Man of Steel and the American Mythos

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? man1

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?

Caitlin Orr

Caitlin Orr

A southern native, I graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2013 with a bachelor's degree in Media Arts. Over the past several years I've had the opportunity to write and shoot a number of short films. My biggest passions are writing and talking about movies with anyone who will sit still long enough to listen - something my family and friends can attest to! Some of my favorite filmmakers include Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick, and Wes Anderson. Now located in Nashville, you can usually find me in my off hours hiking, baking, or watching more movies.

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  • Eric H

    I think this is a good point and one that’s largely overlooked. It definitely captured the “spirit” of the Superman tale.

  • Eric H

    I think this is a good point and one that’s largely overlooked. It definitely captured the “spirit” of the Superman tale.

  • thisgirltv

    Also, keep in mind that in the movie, Superman questions whether he can trust the people of Earth. Before, he was a champion of Earth, now he is just a champion of good and that means that he may not always be on Earth’s side in things. I think there was something missing from the movie. It doesn’t have the same “something” that made the first Spiderman, Ironman, The Avengers, etc. so good to me, but as a film, it hits some really good notes. I imagine we will like it better once it’s in trilogy format.

    • jrjacobs24

      I think the fact that he originally questions whether or not he can trust mankind is a perfect addition to this film. People often tend to think about Superman strictly in his hokey incarnations (like that of the original Superman films), where he is simply a boyscout who never has any moral struggles or dilemmas.Set aside the preconceived notions about Superman and take into account the situation Superman was presented in the film. Until the events in the film, he believed he was the only one left of the Kryptonian race, but suddenly more survivors appear and begin talking about rebuilding his home world. He’s also been raised to be wary of how people would perceive him and handle the truth about who he is. He’s often been mistreated by humans and often the outcast. Poised in this situation, questioning whom to trust is simply the characteristic of a believable character. Think about it, we often have to discover for ourselves the differences between right and wrong. We learn from our experiences in order to decide who we want to become (a theme often addressed in the film). If Superman faced no moral dilemma and therefore didn’t have to step out on a leap of faith, his trust in the human race would be nowhere near as meaningful. Also, by choosing to take a leap of faith by trusting humans, he did what the humans could not. In the film, Superman believed without seeing, however, the humans had to see that Superman could be trusted in order to trust them. Adding his moral dilemmas is one of the best things about this film. Since now we have seen him learn to become a superhero, I have a feeling we will start to see more of the morally unwavering Superman that we are used to in the remainder of the trilogy.

      • thisgirltv

        I agree. One of the best things about this movie was watching Supe deal with the struggles and moral dilemmas placed before him. I think it is the thing that will make this incarnation good for us.

  • thisgirltv

    Also, keep in mind that in the movie, Superman questions whether he can trust the people of Earth. Before, he was a champion of Earth, now he is just a champion of good and that means that he may not always be on Earth’s side in things. I think there was something missing from the movie. It doesn’t have the same “something” that made the first Spiderman, Ironman, The Avengers, etc. so good to me, but as a film, it hits some really good notes. I imagine we will like it better once it’s in trilogy format.

    • jrjacobs24

      I think the fact that he originally questions whether or not he can trust mankind is a perfect addition to this film. People often tend to think about Superman strictly in his hokey incarnations (like that of the original Superman films), where he is simply a boyscout who never has any moral struggles or dilemmas.Set aside the preconceived notions about Superman and take into account the situation Superman was presented in the film. Until the events in the film, he believed he was the only one left of the Kryptonian race, but suddenly more survivors appear and begin talking about rebuilding his home world. He’s also been raised to be wary of how people would perceive him and handle the truth about who he is. He’s often been mistreated by humans and often the outcast. Poised in this situation, questioning whom to trust is simply the characteristic of a believable character. Think about it, we often have to discover for ourselves the differences between right and wrong. We learn from our experiences in order to decide who we want to become (a theme often addressed in the film). If Superman faced no moral dilemma and therefore didn’t have to step out on a leap of faith, his trust in the human race would be nowhere near as meaningful. Also, by choosing to take a leap of faith by trusting humans, he did what the humans could not. In the film, Superman believed without seeing, however, the humans had to see that Superman could be trusted in order to trust them. Adding his moral dilemmas is one of the best things about this film. Since now we have seen him learn to become a superhero, I have a feeling we will start to see more of the morally unwavering Superman that we are used to in the remainder of the trilogy.

      • thisgirltv

        I agree. One of the best things about this movie was watching Supe deal with the struggles and moral dilemmas placed before him. I think it is the thing that will make this incarnation good for us.

  • http://culturemass.com/tech-science Nate Humphries

    I haven’t seen it yet, but this gives me another reason to watch it. I’m actually okay with original stories being redone, so long as it’s redone well (cf. Star Trek reboot). Sounds like in this case, it just might’ve been!

  • http://culturemass.com/tech-science Nate Humphries

    I haven’t seen it yet, but this gives me another reason to watch it. I’m actually okay with original stories being redone, so long as it’s redone well (cf. Star Trek reboot). Sounds like in this case, it just might’ve been!