‘Man of Steel’: The Superman we ‘need and deserve’?

July 17, 2012 | 11:27 a.m.
man of steel poster Man of Steel: The Superman we need and deserve?

Superman, from a promotional poster for “Man of Steel” (Warner Bros)

Clark Kent writes for the Daily Planet but his new biographer, Larry Tye, filed his own front-page stories for the Boston Globe and Louisville Courier-Journal. Tye, author of “Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend,” is fresh from Comic-Con International where he was promoting “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero,” the 432-page hardcover from Random House that is being billed as the first “full-fledged biography” of the character that is called both Kal-El and Kent. We talked to Tye about the ramping interest in “Man of Steel,” the Warner Bros. film that will put a new version of the hero on the screen just in time for his 75th anniversary next summer.

HC: This is an era of haunted anti-heroes like Batman, Wolverine, James Bond. We also have decadent tricksters — Jack Sparrow, Tony Stark, maybe even the new Capt. Kirk — and empowered underdogs like Harry Potter, Spider-Man and Sam Witwicky in the “Transformers” films. With all of that, is Superman even viable for a major film franchise?

superman book larry tye Man of Steel: The Superman we need and deserve?

Larry Tye’s new book (Random House)

LT: Yes, more than ever. It’s precisely because we have so many dark heroes (Batman), and fraught ones (Spider-Man), that we’re aching for a Big Blue Boyscout who knows right from wrong instinctively, and never wavers from the light or is sidetracked by anxieties. If we look back at history we see that Superman does best when America is doing worst, like when he came to life in 1938, in the middle of the Great Depression and on the eve of World War II. It was an era much like ours, when the economy is teetering and we can’t seem to extract ourselves from overseas conflicts. The success of The Avengers suggests how anxious we are for heroes who can set things right. Man of Steel, I predict, will do an even better just lifting our spirits and offering up a welcome escape.

HC: What lesson would you hope Hollywood took away from “Superman Returns”?

LT: I liked Bryan Singer and Brandon Routh’s movie, but not enough fans did. The lesson isn’t that Superman is flawed but that somehow their film was. We’ll see, of course, next summer. But Superman’s handlers have had misses in the past (see “It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane…” on Broadway in 1966), and he’s always managed to make them look good by coming back stronger than ever.

HC: “Man of Steel” is changing some key elements of his origin tale and purists will squawk. But hasn’t Superman’s mythology always been like a beach? The shape looks the same from a distance but on closer inspection there’s constant shifting of the sand…
superman gallery2 Man of Steel: The Superman we need and deserve?

LT: I like to say that Superman has evolved more than the fruit fly. In the 1930s he was just the crime fighter we needed to take on Al Capone and the robber barons. In the forties he defended the home front while brave GIs battled overseas. Early in the Cold War he stood up taller than ever for his adopted country, while in its waning days he tried singlehandedly to eliminate nuclear stockpiles. For each era he zeroed in on the threats that scared us most, using powers that grew or diminished depending on the need. So did his spectacles, hair style, even his job title. Each generation got the Superman it needed and deserved. Each change offered a Rorschach test of the pulse of that time and its dreams. Superman, always a beacon of light, was a work in progress.

— Geoff Boucher


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18 Responses to ‘Man of Steel’: The Superman we ‘need and deserve’?

  1. Bruce Scivally says:

    I met Larry Tye at the recent Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Illinois, and of course picked up a copy of his book. It's a meticulously researched yet highly readable history of Superman in popular culture, recommended for anyone who has an interest in Superman.

  2. Eric Tan says:

    I beg to differ. In this age of al Qaeda and Guantanamo detainees, Superman has become irrelevant. If next year's movie doesn't take recent events into consideration, the movie will fail. If the movie is about Superman fighting members of his own race and other threats/villains that we cannot identify with, the movie will fail. Nice, expensive visual effects are nothing compared to a story that we can latch on to… Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy works because he uses a real world as his canvas. A boy scout with superpowers is going to do what to save the world?

    • leery says:

      your agument is valid, but heres my problem with your comment. how do you or will you judge the sucess of this movie. transformers made no sense yet it was well recieved

    • Marcus says:

      What about The Avengers? That movie did extremely well and it was about a whole team of super-powered heroes fighting off an alien invasion. I don't think people necessarily go to the movies to be bogged down in the same stuff they see in the news every day.

