This entry also appears on the Oxford University Press blog site.
As a child, I encountered the Man of Steel in the Adventures of Superman, the 1950s TV series that I watched as morning reruns a decade later. My Superman was "faster than a speeding bullet" and fought for "truth, justice and the American way." My 26-year-old son, Thomas, encountered a similarly invincible superhero in Superman: The Movie, the 1978 blockbuster which starred Christopher Reeve. Truth be told, neither of us are avid readers of the Superman comics, in which his backstory and demeanor have been remodeled over the years to align more closely with a changing culture. As we watched this year's reboot, Man of Steel, in glowing IMAX 3D there was certainly delight in seeing a familiar action hero, though we both left the theater trying to figure out why the movie was so disappointing.
The problem with Superman is that he is too powerful, too righteous. These days we tend to prefer our heroes with a troubled past who must overcome their dark side for the greater good. Can we identify with an omnipotent, squeaky clean, patriotic superhero after having been through decades in which our political and sports heroes have been guilty of illegal activities, sex scandals, and other gross moral ineptitudes? Hollywood's answer is to endow this new Superman with significant angst. In fact, a considerable amount of the movie is devoted to detailing a backstory which first introduces an antagonist, General Zod, who himself is not all bad (his prime motive is to secure a place where he can resurrect the people of planet Krypton by cloning the genetic material that Superman holds). We are then presented with flashbacks of Clark Kent's childhood, which is filled with anxiety about the way humans might react if they find out that he's an alien, perhaps locking him up out of fear (in this way we have a reconstitution of Spielberg's E.T. storyline). Worried each time he displays his superpowers, Clark Kent wanders from job to job not knowing exactly what to do with his life.
This setup is entertaining as it gives some depth to the young Superman. We have a troubled superhero who doesn't feel comfortable about his powers. We are also introduced to a modern day Lois Lane, as well as our villain who wants to create his new society on Earth, albeit by removing all traces of the human race (interestingly, one could make an analogy between General Zod's evil quest and manifest destiny or any other imperialist venture). The rest of the movie boils down to a rather boring battle between Superman and Zod. The problem is that the two are virtually indestructible. They end up merely pushing each other around, thus destroying in their wake everything around them, which includes skyscrapers, cars, trains, and an unfortunately situated IHOP. We don't see anyone severely hurt, but from the material devastation it is clear that many have died just by having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact, this is the problem: it is not our fight. Just as those poor souls in the cars, trains, and skyscrapers, we are just unwilling observers.
In the end, the movie is somewhat successful in creating a more personable, more vulnerable Superman. The problem is not Superman's overpowering strength but instead our complete impotence. For a movie to work psychologically, we need to feel a part of the story, we need the issues to be relevant, and we need to rally behind our hero. During the long, drawn-out brawl between Superman and Zod, rather than identifying with our hero, I felt as if I were at a bar where two guys argue and start pushing each other around. I kept wanting to say, "Why don't you two take your fight to some desolate planet and leave us alone?"