The words “Continuity” and “Canon” are greatly significant for comicbook fans, especially today, though such terms were fairly anomalous for most of the time that periodicals were filled with gridded pages featuring superheroes. Origin stories were revamped and revised for multiple characters across multimedia even in the very beginning and in those halcyon early days, few fans batted an eye at the changes, even when they came to the world’s first (and, thus, most stalwart) superhero, Superman. By the time of John Byrne’s revisionist 1986 miniseries The Man of Steel, Superman’s powers and origin had already been revised and updated many times, but this time the changes came with huge revisionist announcements, all tied to the universe-restructuring mega-event Crisis on Infinite Earths. This trend has continued in the comics, right up to the most recent slate cleaning revision found in DC’s “The New 52”.
From almost the very beginning, however, Superman was not relegated to just DC’s graphic novels and each appearance in other media have carried their own continuity and concepts. The Adventures of Superman Radio Program (starting in 1940) featured a fully grown Man of Steel crashing to Earth and meeting two grown men who help him formulate the name “Clark… Kent” (because it sounded normal), thus completely eliminating the otherwise vital Ma and Pa Kent. The 1941-43 Superman cartoons from Max Fleischer studios debuted Superman’s first real flight (prior to this, he merely jumped a LONG way), a power that quickly found its way into the comics. Superman: The Animated Series revised Brainiac from a Coluan weapon (and/ or sideshow psychic) into a Kryptonian supercomputer, while Smallville revised Clark Kent’s super origins to include virtually everyone he would ever encounter (from Brainiac to Lex Luthor to Morgan Edge to Green Arrow to General Zod to even Doomsday) to characters he met before he ever donned the old red and blue costume.
The point is, the revisions we see in Zack Snyder’s 2013 film The Man of Steel (written by David S. Goyer and The Dark Knight‘s producer-director Christopher Nolan), although many are unique to this movie, are not peculiar in the multimedia world of Big Blue. Released to coincide almost exactly with Superman’s 75th birthday, many changes and revisions have both boosted and plagued the granddaddy of all superheroes for generations now and every new generation reinvents Superman on the page and beyond for their own zeitgeist. That said, a comparison between the latest version and the collective and popular history of the character is most certainly warranted, especially with some of the more surprising aspects of Zack Snyder’s “reboot to the head”.
It is worth noting that the previous attempt at Big Blue on the Big Screen, 2006’s Superman Returns, was not the flop many in the media like to claim that it was. Warner Bros’ $270,000,000 gamble resulted in a haul of almost $400,000,000, a hit by any stretch, though Warners had hoped for more. Thus the Man of Steel reboot was greenlit and has almost half-a-billion dollars (including marketing and production costs) invested in its success. Will it be the hit Warners demands (percentage-wise)? Time will tell. Will Man of Steel remain a hit with canon-conscious fans? That may be a very different story.
As a movie critic, I analyze Man of Steel to be a very inventive science fiction film and a fairly fascinating alien invasion film, but only a “pretty good” Superman film. Beginning on a Krypton that feels truly alien (and resembles the color scheme of Snyder’s own 300), the viewer is treated to almost immediate action and an almost Edgar Rice Burroughs-esque scope of another world. Superman’s biological father Jor-El rides a tamed flying beast resembling something out of Avatar while Lara gives the first natural birth Krypton has seen for centuries (all Kryptonians-to-be are genetically engineered from a strange DNA Codex). The costumes and sets are “different” to the point of Ray-Gun, B-Movie Sci-Fi (and I mean that as a compliment) while Krypton’s arrogant political structure is the perfect breeding grounds for Zod’s own ethnocentric power hunger.
This may feel quite, well, “alien” to those approaching Man of Steel with virgin eyes. Superman Returns was largely a sequel to Superman (1978) and Superman II (1981) and thus skipped its own origin story. The Krypton of those earlier films seems much more human (if desolate), but starting with the aforementioned 1986 miniseries, also called The Man of Steel, Krypton was a much less “familiar” environment and Kryptonians themselves were far from the super-family you’d want visiting your planet en masse. The depiction of these elitist survivors (even Jor-El was hardly the “sweet daddy” we have grown accustomed to) makes the importance of Martha and Jonathan Kent all the more vital in the evolution of the Superman we know. The Last Son of Krypton has the power to simply take over this planet. But he was raised as a good kid with a solid knowledge of right and wrong and easily defies the “Pure Kryptonian” ideal of Jor-El and the “Eradicator” program (designed to protect the culture of Krypton), as well as the Zod of the most recent film, and just as easily becomes Superman by choice. No more was Clark Kent the “mask”. Clark Kent is who Superman “really is”, not the other way around.
