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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