I have decided to go for a deep and complicated analysis (in my own way) of the Man of Steel movie and of Superman in our modern era. There is a growing battle for the “essence” of Superman.
After I saw Man of Steel, I realized, it was hard for me to really express how I felt about the movie. In fact, I know I liked it but I also knew that I had qualms and issues with it that I just didn’t feel like dismissing out of hand, as I have done with other superhero movies.
To put it this way, with most other superhero movies I either really like it with a few critical points that were problematic or bothersome or they stink (see Batman and Robin, X-Men 3, Wolverine Origins, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Superman Returns). Most of the time, I understand just how hard it is to adapt a superhero, to change mediums to a movie, to adapt and make it work…and I’m okay with it. However, with Man of Steel I know that I enjoyed the movie…but I also feel that because this is Superman, because this is the “original” superhero of the modern age, I need to go deeper and look at this more.
I say I need to go deeper because as a student of rhetoric, I am aware of the complicated interactions between reaching an audience, but I am also interested in the philosophical and rhetorical implications that altering and revamping a character can have in reflecting our modern societal zeitgeist. However, then, finally, there is the fact that I am also a fan. Therefore, there are really three ways I end up looking at this movie.
So, my plan is to approach this as follows that I want to address these three points of view that I have: as rhetor (audience awareness), rhetorician/philosopher (cultural and rhetorical impact), and as comic book fan/scholar. In addition, I feel that I have to do this by looking at the Snyder/Goyer/Nolan interpretation against other comic book and classical interpretations as well. Basically, I want to define, analyze, challenge, complicate, and analyze some more as I attempt to work out what, for me, is a very complicated approach and examination of an iconic figure.
In our modern era there appear to have developed two warrants, two assumptions about what Superman represents – his essence. It is also a struggle for how people are able to actually relate and identify with Superman and what he represents.
The first assumption/warrant is that Superman remains an iconic role model and something that can “inspire” people of all ages. Perhaps one of the strongest articulators of this vision would be comic book writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman.
The second assumption/warrant is that Superman is too powerful, to god-like, and this makes him boring, a boy scout who is out of touch with our modern world. This assumption/warrant is one that most people either accept and use to belittle Superman as a “pointless” character or challenge, as in the case of Zach Snyder’s new interpretation of Superman in the recent movie Man of Steel.
Both approaches, Morrison/Quitely and Snyder/Goyer (screenwriter) amplify the character of Superman, however, what they choose to amplify differs and lies at the heart of what is at stake with defining and understanding the “essence” of Superman not just a superhero character, but much much more.
What Superman man was, originally, was a kids “wish” fantasy comes true. He was that all-powerful (and we wasn’t it always) who watched out for the underdogs. He was a socialist, people’s hero who originally went after corrupt politicians and businessmen. Eventually, Superman evolved, and has continued to evolve over the past 75 years. It might be assumed that writing for such a character would have to be a challenge, but I think some people rose to that challenge while others have simply attempted to side-step it.
The modern, post-9/11 revamp of Superman that Zack Snyder/David Goyer represents a new vision of Superman:
– No kryptonite as a weakness (replaced with the atmosphere of Krypton)
– Far more emotionally fragile, unsure of himself character
– Father issues, divide, amplified
– Character appears uncertain, tormented, and a bit lost
– Some god-like potential (Jesus references) but not overtly so, a bit more down to Earth
In a lot of ways, as my friend and comic shop owner Tim put it, this is “wish” that anyone who has ever said Superman was “too powerful” or didn’t like the character as he was or the whole “boy scout” element being fulfilled in a movie adaptation.
What amuses me…is I used to feel that way too, all those things about Superman – too powerful, boy scout, and didn’t really care for the “character” and what he stood for, in my mind, either.
So, here is the rub. As a Rhetor, as someone who can apply the use of persuasion, rhetoric, to fulfilling what an audience would want to hear, I can fully identify with what Zack Snyder/David Goyer are trying to do.
Superman is a HARD character to write about…especially considering what he can do and especially in our modern age, our post-9/11 struggles with identity and mythology.
I understand the attempts to help the audience identify with the character, and I think that they are ultimately very successful in fact. My friend Megan responded to my initial post on what I thought after I saw the movie and she immediately pointed out that the struggle and humanization of Superman in the movie really helped make him identifiable to an audience. She’s right, this is a modern Superman. A bit dark, but one that obviously is very self-aware, unsure, and in a stage of identity crisis where he is reaching for identity between how he was raised and what he may possibly be, potentially. This is a classic struggle of nature and nurture, but one where these forces of conflict are not necessarily in conflict with each other. Superman is still Superman, but this is him in origin stage where he has not quite become what he can be, he is still reaching for his potential but that potential is there, engrained in his essence and it remains on hand, visible, to the audience.
Now, Rhetorician, as someone examining the larger impact of this character I am both delighted and conflicted. This character, Superman, is fast becoming a topic of my own doctoral dissertation. What I saw in this movie was a wonderful attempt to humanize (identify) Superman but in a way that did not shut the door on his potential, just simply deferred it – in a sense to his later maturity as the franchise evolves again. What Snyder and Goyer have done is drawn Superman into a more “grounded” scenario, a more human scenario, where he must, as Mark White notes in his “Moral Judgment: The Power that Makes Superman Human,” apply the best judgment in the worst possible scenarios. They have brought Superman into the human and complicated realm of ethical morality. White notes that “The need for judgment is what brings all superheroes down to Earth, and what ultimately makes them relatable to their fans despite their fantastic abilities” (5). This is a bold move on the part of Snyder and particularly Goyer to attempt, but it is one that has become more common in comic book superhero stories over the past decade as well.
