I want to get this out of the way up front so that the comments don’t have to devolve into some kind of shitshow as they often do when Man of Steel comes up: I think Zack Snyder is a very good filmmaker - one of the best visual storytellers working today - and I think that on its own Man of Steel is a good movie. It’s just a really shitty Superman movie, a movie that seems to either misunderstand or despise what it is that makes Superman a unique and special character.
What makes Superman a unique and special character? Watch Supergirl, the new DC TV show on CBS, and you’ll totally get it. Supergirl captures so much of the spirit of what made Superman an enduring figure while also adding a very modern, very female, very Millennial twist to the whole thing. Not since the Superman: The Movie have I seen a Superman universe adaptation that gets so much so so right.
There’s one thing that Supergirl gets right that Man of Steel completely whiffed, and while it’s a small thing it is, in a very real sense, the only thing that matters. In Supergirl Kara Zor-El wants to be a hero.
That’s it. She wants to be a hero. That’s what divides Supergirl from Man of Steel (well, that and millions of dollars, an extra hour and a half run time and state of the art VFX), and it’s the one element that you need in any Superman story. Superman wants to be a hero. That’s just who he is. And that's just who his cousin is.
Man of Steel spends a lot of time with Clark Kent agonizing over his position in the world and about whether or not he wants to be a hero. That, to me, isn’t Clark Kent. Clark never questions this - he may question his own ability or second guess his choices or the world around him, but Clark Kent, as a character, is driven by the need to do the right thing. He works for justice not just as Superman but also as Clark Kent, reporter at the Daily Planet. There is no version of Clark Kent - no real version, anyway - who hides from responsibility, who uses his abilities for his own good. Let’s put it this way - Clark isn’t working as a gossip columnist, he’s working as a beat reporter who is out there trying to uncover the truth for the people of Metropolis.
On CBS’ Supergirl Kara Zor-El has the exact same motivation as her cousin. All that she wants to do - the only goal she has - is to make the world a better place. Her home planet is gone and she is dedicated to making sure that her adopted world is safe, secure and improving. That's why she's working at CatCo, because she thinks this media empire can give her the platform to change the world. She is counseled by her adoptive sister to hide her Kryptonian light under a bushel, but it doesn’t come naturally for Kara, and as soon as there’s an opportunity for her to go out and make a difference - as a plane threatens to crash into National City - she immediately runs off and helps. There are no second thoughts, no considerations of a secret identity, only the immediate, instant and innate need to help people.
Supergirl and Superman (and Superboy and Krypto and Streaky and Beppo the Supermonkey) all share this trait, and always have - until Man of Steel. What happens in Man of Steel is that Superman’s natural tendency to heroism is perverted and muffled by filmmakers who misunderstand the character on a profound, fundamental level.
Superman was created by a pair of Jewish kids in Cleveland during the Great Depression. He was completely a power fantasy for these kids - he’s a handsome, powerful man who has extraordinary powers. More than that, though, he’s an outsider, just as Jews were in America in the early 20th century. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the kids who invented the Man of Tomorrow, were the children of immigrants, and they built that into their power fantasy. Here was a character who came from elsewhere and who was unique and strange but was beloved, and a symbol of the greatness of America. The power fantasy at the heart of Superman wasn’t just about being strong, it was about being accepted.
Flash forward to the 21st century and find Zack Snyder and David Goyer reinventing Superman for another generation. These guys - hugely successful insiders, rich and powerful within their own world - approach power fantasies in another way. For Siegel and Shuster Superman’s power was a blessing, and it was obvious to them - being solid, hard working kids - that someone with that power would use it for the greater good. They didn’t have power, but they idealized it. Snyder and Goyer approach power as people who have it, and people who have power often fantasize about being able to let it go (ask any dominatrix in your life how many of her clients are incredibly powerful and rich men, looking for an opportunity to shed the responsibility of their lives). Spider-Man’s mission statement - with great power comes great responsibility - sounds like an ominous warning to guys like this.
Add to that a certain post-modern understanding of the character of Superman, an understanding that has come through the lens of comic book deconstructionists like Alan Moore (who, it should be noted, wrote a ‘last Superman story’ that is both modern, heartbreaking and, in the end, deeply lovely and inspirational). Snyder had done Watchmen, based on Moore’s comic book that sought to lay the superhero bare, to find the fascist hiding beneath the tights. Superman is the ubermensch, Nietzsche’s overman who represents the ideal culmination of humanity, and the ubermensch was a concept that appealed to Hitler and his Nazis as they pursued Aryan physical perfection. A man who is better than all others, who solves his problems by hitting them, who believes he has an innate right to pass judgment on his fellows - that’s fascism, and that’s clearly the dark side of the power fantasy that drove Siegel and Shuster.
