The World According to Superman

“The red capes are coming, the red capes are coming…” Lex Luthor spouts in the trailers for Zack Snyder’s upcoming superhero showdown, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Snyder’s film will be the first live-action encounter between the two iconic heroes, and just the latest in a long line of Superman incarnations.

Passing from director to director and actor to actor each iteration has brought new and unique qualities to the iconic character, with each serving as a window into the ever changing societal landscape.

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Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie was released at the end of a decade that was preoccupied with cynicism and bleakness, as seen in many of the films of the decade such as Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, and Apocalypse Now.

Donner’s film, like Star Wars the year before it, was a throwback to an earlier and thematically simpler era of Hollywood filmmaking.

Metropolis was an utopia, the perfect American city, full of big personalities bustling from place to place. The Daily Planet seemed to come straight out of His Girl Friday, with Lois and Clark’s relationship having banter reminiscent of many screwball comedies that dominated the the 30’s and 40’s.

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Reeve’s Superman embodied the soul of an America that had been tarnished in a decade plagued by Vietnam and political corruption.

Proudly proclaiming to stand for truth, justice, and the American way, Superman was everything America wanted to believe itself to be.

Much of the film plays off of American iconography; the vast farmlands of Kansas, the skyscrapers of Metropolis, and the classic high school football field. It’s like a moving Norman Rockwell painting.

Raised by a perfect American couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent, this Clark Kent was an all-american guy with a charming boyish attitude.

Margot Kitter played Lois Lane with ferocity, only letting her guard down as she swoons over the Man of Steel. Conversely, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor embodied the greed, excess, and self-importance that the audience roundly rejected in society.

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Hackman played Luthor as a doofus megalomaniac who surrounds himself with a team of one dimensional nitwits.  These characters were largely archetypes, commonly found in the serials of the 1930s, and Donner was proudly invoking that style in an effort to give the film it’s throwback americana quality.

Overall the film’s aesthetic contributed to a piece of entertainment designed to please an audience searching for a look into a forgotten era.  The film was a hit, making nearly 500 million in the US when adjusted for inflation, and was followed up with an equally successful sequel.

This incarnation of Superman continued for two more films, each of these films failed to meet the high standards of it’s predecessors.

The fourth and final entry, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, directly addressed the nation’s concerns over nuclear weapons, largely due to the influence of Reeve.

Due to the extremely poor, critical and commercial reception of the two later films, the Superman franchise laid dormant.

Following almost twenty years and numerous failed projects, Superman returned to theaters with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.

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While the film borrowed the visual and tonal aesthetic of the Reeve films, it did make subtle alterations to the characters as they were put into a contemporary context.

Bryan Singer approaches Superman with more caution and skepticism than the 70s films, in where his arrival was met with unanimous praise and joy. These alterations came in a time when the nation was forced to dwell on the past.

The United States was involved in a controversial war on terrorism and the country was becoming more and more polarized on almost every issue. This Superman fit in a world that wouldn’t know what to do with him.

Even Lex Luthor, once portrayed a mockable goof, is now shown to have serious menace and edge. Spacey turns a character who once could be written off as a joke into a serious threat. This turn of the character comes along with a Superman who is more vulnerable than ever.

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Lex Luthor is a stand in for the audience’s rage, a world that has felt slighted by their abandonment of their hero and wants to see an icon fall.  Luthor and his goons in the climax get to finally unleash physical harm to the once invincible titan.

In the end, Returns came to the conclusion that the world does need a savior, and perhaps if we weren’t so cynical and jaded someone could come and save us from our woes.

No longer the joyful savior of the 70’s, Brandon Routh, taking over respectfully from Reeves, brought an undercurrent of melancholy and regret to the familiar character. This incarnation of the character was preoccupied with a failed relationship and guilt over his self imposed absence.

In contrast to the previous sexy and fun romance, these characters now had to reconcile with the dissolution of theirs due to Clark’s departure.

Lois is in a relationship with another man, but is raising a child that is revealed to be a product of her and Clark; a lasting relic of a bygone time.

