the part of the western anti-hero – his only rival in the area of rugged handsomeness is Viggo Mortensen – but his character is reduced to little more than an angry glare. And Wilde the poor girl is burdened with loads of clunky exposition. The two show promising glimpses of a romantic spark but their relationship remains woefully underdeveloped. Faring far better is Ford who gets not only the bulk of the film’s choicest lines but also its only touching subplot in which his character’s adopted Indian son played by Adam Beach quietly coaxes the humanity out of the grizzled old man.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 29
MANDATORY VIEWING OF THE WEEK
Real Time with Bill Maher (Season Premiere) -- 11/10c on HBO
Most people either love Bill Maher or are repulsed by him, with no gray area--and yet his polarization is more complicated than Democrat-vs.-Republican. But if you happen to be a Maher-tyr, then the sixth-season premiere of Real Time is clearly mandatory, especially with the Democratic National Convention having wrapped the night before. Maher will not be shy--or politically correct, of course--when it comes to his opinions on the DNC and the upcoming election, and after suffering through three nights of predictable coverage (except for The Daily Show), R-rated irreverence is just what we need.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 30
For the Love of Grace -- 9/8c on Hallmark
If you insist on watching TV tonight, Hallmark might be your best bet--six words I never thought I’d say! It’s not that For the Love of Grace is a must-see, of course, but rather due to a lack of other options. Mark Consuelos (a.k.a. Mr. Kelly Ripa) stars as a recently widowed firefighter who rescues a workaholic author named Grace (Chandra West), who rescues him back. Get it? Yeah, you may just wanna read tonight.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 31
SEASON TWO MINI-MARATHON
Mad Men -- 5/4c-11/10c on AMC
Lest those of us who’ve missed an episode decide to throw in the towel for season two, the folks at AMC give us a chance to play catch-up by re-airing all episodes to this point. The mini-marathon culminates with a new episode that centers on Don (Jon Hamm) and Duck (Mark Moses) trying to make peace at Sterling Cooper.
Brooke Knows Best -- 10/9c on VH1
Brooke (Hogan, for the many sensible people out there who haven’t been watching) auctions herself off as a prom date to help raise money for girls who can’t afford prom dresses. So…clearly those girls shouldn’t get their hopes up.
Bobby Garfield (David Morse) returns to his small hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood friend and remembers the fateful summer in 1960 when his whole world changed. The story flashes back to when 11-year-old Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and his best friends Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully-John (Will Rothhaar) capture the pure joy of youthfulness. When a mysterious stranger named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) moves upstairs and starts to pay attention to Bobby the boy suddenly realizes what's truly missing from his life--the love of a parent. Bobby's mother Liz (Hope Davis) is embittered by the death of Bobby's father and shows little compassion for her son's growing needs. Ted fills a void with the boy opening his eyes to the world around him and helps Bobby come to terms with his real feelings for Carol--and his mother. But Ted also has some deep dark secrets of his own and Bobby tries hard to stop danger from reaching the old man.
The performances make the film especially in the genuine camaraderie of the kids. Yelchin Boorem and Rothhaar never deliver a false move with an easiness that makes us believe we are simply watching three 11-year-old children grow up together. Yelchin in particular is able to get right to the heart of this young boy who misses his father and clings to the only adult who will listen. And his scenes with Boorem simply break your heart. (Davis) does an admirable job playing a part none too sympathetic. She manages to show a woman whose been beaten down but who does truly love her son in her own way. Morse too is one of those character actors you can plug in any movie and get a performance worth noting. In Hearts you want to see more of him. Of course the film shines brightest when Hopkins is on the screen. It may not be an Oscar-caliber performance but the actor is unparalleled in bringing a character to life--showing the subtleties of an old man looking for some peace in his life.
If you are expecting the Stephen King novel you may be disappointed. Screenwriter William Goldman and director Scott Hicks (Shine) deftly extracted the King formula of telling a story through a child's eye and explaining how the relationships formed as a child shaped the adult later. Hicks did an amazing job with his young actors especially Yelchin and Boorem. But where the novel continued into a supernatural theme explaining Brautigan's fear of being captured by "low men in yellow coats" (a reference to King's The Dark Tower series) the movie downplayed the mystical elements instead giving real explanations for Brautigan's man-on-the-run. That was the one problem with Hearts--we needed more danger. Introducing men from another dimension may not have been the way to go but had there been more tension the film would have resonated more especially when Bobby risked his own safety to save Ted.