“An Ideal to Strive Towards” – The Man of Steel Returns

1978, meet 2013

1978, meet 2013

Finally, after years of waiting and idle speculation, we’re here — Man of Steel opens this week. I’m seeing it with Conor and our friend Raney on 12:01 Friday morning and then we’re going again, 11 hours later, with a large group of people. I have tickets, I am avoiding spoilers, it’s all actually happening and now, sitting in front of my computer, I am wondering, “Is this the last time I write about Superman?”

I find it kind of ironic that I am often defending Superman and his relevance to modern life yet I haven’t read Superman in basically a year and I always seem to feel vaguely dissatisfied with the experience I’ve had reading Action Comics in recent months. In the past, I have found it easy to criticize how other creators handle the character, but I can’t muster the energy anymore to keep offering the same critiques or dole out my litany of reasons why Superman is still relevant. Even now, I don’t even know what to say when people ask me whether or not I am excited.

“Yes, I am excited, but, honestly, I just want the damn movie to be a good movie more than anything else.”

Man of Steel could very well be “successful” in terms of crowds and opening box office numbers, but, like, Star Trek Into Darkness was “successful” as well if measured on those base metrics alone — and that movie still drives me crazy the more I think about it (just like Superman Returns)!

There are numerous parallels between Into Darkness and Man of Steel. Both feature characters millions of people have grown up with. Both are feture those characters being re-imagined for new generation of fans, having to balance the expectations of previous fans while offering something new for first-timers. Both desperately need to be successful if the studios behind them are going to survive.

As I look at the various marketing efforts (I pass by probably a dozen Man of Steel billboards on the way to work) and licensing deals ($170 million made before the movie has even opened) — part of me really wants Clark Kent glasses — I can’t help wonder if this is could possibly be the last time we see this kind of attention paid to the character for a very, very long time.

Superman - Curt Swan

Man of Steel represents a kind of “last ditch effort” for Warner Brothers and DC Comics. I mean, let’s face it, Green Lantern was not a good movie and Watchmen looked promising but was kind of a snore. Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment clearly need to create compelling movies to celebrate their characters and fans in the way that Marvel has been able to, but they just keep missing the mark. Man of Steel, if successful, will hopefully set the stage (and the tone) for more movies in that universe, including the oft-rumored and not-always-hoped-for Justice League film (we’ll discuss that one in a few weeks, once the universe stabilizes a bit).

In this way, it’s tempting to think of this movie as DC’s last ditch effort to save their business, this attempt to shoot their baby off to audiences around the world so they can be inspired and entertained, and, hopefully, buy so much extra stuff that they’ll want Superman to be a part of their lives for years to come. Man of Steel is Kal-El, in more ways than one.

I don’t know anything about the movie at all; the trailers have done a pretty good job of highlighting elements of the story without giving away the narrative. Clearly, the origin story spans quite a few years and seems to tack a different course initially—I actually am having a hard time remembering if we’ve seen any footage with Clark in those glasses as a reporter—and it looks like General Zod is going to be a rather angry bad guy and there seems to be a lot of explosions and action requiring Superman to fly very fast. All that’s well and good — this is a summer blockbuster — but I am, perhaps not surprisingly, mostly hoping that we can understand why Superman chooses to stay with us, why he wants help the world’s population understand and embrace our humanity.

For the modern audience, this movie can’t be all about ability. As we’ve discussed in other articles, the world we live in now is a world of “super” men and women. We can be anywhere on the planet in hours — or in a second, if “there” means interacting with people using sight and sound. Our Internet-assisted brains compete with Superman’s brainpower, and our understanding of health and thoughtful application of medicine are helping us live longer and keep us strong. Of course, we can’t look up to the sky and decide to fly up there (which may be one of the reasons we keep seeing that sequence over and over again in the marketing efforts), but aside from that inconvenience, we live pretty special lives.

Superman - Tim SaleNot unlike Spider-Man, Superman’s story is about the understanding of one’s power and the realization that it needs to be used to help others at the expense of one’s own hopes and dreams, that, to bring things back to Trek, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.” This message of selflessness is particularly compelling when contrasted with modern measurements of success–the relentless pursuit of celebrity, this unending popularity contest where so much time is spent tweaking one’s own personal spotlight to make sure our thoughts and photos and quips are out there, that we are real not because of our actions but because of our presence, our careful curation of our Klout scores.

(I hasten to add that of course I know these tools can be used for the greater good, which underscores just how “super” we can be. From sharing images of tear-gassed protestors to letting other Wazers know there’s an accident ahead — we do have powers beyond mortal men!)

Indeed, the “S” emblazoned on Kal-El’s chest (check this wonderful timeline of the logo/shield through out the years), though apparently standing for “hope” in Krypton’s native tongue, could also very much mean “sacrifice” as well as “super.” Being a hero is sacrifice, and the best heroes find their truest selves through sacrifice. Watching a such a powerful being come to grips with this is an aspect of Superman’s story that I think could be very compelling.

I think about Man of Steel and I hope that audiences feel the same kind of inspiration and hope that I felt when I first saw Superman: The Movie way back when. Back then, the marketing centered around the slogan, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” — no such tagline about ability for this movie! I think about Iron Man 3, how Tony Stark realized that he was Iron Man even when he wasn’t in a “man in a can”—it was his ability to create, his ability to adapt and think on his feet, that gave him his true power, that made him worthy of the moniker. Our modern day Superman — a living battery made powerful thanks to our Sun — is more a symbol than anything else, which makes him such a challenging character to write, such a challenging being to believe in.  A more skeptical “modern” moviegoer may just think of him as an alien who can do whatever he wants — where’s the story in that? We’ll see Friday.