Goyer and Snyder don’t see Superman as the Nazi ubermensch, but they do play with something even darker - the Randian figure driven by radical self-interest. I’ve always enjoyed the edginess of early Spider-Man stories where young, troubled Peter Parker was often tempted to just tell everybody to fuck off and to go use his powers for his own personal gain. Not even as a criminal, just as a guy monetizing his abilities. That’s the darkest possible path for Peter (and I often wonder what Steve Ditko, Spidey’s co-creator and an Objectivist, thinks about Pete’s continuous return to selflessness), and it’s one with which he often toyed, until the spectre of his dead Uncle Ben returned to remind him of his great responsibility. That’s classic Spider-Man business, the regular kid who find the path of heroism often too hard. But that’s not classic Superman, and in fact it’s a grotesque mischaracterization. I’m reminded of the Goyer-plotted The Dark Knight Rises, which sees another of DC’s most iconic and clearest heroes, Batman, doing one of the least Batman-y things possible - retiring for eight fucking years. It's as if Goyer specifically doesn't understand what motivates these characters.
Goyer and Snyder have taken the deconstructionist era of superhero comics and run with it, asking themselves why would a guy want to help the world and, for whatever reason, they were unable to come up with a good answer for it. They thought that audiences would find Clark’s struggle with heroism easier to identify with, as we identify so thoroughly with Peter Parker’s constant tsouris. But they didn’t understand that we don’t want to identify with Superman in that way. We want to aspire to be Superman.
That’s something Ali Adler, one of the creators of the show and the writer of the pilot episode, understands fully. Supergirl externalizes that aspiration - Kara literally is inspired by her cousin, as we are - but it also internalizes it. In Man of Steel General Zod calls Superman out, threatening the Earth. Clark has a long dark night of the soul, wondering if he should go to the Kryptonians. He talks to his mom, he consults a priest. In Supergirl an evil alien named Vartox calls Kara out, threatening National City. There’s no hesitation - she immediately flies off to confront the baddie.
Many people have pointed out that Man of Steel is about Superman’s first day on the job, but so is Supergirl, very explicitly so. As such Supergirl screws up, but her mistakes all come from enthusiasm, from her desire to do the right thing. Superman doesn’t have that enthusiasm, and he definitely doesn’t have the proactive nature Supergirl shows in the pilot. And frankly a Superman without that proactive nature isn’t Superman.
I don’t know much about Ali Adler, but I suspect that her approach to the power fantasy of a Kryptonian on Earth is quite similar to Siegel and Shuster. As a woman working in an industry that is cataclysmically male-dominated, she knows what it is to be the outsider. And like Siegel and Shuster she sees a position of power as an opportunity to lift others up - characters in Supergirl comment on what a female superhero means to their daughters. Unlike the post-deconstructivist Snyder and Goyer Adler never questions why Supergirl wants to help people - she understands the instinctive need and desire to leave the world a better place than you found it.
There’s other stuff - tonal things, an embrace of a larger and more colorful mythology - that sets Supergirl above Man of Steel, but for me the truly important difference is that Supergirl is about a superhero who wants to be a superhero, about a woman embracing her ability to effect change. Future episodes may see Kara Zor-El questioning this - you have to find drama somewhere, and a hero dissatisfied is good drama - but the show made a point to begin with a hero who wants to be a hero. It’s a very Golden Age, very pre-Marvel view of superheroes, the idea that the acquisition of super powers carries with it the immediate desire to do good. Supergirl doesn’t need to be motivated by vengeance or self-preservation or to be glum about helping people. She loves doing it, and she gets actual joy from being a hero.
When Siegel and Shuster invented Superman they brought him into a world that was in an apocalyptic financial crisis and that was headed towards an unprecedented charnel house of a world war. They didn’t create Superman in simpler times, or more naive times. They understood that dark times call for bright heroes, and so they created a light to shine through the encroaching storm clouds. Ali Adler and the team at Supergirl have done the same, creating a Supergirl who is, on the one hand, relatable in a day to day way but whose central heroism beckons to us in a difficult world, reminding us that sometimes you do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.