06/20/2013 09:30 am ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

Putting Superman in Context

Each age creates its heroes, often remaking those of the past to fit with
changing sensibilities.

Take Superman. The new movie, Man of Steel, revisits the origins of the
Superman character. A friend of mine with whom I saw it wished that the movie
had more of the ironic humor of the 1978 Superman, the one starring Christopher
Reeve and directed by Richard Donner.

But that was then, 35 years ago. Today, even in our hyper-ironic age, you can't
really make Superman a dark avenger, à la Batman in Christopher Nolan's films,
or a wisecracking billionaire industrialist who does good despite his hedonistic
excesses, as in the Iron Man movies.

With a character as iconic Superman, you've got to find a way to deal with
what is essentially, an earnest American story that might seem a bit out of sync
with where we are today. Judging by the global box office so far -- more than $200
million in its first weekend -- this iteration of the Superman story is finding an
audience. It's speaking, then, to contemporary consumers, certainly in ways that
the former re-launch, Superman Returns, from 2006, did not.

Some people still don't really care for Superman, finding him too goody-goody
for today

But you can't really not have an upright Superman, because then you wouldn't
have Superman. What you do is to try to position the Superman everyone
recognizes so that he seems more viable -- for a comic-book character -- in light of
today's society. I think Men of Steel works pretty well here, even if the movie is a
bit long, and the climactic battles too drawn out. But this Superman feels more of
today than earlier ones might have had they been launched anew without taking
into account how we regard heroes.

A reason is contextualization. This Superman movie -- with a story co-written
by Christopher Nolan, who rebooted the darker, even-more-tortured Batman --
uses the familiar elements many people already know from the comics and earlier
movies, and changes them slightly to appeal to our current social outlook.
We live in an age where people are suspicious of heroes, or of certain types of
heroics. Which is why the Batman movies, with their conflicted Bruce Wayne
becoming a conflicted Batman, hit home. Here, the filmmakers wisely allow
Superman to question what he can actually do in the world, and what he --
someone who isn't from here and who is, in effect, an immigrant -- can expect to
achieve when he knows that were he to reveal his true origins he would be

At the same time, the movie hews to the Superman story's mythic, even
biblical beginnings. First, there are echoes of Moses (the young Kal-el is not set
onto the Nile in a craft made of bulrushes, as was Moses, but is sent to safety from
the dying planet Krypton in the sci-fi version of a bulrush craft, a small spaceship).
And there are obvious allusions to Jesus: Superman comes into his own at the
age of 33, and his adoptive parents are named Jonathan and Martha, a nod to
Joseph and Mary. And of course there are intimations of Hercules and Samson,
mythological and biblical heroes of great strength who are tested by significant

At the same time, this Superman story speaks to something very now: our
growing realization that we are probably not alone in the universe. In today's
society, we like to believe we're part of a greater community, and as scientists
discover more and more Earth-like planets circling distant and not-so-distant stars
(they've already found more than a thousand planets outside our solar system),
we welcome the inevitability that we will someday detect signs of life, if not
civilization, far away. We are far from thinking we are the only planet among
trillions of stars to support intelligent life. This is both thrilling and humbling, and
makes Superman something more than an invincible superhero.

All of these various elements in the movie help provide a different context to
the Superman myth. He is not just a strongman who earnestly battles villains.

He's someone who has questioned himself, discovers he is from far away,
embraces his new country, learns to accept and control his gifts and reluctantly
offers his help. Not a self-aggrandizing hero, but one who, though still earnest and
given a halo of Americana (raised in Kansas by farmers, for one thing), wants to
be a person among people and do good without jeopardizing what he considers a
life of normality, that is, of remaining unknown.

That might not seem hip to people who crave fame above all else, but in a
society that values small actions over self-aggrandizement, even a Superman
who wants to help without making a big deal of it is a real change from the tired
Superman myths of yore.