The following article was published by the Eagle Times on August 13, 2016.
Superman is dead, and Hollywood killed him
When the attempt to re-launch the Superman franchise with “Superman Returns” (2006) – part-remake and part-sequel to theChristopher Reeve films – failed, critics blamed the Blue Boy Scout‘s squeaky-clean image. He was too boring for sophisticated tastes and no longer relevant to modern society, they lamented.
The sentiment is echoed in the 2016 film itself, when Lois Lane wins a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial titled, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Our cultural elites, infatuated with ambiguity and subversion, certainly agree. So, it should surprise no one thatHollywood decided that the apparently stodgy and archaic Man of Tomorrow needed a makeover.
Since Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster created the character in 1933, Superman has undergone numerous transformations in comics, television shows and movies, including a supervillain akin to Nietzsche’s Übermensch, a Stalinist, and even an ex-American having renounced his citizenship. The following commentary will limit its scope to analyzing the moral and intellectual perversion of the Superman character on the silver screen.
“Superman: The Movie” (1978) and “Superman II” (1980) canonized Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman as a hopeful, compassionate and humble superhero who disguises as the bumbling reporter Clark Kent by day. Reeve’s Superman is neither seduced by moral ambiguity or interested in engaging with identity politics. His actions are directed by a strong moral compass instilled by his loving adoptive parents in Kansas, and by the spiritual guidance of his biological father Jor-El.
This iteration of Superman is of Krypton but also human, an alien but also an American. He does not cling to the conflict and angst inherent in a hyphenated identity. Rather, he finds strength and solace by inhabiting a plurality of being.
In addition, Reeve’s Superman defies the current political tendency to pit an imagined oppressor class against various victim groups. Though he is literally an all-powerful white male, and thus a member of the alleged privileged class, he has no desire to abuse his gifts toward selfish ends. Instead, he chooses to fight for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Consequently, this Superman represents an anathema to the cultural-media elite class.
To resolve the issue, Warner Bros. hired Christopher Nolan to deconstruct and reimagine the superhero as a brooding and tortured figure, like he had done with Batman in his Dark Knight Trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012). Inspired by the macabre realism of Frank Miller’s graphic novel series, The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Nolan broke new cinematic ground by rebooting the Batman movies as neo-noir crime sagas.
Failing to realize that dark and grim interpretations, while appropriate for the tragic character of Batman, would not lend well to a figure destined to serve as a “beacon of light for humanity,” the studio commissioned the subversive dissembling of Superman.
The new “Nolanized” Superman (Henry Cavill) debuted in “Man of Steel” (2013), and was seen again in the recent release, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) – both directed by Zack Snyder. Rife with pessimism and paradox, Cavill’s Superman is an isolated and miserable figure who does not regard earth as his world, and grapples with his relevance to human society. He is constantly referred to as an alien, lest we forget his otherworldly origins.
In this version, his mother does not offer moral guidance, but compounds his existential confusion by telling him that he does not owe humanity a thing. Indeed, the ensuing nihilism aligns well with the ideology of cultural elites that define morality, not in black-and-white terms, but in 50 shades of gray.
Using a cinematic canvass of bleak grayscale and sepia tones, Snyder (who confessed that he cannot fathom why “everyone clings to the Christopher Reeve version”) further distances his work from the bright optimism of the Reeve films. Abundant religious resonances (eg. Clark Kent’s baptism when he saves his fellow schoolmates from a drowning bus) emphasize Superman’s parallels with Christ. However, Snyder depicts Superman in uncharacteristic form, floating above suffering humans rather than rushing to their rescue, to cast him as a fickle alien deity and not a loving savior.
The new films also attempt to undermine Superman’s role as a force of good for mankind by focusing on the destruction of Metropolis in the wake of his epic battle with Kryptonian arch-villain General Zod. Finally, good and bad characters remain skeptical about Superman and wedded to the unfounded belief that he will turn on them. In fact, a dream sequence in the recent film depicts Superman as an evil warlord – likely a prediction for the next installment, “Justice League” (2017).
This alternatively stoic and woebegone avatar does outright injustice to the character of Superman as we had come to know and love on the big screen – an American hero that embodied benevolence, moral fortitude, and geniality. That Superman is now dead. And, Hollywood killed him.