The kid in me, the same kid who saw the first film in the movie theaters and wore a cape to school, wants this movie to be good and leave grinning and excited and hopeful for more greatness in the years to come. I’d like to a see a story that helps modern audiences understand the character more, so people are not so tempted to dismiss Superman as an all-powerful Boy Scout.

superman - miller

As you well know, Superman’s sense of  heroism doesn’t come from the powers, it doesn’t come from the cape. It comes from deciding to act. It’s comes from leaping into action, from listening really closely, by making the effort to stop a wrong. The notion of Superman to me, is what happens when one decides, when a group decides, when a society decides to act, to work — and fight! — for truth. For justice. By having a character named Superman who can do so much—a god among men and women who, in turn, works so hard to fight for and serve those he towers over — it reminds us that we are given the opportunity, each and every day, to be that kind of person for each other. We cannot be Superman, but we can aspire to be that source of good for the people around us.

When Superman: The Movie came out in 1978, there was nothing else like it—Star Wars had come out a year before, and that was amazing, but Christopher Reeve’s Superman was my first superhero movie. Ever. Yes, the movie made me want to fly and save the day, sure, but it also taught me a lot about finding one’s way, about finding one’s happiness, finding one’s truth. Most importantly, Superman had all that power to help people, had all the power an 8-year-old could wish for, but even with all that might, he couldn’t save the one he loved. Yes, going back in time was a cheat but the lesson remained, as did Glenn Ford’s words, “You were put here for a reason, son, and it wasn’t to score touchdowns.”  Life is about finding that reason, and, if you are lucky to find it, dedicating yourself to it.

So, this might be the last article dedicated to Superman that I write for awhile. That’s fine. We’ve talked about him together for years, our community knows the character and understands what our relationship is with him. In the coming weeks, we’ll see how new audiences around the world relate to the character. We’ve said our peace and now we have this rare and wonderful opportunity to watch a new generation take flight with our old friend. This will be their Superman, his deeds and challenges and realizations will, hopefully, inspire moviegoers, young and old, to think about what they would do if they had all these abilities…and understand that with this new ideal, they can still make a difference—more of a difference— without them.

Or, as Jor-El puts it, “in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”

Up, up, and away!


 Mike Romo is an actor in LA. He realized he wanted to be an actor after watching Christopher Reeve play Clark Kent and Superman. Send him email, follow him on Twitter, see the drinks he makes on Instagram.




    Just saw the film last night and it almost moved me to tears. Finally the modern age Superman has come to the big screen in a huge way, with a bigger emphasis on Clark than ever before to show him as a good natured man who will always do what it takes to help those who need saving. Russel Crowe rocked as Jor-el, Amy Adams made a terrific Lois Lane exactly how i always saw the character in my head despite the red hair, and Michael Shannon made a really memorable take on General Zod. While Costner as Pa Kent sounds perfect on paper i just didnt dig the films portrayal of the character, if you recall his “maybe” line then you know what im referring to.

    Just from reading a few reviews it looks like the biggest gripe is that its all centered on action and the 2nd half of the film is really non stop action, not that i was bored but i did feel like i needed a breather. However, there was a large part in the middle where is no action and instead builds the characters of Lois and Clark instead. I really felt for Clark, he was a man with a clear sadness inside him but was yearning to help others despite being warned not to by others. The christ allegories were inevitable, and they really hit home the immigrant allegory as Clark wanted to know his heritage but later decides that his adopted home(America) was far more important.

    And oh yes, Superman is definetely American and not shy about it in this film.

  2. I don’t think you need to worry Mike, MoS was screened with a test audience that was apparently mostly fans of Big Blue. 99% loved it (the other 1% being some disgruntled harpy that thought it should have been a Lois Lane movie) so I think this is a different ball game than “Into Darkness”. Not that I’ve seen the latter.

    I think if this movie is a success (Im confident it will) Superman becomes revelant again. If it’s a mega success (doubtful but possible) than DC is kind of in trouble, nothing they have right NOW is anything to write home about in the comics (Unchained hasnt come out yet). All the best Superman stuff is from years or decades ago. That’s good for someone who wants a taste of the comics, but if they want something made this month when MoS opened, what do they have except for “Adventures of Superman”? (Speaking of, how was that?). Then again it’s a speculative topic, how the movies influence audiences to go into comic shops and keep them in business.

    When I think of Supes, I see a guy who wants to be human but just isn’t. He can’t. He’s more or less a god, and he’s aware of that all the time. So to keep his sanity, to keep humble, he puts on a suit and goes to the daily grind and gets stepped on like everyone else. And after that, he takes off the suit and saves everyone who ignored,belittled, spit on him because he can and it’s his purpose. Tell me that’s not heroic!

    I’m so pumped for this, I can’t wait to see what a modern Superman epic looks like.

  3. Great article! I wish Superman was here sometimes.

  4. Just came from a screening in Bmore. Wow. This is. Tremendous. I really think its a game changer. They reigned in Snyder and let Michael Shannon loose. It made the Avengers seem campy. I hope Warner/Dc learns from their mistakes and this is the new standard. It’s about a point or two away from TDK. No hyperbole.
    Cavel is the first actor since Reeves (in the first two) to GET Supes. Can’t wait for the podcast this week.
    BTW, there’s no post credit sequence.

  5. Beautiful work, Mike. You’ve expressed why Superman matters very, very well. My kudos.

  6. I am wondering if I can take my six year old to watch it? All I want is a good Superman movie I can see with my boy, is that so much to ask?

    • And Superman : The Movie was my son’s first superhero movie and live action movie that he actually sat through entirely. He still loves it and that says something.