In 1986 industry giant John Byrne wrote and penciled a six issue series for DC Comics titled The Man of Steel. DC had just wrapped up the Crisis on Infinite Earths and had entrusted Byrne with the task of rebooting Superman. Byrne responded by producing an instant classic; at once groundbreaking and timely yet reverential of the character’s deep roots and history. It was a great time to be reading DC Comics.
In Byrne’s saga, Clark Kent/Superman comes to Metropolis and very soon finds himself embroiled in a tense hostage situation which was (of course) engineered by Lex Luthor. In this particular scenario a hostage taker held a gun to an innocent’s head and threatened their life. Superman, being faster than a speeding bullet and at least as smart as a sofa manages to disarm the miscreant in mid-monolog without even injuring him. He does, however, give him a stern talking to. After all, the time that Supes has wasted on this lowlife could have been spent saving people in need.
The reason I bring this up is that Superman found himself facing an almost identical situation in the early minutes of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Lois Lane was taken hostage by a very brutal evildoer. Superman showed up and was faced with the dilemma of how to save her. It proved to be no dilemma at all. He simply used his super speed, which had been so effective in the past at disarming ne’er do wells, and flew/tunneled right through the bad guy and the several walls behind him. Superman’s girlfriend was saved and all was right with the world. Many people have cited this as an example of how Superman has changed with the times. They say this is a new Superman, a Superman who is willing to do what is necessary. They are wrong. This is nothing but the sign of screenwriters who lack the necessary imagination to handle The Man of Tomorrow.
Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer simply aren’t up to the task of writing Superman. They lack the imagination to use his powers in bold new ways or even, for that matter, in the old predictable ways we’ve seen before. In their hands Superman does little but hover and glower like Christ ascending into heaven before occasionally shooting hellish fire from his eyes. Of course, the writers were on a short leash. They had to constrain their imaginations within the narrow confines of director Zack Snyder’s “vison” of Superman. Snyder has made no secret of his disdain for the classic versions of Superman and has stated that what the modern world needs is a grittier, more realistic Superman to better fit the zeitgeist of today’s more threatening world. This is, of course, a wagon full of horse shit.
Superman was created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster a young Jewish team from Ohio who had been self-publishing for some time. The world that they birthed Kal El into was a very different one from today. Hitler was on the rise in Germany. Stalin was in power in the East. Japan was running wild in China. The Kristallnacht was only a few months in the offing. The great Depression still held the world in its grip. Fascism was rearing its head everywhere and the threat of war and starvation was constant and real for millions. Childhood diseases like polio, measles, diphtheria and whooping cough still killed hundreds of thousands every year. Against this backdrop, Siegel and Shuster created a golem, a protector of superhuman strength who could defend the weak from the corrupt and the powerful.
Under the guidance of editor Whitney Ellsworth, they crafted Superman into the hero we all recognize. He developed his strong moral code, his aversion to killing and violence in general. At the heart of the character was the need to always defend those who could not defend themselves. Back then they called it truth, justice and the American way. The world was in sorry shape and Superman was the hero it needed.
Nowadays, Zack Snyder wants us to believe that the world is too gritty, too hard, too grown up for a hero who always does the right thing. Zack says we’re too jaded and blasé to need a symbol of hope anymore. Does Zack Snyder really believe that times today are harder than they were during the Great Depression? Is Zika scarier than polio and small pox? Is ISIL genuinely a bigger existential threat to our way of life than Hitler? In the 30s and 40s people died by the tens of millions from war, famine, disease and genocide. That’s pretty fucking gritty. Yet people back then read Superman. Hell, they needed Superman, practically worshiped Superman.
In Man of Steel Superman/Henry Cavill, tells Lois Lane/ Amy Adams that the symbol on his chest stands for hope. But he never says hope for what. It’s a simple and primary thing he’s trying to tell her. An almost embarrassing little truth. We need Superman to keep alive the sweetest fantasy that we nurse as a race. That someone can be granted power over life and death and not be corrupted by it. That those with the means to control or destroy our lives might still choose to act benevolently. For many of us, it’s a pragmatic fancy; that we could still find leaders who will care more about the people they claim to serve than they will about their own self-interest. For people of faith, however, Superman is a reminder that God could exist and that God could actually give a shit. It’s a comforting reverie, or maybe just a stupid fantasy, but comic books are about fantasy. It’s time to tell someone at Warner Bros that.
He also sings for the Supra-70s band, RIFLE.