Superman is one of the most iconic fictional figures of our time. Superhero lore is the closest we have to mythology from the modern era, and Superman is the most prominent of them, the one who started it all. He is one of the few fictional characters whose story has crossed cultural boundaries. It’d be hard to find a place in the world where Superman or his famous emblem was not recognized. Created in 1938, by two Jewish immigrants – Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, it told the story of the ultimate immigrant, an alien baby, who is found and raised by a farmer couple. As an outsider who grows up among us, his story was about embodying the best of humanity, and of always doing the right thing, no matter the cost.
Over the last few decades, Superman’s popularity has eroded. In late 20th century, morally ambiguous heroes started becoming more popular. Despite being almost as old as Superman, a re-branded Batman, along with newer heroes like Wolverine, were the new face of superheroes. As heroes with limitations, who had to make hard choices, they were, understandably, more popular than the idealistic heroes of the past.
Superman movies always held a special place in my heart. As a child, I grew up watching Superman cartoons. Later, the Christopher Reeve movies took my love for the character further, and periodically re-watching them became a childhood ritual. Since Christopher Reeve’s tragic accident and later death, Superman took a back seat in the public psyche. Superman Returns tried to recapture the Christopher Reeve magic, staying true to the tone of the movies, but with updated production values. However, despite being critically successful, it did not do well with the audience. In retrospect, this was not surprising. The world had grown weary of watching a cheerful, god-like alien who smirks and lectures the bad guys into correcting their evil ways. Everyone flocked to The Dark Knights and the Iron Men that dominated the cinemascape in the 2000s.
In 2013, Warner Bros released a new movie on Superman – Man of Steel. Fresh off the success of the Nolan Batman trilogy, this was Warner Bros’ attempt to start a shared movie universe, similar to the wildly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was instantly put off by the “dark” vibe it seemed to convey in the previews, assuming that it was just a weak attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the Nolan movies, despite the fact that Superman was supposed to be a hopeful and inspiring character. This was aggravated by the fact that the other Zack Snyder movies I had watched (300 and the theatrical cut of Watchmen), did not inspire confidence in his ability to make a good comic book movie. I didn’t bother watching it in the cinemas and caught it on TV much later, watching it out of the corner of my eye, while my attention was focused elsewhere. Consequently I missed most of it, and rashly concluded that this was a bigger mis-step than Superman Returns.
However, when Warner Bros announced Batman v Superman, its sequel, I was cautiously optimistic. Warner Bros definitely knew how to do Batman well. The previews looked promising, and showed a Superman who has potentially become a threat (a la Injustice) whom Batman needed to take down. The previews were not alone in conveying that direction in the plot. Zack Snyder pointed out that The Dark Knight Returns was a major influence for the movie, and this was similar to the reason that they clash in that book. All things said, I was excited after watching the preview several times, and recognized several iconic shots from the books. When the movie came out, I watched it as soon as I could. I looked forward to seeing Superman turn into the angry (and misguided) tyrant and Batman, the courageous human, standing up to this alien who thought he could impose his will over the human race. What a bait-and-switch it was! Towards the end of the titular fight, I was completely rooting for Superman. Superman was the good guy, trying desperately to save his mother, and yet, never losing restraint. Batman was the angry, irrational and egotistic vigilante, attempting to kill him in cold blood, for the wrong reasons. I came out of the cinema hall shook, not just by the plot of the movie, but by the realization of how deeply ingrained my prejudices had been, against Superman, against Man of Steel and against Zack Snyder.
I went back and re-watched Man of Steel, paying it the attention it deserved. The movie that unfolded in front of me drove me to further remorse. In a passionate and heartfelt take on the titular Man of Steel, Zack Snyder and his team retell the story of the most iconic superhero of all times, and try to ground that tale in a modern context. By taking the subject matter seriously, and avoiding fan service by referencing the cheerful movies of the past, the movie makes Superman’s tale relate-able. We are shown a young Clark struggling to come to terms with the fact that he’s not his parents son, and that he was different from the children he grew up around. A childhood fraught with bullying, aggravated by his pacifism. A pacifism borne of restraint, being taught that any loss of restraint would be disastrous for everyone around him. That if the world knew about him, it would change everyone forever. He constantly tries to hide his true identity, but is unable to refrain from helping those in need. This invariably forces him to abandon his current identity and move on from place to place. We see this young alien slowly grow into the hero that the world needed. He is unsure of his place in the world, but never on what the right thing is. Despite its flaws, Man of Steel achieved much of its lofty target, of telling a Superman story for the modern era. This story is continued in Batman v Superman, as the world’s opinion is split once Superman goes public. The main plot focuses on the negative impact it has on Batman and his sanity, but we are shown how the world reacts to the question “Must there be a Superman?”. The movie culminates in Superman sacrificing himself for a world that had repaid his goodness with suspicion and hate, and in that sacrifice, inspiring others around him to strive to be better. The story was as much a Batman redemption arc, as it was a second act for Superman’s “hero’s journey”.
Through this experience, I have come to appreciate my childhood hero again. These movies reminded me of why Superman mattered. Not because he was all-powerful, but because he was all good despite being all-powerful. The movies touch upon many social issues, not least of which is the importance of holding onto idealism despite adversities. This is a message that has become quite important in a mediascape which has become increasingly cynical. I felt a similar sense of elation after watching Cinderella (the 2015 live action one). I don’t remember the animated one much, but the main takeway for the new one, is the importance of sticking to your ideals, especially when it is easier to give into hate and pettiness. In fact, that is when it is most important to do so. Any movie that changes the way I feel about the world and how I live in it, always rates highly in my books. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman have done that for me, not just by reminding the ‘why’ of Superman, but by reminding me to not be held back by my prejudices.
We could do with more positivity in the world. We could do with more heroes that we can look up to. I am gonna end this with this panel from All-Star Superman.