So, Superman, like what Hickman is doing with The Avengers comics in the Marvel Universe, is being pushed into the gray area dangerous to all superheroes – between doing the right thing and doing the right thing with consideration of the consequences. Its not a traditional area Superman is thrust into, but it is an intriguing one though – it has my attention.
Finally, as a Fan I reach the point of highly mixed emotions. Though I am slowly becoming okay with this new interpretation of Superman, I still feel that the greatest potential of Superman remains overlooked, particularly in our current cultural zeitgeist, and that is his ability to inspire and lead by example. This is what Morrison does in All-Star Superman, however, this would never really work in an attempt to build a movie franchise as it appears that Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan are doing. They go for the anti-epic narrative in Man of Steel. Even so, I can still understand why they did so, I just do not think that this is truly a “Superman movie” consequently though.
Looking specifically at other aspects of Man of Steel, all around I really appreciated a smart, confident, and on point Lois Lane – Amy Adams was fantastic. I liked how they dealt with his past and that they spent more time on Krypton giving it an identity, leaving open a lot of potential future stories to build on. I was a bit put out, as a fan of Superman, of the destruction “porn” in the Zod and Superman fight at the end. I was not crazy about the “killing Zod” ending either, but since this is “utilitarian” complicated Superman, I get the approach. I guess my one major complaint was I really started to feel that Snyder aimed to amplify the “Jesus” comparisons just a bit too overtly, learn to utilize subtext will you, its already built into the mythos, no need to amplify is really required.
Challenge and Complication
Now, having attempted my round about analysis of the movie, or at least the parts I chose to amplify, I want to come to a point where I both challenge and complicate this apparent dichotomy between what Superman was and might be and what Superman is envisioned now and what he might be.
For me, it becomes a question of essence.
Is the essence of Superman, at his core identity something that remains intact, has it morphed, and does it need to be reimagined?
This is something, this question, this idea of what the essence of Superman and what has he represented, continues to represent, and rhetorically amplified/illustrated over a 75 year existence – this the deeper question here, one that I am hoping to possibly explore in my dissertation.
What has Superman represented throughout his 75-year history – from the 1930-40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and post-9/11. This is a character who has been reinvented time and time again, restructured and remodeled, but what is it, what is it at the core of him, his essence that has remained identifiable throughout. In addition, what kinds of rhetorical tropes/figures has Superman acted as an expression of during those periods – rhetorically functioning and serving a deeper purpose when examined closer. In addition, what remains the common ground, essence, between Morrison and Snyder/Goyer’s visions of Superman. Where does the divide lead, what can be learned by examining the apparent divide in visions, and what are the rhetorical/social/cultural implications of this divide?
I have more questions then answers, but I also plan to keep looking. A new rabbit hole that I want to explore, one that will move beyond the nit-picky comic fan vs. new fan confusion that always seems to come from any new kind of adaptation.
White, Mark D. “Moral Judgment: The Power that Makes Superman Human.” Superman and
Philosophy: What Would The Man of Steel Do?. Ed. Mark D. White. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell,
6 thoughts on “Man of Steel meet All-Star Superman…Where does the essence lay?”
I think one of the crucial things that the film misses is the fundamental importance of the Kents to the development of Kal El’s values system. He is supposed to represent the best of American values and ideas. And he is supposed to have learned these values from the Kents, particularly his father.
Here we have a Jonathan Kent who is essentially a coward, who teaches his son to be reluctant, to hide himself, to not help people, to not stand up for himself. I know that there are some merits to that idea, and that this addresses the problem of xenophobia, but i really find it problematic that it is birth father Jor-El who defines the quest of Superman, and who matters more.
This isn’t to belittle the importance of his “legacy” as last son of Krypton, but to draw attention to the fact that it misses that essential aspect of his character as a kid with small town values, who cares for his neighbors and his community and does what he can to help.
I recently went over All Star and Birthright by Waid/Yu/Alanguilan and I couldn’t help but feel that this movie, while visually thrilling and hands down the most exciting film adaptation, misses so many things in relation to the values of the character.
anyway, hoping this comment is just the start of the conversation.
also you mention his snapping a neck, very un-Superman, yeah? but probably even worse was the wanton destruction and lack of care for human life that Superman has when he dukes it out with Zod. How many blocks of buildings, how many people died in that? I mean, in Avengers, you see Cap say, “We have to contain the battle,” and they go around helping civilians. Here, the two dudes punching destroys at least triple the property that is leveled in Avengers’ full scale alien invasion. And Superman doesn’t do much to actually help people. That’s what I’m looking for, this essence of him as protector, as someone who takes care of people when we cannot take care of ourselves, when threats become too big. Here, he might as well be Godzilla.
I agree, there is a lot of problematic elements here. I am actually refocusing my dissertation (see future posts) so that what I might end up doing is actually look at the evolution of Superman and the split in the modern view: Morrison and Waid vs. Snyder split.
While doing that I plan on looking at how Superman, in different eras, has embodied different rhetorical tropes. We’ll see.
Cool. Actually trying to come up with a definition of superhero for a paper, myself. Drawing on Morrison, Douglas Wolk, and anything else I can find. Would love to see the kind of tropes you find, and compare notes. I want to understand, what makes a superhero? I love the discourse of Morrison’s “We Can All Be Superheroes” ending, and I am wondering if, by such high-minded mythical definitions, the Snyder Superman actually qualifies.
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Carl, I am a fan of Wolk myself, as well as a big one of Morrison. I am a huge fan of Flex Mentallo too. I am working on dissertation direction that will possibly lead me to an exploration of the “essence” and “identification” of Superman right now.