Beneath The Red Pants: Superman Deconstructed

(Hi! While I do a bit of piecemeal work for these guys I’ll be providing very lame essays like the one below. As usual, the aim is to argue a point and illustrate it with random images. Enjoy.)
The eponymous target of Tarantino’s Kill Bill is known for having said that “Superman is the man. Clark Kent is the costume”. The impending release of Man of Steel has prompted a flurry of fan speculation; will we, finally, get a Superman who fits the bill? After the relative disappointments of Superman III, Superman IV : The Quest For Peace and Superman Returns, some fans are firmly of the opinion that a good Superman film will never be made. Superman, it might be said, is a difficult character to film. In contrast to the massive successes of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and the Iron Man franchise, Superman films have historically under-performed since Superman II. Maybe, fans argue, the character doesn’t work.
Rather like Superman's Metropolis. Great idea. Terrible comic.

Rather like Superman’s Metropolis. Great idea. Terrible comic.

You could say that this relates directly to Kill Bill and, to a lesser extent, to The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Superman is, lest we forget, not a man at all. The last son of Krypton is a refugee of another world, divorced from his homeworld and the culture of his parents. His adjustment is one of degrees, and the story of Superman’s childhood is always that of a boy coming to terms with his outside-ness and his otherness. He has, in effect, to learn to be human. Unlike The Dark Knight arc or the story of Iron Man, Superman does not start as a man. He starts as a monster.
There's absolutely no context to this picture.

There’s absolutely no context to this picture.

The distinction is a serious and important one: whereas Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne are human beings and, to a degree, susceptible to personal weakness, their stories are ones that invite empathy. As Stark deals with the dual burdens of celebrity and superpower, or Wayne pursues his goals at the expense of his personal life, we see the duality of the human condition: the pressures of ideals that conflict with feelings. Aldous Huxley once said that “man is an intelligence enslaved to his organs”, and the story of Batman or Iron Man are constructed around that premise. Iron Man has to protect his loved ones and his business from terrorists and rivals, Batman has to give up everything: his good name, his love life, even his family home in the pursuit of ultimate justice. Their struggle to overcome their selfish desires in search of higher goals is the essence of their story. We know that Stark’s Iron Man suit is a shield between him and the world, a constructed mechanism that precludes human contact. We know that Batman’s mystique and devotion to his work preclude any kind of happy ever after. We know this, and we love them. They are human. They are weak. They are real. This is why Batman and Iron Man work on a cinematic level: we empathise with them because they are human. We feel a kinship with these men playing gods, because they stumble and fall along the way to greatness. In their struggle we see our own: the human struggle of the day-to-day, balancing dreams and ideologies with the practicalities of harsh reality.
In another time and place I argued that Superman was a dick because he used his powers in the pursuit of an ultimate ideology : the ideology of good. Good, as opposed to justice, is a subjective concept that is defined by the concepts of the proponent. I’ve since come to realise that Superman simply doesn’t understand that. He doesn’t get that “good” often isn’t good at all: the law of unintended consequences makes it so. He doesn’t understand that “truth, justice and the American way” is not the way at all. It is the way he’s appropriated. In his pursuit of a pseudo-humanity, Superman has constructed an elaborate fantasy of what being human is. He is a consummate actor. Just as Clark Kent is a constructed costume, Superman’s ideal is constructed from the little he understands about mankind. He remains a counterfeit human being.
In the context of a movie that merely serves to distance him from the audience. Brandon Routh’s portrayal in Superman Returns is a perfect example of this: while he fits the bill as the hero, as the man he elicits no sympathy. He might appear vaguely distressed than, in his absence, Lois Lane has married and had a child, but he is too much the costumed hero to be the man, and the man is what we want to watch. The Superman of this film is too consummately bulletproof to like. When he soars above the clouds, he expresses no humanising elation.  Even wounded by Kryptonite he elicits no feeling of kinship in the audience: in fact, you could say that he doesn’t suffer enough to be likeable. The perverse nature of mankind means we like those who suffer most: a case of infracaninophilia that serves as a cornerstone of our psychology. 
I really like this picture for all sorts of sick and twisted reasons.

I really like this picture for all sorts of sick and twisted reasons.

The closest Superman comes to being human (and something that gives me hope for Man of Steel) is when he comes up against a force greater than himself; in the case of Superman II, General Zod, a fellow Kryptonian. As Superman makes himself more human in an attempt to understand humanity, Zod is the archetype of the alien overlord: a villain with no regard for those he intends to subjugate. Superman’s struggle here is the fight of a person limited by his morals against an equal with no such limitations. Superman II brings us closest to what it means to be human, or to be an underdog, and what it requires to overcome that. Superman wins the day not with superior strength, but with ingenuity, and that can be understood in human terms. For once Superman is rendered likable and human, not because he’s the best, but because he isn’t. 
In fact, the supremacy of Superman, intrinsic as it is to his mythology, is a major weakness. The most approachable of gods and immortal spirits in antiquity were those that failed, or suffered. Superman always wins: his abilities, which grow and shrink with each writer, always fluctuate to match the challenge ahead of him. Whereas the Heracles of Greek mythology was an approachable figure because his tasks were not all completed successfully, Superman is a different kind of demi-god: a demi-god who will always win, will always survive, and will always be around. Nor is Superman, unlike Arachnia, a boastful god, or a disobedient god like Prometheus. Superman is not only supremely powerful but also supremely good (in his limited conception of the word). In short, that makes him boring.
If Zack Snyder can overcome the immense limitations of the character of Superman – to humanize him and make him real – then Man of Steel might not only be the superhero movie of the year, but one of the best of the decade.
I’m not holding my breath, though.