The miniseries gives us an additional traditional representation of Superman’s debut, that being that Lois Lane was the one who named the hero “Superman” after he saved the crashing aircraft she was in (in some stories this has been retconned to a space shuttle). This leads to the question of what the “S” on the iconic chest shield really stands for. Since at least the 1980s the concept that the “S-Shield” had been a symbol of the “House of El” on Krypton before it stood for anything in English. Man of Steel, the film, gives a version of this motif that dates back at least to DC’s 52 maxi-series, explaining that the symbol only looks like an “S.” Actually the Kryptonian symbol for “Hope” as adopted by Jor-El’s family as something of a Coat of Arms. Although Lois comes close to saying “Superman” (getting almost a syllable in), it is a member of the US Military who first refers to Kal-El as “Superman” onscreen, indicating that’s what people are calling him.
The story of Lois and Clark’s first meetings, however, takes a very different path in the 2013 film. Not only is the aircraft disaster written out, but so is the traditional “love triangle” between Lois, Clark and Superman. Instead before there even is a Superman, Lois is able to track and find Clark by tracing the wonderful things this super-powered kid had done since his abilities first manifested. This ease of discovery not only allows Lois to know Clark’s secret identity before he even has a public persona, but also opens the floodgates for virtually every man, woman and child in Kansas to figure this out immediately.
This is, of course, a trait shared with the recent TV show Smallville (which debuted in 2001). With an obviously superpowered Clark Kent disappearing and becoming a bespectacled journalist in Superman’s chosen town RIGHT at the same time that a superpowered being who looks exactly like Clark did (up until last week) shows up, one must wonder how long it would take before Pete Ross, Lana Lang and the rest of the denizens of Smallville knock on the door of the National Enquirer (or even the Daily Planet) and belt out a loud chorus of “Have I got a scoop for YOU!”
This “secret” becomes almost comical when Superman wrecks a US Government drone attempting to locate where the hero hangs his cape. “You won’t find it.” Superman says, then in response to the General’s inquiry of how America can trust Superman, he casually laughs and says “General, I grew up in Kansas; I’m about as American as it gets.”
Thus, intrepid reporter Lois Lane is able to trace Clark Kent straight to his father’s grave just by following the trail (which did not originally feature a link to Kansas) but even with Superman’s admission of “Kansas” (where much of the super-fighting of the film none-too-coincidentally takes place), the United States Government is expected never to figure this guy’s secret out. Folks, Lois didn’t even have a surveillance drone to wreck. How long until Martha Kent is being experimented on at Area 51?
The character of Clark Kent/ Superman has been, can be and will continue to be debated for as long as the character exists. Is this the Kryptonian space invader who (as Quentin Tarantino postulated in Kill Bill Vol. 2) creates Clark Kent as a parody of humanity in order to fit in with his lessers, or did the upbringing of Jonathan and Martha Kent create a well-nurtured good guy who can rise above his nature and do the right, most heroic and selfless thing for the good of his adopted home? In short: Nature or Nurture?
Many “Elseworlds” stories and mythos explorations using pastiche characters have tested this theory in many ways. DC has given us out-of-continuity tales that have placed the crashdown of “Kal-El” in Soviet Russia, on the grounds of Wayne Manor (where he does, indeed, become a Kryptoninan-powered Batman), in the remotest regions of Africa, where he becomes a Tarzan analogue (with heat vision) and even featuring an ancestor of his crashing down in Revolution-Era New England and shaping the future of Earth long before Kal-El is born. Under Alan Moore, Superman pastiche “Supreme” has shown that virtually any minor change in continuity can alter the Superman archetype from gentle do-gooder to violent antihero in a heartbeat. Also under Moore, Miracleman (formerly Marvelman) decides that the only way to protect humanity from superpowered threats is to reform society and all nations in Miracleman’s own image, thus creating a terrifying (if intentionally benevolent) new world order, more frightening than the plans of most villains.
In Man of Steel we are shown a confused, wandering Clark Kent who proves that it is in his very nature to do great good on a large scale. However, this “overgrown boyscout” isn’t quite the Superman we have grown to expect. “Necessity” leads him to steal clothing, tell a plethora of “white lies” and resist direct confrontations with surly, unpleasant people (though he seems to take little issue with covert sabotage).
