Comics Ate My Brain

November 23, 2005

Move over, Clapton

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tom Bondurant @ 2:40 pm
The new Superman Returns teaser trailer doesn’t reveal a whole lot of plot, or even show a lot of characters (our hero, maybe Ma Kent, maybe Lois). Instead, it sets a tone which might best be described as “reverent.” As the teaser shows a stunned crowd looking up in the sky, Marlon Brando intones “They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be.” As Superman rises above the clouds, silhouetted by the sun, Brando continues, “They only lack the light to show them the way.”

It’s a very effective presentation, thanks in no small part to John Williams’ epic “Planet Krypton.” However, its effectiveness comes from its imagery of Superman being “above” humanity — someone who, as a boy, learned to stop himself from falling, and indeed to leap high above the Kansas plains. Later, the trailer shows Superman taking off from a rooftop, and it concludes with Superman in space, looking down on the Earth like the Star Child at the end of 2001.

While I’m no film student, to me the trailer’s emphasis on flight seeks to convey two aspects of Superman: freedom, as in Clark’s childhood exultations; and also that “above”-ness. Combined, the message is “He can do whatever he wants” — and the unspoken amendment of the message, alluded to in the last shot of Superman rocketing back to Earth, is that “he wants to help you.”

The cover of All-Star Superman #1, showing a relaxed Superman sitting on a cloud high over Metropolis, conveys the same comfort. The rest of the issue brims with the kind of assurance that Grant Morrison had already summarized eight years before in JLA #1: “No sweat, kids, the crisis is over. The big guy’s on the case.” I wish I could remember the preamble of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow,” but from memory I believe it talks about “a man from the sky who did only good.” Put them all together and Superman is more than the fatherly George Reeves, more than the big-brotherly Christopher Reeve, and certainly more than the superpowered pretty boys Dean Cain and Tom Welling. Right now, the trailer for the new movie paints Superman as God.

Clearly this is not a new idea. I’m not even sure it’s a conscious idea, much of the time. However, it makes Superman unique among other superheroic icons. Batman represents the apex of human potential, and Wonder Woman an idealized female warrior. The major Marvel heroes represent different aspects of human behavior. Only Superman has developed into a paragon of moral virtue, whose strict adherence to such a code is as much a part of his portrayal as his powers are.

The flip side of this portrayal is the notion that Superman is so powerful, he’s not interesting. One way to get around that is the current monthly books’ route of challenge through emotional manipulation. The Superman Returns trailer exemplifies another way, and that is to define Superman through the perceptions of those around him. It’s easier to do Superman-as-God the second way, because honestly, after a while the first way just ends up feeling forced.

Still, the second way results in a somewhat unknowable Superman, and that doesn’t sit with the regular-guy picture of Clark. It fits better with the pre-Crisis model of a “Clark Kent” persona created and shaped by a being who knew at his core he was Kal-El. Under that way of thinking, Superman doesn’t really make “human” mistakes, even as Clark — he only makes mistakes resulting from approximations of human behavior.

That sounds a little extreme, doesn’t it? Probably so, and I would argue that regardless of the era, Jonathan and Martha Kent deserve a lot of credit for shaping Clark into a more socialized being. Otherwise you get true “approximations of humanity” like Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan or Supreme Power‘s Hyperion.

That, I think, is the subconscious difference between Superman and various other omnipotent comic-book figures — Superman relates to the public (and thus the reader), even as he hovers over them. If he is God, he’s the God of miracle and wonder, not an Old Testament deity desiring sacrifice and dispensing retribution. In that light, Superman Returns‘ notion that the world has learned to live without him takes on an extra layer of significance.

Not that I expect the movie to be so deep, mind you; but based on the trailer, who knows?


  1. Tommy,Isn’t there a line specifically about “I will send my son”?Superman as God is interesting–but I guess I saw the trailer making him out as a Christ-like figure. (Wait–wasn’t Jesus God? Shuttup.)That is, I’m curious as how the movie will touch upon the redemptive aspect of Superman–movies often address how the actions of superheros bring normal people to new heights of accomplishment (or, at the least, involvement.)So, through Superman, does the earth become a better place to live? And not just beause of his protection–but in saving the planet, we then save ourselves.I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with this.

    Comment by Mark Louderback — November 23, 2005 @ 3:45 pm

  2. [FYI: Mark gets to call me “Tommy” because he’s family. The rest of you … we’ll talk.]Mark, there’s some pretty explicit Christ-oriented language in the first Superman, including Jor-El’s line about “sending my son.” I’m not saying Supes can’t be seen as Jesus, but I didn’t want to get into the metaphor too deeply. For purposes of the essay, “New Testament God” was close enough.Besides, I’m pretty sure that Superman’s creators weren’t thinking about Jesus back in the ’30s when they were shopping him around to various publishers. He started out with more socially-conscious adventures, and started into the cosmic stuff several years later.

    Comment by Tom Bondurant — November 23, 2005 @ 6:06 pm

  3. I was struck by how dark and cheerless Metropolis was. As if everything went to hell after he left. I was somewhat put off by the teaser. I just don’t care for the Superman is God vibe, I suppose.

    Comment by Captain Qwert Jr — November 23, 2005 @ 7:53 pm

  4. Well, maybe it gets cheerier when he returns….

    Comment by Tom Bondurant — November 24, 2005 @ 1:50 am

  5. Actually, I’d say Captain America is pretty heavily defined by his moral code as well. It gives him, in the context of the Marvel Universe, the same sort of moral authority that Superman has by virtue of his in the DC universe. (To address Mark Louderback’s comment, Spiderman 2 had one of the very best scenes I’ve seen of the redemptive power of superheroes, in which Spidey has to save the subway car from going off the tracks, then has to be saved by the people in the train because he’s too worn to save himself.)

    Comment by Anonymous — November 25, 2005 @ 5:00 am

  6. In retrospect I agree about Cap, but I think it’s stronger with Superman. Now I feel compelled to re-read JLA/Avengers….

    Comment by Tom Bondurant — November 27, 2005 @ 5:49 pm

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