Welcome to our weekly video series Sight Unsound, where filmmaker and writer Ted Wilkes offers his own alternative theories on film, television and pop culture.
This week: Superman is the hero we really deserve, not some fascist, psychotic billionaire with a bat fetish.
And for those who prefer a long-read, here’s the full text, which we originally published last year…
Superman is without a doubt my favourite superhero, so perhaps take everything I say with a pinch of salt. I own the comics, the films and possibly too many clothes (underwear and outerwear) with the S proudly emblazoned on them. However, after a lacklustre Superman Returns it seemed that the last son of Krypton was doomed to be the forgotten superhero of Earth. But let’s be honest, the man in the cape with his pants over his tights is the best of the bunch and the one that we should really be learning our lessons from.
In Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, ‘Supes is re-imagined as a drifter without a place in the modern world bouncing around from job to job trying to figure out where he came from, but still obviously destined for great things. All the usual suspects are involved: the Pulitzer Prize winning Lois Lane (brilliantly played by Amy Adams though criminally underused), General Zod (played with menace and malice, despite the black leotard, by Micheal Shannon) and newspaper owner Perry White (brought to life by Morpheus himself, Lawrence Fishburne). However the supporting cast are dwarfed by The Man of Steel himself, Henry Cavill, who is every bit the Superman that we so desperately need right now.
Although nobody can ever hope to truly replace Christopher Reeve sailing majestically against a green screen on a gymnast’s horse, Cavill comes close. It was only after Reeve hung up his cape that the world truly understood why he truly is, and forever will be, Superman. It’s rumoured that Stan Lee said of Robert Downey Jr that when he thought of Iron Man he imagined someone just like the actor would one day wear the suit, and for Shuster and Siegel I can imagine it would be a very similar experience if they could have seen Cavill flying through the air donning the cape of their own pulp fiction hero.
It’s the same story as it’s always been. so I won’t tell it again in its entirety. Once again the son of Jor-El is sent to Earth just as Krypton meets its sticky end and he will become the one who saves us all from whatever evil is thrown our way. The material is as relevant now as it was when it was written. Russell Crowe’s Jor-El warns the elders of Krypton that their abuse of their home planet will cause its destruction just as General Zod leads a failed coup against the hierarchical structure on the planet in the hope of reshuffling the deck because he doesn’t like the way he is being treated.
If you need the real world implications pointed out for you, just turn on the news and wait ten minutes. One or both of these narratives will play out on any channel of your choice. Both the material and the hero remain unchanged, but forever relevant.
Stories of men falling from the skies are some of the first we ever told. Since the epic tales of Gilgamesh, Jesus of Nazareth, and right up to old Supes himself, beings from the stars have come to Earth to show us the way. Each of them using the same frame of a story to guide them as the one before. Reinforcing this link, Superman is frequently depicted as if he were the second coming of Jesus with him either stood akimbo atop the mound; a vision of righteousness, or in Man of Steel with Superman falling back to Earth, arms outstretched in a crucifix position; our messiah returning to us. All of these beings are radical idealists who reflect the best parts of us and possess amazing powers that they hold on to even when they are challenged, long after most of us would have hidden or discarded them.
They are equal parts hero and mentor, in their actions they shape the world for the better. What is most important is that they all wish to challenge authority, question the status quo and enable in us the hope that one day we might lead better lives. However, they are not the blunt instrument that forces us to submit; they guide and reason, only using force when it is clear that there’s a direct threat to themselves or others, and preferring that their great acts, or miracles, do the talking. It is up to us if we wish to follow or believe in them. They simply have offered us their ideology. They never force or coerce us to join them.