43 responses to “Beneath The Red Pants: Superman Deconstructed

  1. I apologize for the snarky comment, but I can’t resist:

    This wasn’t what I expected from a post entitled “Beneath the Red Pants.”

    But seriously, congrats on being freshly pressed.

  2. Yeah, I always did dislike Superman because his biggest problem was getting Lois Lane to like Clark Kent. If this movie could introduce some new problems in his life and make him more believable and likeable, that would be great.

  3. Great reading. Very insightful. Over the weekend I read RED SON – cited as an inspiration for the MAN OF STEEL script – and it’s a perfect example of what you’re saying about the subjectivity of goodness.

    I think this also speaks volumes about why THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN was so wildly popular. Whether it’s a product of sympathy or sour grapes, it definitely resonates a hell of a lot more than the standard Superman story.

    • Red Son is my favourite superman story!…and a big part of the inspiration for this post. That superman appropriates pre-existing notions of good is fundamental to his character – he’s a mimic of human values. Which is all sorts of scary, really.

  4. I am continually intrigued by the trailers for Man of Steel, which make it look like an art film – contrasted with the National Guard/Man of Steel crossover trailer I saw the other day where US Citizens are encouraged to be as super as Superman…
    This has been said many times, but it is true – a hero is only as great as his enemy, which is why General Zod makes Superman II work. Without the hero getting the snot beat out of him, its difficult to care.

    • This is precisely it – if superman is going to fight someone, it either needs to be an equal or a stupid, physically-superior enemy. The reason most of the Lex Luthor films fail is they rely on gimmicky conceits, like kryptonite or nuclear bombs, with the central failing being that superman could beat Luthor with a piece of rubber tubing until he confessed.

  5. Love your deconstruction. I’ve always had the opinion that Superman was the most boring of all superheros. I’d love to have his powers, but as a character I find him tedious. You’ve explained exactly how I feel far more eloquently than I ever could have. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

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  7. The problem with the filming of Superman in contrast to the comics or animations is the Jesus complex! Most of the modern actors who play Superman slip into Jesus mode and bore the audience with their “Jesus Complex” there is never a real sense of danger as the audience know that Superman can not be killed! If he dies so does the movie franchising.

    Also the lack of romance in Clark Kent and Superman’s life and the fact that they both live double lives is not popular with most people. Most people associate Superman as a weird guy with something to hide, in todays society most women find this a turn-off leaving a minority of young boys who are die hard fans of the film.

    This is why I think the film concept doesnt work. They should give him a supergirlfriend or make him gay!

  8. This article was a great read, and congratulations on being freshly pressed, I’m about to write my own superman article, picture yours but with more superman-worshipping and also more grammatical errors =)

  9. I learned from a documentary that “and the American Way” was added later to “Truth, Justice” as political propaganda. We were meant to understand that USA’s power was super. but could trust it. And I learned from Quentin Tarantino that King Kong symbolized black male sexuality. We could never trust it. So, how to make a character who never uses his X-Ray vision to peep under underwear sympathetic? Superman’s weakness is ultimately a failure in acting ability- his inability to perfectly mimic a person. In that regard he is a great hero for psychopaths.

    • Actually the strap-line “truth, justice and the American way” was invented for the superman radio plays of the 40s. But I take your point, it’s hard to imagine he’d never use his powers for a little evil on the side. That would make a good show, actually.

    • I will keep my fingers crossed as well for the movie coming out. I just feel that they should make Clark Kent a little more interesting. I know the director cannot just make up anything, but there has to be something. However he could potentially marry Louis Lane and have a son on the way. Things like that would make his character interesting, because he would have to make an adjustment for the sake of his family and the world.

  10. Great read, I am a fan of Superman and am suprised that the films were not rebooted sooner. I was also a fan of Smallville (Although I felt it went on three seasons too long) I liked the idea of a young superman discovering his powers and learning to deal with them in the harsh reality of the teenage years. Having to hold back when you want to be the big football star etc. I am looking forward to Man of Steel and like you hope that Henry Cavill will fit the bill. The trailers certainly seem darker.

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  13. Interesting viewpoint. There have been a few stories that have accented his humanity and fallibility successfully. The most obvious one that springs to mind is Kingdom Come. But even in that story it starts with his essential viewpoint being seriously flawed.

    • Kingdom Come was a great story for those reasons. Yeah, it has been covered to a degree in comics, which allow for multiple viewpoints, but in film it’s a different story…

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