DARK AND HEAVY CLOUDS HUNG OVER THE CITY, DRIPPING STRINGS OF RUMOUR TO THE STREETS BELOW. Something was coming and the sky looked like it might fall in its path. Sat on the 98th floor of the Corp tower, surveying the largest metropolis in North America, I couldn’t help but think that this was a terrible day for an interview.
It was barely eight weeks since half the financial district had been levelled. A mighty battle almost invisible to the eye had dropped craters through the streets and punched holes through buildings. Most of the city’s infrastructure remained in ruins and the recovery was slow work despite the flurry of activity that surrounded it. Various city patrons circled the devastation, prodding and testing the best anchor points for their web. There was a new world order and they all wanted the best view. And there, rising above them all, sat the man I was about to meet.
Now, while the devastation still filled every paper, there was new danger. The sky was dark and the streets were afraid. Whispers were caught in the gutter eddies. On the ground, at tarmac corners, you heard that it was coming from the west, that it wasn’t slow… There was little else you could believe. While the Goat’s town to the south was wary, the real panic lay 98 floors beneath me. Whatever was coming, it was headed straight for us. The press talked of a doomsday.
Sheet rain had started. It collided with the panel window on my left as if it was trying to peel the top of the giant ‘L’ from the building. I smiled as I wished it luck. This wouldn’t be the last time that something would try. After the architectural virus, the 13-upgrades, the bottled city… Nothing had succeeded. I was sat at the peak of the city’s totem. And then my smirk dropped, replaced by a slight cold sweat and nervous glances. Between the window and my seat a pot plant shook slightly in sympathy. Looking closer, I thought I saw small specks of green in the soil. It was if they glowed and I blinked in the twisting light. It was almost black outside. It was three in the afternoon.
“Sir, if you’ll follow me please”.
I started at the young woman’s approach. She stood in front of me, dressed in Corp uniform, her hand outstretched to escort me to the meeting I dreaded. Her face looked ever so slightly strained under her turned, glossed lips and immaculate make-up. I picked up my lucky pack of cards from the seat next to me, where the joker card lay on top, and followed her.
On the way, the looping corridors seemed to grow. Gold and lacquered wood trim swept me through the middle of the floor, beneath my feet plush red carpet brought me to a giant double door lined with reception desks. The occupants of those slabs of oak didn’t stir as I was ushered through the door. Before I knew it, my guide had left me alone in a cavernous room alone. I clutched the playing cards in my pocket as the first flashes of lightening played across the skyline. The cards had shuffled on the walk, along with my stomach.
I reasoned that the room was white on the whole, but the strange inner-twilight was amplified between its plush walls. Before the external floor to ceiling windows was a mist of purples and mauves. In a room of little shadow, the air swirled in a dot matrix; different tones showed through higher and lower concentrations of dots. Like a thousand images, a thousand panels, conjuring the room from a flick book. In the swirl of pulp print copy I stopped myself raising a hand to disturb the particles. I blinked instead and in the flare noticed the huge wall of video screens to my left. I wasn’t in a comic book; the wall of separate screens diffused a glow of static into the room. Some words bubbled beneath the snow, New York… Tokyo… Kansas? I squinted towards the large metal desk at the far end of the room. Behind it, turned to the gigantic window, stood a figure. His broad shoulders were hunched, his hands clasped behind. He was surveying the dark skyline, or seemed to be. In a single poised and powerful movement he raised one arm, inviting me to the large chair in front of the desk.
Like an incredible force had lifted me, I suddenly found myself dropping to the plush leather of the chair. I didn’t even feel myself move.
Suddenly I was reminded me of another meeting, a recent room where I had faced a reticent opponent. Again I clenched the cards in my pocket for luck as I sat wondering which card was on top. The question was similar, but this time it wasn’t a swaying ceiling lamp that separated us, just a palpable, thick wall of power. The lightening spat across metal lines outside, each bolt glancing a reflection from the angular dome of a head before me – a head sat above gigantic shoulders. In the electricity, I could just make out a sneer under the deep-set brow as a voice baritone enough to break the glass escaped a curled lip.
