Why “Man of Steel” Might Save Us All

I have now watched the trailer for Man of Steel, the Zack Snyder-directed Superman movie premiering June 14, twice and had two very different reactions. Watching it at home on my laptop, it looked like a solid, modern take on the world’s most famous superhero. But this trailer was not meant to be watched on a laptop, after clicking a link that says, “Man of Steel trailer.” It was meant to be watched in a dark theater when you don’t know what’s coming – or can at least pretend not to. Watch it for yourself and try to imagine that you don’t know it’s a trailer for a Superman movie:

Wow. The trailer itself takes the viewer on a journey more substantial than most films, and it strikes me that Man of Steel is being presented as a bold divergence from prior superhero movies in that it eschews irony and cynicism.

Superheroes were originally created to represent humanity’s best qualities – selflessness, virtue, and intelligence – but in the post-9/11 world, movie superheroes have been guarded in their optimism and ambivalent about the society that they protect. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy reflected a complex view of crime and terrorism – the most that it could say about our world was that it was worth saving. Recent iterations of Spider-Man have focused more on his personal demons and his antagonistic relationship with law enforcement than on his do-gooding.  And of course, Iron Man is a greedy, militaristic jerk who, over the course of his films, learns to be a better person. Although he’s still kind of a jerk.

These superheroes are presented as tortured and conflicted because they represent our self-perception of American power in the geopolitical sphere. To paraphrase J. Hoberman in his landmark piece in Artforum, the events of September 11, 2001 pulled back the curtain on our illusion of invincibility and revealed a new global order in which America was vulnerable and responsible for the world’s violence. We learned that the use of American power is complex and has consequences that can be borne on our own land.

The superhero films of the post-9/11 era reflected this new sensibility by focusing on their heroes’ character flaws and their vulnerability to harm. This may be part of the reason origin stories became so popular – they routinely feature characters who are struggling and often failing to be the best they can be.

But the character of Superman never fit that role. He has never been presented as a tortured or conflicted superhero. His presence was often equated with perfection, and the boldness of Man of Steel – at least how it is represented in the trailer – is that it embraces that virtue instead of falling in line with the other ambiguous and often cynical superhero films of this era. In fact, the trailer directly rejects the symbolism of a fallen world and offers instead “an ideal to strive towards.”

Superman

The arc of the trailer makes this very clear. It opens on scenes of devastation, a father saying goodbye to his son, and a mother worried for her son’s future. We cut immediately to images of Americana – wheat fields, a dog, and a little red wagon, images of a bygone America. “What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society intended?” It is here that we get our first glimpse of Superman, and it seems important that Russell Crowe’s voice-over references “society” here. The implication made by Snyder is that Superman represents a break from current societal trends – that he can transcend the cynicism and detachment of our current era – and also from current trends in superhero movies.

Superman also tells Lois Lane that the “S” on his chest is a symbol of hope on his home planet. It is an interesting choice of words, as “hope” has become a contentious notion in the post-9/11 world. Obama won a campaign on it, but in film, it has been used to represent a tool of oppression. The Hunger Games told us that “hope is the only thing more powerful than fear” and how it could be used for nefarious purposes. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane tells us that he “will feed the people of Gotham hope to poison their souls.” In this way, Man of Steel seems to be directly responding to the failures of the Obama Administration to achieve the unity he promised (although many would argue it’s not his fault), as well as the film world’s use of that word as a symbol for our disilusionment.

But is this a sharp break from past superhero movies or really just a return to form? Superman (1978) may have been made in the shadow of the first big-budget popcorn flicks like Jaws and Star Wars, but it’s worth noting that Superman and its first sequel were made in a weary time that in some ways mirrored our own.  In the mid-1970s, Americans were still reeling from the dual disillusionments of Watergate and Vietnam. The election of Jimmy Carter marked a brief period of optimism that was quickly quashed by a crippling energy crisis, and the advent of the summer blockbuster was a product of our collective desire to escape these existential crises.

Today, things seem just as bad. Our Congress is by all measures broken. The War on Terror rages on. The economy trudges along slowly. Climate change has put the very future of our civilization in question. As a response to these crises, the thoughtful ambivalence of the Batman and the Iron Man seemed appropriate, but with The Avengers and now Man of Steel, Hollywood seems convinced that we need something positive. In voice-over, Russell Crowe’s Jor-El tells his son of the people of Earth: “They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”

It seems that Superman arrives in movie theaters when we are most in need of true hope. It is fairly clear from this trailer that Man of Steel aims to depict hope as an untarnished virtue, without reservation or irony, a bold change from the trend of hugely successful superhero films in its wake. And maybe a change is exactly what we need.

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