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The Man of Steel: A Superman For The 21st Century
Adam Frazier   |  @   |  

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“As you know, I’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating.” That’s Bill (David Carradine) from Kill Bill: Vol. 2, waxing poetic on his favorite superhero, Superman. “Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.”

Bill explains to The Bride (Uma Thurman) that, when it comes to standard superhero mythology, there’s the hero and then there’s the alter ego. “Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone.”

Bill is of course referring to the fact that Superman didn’t become Superman. He was born Superman. “When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S” – that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume.”

At the conclusion of Bill’s scholarly deconstruction of the world’s first superhero, he touches upon something truly fascinating. “Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak”¦ He’s unsure of himself”¦ He’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

Why haven’t we seen this side of Superman represented in a film adaptation before? The whole “truth, justice, and the American way” shtick gets old quick. It may have worked in the ’40s and ’50s, but I seriously doubt anything about Superman would reflect the “American way” these days. Superman’s commitment to operating within the laws of man makes him the super-powered equivalent of a kiss-ass. Instead of embracing his alien, God-like nature, he soft-pedals humanity and abides by the rigid confines of authority we’ve placed upon ourselves.

His philosophy has created resentment among other heroes like Batman, who refers to Superman as the “big blue boy scout.” Personally, I’m tired of the goody two-shoes Man of Steel. I want an infinitely lonely, alienated being who appeals to my sympathies and imagination – someone who truly struggles and gets lost along the way. How can you relate to an impossibly powerful do-gooder who never falters?

Men of Steel: George Reeves' Superman

I don’t want to see a Superman who rescues cats from trees or prevents minor traffic accidents. The Superman of the 21st century should be world-weary, aggravated by the increasing stupidity and pettiness of humanity. I guess what I’m saying is, I want Superman to be… more like Batman, with flourishes of Dr. Manhattan and a little Don Draper. We should see him at his lowest, a more skeptical, more cynical superhero who ascends to greatness, fulfilling his destiny and bringing about true change in our species.

No more real estate schemes. No more time-travel. If Superman can fly around the Earth backwards so fast he somehow reverses time, why wouldn’t he just time-travel to the ’40s and prevent the Holocaust or any other number of atrocities we’ve committed? Instead he rewinds the Earth’s rotation to save Lois Lane. It’s a silly, nonsensical copout. There should be actual stakes involved, and Superman should be allowed to fail.

Now, let me be clear in saying that I’m strictly talking about a film adaptation of the character. I understand Superman has been around since 1938 and has received numerous adaptations by different writers and artists, detailing the character’s pathos with varying degrees of darkness and angst. Unfortunately, we’ve yet to really experience the cinematic equivalent of that.

My first introduction to the Man of Steel was the 1950’s Adventures of Superman television show, which replayed on Nick at Nite in the early ’90s. “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” George Reeves played Superman, who could “change the course of mighty rivers” and “bend steel in his bare hands.”

Men of Steel: Christopher Reeve's Superman

That brand of Superman worked in the ’50s. Similarly, Christopher Reeve‘s Superman was the perfect adaptation of that character for the ’70s and ’80s, but how do you translate that character for today’s audiences? That was the primary issue with Bryan Singer‘s 2006 film, Superman Returns.

While not a horrible film (Brandon Routh does a great Christopher Reeve impression), Superman Returns was less of a reboot and more of a spiritual successor to Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie and 1980’s Superman II. Instead of establishing a fresh start for the character, it channeled the same spirit of those previous Superman stories and neglected to address the Man of Steel in a modern context.

As much as I would like to watch Lex Luthor play with the world’s most elaborate model train set, I’m more interested in seeing Superman do something super – something dumbfounding and awe-inspiring. It would seem that director Zack Snyder is on the right track with his 2013 film, Man of Steel, written by David S. Goyer and produced by Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas.

By rebooting the character with a new origin set in the present day, it looks like Superman (played by Henry Cavill) will be more promethean in nature – an isolated, less optimistic being. I see this Superman as more of a mix between Silver Surfer and Captain America, with a dash of The Day the Earth Stood Still thrown in for good measure.

