In June, we will finally have a new start to Superman, just like Batman had his rebirth (and from the same folks). The fanboy community buzzes with excitement and speculation for “Man of Steel”, but no one seems to have a bead on what the story will be about in terms of plot or theme. It seems quite clear to me.
Executive Producer Christopher Nolan and his long-time writer buddy David S. Goyer revitalized Batman by focusing on the essentials of the character. They stripped away everything flashy or distracting and focused on telling the story of a rich man who has spent his entire life dedicated to one thing: eradicating the disorder that killed his parents. They then did the same for the Joker, but re-emphasized Batman by making Joker the agent of that chaos.
So, when Nolan tells The Playlist that “David Goyer had this, I thought, brilliant way to make Superman relatable and relevant for his audience” you know he hopes to do the same thing with Man of Steel. Why? Because essentials are what make anything fictional relatable. Sure, in the trailers it seems like Superman is guest starring on The Deadliest Catch, but no, that’s not what relatable means to an artist like Nolan. It doesn’t mean make him boring, make him ordinary. It means give his character something universal.
And that’s what the creators of Superman did. You see, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were the children of Jewish immigrants during a time in the world where being call an immigrant or a “Jew” was an insult. It was highly anti-Semitic, and Superman was a way to fight back.
Let’s look at the man in tights’ origin. He is born on Krypton. His scientist father predicts the planet’s demise, so builds a spacecraft for the newborn and ships him away to save his life.
From MyJewishLearning.com: “Superman #1 was published in the summer of 1939. Across the Atlantic, in Germany, Adolph Hitler was exploiting his nation’s economic and social ills by scapegoating Jews. Living in a country that had stripped them of their citizenship yet perversely obstructed their exit, German Jews resorted to desperate measures. Just as the baby Superman was sent away from Krypton to avoid the mass destruction of his people, many Jewish children were sent on the Kindertransports to seek safety with families in England.”
Ah, but there is more. Read how Larry Tye, a journalist and author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, breaks down the linguistic and historical links between Judaism and the man of steel in this NPR interview.
“Jerry called his character, as he came down from Krypton, ‘Kal-El’ which [means] ‘a vessel of God’ in Hebrew. So we have this character coming down, being put down in space by his parents to try and save him, and being rescued by two gentiles in the middle of the Midwest somewhere in America. If that’s not the story of Exodus and Moses, then I’ve never seen that story told well. This was a time when we were on the eve of World War II, and the Nazis were on the brink of coming to power in Germany. … I think this idea of this baby being rescued was a sense of what was going on in Europe, where Jerry’s ancestors had come from. … And it’s a rule of thumb that when a name ends in m-a-n, the person whose name that is, they’re either a superhero or Jewish or both.”
Now, look at it from a simple story teller’s viewpoint. You want to show a perfect man, a “super” man. Well, where’s the drama? It must be from the rejection of his uniqueness by those he wishes to join. Lex Luthor calls him an alien, an outsider.
More from MyJewishLearning.com:
Word of Superman and his ethnic undertones did not escape the enemy’s notice in real life. Josef Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, denounced Superman as a Jew. In April 1940, Das Schwarze Korps, the weekly newspaper of the Nazi S.S., attacked the comic and its Jewish writers:
“Jerry Siegel, an intellectually and physically circumcised chap who has his headquarters in New York. . . The inventive Israelite named this pleasant guy with an overdeveloped body and underdeveloped mind “Superman..”
Sounds a little like ol’ Lex…
That’s the biggest threat. The lack of an embrace. But, what’s more, what does the perfect man do when he is rejected but knows it’s for the wrong reasons? He ignores it and pursues the right, not the wrong.
Truth, Justice, and the American Way. That’s what Superman, the man of steel, stood for, right? Well, the bit about the “American way” was not always in the canon, not until the mid-40s, during the height of WWII. And now Superman isn’t even an American. But, the Truth and Justice bit was always there… or was it?
Superman’s early development was awkward. Siegel first used the name in 1933 for a science fiction story titled, “The Reign of Superman,” with illustrations by Schuster. Inspired by the German philosopher Nietzsche, Siegel’s first Superman was an evil mastermind with advanced mental powers. Unfortunately, the text of this story has been lost to history.
After Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 and proceeded to distort Nietzsche’s concept of Superman, Siegel and Shuster decided to rethink their own concept of Superman’s character. They changed their Jewish-created Superman to a force for good.
So, we again have a German/Jewish link, and we even have this deeper link to Nietzsche. Now, I could write an entire article about the Super-man, as defined by the kooky philosopher, but I’ll just sum it up: his idea of the perfect man was someone who was bigger and brighter than everyone else, and who used his power to crush those inferior. Sort of like the opposite of Spider-Man.