The words were cold and clipped. He had a flying problem. There was anger, resentment and perhaps worry in his voice. Still, I frowned.
It seemed like the same question every time.
I knew I didn’t have long. That question would be shaped and defined by a mind sharper than my own, delivered through pin-point assassinations fired at me like slivers of kryptonite. I could feel the entry wounds already. The eyes held me in cold reflection as I sat there.
In the glare, I stammered back before warming to the topic against the ice reflection…
Remember, the last son of Krypton is a multi-layered enigma that has been gradually built up over 80 years – the definitive hero with mythic qualities that other superheroes can only hope for. Man of Steel got a lot of this right and it needed to. In recent years, Superman’s greatest threat has been the 21st century itself. It’s a difficult place for an American icon, decked out in primary colours, especially when an uncynical tolerance has faded in the Western world over the last forty years, now to be replaced with apps and touch screens. Man of Steel tackled that issue first. It had to.
The same factors that make Superman the definitive superhero are the same as those that have consigned him to being an irrelevant, unfashionable and a sometime-box-office mope in the past decade. Man of Steel washed away the cobwebs of apathy that had surrounded the figure for too long and with relatively few concessions, but no little controversy.
“He’s an old fashioned boy scout. All that power used for dull-do-goodery” The reflected scowl was now completely fixed on me. The sky flashed.
“What’s dull about do-goodery..?” I stopped myself.
Of course, Superman is considered the pinnacle of do-goodery…
That remained the general character direction in his latest cinematic outing, in spite of his city wrecking and effective genocide (empty cryo-chambers aside). But away from those extremes, the last son of Krypton’s ethos of non-murder is shared by many other heroes. One of those is his comic book near-comparator Batman, a fellow superhero and an ally, but one who doesn’t really help the Kryptonian’s cause. The Dark Knight is interesting because of the dark world he inhabits. It’s the negated outline of the city that draws his cowled profile. The product of a random act of violence, Batman’s first tenet is that he won’t kill, one that has seeded many interesting dilemmas and relationships in his legend. But, as a non-meta mortal, it’s a necessity that his methods are somewhat murky. Even with the clout of Wayne Enterprises (alive and well in Man of Steel), he needs to even the playing field. While Batman can agonise over the morals of killing or not with his super-tech, Superman wields power enough to make life and death decisions on a universal scale every millisecond. It’s a multi-universe of greys.
“He devastated the greatest city in America, thousands are still unaccounted for”.
Was there… Could the passion of his earlier snarl have softened slightly?
It’s the disregard for life in this new, more violent Superman that has brought the most criticism against Man of Steel. Most of the ire forms in the last third of the film, which I affectionately refer to as the ‘Kryptonian smack down’. You wait thirty years to see Kryptonians go super-toe to super-toe and then it’s all too much. There are unverified reports 40 year old men running from cinemas, tears streaming down their face screaming “The destruction! The destruction!”
Well, yes, it could have been different – if the battles of Smallville and Metropolis documented in the film appeared in the comic, Superman would have been constantly dodging thought bubbles along the lines of: “must get this beast… away from the city, people… in danger.”
But this was a new Superman, barely nicknamed.
While the other Kryptonians were adjusting to the superpowers imbued by the yellow sun, Kal-El was experiencing his first fights and releasing years of repression, frustration and misunderstanding. This was not a reasoning Superman comfortable in his powers and their ability to stop his foes. He was a noble and a naive one who had to stop the megalomaniac Zod at all costs. If Zod had won, that cost would have been total. I think the film made that clear enough, though many disagree. In a narrative scope that shifted from Dune onto Thor’s small town climax and then out-disassembled The Avengers end scrap, it bottled down to the needs of a few argument. Of course, not the only blockbuster to do so this year. After all the action, in Grand Central Station, a final grapple of muscle and, er, heat vision. The resolution was abrupt.