The most famous text that discusses our need for the ‘Superman’ comes from German philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche. Nietzsche talked about the Übermensch, a superior being who was strong in body and calm in mind. His work has unfortunately became widely misquoted and misunderstood as the justification of the most brutal aspects of the Nazi regime and thus his papers demonised as the prelude to Fascism. However, Nietzsche wished that his superior man would not be a product of long evolution, rather that he would emerge when any man with superior potential completely masters himself and shrugs off conventional herd morality to create his own values, which are completely rooted in his life on this Earth. His goal is to be a “Caesar with Christ’s soul”. In striking out on their own, the Übermensch of our superhuman narratives resign themselves to a lifetime alone, defending an ideology that is out of kilter with the ideas that the elite in society wish to preserve. As Nietzsche points out:
The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
In response, the elite resort to the greatest weapon at their disposal: fear. We are told that because the supermen are not like us we should be frightened of them. After these seeds have been planted the elite are able to do what they want with them and their followers. Jesus was executed on the cross. Superman too was told to hide his identity as a child and young adult so that others wouldn’t fear him. He even assumes an identity in adulthood that is not his own as a mild mannered reporter for the Daily Planet so that he is able to hide his true self – something that he has learnt from his previous incarnation. However, the greatest power that they all share is that each of them is able to cheat the death sentence finally handed down to them.
Once those in authority have realised that our supermen have run away with the ideas that displease them, they immediately order their execution, or cast them out of our society. At their moment of death they do not repent or relent, knowing that they will return to us soon. This allows us the understanding that they are just the most recent incarnation of the ideas they are a vessel for. Soon they will return from their inner most cave, and if it is not them it will be a newer version, readily prepared for the challenges that befall them. They may rip the mask away from the man, but shortly another will pick it up finding that it fits them perfectly and are able to continue the work of the previous wearer.
Superman for me is the greatest inspiration for young and old alike and whatever the medium we are reading/watching/wearing, the S symbol is a marker for hope and freedom (Man of Steel goes to great lengths to make the viewer aware of its literal translation on Krypton). Unlike the Stars and Stripes that as of late has been tainted with America’s recent history, the flag of the S can be worn around the world as a marker for those who believe in the greater good – a symbol that still has not been tarnished like so many others.
When Clark finds his fortress of solitude in the arctic, Jor-El explains the history behind the emblem and conveys the pride and responsibility that his son should feel when wearing that suit. At times it feels as if Russell Crowe is not actually addressing the man in-front of him but rather us in the audience. Perhaps Snyder is trying to instil in the fan boys and girls watching that they too should feel these things when donning their own Superman apparel? Transforming into better people through the philosophy of the man himself; asking us to stand to account as individuals for what is right. In a scene akin to the iconic one in the gladiatorial epic Spartacus, as each slave stood as an individual to face their fate together, retaining their own identity, but also becoming one unit united behind another in a final act of defiance, rather than letting the man who had come to embody their ideals die alone. Or is it simply another cheap trick to get us to buy more merchandise? I hope that it’s the former.
The thing that most interested me was how the film captured the current climate surrounding the debate of surveillance and individual freedom. As Zod’s craft circled Earth able to tap into any electronic device on the planet to project his warning to the world, you cannot help but think of the recent NSA and GCHQ scandals where it was finally revealed to the world that our governments now more than ever are easily able to find out a little too much about us with the click of a button.
Never fear though as it seems that Superman is on our side, not only fighting against the malevolent Zod, but in the final scene bringing down a surveillance drone that is looking for him, protecting both his privacy and seemingly willing to defend ours too. No longer is the Man of Steel simply a pawn for American idealism, but is rather his own man with his own destiny that he and he alone wishes to fulfil, devoid of the ideology of his adoptive country. Is it possible that the new Supes might actually be a Libertarian at heart? Fighting against the notions of being controlled by an overreaching authority, rather than any real villain, he is confronting an ideology that is against his own for the greater good.
Nowhere is this notion of an ideologically consistent character fighting for good in the world more prevalent than in the sublime comic Red Son, in which the man of steel happened to hit the Earth 20 minutes later, landing him in the USSR rather than the corporate states of America. Now on the other side of the Cold War, he is indoctrinated by the works of Marx, the poster child for five year plans and his S symbol is defaced with a hammer and a sickle. Despite this being an alternate reality, the mild mannered Clark Kent still questions the ideology that he is presented with, refusing to involve himself with the geo-politics of Earth. Instead continuing to stand for the truth and justice his father would have wanted him to and removing himself from the chess board that the elites have put him on as their queen. Even here, the prevailing character of Superman cannot be hidden behind the iron curtain. It always was and is meant to be that he stands with us, for nothing more than because it is we who he believes in.
For all these reasons and more, Superman is the real hero that we need and the real hero that we deserve. He embodies the best of us and fights against the systems that have been put in place which compromise our true values. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it is the hero of heroes on his way to save us all!
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