Siegel and Shuster were battling with a simple problem in the days before superheroes. If someone is powerful, why not be evil? Obviously, in the earlier iteration, Siegal felt there was no reason he wouldn’t. Call this jaded. Perhaps he felt crushed by the world, a world where Nazis were elected into office by a Germany that hated many of its own people. A world where those fleeing such a place were looked at as rats instead of welcomed in the manner that the big green statue promised they would be welcomed. So, yes, even in the eyes of a victim, Siegel probably felt the allure of power. But then, somewhere in his mind, a switch went off. What if he doesn’t succumb to that pressure? What if he decides instead to show everyone why they’re wrong and use their own values to do it?
We were a nation of immigrants looking down on immigrants. We were a nation of those fleeing religious persecution who were persecuting an entire people for their religious beliefs, and we were standing by while a madman took the next step.
Imagine the inner strength it took for two Jewish boys to erect a pillar of American values, not just truth and justice but immigration, when Americans deemed them sub-human. And imagine the gall of having that hero essentially do the same thing they were doing. He protected Earth and its human inhabitants, who feared him and sometimes hated him, against aliens like Zod and Braniac. These were aliens from his own world, who would embrace him if only he would reject those humans who rejected him. Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster, sons of Jewish immigrants, created Superman.
I think, now, it may become clear how Superman is super not just because of his supernatural abilities. It’s his character, his beliefs, and his inner steel that define him. “Man of Steel” seems like a better fitting movie title now, doesn’t it?
Now, look at this poster to the right.
In this scene, taken directly from the movie, Man of Steel, Superman is in handcuffs and being led down a hallway. Many have criticized this as an attempt to darken up the franchise, because sadly many people think in floating abstractions like “darken” to describe what happened to Batman under Nolan. They use words like “gritty” and “anti-hero” without really knowing anything about the meaning of these words or art itself, but I digress. This is not Superman being “dark.” This is Superman being Superman. This shows us far more than a cheesy photo of Supes soaring through the clouds.
Why is Superman in handcuffs? Many on the Internet have jumped to the usual Kryptonite explanation. Ridiculous. I’ll ask again. Why is the Man of Steel in handcuffs?
Because he is allowing himself to be handcuffed.
Superman could kill every one of these soldiers, dismantle the handcuffs into a zillion pieces, and fly all the way to mars before you blink. So, he is doing one of two things. One, he may have broken the law through some kind of moral dilemma — perhaps he damaged property in order to save some victim or to stop some villain. Two, he understands that humans will fear him, and he wants to show them that he will play by their rules. Essentially, he’s showing respect for his chosen home.
So, then, we have the basic theme in the time it’s taken to truly look at one poster. But, what kind of plot will they use to show and stress this theme? The theme of Superman, an outsider, using his power to protect those he wishes to join despite their rejection and fear; thus becoming their shining example.
But there is the plot to consider and this poster may or may not illustrate too much. But watch the newest trailer and it clears up a bit.
Superman will likely do some travels to see the world he wants to join. One, to see if he really belongs. Two, to see why it’s worth belonging here. This is after an unusual childhood where he has to constantly fight his nature in order to fit in.
After this, there aren’t many tangible clues out there in the form of trailers or interviews about Man of Steel. It’s tight-lipped. But the Kryptonian General Zod is the villain, and he’s played by Michael Shannon, an actor who is probably the best there is right now at portraying a character with every ounce of his being. The man commits. He does not hold back.
So, he will possibly be the impetus for Superman revealing himself. He will be the Super-man as defined by Nietzsche, and Superman will put his soul searching to the test. Although, it would be better if that scene in the poster comes before Zod does. That would make the choice to protect humanity all the more noble, because there are reasons to look the other way.
I think that might be the key. Nolan said the story will be relevant. Well, look what’s happening right now. We’re at war in the Middle East. We have immigrants here who ran from those we fight. But we look at them all as equals in evil. We don’t see the individuality or humanity in them. Echoes the same era Siegel and Shuster lived through, doesn’t it? And did I see a desert scene with American troops and reporter Lois Lane talking to Superman? Could that desert behind them be Middle Eastern? Why would a reporter be there? Perhaps as a war corespondent…
My reasoning is that Clark Kent is with Lois overseas as a corespondent. Somehow I don’t see an invulnerable man being content to cover city council elections. There, he sees something wrong that he believes he can fix. That is his reveal. And he’s arrested for it. Because we’re at war, and we have trouble trusting that the God-like being in front of us is on our side. So we detain him and while we do that, we meet another God-like being, but he’s definitely not on our side. It’s Zod. So, Superman is either released or breaks out (much more exciting) to protect his captors. And this ending, with Superman saving us but also intertwining himself with the same race that attacks humanity, would lay the groundwork nicely for a Mr. Luthor to make the case that he can’t be trusted in the sequel.
If “Man of Steel” is done this way, it could revitalize Superman and show why his character is so enduring. You see, Superman isn’t just faster or stronger than humans. He’s also better at being human.