In the way that Captain America awakes from his deep-freeze to an America that’s much different than the one he fought for, Superman should come to see that the America that shaped him (small-town Kansas) has disappeared in favor of big business and corrupt politicians – an entire country of greedy, twisted villains – and he should question if we are worth saving… if we deserve him as our savior.

And ultimately, he will save us – but not before issuing a warning, that we will be held accountable for our actions – and that if we should seek to destroy each other, he will not stop us. He can still be faster than a speeding bullet and leap tall buildings in a single bound, but the Superman of the 21t century should reflect the zeitgeist of 2013 America and not the old-fashioned ideals of the past.


  1. You want want a 21st century Superman? Well you’ve got him in Dc comics 52 Superman.He doesn’t wear the red tights anymore and he knocked Batman around in the new Justice League book.

    Comment by Michael J — September 13, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

  2. Yeah, what I’m saying is… I want a movie adaptation of that, haha.

    Comment by Adam Frazier — September 13, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

  3. As much as I appreciate Bill trying to wax philosophical about comics… Bill was wrong

    Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same. The values that he learned from the Kent’s are the reason he became a hero and did not try to rule the world. Superman is the role he is pretending to be. Clark Kent is the real man. Granted not the stumbling man with the glasses… But the Clark which we have seen closest on Smallville..

    The biggest example of how wrong Bill truly is: Bruce Wayne/Batman. Batman is the real man. As far as Batman is concerned Bruce Wayne is just a character to be played which helps him in his fight against crime. As soon as that character ceases to be useful then there will be no more Bruce only the Batman.

    You have to understand the context in which Bill is speaking… He is a villain, Bill is trying to justify all of his evil deeds by trying to prove the the greatest hero of them all thinks even less of us than he does. It isn’t true. Superman is that down home country boy that loves a girl and will do anything he can to make his adopted world a better place.

    Remember Bill is the Bad Guy… But Superman is and always is and always will be the hero.

    Comment by QDonQ — September 13, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

  4. I disagree entirely with the Kill Bill speech on who Superman actually is. His speech pertains to Batman/Bruce Wayne, where Batman is the identity and Bruce Wayne is the mask. Opposite is true for Superman. All the values that Superman holds dear comes from his upbringing as Clark Kent. He didn’t land on earth and say, “I’m going to use my powers to save the world.” Clark is the man and he uses Superman as symbol to inspire hope. You can argue that Clark uses two disguises though – Superman and the bumbling, klutz version of Clark, but at the end of the day, Clark is the man behind the cape…not the cape behind the glasses.

    Comment by Ryan — September 13, 2012 @ 3:53 pm

  5. Thing is, those “old-fashioned ideals” is actually one of his greatest powers. A true hero see’s the world as it should be and sets an example for other to follower rather than falling prey to the way the world is and getting sucked into the idea that this is it and that’s just how the world works. In a world full of greed and corruption we need those small town values more than ever.

    I do however agree that he should be allowed to fail. Its the actions someone takes after they have failed that shows their true character.

    Comment by Rob Schraer — September 13, 2012 @ 5:06 pm

  6. Great read. I could not agree more although I think i would take it a step further. The entire history of the Man of Steel needs to be brought into the 21st century to better engage a more sophisticated public. When Superman first came out, the concept was novel. As time has gone by people have been introduced to new and more complex superheroes with engaging back stories that help us understand the subtle influences that shaped the hero. I think there can be more to glean from Superman’s story. A friend of mine did an exercise in which he re-imagined the DC universe with exactly what you are alluding to. He came up with a smart and sophisticated take on not only Superman but many of the heroes and villains that inhabit his world. If the DC universe were similarly structured, they would have no problem adapting it to film creating a saga that would rival Star Wars in popularity and the Dark Knight trilogy in critical acclaim.

    Comment by Patrick — September 13, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

  7. i absolutely agree with the small-town values bit, I think he still should grow up in that environment, but there should be this realization that for the most part, that doesn’t exist anymore… it’s up to him to remind people of it.

