As I was walking into the theater to catch a Saturday evening show of Man of Steel, I happened to overhear a fellow moviegoer as he headed back to his car with his friends. Wearing the classic S-symbol across his chest, he loudly announced, “They just ruined the entire Superman saga! How could they?!” That was the first time – but certainly not the last – that I would run into that complaint.
Man of Steel has received decidedly mixed reviews since its opening almost a week ago. Critics on Rotten Tomatoes seem torn down the middle, with the film settling in the 50% range. Audiences seem slightly more positive, though I’ve still seen several arguments break out on my Facebook feed. Curiously enough, the main issues up for debate rarely seem to be about the actual quality of the film – story, visuals, or acting. Instead, most of them boil down to the debate over whether the film was true enough to the original films and comics.
The simple fact is that Man of Steel plays fast and loose with the original mythos, particularly for people that are most familiar with the films. Snyder borrows from the comics’ newer incarnations of Krypton and its inhabitants, expanding on the back-story of Jor-El and the doomed planet. As a result, Superman’s origins play much darker on the screen than in the Reeves’ films, exposing the ultimate failure of Kryptonian society. Furthermore, Clark becomes personally tied to the conflict created by Zod and ends up having to make a devastating choice in order to protect the people of Earth.
However, for all the changes that the filmmakers made from the source material and earlier films, Man of Steel is still clearly the Superman story. They haven’t gone completely off-book, instead enhancing and altering plot points to tell a Superman story that is appropriate for 2013. So why are fans so up in arms?
Perhaps it’s because as Americans, we grow up with a reverence for origin myths – particularly our own. The American Revolution, the story of our founding fathers, the legends of explorers and settlers of the great western frontier – these are all stories that stick with us, possessing an almost religious sense of reverence. We’ve seen what happens when these narratives are challenged with a re-telling. The story of Superman has become essentially another American myth – our pop art King Arthur. Throughout the political, social, and economic upheaval the country has experienced since his inception, Superman has remained a symbol of everything good that America strives to be. However, with his origins re-imagined as less than perfect and his role recast from moral exemplar to a man finding his way towards becoming that beacon, Man of Steel seems to have made audiences uncomfortable without knowing the reason why.
The America of today is perhaps best represented by Krypton. Political, social, and even environmental issues have come to a boiling point. Most of society feels that the leadership has failed to act in a satisfactory way. However, all hope is not lost. Out of all the chaos can rise a new hope who, learning from the mistakes of the past, can race forward into the sun. And I think that is a very time-appropriate message for an American people perfectly poised to create a new origin story.
This may be quite a grandiose metaphor to extrapolate from a simple comic book hero. Then again, isn’t that what we have always done with our most beloved characters?