Superman has been around for a long time. Last month marked the 75th anniversary of the release of Action Comics number 1, Superman’s first appearance. Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster created the characters for a thirteen page story in the comic, originally an anthology. The story showed the now-classic origin story of a baby sent from a dying planet to be adopted and raised in the American Mid-West to become a champion of the oppressed. An entire genre – superhero comics – built up after publishers noted the success of Superman. Generations have grown up with the adventures of the Man of Steel; Superman has appeared on radio, in serials, in movies, on television (live action and animated), video games, novelizations, and even a Broadway musical. Superman is an iconic character, one of the most recognizable.
In short, people know who Superman is.
This level of familiarity, though, can make it hard to adapt the character. As with other works, like the Incredible Hulk and the Addams Family, what the general public knows about a character doesn’t necessarily reflect the original or any development that has occurred, with the knowledge coming from a popular adaptation. Superman, as iconic as he is, has had iconic adaptations done; the main one in the collective subconscious being Superman: The Movie with Christopher Reeve. The 1978 movie introduced distinctive theme music that is now forever associated with the name “Superman”. All incarnations of Superman since then, including Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Smallville have had nods back to the Christopher Reeve movie. To be fair, Superman: The Movie was well done, captured the feel of the Silver Age Superman, and Reeve did show how a pair of glasses could protect Superman’s secret identity*.
Man of Steel opened last month after a turbulent five year development that saw numerous writers directors approached. Eventually, Zack Snyder was signed on to reboot the movie series instead of continuing from the 2006 Superman Returns. Man of Steel takes the audience back to the last days of Krypton, as the planet died through an ecological disaster, and follows, through flashbacks, Clark’s arrival on Earth and how he adapted to his powers, Clark’s search for who he is, and his choice to protect his new home when the old war finds him. The movie is one part an orphan’s story, one part a refugee’s story, and one part an immigrant’s story.
Given the nature of the story, with an alien refugee hiding from terrestrial authorities, having Lex Luthor as a villain would defeat the purpose of the general theme. First, there is a gross power unbalance between Superman and Luthor; Luthor has far more power available to him just through wealth that he could defeat the Man of Steel before the latter knows something is up, while, in a fight, Superman would have to hold back to avoid looking like a dangerous invader. The choice of General Zod, though, sets up Superman as the saviour of Earth and forces Clark to decide whether he is a Kryptonian or a Human. Having Zod also allows the film to show the destructive potential a battle between Kryptonians and, hopefully, sets up a “World of Cardboard” speech in the next movie or in a potential Justice League film.
As an adaptation, the movie mostly succeeds. The problem, as noted above, is that the general public is more aware of an adaptation than the current comic. As a result, the tone feels slightly off, darker than what the audience may be used to in previous incarnations. At the same time, Man of Steel is a Superman movie, with Henry Cavill’s portrayal of Clark on the mark. It’s just that the story isn’t what people are used to out of the Superman franchise.
Next week, Alien from LA.
* Watch Reeve’s body language as Clark Kent. There’s one scene where he’s about to reveal himself to Lois, taking off the glasses, with a noticeable change in his posture. When he changes his mind and puts the glasses back on, he deflates, slouches, and his voice loses confidence.