    Comment by Famous Monster — September 13, 2012 @ 7:26 pm

  8. I disagree with the author (and Tarintino) about the whole Clark Kent thing. The final sentence is one I take trouble with. Clark is all about old-fashioned values, passed on by kindly farmers. I do agree on The Day The Earth Stood Still aspect, though. TDTESS original is a classic, and I think that it does a great job at portraying the paranoia of the public at a powerful man. From the cell phone comic con footage, it looks like Superman will be confronted by the US government. If he can maintain his heroism in an age of suspicion, cruelty, and fear, he will stand as tall as an undying symbol of virtue. That being said, Clark should be somewhat flawed up until the point where he embraces his destiny as Superman.

    Comment by anonyman — September 13, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

  9. I would argue that the idea of Batman being the man and Bruce Wayne being the mask was a concept fleshed out by Goyer and Nolan… hence why they’re being brought in to ‘fix’ Superman. But I do like your point about Bill being a Bad Guy and not fully understanding the Good Guy!

    Comment by Adam Frazier — September 14, 2012 @ 8:28 am

  10. Actually, it was a concept fleshed out by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini for Batman: The Animated Series that came to be accepted by a lot of people, including Goyer and Nolan.

    Comment by Neville Ross — September 15, 2012 @ 9:18 am

  11. if you want superman to be more like batman, why not just read batman. they’re different for a reason

    Comment by Daniel Chardon — September 15, 2012 @ 9:23 am

  12. Agreed, Clark Kent is who he is. Superman is what Clark can do.

    Comment by Jedierick — September 15, 2012 @ 9:47 am

  13. I dont think Superman works within the confines of following the rules. His actions reflect the fact that he really does see potential and greatness in the human race, and also that he knows he has great abilities. Him being seen as a boy scout is just on the surface. My interpretation of him is that his inner conflict is A: Restraining Himself from unleashing his true power, and B: Wrestling with the fact that as much good as he can do and as much power he has, he ultimately will not be able to solve all of mankinds problems and will not be able to prevent disaster and tragedy from happening, and what was portrayed beautifully in the Christopher Reeve film was seeing the Fallen Angel side of him. Even if its only momentary, After all the good he has done we get a glimpse of the wrath he can bring about humanity if he really wanted to.

    Comment by GLfan — September 15, 2012 @ 10:30 am

  14. Again, not on film – I’m talking strictly film adaptations – I understand the concept as far as the cartoon and comics go, but it wasn’t a concept adopted by Burton or Schumacher, etc.

    Comment by Famous Monster — September 15, 2012 @ 11:49 am

  15. First off I’ll say I am a huge fan of the Big Blue Boy Scout
    and I realize that in this day of age we don’t really see a lot of characters
    or real life examples of people like him. This does not make him irrelevant, it
    makes him a beacon of hope. We are talking about a character that has grown up discovering
    these amazing powers. Now think of all those people out there who if they
    gained powers would have taken advantage of them (ie. Chronicle). This is a being that eventually becomes
    Godlike and has the ability to enslave us all or just wipe us off the face of
    the earth, but he doesn’t. He goes out day after day sacrificing his own
    personal life and ambitions to save humanity. It would be so easy of him to
    just give up, but he doesn’t. He’s not doing this for fame, money, or even a
    damn pat on the back. He does it because it is the right thing to do. The Superman of today would see the corruption
    and greed of our civilization and not try to take over like a tyrant (we saw
    that in Red Son and look what happened). He would lead by example and expose
    the criminals in the most honest and honorable way possible. Would you have suggested
    that Martin Luther King Jr stop leading by example of peaceful protests and
    instead started ambushing the police? Would you have talked Gandhi out of his
    hunger strikes to instead lead his people to arms? I’m sorry but that’s not
    Superman. The Man of Steel puts so much pressure on himself that he blames
    himself for not fixing all that’s wrong with the world. If you don’t want to
    see the Man of Tomorrow as he is, than you obviously don’t want to see a
    Superman movie.

    Comment by Guest — September 15, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

  16. what difference between the old and new superman is that the new 1 have some education about wearing underware inside not outside.

    Comment by Muhammad Nazerin Saripin — June 23, 2013 @ 11:49 am

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