One can scarcely blame him for being confused, considering that his “Earthly father” Jonathan insisted that he hide what he can do for his own safety. While this is both logical and in keeping with established canon, this does lead to quite an unlikely moment in the film when Jonathan chooses his own death by cyclone over a super-rescue from Clark. This is a dramatic and moving scene, no doubt, but it also leaves one scratching the old head-bone. With Jonathan close enough to give hand and eye signals to Clark, even a non-powered human being would have run (at normal speed) to save the man (not to mention the poor old family dog). Was this a tough decision to make? Definitely… and not one the Clark Kent we know would have accepted.
Once the cape and tights (here a gift from Jor-El, not a design of his own, as in keeping with “The New 52”) are donned, we are reintroduced to this ambiguous character who skews to good. This Superman has no problem surrendering himself to US authorities to be handed over to the invading Kryptonian Death Squad under Zod, even though it may mean his own life. The Christian Symbolism gets a bit more heavy-handed when a resurgent “ghost” of Jor-El sends his only son down from the sky to save the people of Earth (“All of Them”) and Superman takes a moment to pose in a Cruciform pattern before his descent.
In other news, Zack Snyder is wanted for the murder of Subtlety. Any information leading to the capture of Snyder for this Subtlety murder will be rewarded.
For all his Super-Selflessness, we also are shown quite a lot of super-CAREless acts. In keeping with artist Alex Ross’ assertion that Superman is the ultimate “failed Christ” figure, Man of Steel’s Superman clearly means to do everything right and to defend and save the innocent (even and especially at great risk to himself) but also finds himself incapable of playing the hand he’s dealt perfectly. In a powerful scene, Superman uses his heat vision to carve up the Kryptonian birth-ship that holds the future of Superman’s very race. “Krypton had its chance!” he cries as he sends the ship (and its pilot, the mad-god Zod) to the ground. In that the ground that the ship (and Zod) crash into is still populated by the horrified, fleeing refugees of the city of Metropolis, Superman clearly either feels Metropolis had its chance as well, or he didn’t quite think that far ahead. Let’s not forget that catching falling aircraft and spacecraft is kind of what Superman does… all of the time. It’s safe to suggest that the poor Metropolitan refugees were already having a textbook crappy day before a big, broken UFO landed on their heads.
This could be the result of the young Superman still getting his bearings. After all, he had just put on the costume and just learned to fly (as opposed to major jumping) when a major Alien Invasion took place, however this is not the result of Clark Kent’s lack of care for the denizens of his adopted (and now chosen) home. The famous-cum-infamous “Coup de Grace” scene showcases a barely contained General Zod using his newfound powers to take out a few more refugees courtesy of a heat vision blast. Superman’s answer is to (quite reluctantly) break the neck of his opponent, thus ending him permanently, though it causes Superman no end of screaming grief to do so.
The question is, would Superman as we know him willingly take a life? Did he have no choice? Couldn’t he have simply thrown himself on his back and carried Zod with him in his sleeper-hold or rolled him forward to heat vision the marble into a death mask? Of course, changing that sequence would also have also deprived us of possibly the most dramatic and character driven moment of the entire film, but the question remains, is that “character” the character we know?
This is far from the only looming question mark in this new continuity (which has long been rumored to be the kickoff of an Avengers-like Justice League team-up). However, as convoluted and often over-the-top as the film can be, it remains a great slice of box-office fun. At times Superman takes a huge back seat to the other elements in the film to the point that it often feels like a Sci-Fi, Alien Invasion flick that Superman has a cameo appearance in. However, the gradual emergence of Kryptonian powers and the required Earth ingredients to unlock these is straight out of the (current) comics, as are many of the elements Snyder, Nolan and Goyer got so perfectly right here.
Is this “Your Father’s Superman?” Is Man of Steel simply the latest revision of the classic character for the next generation of comicbook movie fans? The answer is yes… but “which father”? The pre-Super Clark infamously told Jonathan and Martha Kent “You’re not my parents”, while later proudly (and insensitively) informing the now-widowed Martha that he’s finally found his parents. Both scenes (and his ready embrace of Jor-El’s Elder Hamlet-like ghostly presence) seem to indicate a rejection of the Earthly family who raised him, in direct (and ignorant) contrast with the comicbooks upon which this film was based. This is also the Superman who chooses (albeit not-without-destructive ramifications) Earth over Krypton and ultimately declares that he is as American as it gets.
The path of this flawed savior isn’t quite the one that we have been led to expect and many fans will love that and many fans will decry its comicbook-divergent choices. On the other hand, barring Lois Lane’s own knowledge of the dual nature of Clark and Superman (thus depriving one of fiction’s greatest reveals), the hero we see in the final moments of Man of Steel is nothing if not the character Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created… with just a bit more in the “imperfections” column. The Man of Steel, much like his motion picture namesake, is far from perfect… but he is the Superman we have now.