As the original and most iconic superhero, Superman has in modern times become a divisive figure whose detractors argue is too one-dimensional to make a positive impact in modern-day culture. So when I first heard about Man of Steel, I was elated that people would get the chance to see how a darker Superman haunted by the responsibility of his Kryptonian legacy would fit in amidst our society’s cynical world view. I was 100 percent down for showing Clark Kent’s edgy side — especially considering any guy into Lois Lane would definitely have one — because while people like to rag about how Superman’s perfection makes him unrelatable and boring, what I’ve always admired about him is his perseverance amidst his many imperfections.
As an orphan immigrant thrust into another world and forced to adapt to the slower, weaker beings around him, Clark Kent is an exercise in restraint. No one else will ever really understand the weight of responsibility of being his planet’s last living legacy. His loneliness should be crippling, but instead of falling into greed he commits himself to the harder path — not because he’s bought into the hype of his own greatness, but out of a sense of duty towards those he’s lost, and those he’s learned to love. Despite his seemingly unparalleled power, he retains an exceptional level of humility.
Superman’s story is about choice. Choosing kindness. Choosing empathy. It’s about losing everything that made up your world, and choosing to find a new world to belong to. It’s not about revenge of the past, but hope for the future. Other people are cynical, but Superman is optimistic. He is hope and joy and belief and discovery.
When it came time to finally watch the film, despite my initial enthusiasm, I ended up choosing to abstain from Man of Steel after hearing about some of the creative liberties the film franchise was taking with my favorite superhero. I understand that many people enjoyed the film, and that’s fine, but I also understood at the time that it wasn’t really the type of movie for me, and that is also fine. Not every movie is for everybody, and I don’t feel the need to bash a film that a lot of people worked very hard on, and I have never seen. However, I do find it somewhat concerning that this new, much darker approach to Superman came as a result of the film industry believing that the iconic idealism of Superman would be unrelatable to modern audiences. Does that mean that our society is now fundamentally defeatist, or that hipster culture has decreed that our cool factor rises in direct variation to our own pessimism?
Because in my opinion, Superman is as relevant as any other guy in tights leading a billion-dollar, critically-acclaimed franchise. As an optimistic, working-class immigrant, Clark Kent is the anti-thesis to Batman’s beloved gritty Dark Knight meets billionaire playboy persona. Superman saves people in broad daylight. His story’s not about revenge, it’s about resilience, because he isn’t so much haunted by his past as he is willing to embrace the future.
Anti-heroes are in vogue right now. They brood, and they question their morality, and they hurt the people they love because they’d rather work out their issues through an intense boxing montage than actually vocalizing their feelings. These are things we all do (minus the boxing montage, maybe) and so watching our heroes do terrible things while at the same time knowing that at the end of the day they really do mean well can be extremely therapeutic. We all feel a little more dark than light sometimes. And maybe these days, in the kind of world we live in, that sometimes has turned into most times.
But here’s the thing: I’m not fundamentally nihilistic about humanity. I don’t believe we are all always terrible. As a whole, humanity’s got its good stuff going for it too, and every once in a while, I want to be reminded of it. I want to watch a hero that inspires me.
The myth that Superman isn’t a relatable hero is simply baffling to me because of his perpetual outsider status. Raised as a human, but the last Kryptonian, no matter if he stays on Earth or leaves to go elsewhere, he will never be able to stop being different. It’s the quintessential immigrant story, and in that the essence of Superman is uniquely American. He’s an immigrant who’s chosen to embrace his new home as his own.
A blue-collar farm boy, Clark Kent moves to the big city to become a self-made, working-class man. He takes care of his mom. He falls in love with the plucky, brilliant brunette in the cubicle next door. Subtract the superpowers and add in a minivan, and his life would be as adork-ably average as it gets. Clark Kent is defined by people, and so Superman is defined by people. Jonathan and Martha Kent. Lois Lane. They’ve all instilled the values of humanity in him. It’s erroneous then to assume that his idealism stems from naiveté: it stems from a place of love.
Superman isn’t an antihero and I don’t want him to be; we have plenty of those to go around as it is. Superman represents hope — not inevitability, not resignation to the world we’ve been left, but rather the faith that a few people holding onto optimism can make a positive impact that lasts in this world, if they only take the action to make it happen.