Man of Steel will be out on June 14, and when it lands in theaters, audiences will find that director Zack Snyder felt it was time to conjure up flaws and vulnerabilities in order to make the character more accessible to modern audiences. Sound familiar? According to the April 10 edition of Entertainment Weekly:
The makers of Man of Steel had to start thinking like a cadre of supervillains: how do you get under Superman’s invincible skin and really make him hurt?
This week’s cover story reveals how the new film (out June 14) attempts to humanize the superhuman by finding new flaws and vulnerabilities. The most common one, however, was off the table: “I’ll be honest with you, there’s no Kryptonite in the movie,” says director Zack Snyder (300,Watchmen) Those glowing green space rocks – Superman’s only crippling weakness – have turned up so often as a plot point in movies, the only fresh option was not to use it. Anyway, if you want to make an audience relate to a character, a galactic allergy isn’t the way to do it.
Henry Cavill (Immortals), the latest star to wear the red cape, instead plays a Superman who isn’t fully comfortable with that god-like title. This film reveals that even on Krypton, young Kal-El was a special child, whose birth was cause for alarm on his home planet. (More on that in the magazine) And once on Earth, his adoptive parents, Ma and Pa Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), urge him not to use his immense strength – even in dire emergencies — warning that not every human would be as accepting of him as they are. So Clark Kent grows up feeling isolated, longing for a connection to others, and constantly hiding who he is. As a result, Man of Steel presents the frustrated Superman, the angry Superman, the lost Superman. “Although he is not susceptible to the frailties of mankind, he is definitely susceptible to the emotional frailties,” Cavill says.
The article goes on to quote producer Charls Roven : “You want to give the audience great spectacle. You want them to go to the movie, be eating their popcorn and be like, ‘Wow! But it’s just not good enough to give them the ‘Wow.’ You want them to be emotionally engaged. Because if you just have the ‘wow,’ ultimately you get bludgeoned by that and you stop caring.”
Now, let’s contemplate what’s alike and what’s different vis a vis Man of Steel and John Carter (or Mars, dammit).
First of all, a new Superman movie is more like a new Tarzan movie than John Carter — because of the looooong history of Tarzan onscreen. The idea that you need to shake things up a bit has more intrinsic validity.
Actually, Mike Greear writing in Sequart has already done an excellent analyis:
John Carter is of Mars. During his time on Earth, he would gaze longingly up to the red planet, which ancient peoples named after the God of War. Carter was a former Confederate soldier, a veteran of the American Civil War, and said that for him, “the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment.” When he is transported to Mars, he finds a plethora of cultures that are built on war and killing, and he fits right in.
He is a master swordsman and quite adept with a gun as well, and he and his allies leave a mountain of bodies in their wake by the end of the first novel alone. He is the masculine God of War and Battle and Strength. He’s the guy that sword fights naked in the forest for hours on end and when it looks like he’s not going to make it out alive, he says something like, “well, they’ll at least be telling my story for a long time.” It’s exciting, swashbuckling adventure at its finest, and when you read it, you feel like you could be that guy, too.
Superman also represents a celestial body, but the one that he embodies isn’t the warrior spirit of Mars, but the nurturing, fatherly spirit of the sun. When Superman’s origin was later revised to take into account the yellow rays of Earth’s Sun (Sol) as opposed to the weaker, red rays of Kyrpton’s Sun (Rao, which was worshipped at one time by the Kryptonians), his most important character trait was finally locked in. Superman, unlike John Carter of Mars, is not a warrior. He doesn’t kill, he doesn’t use weapons and he wasn’t a soldier in his former life.
In his former life he was the son of a scientist, and was then raised by a couple of kindly farmers, people who based their livelihoods upon the sun’s light. While he was rocketed to a planet full of savage, warring humans, his way was not to beat them at their own game, but to teach them to rise above it. He brought with him the light of the sun to illuminate and enlighten the human race, to teach it to shine on with compassion and wisdom even in its darkest moments, even when faced with its darkest enemies. Superman protects everybody, he touches everybody and while he may occasionally lay down his life for us, he never stays dead for too long. He’s the sun, our solar savior, so to speak.
Soldier and savior, war and wisdom, combat and compassion. It’s infinitely interesting for me to ponder the archetypal nature of these characters, and how the germinal idea of Superman might have been planted with John Carter. It not only speaks to the idea that such super-heroic characters are the start of a new mythology that is taking shape around contemporary pop culture, but it also raises the idea that perhaps we as a people are moving from one of these iterations to the next. Perhaps we too are moving our of the realm of Mars and into the realm of the Sun.
Somehow it seems likely that the Snyder/Cavill Superman, while displaying vulnerabilities and experiencing very human emotions, will fall short of reaching the level of “whiny” and “mopey” that has aroused the ire of certain ERB fans who were unhappy with Andrew Stanton’s take on John Carter. But even if Snyder goes in that direction, the underlying character of the Man of Steel probably has more room for a touch of that than was the case with John Carter, for the reasons pointed out by Greear.
It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.