Superman's Once and Future Place In The World

By Chris Baggiano,
The Man of (stainless) Steel makes his return to the cultural forefront, but will he be welcomed back?

Today marks the opening day for the Superman franchise reboot Man of Steel. Since 2002’s Spiderman (one could argue that 2000’s X-Men kicked the trend off), the movie landscape has adopted comic book hero movies so much so that they have dominated the cinema landscape. However, aside from the tepid Superman Returns, the earth’s first and most famous superhero has been strangely absent. In a world where niches and individualism through micro-specialized interests continue to grow a superhero that has such broad universality, in both his super powers and his origin, seem to no longer fit the people’s interests or the world he’s trying to protect.

The world has always desired salvation in its easiest form – from a hero. Whether it was the great warrior Achilles of ancient Greece, an the great emancipator with divine assistance in Moses, or even a transcendent talent of a Babe Ruth, people always yearn for the one person that they will place upon the pedestal as their leader who is capable of feats greater than that of their peers, which inspires the everyday man to attempt accomplish those very feats. Superman is the epitome of this need for a hero that will inspire greatness in the people, even if they aren’t more powerful than a locomotive or faster than a speeding bullet. It isn’t the super strength and x-ray vision that make Superman the ultimate superhero but instead his infallibility and strong moral code. And these same traits are what flame the beacon atop the hill that will forever connect Superman with the U.S.A. and its mysterious promise to the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness from the world at large that made Superman the greatest superhero of them all.

No superhero is as synonymous with the U.S.A. as Superman. His traits and ideals represent much of what the U.S.A. itself had been defined as in the early 20th century. An alien country because of its distance from the rest of the “civilized” world due, the American ideal had always represented the hope for a better and more just life. Since the first settlers in the 1600s America was made out to be the land of opportunity, where society’s outcasts due to economic status, religious beliefs, or checkered pasts could remake themselves into a success. The lure and aggrandizement of the U.S.A. had been embedded for hundreds of years already. And this was before Teddy Roosevelt even decided to escalate the mythos of America.

In many ways, Superman is the personification of Teddy Roosevelt’s ideals and American patriotism. Teddy’s beliefs in American righteousness and its duty to police the world, especially in Latin America, are immediately evident in Superman. In fact, Teddy’s famous quote, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick” is shown in both his chosen alter-ego – the bumbling, shy, and forgettable Clark Kent –and his natural self – the ultra-powerful, confident, and instantly recognizable Superman. Soon Roosevelt’s American desires to protect freedom and fight for the oppressed would be realized in World War I and those same desires would become synonymous with the world’s first true superhero, Superman.

And while Superman’s core beliefs are directly connected to those of Teddy Roosevelt, his history and backstory are derived from the world’s definition of what America is. The hope for a new and better life in America had been instilled in the minds of the ever-growing emigrant population. Families would often be split, sending the fathers or sons to America in order to carve out a life in the expanding country. Sound familiar?

Superman, aka Kal-El of Krypton, was sent by his parents from his dying home planet in the hopes of bettering his life and his abilities to help the people of Earth. Once Kal-El reached the planet it took a strong family dynamic in the heartland to imbue the American dream wrought by hard work and individualism, where any one person could live a modest dream. It is the infallibility of both the American dream and America's irreproachable goodness that allowed the country, and its personified superhero, to become as universally loved and popular.

Today’s constant stream of information has largely washed the naiveté and suspension of disbelief that any one person, let alone country, can be even hold a modicum of righteousness. Making the infallibility and innate super powers of Superman, once his greatest strength, into his greatest weakness for today’s world. And while Superman can still become the prime example of what a person can aspire to it has become all too evident that his level of greatness is completely unattainable. Unfortunately, Superman represents the absolute white in a world of varying shades of gray.

The most successful superhero movies to date, Ironman and Batman, are not mystical beings; they are regular – albeit insanely wealthy – people who have decided to sacrifice their well being and happiness to save their people. They are fallible, they can bleed, they are human. Meanwhile, Superman's intentions are so pure that his chosen profession is journalism in hopes of rooting out corruption.

And while it is no surprise that in a world where the disproportionate distribution of wealth continues to grow the people clamor for those with the greatest means and influence cease to act selfishly and instead act for the common good. These men are the new supermen of society, spending their massive wealth on saving the common people from villains equally as sinister as the heroes are courageous. People have faults and seeing superheroes with those same faults allows a stronger connection to the audience.

But with the current state of blockbuster movies, where the world is constantly teetering on the precipice of complete obliteration from otherworldly villains, it may be the perfect time for the return of Superman (despite the now common-place nature this plot has reached). Superman is the only major superhero (sorry Thor and Marvel for trying to make us believe he's a pantheon hero) from another planet. It makes the most sense out of any recent superhero movie that his battle between otherworldly villains becomes the ultimate iteration of this meritless plot structure.

In today’s age it may only be right that the purest superhero of all makes his return to the silver screen. Perhaps America, and the world at large, needs to be reminded that there is still the possibility for good in the world. And despite the fact that the final 45 minutes of Man of Steel will most likely be and gravity defying, sound barrier breaking fist fight between two aliens, the movie may still inspire the now tarnished hope that Superman once represented. At the very least Superman fighting aliens will make a lot more sense than a team human beings, except for one, fighting a random space army bent on destroying Manhattan for no particular reason.

image: Facebook



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