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Rather than being the beloved savior of the world, this Superman has to deal with all those who he failed to save.

One early scene in the film has Clark flip through various news reports showing numerous disasters and lives lost, obviously invoking 9/11, which was still weighing heavily on the collective psyche of the nation.

To fully appreciate Singer’s vision of Superman, you have to understand that Lois and Clark’s relationship is one of the film’s most important elements.

Now a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, Lois has written a piece titled “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman,” stating that the world, like herself, doesn’t need a savior.

Lois feels betrayed.  She has a harder exterior and a hostile demeanor towards Kal-el.

This has multiple metatextual readings, for starters, she stands in for fans who have felt the absence of their hero from cinemas, and in broader sense she stands in for the audience who has felt less and less safe as they have gone into the 21st century.

The world is new and frightening.

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The audience who was alive to see the original Superman in theatres have lost their sense of security. A common reading of Superman Returns is that it is both reliant upon, and about nostalgia and it’s dangers.

The characters, like the audience, are reconciling with their past and trying to bring back those familiar feelings to their present.

In the end, Superman Returns came to the conclusion that the world does need a savior, and perhaps if we weren’t so cynical and jaded someone could come and save us from our woes.

Guess what? The audiences rejected this vision and was rebooted seven years later with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.

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Snyder’s vision followed one of the most successful trilogies of all time in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Thusly Snyder’s film followed the template set out by Nolan, down to the title holding back on the character’s standard name.

With Henry Cavill taking up the red cape, this incarnation was darker both tonally and visually, with an extremely muted color palette. Snyder’s interpretation of the hero was that of a disrupting and destructive force.

Perhaps in a response to the common audience complaint of Superman “never throwing a punch” in Returns, this Superman film featured extensive violent battles.

Cavill’s character, even more so than Routh’s, was defined by his dour and brooding attitude. This character was lost, without a strong hold of his identity, as he was torn between his homeworld and his adopted one.

While the original Superman film had a fairly obvious christ allegory in the subtext, this film brought that idea to the forefront.

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At one point Clark goes to a local church to find counsel, and while he has a conversation with the priest there is a large stain-glass image of christ in the background overshadowing the scene.

This image, along with obvious parallels in the story itself, show Superman as someone who needs to absolve us of our misdeeds despite our clear rejection of him.

In the promo material for Dawn of Justice; a court hearing, a graffitied statue, and protestors all indicate that this world will have a harder time accepting this alien savior than any of the previous films.

This focus on Superman as a rejected hero is simply a further extension of a thematic thread started in Returns; we as a society are less trusting and are run by our own paranoia than anything else.

This brings about the quandary of whether a society should be saved by an unwanted savior. 

Unlike Returns however, Snyder’s conclusion is that this hostility is the price of being a hero.  That in order to do good that can change the world, you must sacrifice yourself to public scrutiny.

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Far and away the most controversial aspect of the film is the third act, in which Metropolis is leveled in the wake of the battle between Superman and Zod & his followers.  

This divided audience.

Some saw the destruction of Metropolis as an unavoidable consequence and others saw it as negligence on Superman’s part. In a way, this part of the film can function as both a horrifying take on the hero and as wish fulfillment.

With terrorism and other threats to our security rising, a hero who can violently use the full power of the Gods to protect us can be viewed as an aspirational figure.

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The film’s focus on the combatants rather than the victims invokes how the media presents such disasters.

Snyder brought Superman to a people who openly reject the idea of a savior and while he may not be the Superman of year’s past, he is the one that is true to who we are as a nation now.

The scrutiny that defines this generation’s incarnation will be addressed head on in Dawn of Justice and will further explore Snyder’s vision of The Man of Steel and where he will go next.

After 78 years, Superman is still one of the largest figures in pop culture; ever present and overshadowing all other costumed heroes. 

From Reeve to Cavill, each incarnation of the hero has served as a reflection of the audience’s fears, desires, and hopes. 

As time goes on and people change, so too will the Man of Steel.

He will be carrying the weight of the world on his back, as he flies to save the day.

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Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice arrives in theaters March 25!

All images via Warner Bros Pictures

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