Looks Like the Man of Steel is Getting a John Carter style Modern Makeover

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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.


  • Glad to hear Kryptonite is out of the picture this time. Superman is a tough character to deal with, and I agree with everyone that his prolific media status makes him far more ripe for some new layers, even ‘angsty’ ones. I love that the angle this time seem to be very much a ‘first contact’ story about the social/political implications of injecting Kal-El into 21st century Earth.

    Zack Snyder has a history of passion for fidelity to his source material (even when it’s misguided, as in Watchmen), and I for one cannot wait to see his take on the man of steel. On that note, I find it impossible to watch Michael Fassbender’s leaping, battle-grinning performance in 300 and not imagine a magnificent John Carter.

  • As far as I can tell with Man of Steel it does stick to the origin story of Krypton’s destruction, meaning Superman can’t go home, so there is no whining about his cave of gold. In fact the trailers indidcate its the fear of his adoptive parents that he will be taken away from them and exploited that leads to this version of Clark Kent questioning his identity or what he should do. It’s not a selfish “it’s not my problem” act like Mopey Carter.

    I do agree with Pascalahad that going too far with a “damaged” Superman you end up with peeping tom/deadbeat dad Supes that Bryan Singer so that’s what Synder and Cavill needs to avoid, otherwise it will end up like Superman Returns or John Carter. That and there is already a great version of the story-Richard Donner’s Superman-so if they do screw it up it won’t be a big issue to me. Unlike Stanton’s ego trip to Dust Bowl City.

  • The other difference is that there has been 75 years of Superman interpretations by many artists, and only half a dozen novels featuring John Carter as a main character, and all by the same writer (well, except that one novella).

    The other difference is that I already had what I consider a next to perfect adaptation with the 1978 movie! All that to say I’m not necessarily against new interpretations.

    That being said it’s odd that Hollywood constantly tries to reinvent the wheel with those classic heroes. In Superman Returns Bryan Singer transformed him in a creepy “Peeping Tom” character (and oh, so mopey!). In no interpretation I can recall Clark Kent’s parents transmitting to him the fear of human beings (other than in Red Son, a very, very special case). I can see why he would have to create the Superman persona, to be able to otherwise live the life of a human, as Clark Kent. But out of fear? What would he have to fear anyway??

    So far that’s no indication that the movie will be good or not, but it’s not encouraging.

    As a side note, I hate the texture of the costume and the toned down colors. 🙂

  • What Hollywood needs is a couple of HEROES! John Carter was and is a good movie, my favorite of 2012. I believe it would have been a great movie had the producers left John Carter’s character alone and gave the audience what it really wants and needs, a good old fashioned HERO!

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