It’s all a far cry from the heady days of 1980s big screen Superman and Batman films. In 1989, Tim Burton’s Dark Knight was hardly unhomicidal. The start of 1992’s Batman Returns – for many years the greatest translation of comic book to comic screen – makes you wonder how many job adverts for new circus performers had to be advertised following the Penguin’s demise. Still the ideal of Batman’s morality endures, thanks to peoples ease at disregarding onscreen moral conflicts. In Man of Steel, Superman’s definitive act was violent, brutal and definitive. Many commentators have rejected this choice: Superman would always find another way. However, his final choice – and it was a final choice – was not unfamiliar to readers of the build-up to DC’s Infinite Crisis comic series last decade. Here it was repurposed (Superman took the murderous role from Wonder Woman) and cameras weren’t overtly present to bring a media furore to the mix. However, similar plot strands of media suspicion and homicidal meta-humans will endure in this new world. The vital difference in the film is that Superman stopped one of his own rather than a dangerous human, but it’s still murder. It’s vigilante justice and there has to be a moral repercussion – the act is too dark to balance against Earth’s adopted son’s guilt for his lost people. Still, the real purpose of that end fight was to show a Superman who had eventually chosen who to protect – the culmination of the film’s main message: free choice.
Admittedly, Supe’s hand was slightly forced – he was put in that position by having the Kryptonian ark – the main antagonist to free will of which Zod is an extension – was ironically fused to him. The atavistic skull codex was a supreme touch, full of depth and reference – who would be that definitive Kryptonian? But despite that inherent biological drawback, although it is never suggested to be anything but dormant, it is universal luck that the Last Son of Krypton was raised in an alien society that could realise the House of El’s intention after centuries of entropy.
I stopped, waiting for an onslaught. There was a moment of calm, caught in the flash of the storm.
There was only one direction the questioning could take now
“The son of a radical, an agent of chaos. With no planet of his own, Earth is now his play thing. He is not thing short of a weapon”
But not his weapon, i thought. He’s the most powerful creature on Earth, true. The Man of Steel universe looks to pave the way for a world that rapidly has to adjust to this new power base. It is the weapon after all, that has adopted the United States. It’s a similar theme to the one posed by Dr Manhattan’s arrival in Snyder’s earlier adaptation of Watchmen, but not one unfamiliar in Superman’s past.
“He’s the protector of humanity”
“He’s an alien”
Insecurity? Was that it, burrowed deep in the thick brow. Something no amount of botox and skin treatment in the Corp spa could cover up…
Superman is far more than an icon of American dominance, emerging as he did a mere after the soon-to-be World superpower fully ended isolationism. He was invention of two Jewish teenagers, one American, one Canadian, themselves seeking the American dream. Following his conception by Siegel and Shuster in the early 1930ss, he quickly turned from a bald megalomaniac Superman (appearing in the far more literal Nietzschean Reign of Superman short), into a being just a few super powers short of the dual-identity hero we know today. That element of the American Dream is one that Superman has both boldly represented and often struggling to encompass during his career. During WWII he was a morale booster – DC leveraged the Spear of Destiny as a reason why superheroes couldn’t just stop the war – while in 2011 renounced his American citizenship as he was tired of being seen as a tool of US foreign policy (a storyline written by Man of Steel scripter David S Goyer no less).
A definitive exploration of this side of Superman was presented by Mark Millar’s Red Son which posed the implications of Superman’s Kryptonian escape craft landed in Russia instead of America in the 1930s. Wresting with ideology and the idea of Superman as a nuclear deterrent, it’s also a neat exploration of Superman’s villains. Like Batman, Superman is a superhero who can be judged by his enemies. In Red Son, The jealousy brewing away at the heart of nemesis, the lengths such an arms race would go to, the treachery. Most focus is on Luthor, a character recently ret-conned in the comics as a potential anti-hero who had been stripped of his American importance by Superman’s arrival. Here he had achieved another miserable role – a genius President locked in an exacerbated but futile Cold War.
“I’ve read it”
Okay. I’d made my point..
