Man of Steel (Musing with spoilers)

The movie ends on young Clark prancing around his backyard with a red towel tied around his neck. It’s beautifully shot. It may be the most beautiful piece in the whole film actually. This is genuine Americana, undiluted by raunchy country music, car racing, and whatever potentially offensive symbols might typically accompany such displays of good-old-fashioned-corn-on-the-cob Americana. Is there a better expression of America’s childlike hope that every citizen can achieve a life beyond what they were given? In every American childhood since 1938, boy or girl, rich or poor, there has been that moment of tying the (preferably red) towel around the neck, stretching our arms in front, and flying around the room/yard/park pretending to be Superman.

Even Superman did this as a kid.

When I was 11, I started writing my own movie version of Superman. I hated the Christopher Reeve movies (I still mostly do, but for completely different reasons), and I wanted to see Superman “done right,” whatever that means. So I did what the writers of the newest cinematic Superman did. I opened up a John Byrne Superman comic and basically translated it into a movie screenplay. It has been over a decade since I’ve looked at my notes, but I could easily geek out about my expansive plans for hours, if I could find anyone to listen. Which, thankfully, I can’t. I bring this up because a problem I wrestled with then, in the mid-90s, was setting. What does the world about to receive Superman look like? My instinct is to paint it in colors very closely to our own world’s palette. Imagine an alien boy raised as a human in modern day earth. I kept bumping up against the fact that Superman is a major part of many American boys’ childhoods.

Well maybe I’m just obsessed with Superman and I’m incorrectly evaluating the character’s importance, I thought. Superman may not be as important to American culture as I think he is. But we’re not only talking about Superman being extracted from American culture. He is the original superhero. So unless another character emerged (as one probably would have), there would be no superheroes, or superhero comics. Without superhero comics, there probably wouldn’t be any comics today. But, as I said, I do believe another hero character would have come about to kick off the superhero genre. Just who would that be?

This is a tough question. Whoever it would be, he or she could not be as … super as Superman. He is the prototype. He has all the superpowers. He has the most garish costume, on which all the others are based. He is grounded in classical epics. As an immigrant, he is the ultimate hero of America. Batman more or less came second. Part of what makes that character work so well is how un-Superman he is. Wonder Woman followed. She’s more like Superman, so could possibly host superhero comics similar to the way that Superman did. Although, given the time period, I doubt a female character could have inspired a whole genre that would hold the attention of several generations of boys. Maybe a hero would have come along that we haven’t had to invent. Maybe a type of Superman would exist in the void of a Superman-less world.

Whoever it might be would lack the universality of Superman. Without that, the character wouldn’t have taken off and stayed aloft for as long as Superman has. He probably wouldn’t inspire an industry as frequently lucrative as superhero stories. If anything, this character might just be considered another in a line of Zorro, Lone Ranger, Shadow, Phantom types. Every twenty years or so, he’d be carted out for another try.

A world without a Superman might not be so bad. Without comic heroes, boys of the last 75 years might have grown up with a firmer sense of reality. Maybe they would acknowledge figures like George Washington as heroes, rather than the modern versions of Greek gods we have in comics. Who knows.

I am convinced the world would be different. The culture is defined, at least in part, by selling craps to kids. That all started with comic book superheroes. Clark Kent, born 1980, would not have had superhero toys, or Batmania, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or even know that selling grits was a great way to win prizes. Where would this lonely, over-sensitive boy go? No where that all his real-world counterparts could have turned to.

What do you think might be different in  a world without the character of Superman?


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