Man of Steel’s Superman is a Hero for the Trump Era

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In the four years since its release, Man of Steel has grown in my mind, both as a film and as an approach to Superman. The criticism that he is often “boring” because he always does the right thing and his character never evolves is a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre as a whole, and not just Superman.  Superheroes are essentially status quo characters. That’s how you can tell Superman stories for 75+ years. Sure the character will evolve incrementally over time, or will be rebooted and reset, but as an example, Batman can never get over the death of his parents, or the stories end. Of course, there is also the view that Superman is just too “aw shucks wholesome” for the 2010s. That’s what this column is about!

In trying to compensate for these perceived Superman “problems,” David S. Goyer and Zack Snyder were criticized for going too far in the opposite direction. Man of Steel, according to Rafer Guzman of Newsday, “broods handsomely…but this reboot skimps on fun and romance.” And that is a completely fair criticism of the film (and something that would have likely been corrected if Man of Steel 2 had come before Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). I still don’t necessarily agree with every decision they make about the character, the last 18 months have convinced me that this version of the Last Son of Krypton is one that is perfect for the times we live in right now.

One of the most valuable things about Superman as a character is that he is an inspiration. Not only to us, but even to other heroes and characters in comic books. He is the paragon by which everyone else is measured. And I’ve found myself inspired by this particular version of Superman on a number of occasions recently. He is “with great power comes great responsibility” to borrow a phrase from other hero, which is incidentally the perfect summation of Superman’s ethos from his debut in 1938 onward. He has the most power, and the most responsibility. Both the films in which this version appears have a complicated relationship with that duty. How much of him is Super, and at the same time, longs to be a normal man?

Going back to the leadup to the presidential election last year, it seems that we are living in even more chaotic times than usual. Even right after September 11, 2001, or during the Financial Crisis in 2008, it felt like there was one big thing to bring focus to my existential anxiety. While there was uncertainty and reasons to be fearful, it felt mentally manageable. I could wrap my brain around what was happening, and even dig into the nuance and minutiae of these events. But with the election between the two most unpopular candidates in presidential history, the chaotic presidency that has followed, natural disasters, sexual assault revelations, and other things I’ve already lost track of, time is a blur. News is a whirlwind. Truth is politics. My personal anxiety levels are higher than I ever thought they could be. It is overwhelming, and whether or not things are actually crazier than usual or we just have more information makes no difference.

So lately, I’ve been thinking back to a few scenes in Man of Steel. There’s a scene that takes place when Clark Kent is a child and his powers start to manifest. Sounds are impossibly loud, x-ray vision is suddenly happening, and it seems to be out of his control. Clark’s senses, the very things that allow him to interact with the world, are suddenly betraying him. It’s not something typically depicted as horrific in the character’s history, but it works really well here. Clark rushes out of the classroom and hides in a supply closet. His mom, Martha Kent (played by the always excellent Diane Lane), comes to the school to help coax him out. And they have this exchange:

Clark: The world’s too big, Mom.
Martha: Then make it small. Just focus on my voice. Pretend it’s an island out in the ocean. Can you see it?
Clark: I see it.
Martha: Then swim towards it, honey.

I’ve been interpreting this as a sort of “think globally, act locally” mantra. When everything feels overwhelming, it is important to focus on what you can do. How you can affect change on your local level. How to act within your community. Superman is an inspiration for us because he can use his powers to affect great change and make gestures on a grand scale. But as mere mortals, we may not be able to stop climate change, war, or any of these other major crises on our own. But we can do small things. We can work with others to accomplish bigger things. But it starts by finding that center, grounding yourself in what is tangible, even if means shutting out the rest of the world for a little while to preserve your sense of sanity.

The other inspirational that I keep coming back to is the conversation that Clark has with the priest as he decides whether he should turn himself into Zod or not:

Father Leone: What does your gut tell you?
Clark: Zod can’t be trusted. The problem is, I’m not sure the people of Earth can be either.
Father Leone: Sometimes, you have to take a leap of faith first. The trust part comes later.

As a man who has dedicated himself to a belief in the higher power, a priest is of course going to encourage Clark to take that leap of faith. But it also says a lot about how we need to act in the world. There are too many bad people to throw blind trust into the world. It makes us too vulnerable. Even a bulletproof Ubermensch is vulnerable to the opinions of large groups of people (this is a thread picked up on in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice). But we need to give faith not that people are going to trust us right away, but that we can properly earn their trust. We need to trust that we can make an impact in the world.

It’s time to reevaluate Man of Steel as a call to be heroes even when we are overwhelmed, scared, and confused. That we can be better than we think, and that it is okay to make mistakes when our intentions are good as long as we learn from them. In these ways, Man of Steel is was a bit ahead of its time. Maybe not the hero we deserve, but the one we need right now.

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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