Warning: there are mild spoilers ahead for Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Haven’t seen the movie yet? Go see it, then come on back.
Man of Steel couldn’t have a more perfect release date. This Sunday is Father’s Day, which makes it a very appropriate weekend for an action flick about a superhero with two dads and the wisdom imparted by each of them. Meanwhile, today is also Flag Day, and while the latest Superman movie isn’t overbearingly jingoistic, it is significant for explicitly returning the character’s national allegiance. “I’m about as American as you get,” he says when his loyalty to the U.S. is questioned.
The line wouldn’t be so notable if it weren’t for the way the previous live-action movie we got, Superman Returns, represented the hero. When Perry White (Frank Langella) references a familiar catchphrase by asking if Superman still stands for “truth, justice and all that stuff,” that made many conservative fans upset. Never mind that the original “American way” version wasn’t even introduced until years after his comics debut (on the radio show in 1942 and then resurfacing on the 1950s TV series). “The truth is he’s an alien,” said Returns co-writer Dan Harris in 2006, “He was sent from another planet. He has landed on the planet Earth, and he is here for everybody. He’s an international superhero.”
While I can see the logic in Harris’s (and his partner, Michael Dougherty’s) argument there, it doesn’t entirely make sense for a character who landed in a specific part of the planet as a baby. Superman grew up as an American, and at least in the context of Man of Steel he even went many years before knowing he was special let alone from another world. There’s no reason for him not to have a national identity relative to that of anyone born or raised from a young age in the U.S. That doesn’t mean he can’t expand his loyalty later on (it’s worth noting that Returns is well into the character’s time as Superman), but at the moment he has no cause to turn on where he’s from.
Well, that might in fact be a funny way of putting it because from the perspective of General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his cohorts in Man of Steel, Superman (British actor Henry Cavill) is turning on his original place of origin, Krypton. He chooses to save the human race rather than reboot the Kryptonian population on Earth. But sure, he obviously has more of a connection to the group in which he was bred rather than the one of his biological ancestry. Clark Kent/Superman isn’t too different than most internationally adopted kids, and in this film just as in the 1978 Superman: The Movie he is conflicted by the duality of his paternity.
The difference between the two fathers 35 years ago and today, though, has been swapped. Back then it was Jor-El (Marlon Brando) telling his son not to change the course of human history while Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford) put it in his head that he was sent to Earth for a reason. Now Jor-El (Russell Crowe) stresses a need to keep humans from heading in the direction (we’re heading in?) of self-destruction via resource mining, a la the fate of Krypton, whereas Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) urges Clark to let things happen as they will without using his powers to help. Is that option a metaphor for American assimilation whereby he’d forget his true nature/heritage as a foreign other?
Superman’s return to American affiliation in Man of Steel is ironic for a couple of reasons, at least if we’re supposed to celebrate it as a restoration of the tradition of the hero in the way that commenters on Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood site seem to be doing. For one thing, this is hardly an orthodox, back-to-roots adaptation of the comic book as it was more than half a century ago. You’ve got a Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) who is a different race and a “Jimmy Olsen” who is a different gender (even if her name isn’t Jenny Olsen as once credited but Jenny Jurwich, played by Rebecca Buller, she’s filling that role). Second of all, this film’s story is written by David S. Goyer, the man responsible for the controversial “Action Comics” issue from a few years ago that had Superman renouncing his American citizenship. Yet the character’s American identity in Man of Steel is hardly about blind honor and flag-waving patriotism. It’s more like matriotism.
Also interesting is the fact that Goyer previously worked with Christopher Nolan on the Dark Knight trilogy. Those films were clearly a product of the George W. Bush administration years, and it was common for the superhero as depicted especially in The Dark Knight to be considered representationally aligned with Bush and/or Dick Cheney (and later, by “Entertainment Weekly,” McCain). Now it’s time for Superman to take Batman’s place in theaters and of course there’s mention of the symbol on his chest being Kryptonian for “hope.” And at the London premiere of Man of Steel, Goyer said of the character, “I think people want someone who stands for hope, a kind of savior figure, it feels like now is the right time to reintroduce him to the world.” Hmm, wonder why that would be?
I’ll let someone else elaborate on jokes about how Superman as Obama (not a new idea, by the way) figures into the plot of the film and how the hero actually winds up contributing to a whole lot more damage than he means to or than we expected of him. Aside from that symbol the possible political leanings of the character are not so easily defined or linked to any party or president. The film itself may hint at being politically against Predator drones, offshore drilling and general plundering of natural resources, but none of that is necessarily stuck on the superhero protagonist.
It should be pointed out that the revision of the “American way” phrase in Superman Returns really had little to do with political correctness or liberal appeasement of “anyone horrified by a pro-U.S. slant,” as Big Hollywood puts it, anyway. First of all, it was kind of a joke uttered by a character, who wasn’t speaking for Superman, simply wondering about the interests of an American hero who’d gone (way, way) abroad for a few years. You could probably say the fully uttered was used for humor in the 1978 movie, too, given that Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) responds to it with a punchline about fighting politicians.
If anything more than that, we could possibly read it in Returns as an acknowledgement of how “the American way” was a less clear concept in 2006 than when he’d been fighting Nazis and communists mid-20th Century. It still is fuzzy, in fact. But seven years ago there was certainly some additional disagreement about what “the American way” meant in other countries given our international reputation during that period. Harris even had said then that these foreign opinions “would taint the meaning of what he is saying.” This doesn’t mean non-Americans wouldn’t have tolerated an American hero just that the specific phrase might have elicited laughs depending on the local connotation of it.
My assumption was also then that Warner Bros. wanted to make Superman a more global hero for the global box office. In 2006 the idea was big news as far as how Hollywood was really starting to be aware of how much more money was made overseas with blockbusters and really starting to cater films more consciously to those markets. Sadly, Superman Returns was one of the rare action movies of its year not to do better at the foreign box office than domestic, so it probably didn’t matter that he wasn’t explicitly fighting for America or that the film even had a montage of the character lending a hand all over the world.
Seven years later global box office is still very important to the studios, so it will be interesting to see how Man of Steel plays. It doesn’t really have much visually in the way of foreign lands (no Eiffel Tower terrorism, no quick trip to Saint Lucia for a flower, no messing with the Tower of Pisa, etc.) outside of the Canadian arctic and the middle of the Indian Ocean. But there’s not really any U.S. landmarks either (no White House, no San Andreas Fault, no Statue of Liberty, no “Hooston,” etc.) outside of fictional places like Smallville (Kansas) and Metropolis. A lot of of it is set in space.
In the end, Superman fights to save all of Earth from a terraforming plot, not just the U.S. (and hardly the city of Metropolis). It wasn’t just to save Americans, it was about saving all of humanity. So why bother affirming his loyalty to the U.S. at all? I think it’s actually to buffer what that means. He’s not going to go fight our wars for us any more than an apple pie or a bottle of Coca-Cola or my own mother is. He’s just a product of this place and forever an icon of this place, nothing more.