Superman in the established universe was raised in America but adopted her far more than she adopted him. The Man of Steel sequels, as well as DC Universe films, promise to explore that universe in the 21st century – this is a Superman after all, who has wandered the Earth.
There are many international supervillains and superheroes in the DC universe, and to take Superman as another name for Americaman is misleading.
Still residing in the DC Comics universe is old Will ‘the Spirit’ Eisner created character Uncle Sam, the national personification of the United States. But aside a few notable storylines and one-off series, has never touched Superman’s profile. Superman is not an inherent spirit of America, but it is that adoption itself that makes him such a powerful symbol.
Superman’s city, Metropolis sits on the North East Coast of America, dwarfing nearby New York, while a few miles below Gotham provides the dark alter-ego to its shining towers. While Clark Kent is the embodiment of the American dream from Smallville Kansas and Kal El is biologically Krypton, Superman is the light of that city nicknamed The Big Apricot. He’s also a flying personification of nurture versus nature, not an American boy scout.
On the last syllable, the trunk like legs in the dapper suit turned. In profile, he was even more threatening. The sky was virtually white with sheet lightening now, every colour blanched.
My eyes widened, had I again won a point, a concession… No.
“He’s the son of alien world, not one cell comes from Earth”. The contempt was a clear.
“He’s American, he was raised American…” I noticed an angry furrow of red eyebrows as I said it.
Despite a clear central message, not unfamiliar to the Superman myth, it wasn’t all plain sailing. And after the Dark Knight trilogy it couldn’t be.
Man of Steel presents an origin story, but one of the lightest I’ve seen – even in a world of constant reboots. Familiarity with the Superman myth is required to make full sense of the story, even beyond the cultural staples. In that respect, it’s a new kind reboot – one that requires its predecessors for it to reject and react against. Along the way, Man of Steel strips the myth apart, picking and choosing parts relevant to the story it wants to tell and adding some extra, just for you.
Yes: “They fuck you up your mum and dad.” Here it’s stronger than ever.
While Superman’s Earth and Kryptonian families adhere to their traditional roles, both come with twists. Jonathan Kent’s insistence that Clark keeps his secret borders on myth sabotage, all the while instilling his son’s motivation and morals. His death is no longer a mindless act of nature seen in the Reeves films – it’s an elevated sacrifice to nature, at the same time human, Kryptonian and, particularly, tornado. This is the sacrifice of the father. Superman remains the biological son of Kryptonians, but her the son’s role is elevated. He is the first natural birth in centuries, the first non-predetermined Kryptonian in centuries. That addition makes Earth the far more sensible home for him.
The rain had now stopped completely, the lip curl turned impassive but topped by a brow heavier than ever. We were at the eye of thee storm, with constant high crashes threatening the windows and the constant strobe of white light. In front of me, the figure was entirely silhouette. Unmoving.
Pre-determination is a significant addition to the Superman films. In Man of Steel, not only did it allow Jor-El to become the first Kryptonian male to get laid for centuries, but it also imbued a new sheen into the staid Kryptonians. Zod and Jor-El were products of their society, biologically, while Kal-El is neatly destined to be the first Kryptonian to experience free choice for centuries. His father Jor-El is even more hands on than ever. He’s not just a great mind but an action-minded, noble saviour. That is the sacrifice of the other father.
In all, the theme of destiny is a strong one – highlighted by the sacrifice of two fathers. The son of the House of Hope was sent as a last resort with the hope of uniting the peoples of Krypton and Earth. Ironically, the only son of Krypton without a predetermined purpose (given a religious sheen by Zod’s cry of “blasphemy”) ensured that his life would be more defined by destiny than ever.
My eyes had wandered while I spoke and when, with a flash, the lightening suddenly stopped, they returned to the window and darkness. But that was all, I glanced around but I was alone. I had little else to do. i slowly turned around and saw the door at the end of the room was open. Standing there was my guide from earlier and two Corp security guards in full uniform – visors on their eyes, stazers in hand. I sighed and checked for the cards in my pocket. Interview terminated.