  3. JediJones says:

    I'm not sure that R'as al Ghul, Scarecrow, Two-Face or even the Joker represent real world threats we can identify with. They are over-the-top, melodramatic characters. The Joker resembles the killer from the SAW movies more than anyone in real life. I know I don't walk around town scared of murderous ex-politicians with scarred faces.

    • On the other hand, Nolan reinterpreted the central motivations of each of those characters such that they could both be divorced from contemporary reality (as you said, a murderous ex-politcian with a scarred face) and reflective of it–a maniacal terrorist who seeks nothing more than the destruction of the established order, perhaps exploiting our sense of social injustice to rally the masses to lend power to his cause.

      Comic book characters are cyphers, and each generation, each writer recasts them in a manner relevant to their context and concerns–or, at least, that's what happens when properly handled (i.e., not Green Lantern). They can simultaneously function as light-hearted or grim, Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises; as fantastic or literal, Scott Pilgrim vs the World or A History of Violence.

      It was an al Qaeda stand-in that captures, injures and propels Tony Stark to create Iron Man. That the movies subsequently deemphasizes that particular threat in favor of more intimate/fantasy ones is a recognition of the fact that Iron Man, quite literally a big gun, is no resolution for such complicated issues. But that's where Superman has potential, because sheer force has never been the key to truly profound Man of Steel narratives. The key has been the aspirational example that Superman sets, which makes him a powerful vehicle for more philosophical discourse. The fact that the movies haven't really reflected this is why they have declined in both relevance and potency over the years.

      I saw the first Man of Steel trailer before The Dark Knight Rises. The tone completely changed my outlook from skeptical to intrigued. Let's see what the film delivers.

  4. Xajuan Bryan Timothy Smith says:

    i am curious to see where they take it. I was very impressed with the batman trilogy. I like how they let it be shown that he couldnt save every one, and that these villains can be dealt with in a permanent manner. the ideals today is that problems will never go away and we will be terrorized by the same people (villains) they were very human very well built stories as of late. hopefully Superman can adapt and not be so clueless even though he lived on this planet his entire life lol

  5. Reblogged this on "Channeling the feeling" and commented:
    the world needs a hero, or a story of one to bring out the heroes inside us to be able to know right from wrong..

  6. Doc says:

    I've made this comment before and it wasn't well-received, but it is a real concern for me.

    I grew up with Superman. I loved the comics (when I could get them). I loved George Reeves' TV Superman. I really enjoyed seeing Christopher Reeve bring the Kryptonian to life on the big screen and (to coin a phrase) made me believe a man could fly. Superman 2 was fraught with production problems and it showed. Still, it brought Zod and Superman taking on 3 super-villians at once, holding his own. Every movie since has brought Superman lower and lower. The "death" of Superman showed that we still hadn't lost our love for our big, blue boyscout. Smallville did a great job at reviving the ailing superhero (even though WB bound the contract with a "no tights, no flight" clause). "Superman Returns" undid that by making the Man of Steel a dead-beat dad of a son whose first superpowered action is to kill someone.

    This movie could remake Superman or destroy him. If this fails, chances are that Supes will not get another chance at the silver screen.

  7. Chris says:

    What will really make or break this movie is if they can develope Superman with His humanity, to be a character that people bond with and really FEEL. Much like the Lord of the Rings- the characters that you really bond with… make the movie. If the movie flows, and the feel is right Man of Steel has the potential to be one of the greatest superhero films of all time. Unlike failures in the past where they have casted the wrong people who couldn't convey any emotion this one will have to excell beyond any of the anterior films. Also this movie can't just setlle with average effects, they will have to make effects that will blow your mind and keep you wondering at how they accomplished it. Only that would live up to the Superman film everyone has given up on becasue of all the past failures.

  8. AJ Steele says:

    There's things about this film I love and others I hate. Clark kent with no glasses? That is a grounding element of the character. Thats gonna hurt. No red around the waist of his costume at all? Not good. A thin line of red would have sealed the deal. Supermans powers limited in that our weaponry can hurt him? Very bad. I can only hope everything else is mega awesome to the point where I can say, I understand why they did that and can live with it. Hope is a big word.

  9. sugarfoot8 says:

    About time too…. finally one that isn't all comicy Nice Humble man play a Super Man… smart move .

  10. Vincent R. says:

    I think the most interesting part of the Superman dilemma is that despite his limitless powers he can do nothing to change us. Is up to the human race to make that decision. His powers are awe inspiring and envied, yet he's trapped between what he feels is right and what "we" feel is right.

    The problem is "We" don't know what's right and what's not. One man cannot change the world.

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