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These days do we really need a Man of Steel?

By Arthur P. Shimamura

As a child, I encountered the Man of Steel in the Adventures of Superman, the 1950s TV series that I watched as morning reruns a decade later. My Superman was “faster than a speeding bullet” and fought for “truth, justice and the American way.” My 26-year-old son, Thomas, encountered a similarly invincible superhero in Superman: The Movie, the 1978 blockbuster which starred Christopher Reeve. Truth be told, neither of us are avid readers of the Superman comics, in which his backstory and demeanor has been remodeled over the years to align more closely with a changing culture. As we watched this year’s reboot, Man of Steel, in glowing IMAX 3D there was certainly delight in seeing a familiar action hero, though we both left the theater trying to figure out why the movie was so disappointing.

Henry Cavill, Superman
Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel. (c) Warner Bros / DC Comics.

The problem with Superman is that he is too powerful, too righteous. These days we tend to prefer our heroes with a troubled past who must overcome their dark side for the greater good. Can we identify with an omnipotent, squeaky clean, patriotic superhero after having been through decades in which our political and sports heroes have been guilty of illegal activities, sex scandals, and other gross moral ineptitudes? Hollywood’s answer is to endow this new Superman with significant angst. In fact, a considerable amount of the movie is devoted to detailing a backstory which first introduces an antagonist, General Zod, who himself is not all bad (his prime motive is to secure a place where he can resurrect the people of planet Krypton by cloning the genetic material that Superman holds). We are then presented with flashbacks of Clark Kent’s childhood, which is filled with anxiety about the way humans might react if they find out that he’s an alien, perhaps locking him up out of fear (in this way we have a reconstitution of Spielberg’s E.T. storyline). Worried each time he displays his superpowers, Clark Kent wanders from job to job not knowing exactly what to do with his life.

This setup is entertaining as it gives some depth to the young Superman. We have a troubled superhero who doesn’t feel comfortable about his powers. We are also introduced to a modern day Lois Lane, as well as our villain who wants to create a new Krypton society on Earth, albeit by way of removing all traces of the human race (interestingly, one could make an analogy between General Zod’s evil quest and manifest destiny or any other imperialist venture). The rest of the movie boils down to a rather boring battle between Superman and Zod. The problem is that the two are virtually indestructible. They end up merely pushing each other around, thus destroying in their wake everything around them, which includes skyscrapers, cars, trains, and an unfortunately situated IHOP. We don’t see anyone severely hurt, but from the material devastation it is clear that many have died just by having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact, this is the problem: it is not our fight. Just as those poor souls in the cars, trains, and skyscrapers, we are just unwilling observers.

In the end, the movie is somewhat successful in creating a more personable, more vulnerable Superman. The problem is not Superman’s overpowering strength but instead our complete impotence. For a movie to work psychologically, we need to feel a part of the story, we need the issues to be relevant, and we need to rally behind our hero. During the long, drawn-out brawl between Superman and Zod, rather than identifying with our hero, I felt as if I were at a bar where two guys argue and start pushing each other around. I kept wanting to say, “Why don’t you two take your fight to some desolate planet and leave us alone?”

Art Shimamura is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and faculty member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. He studies the psychological and biological underpinnings of memory and movies. He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 which led him to study links between art, mind, and brain. He is editor of Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies, and the author of Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder. Further musings can be found on his Psychocinematics blog.

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Recent Comments

  1. Alejandro A

    My same reactions. I wanted to love this movie and I certainly don’t think its terrible but its not great. The movie loses itself in the third act and instead of becoming something inspiring it becomes something conflicting. What gave me high expectations for this movie was the third trailer. The stirring music, the message of hope, overcoming obstacles, and becoming something inspirational but it didn’t happen in the movie.

  2. Sunny James

    I saw the new superman & was very disapointed the movie spent too much time on Kypton & too long of fighting scenes & not enough time building the right kind of story & relationships between the main characters very disappointed in this film could have done more with less effects & superman isnt about a muscle bond guy walking around without a shirt!!!

  3. Sonny Crockett

    Maybe it’s your attatchment to the brilliant Christopher Reeve in 1978 that makes you feel this way…and I, like you, hearken back to the Adventures Of Superman with George Reeves being my all-time favorite (the black and white episodes with Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane being the best). But the time is now and the Superman in Man Of Steel is a fearful, angst-filled, anxious and RELATABLE character. The Man Of Tomorrow, today, just like us, for us. Thankfully, we can finally bury in the deep recesses of pleasant memories, the silver-age,Chris Reeve, “Luthor, you snake!”, campy and out of reach Superman for this Man Of Steel. This Man Of Steel who hits back hard to protect what he loves. This Man Of Steel questions his existance and maintains ALL the core values in him that we loved from the very begining. We created the mess of what the world’s become and THIS Man Of Steel is the result, finally. All that, and it was just simply the best action/comic-genrefilm I’ve ever seen….
    Sonny Crockett

  4. Manny

    Yes we need a Superman. Every generation does. The moment you wrote that neither you nor your son follow Superman stories, I knew all the negative, ignorant stuff you were going to say. People like you are stuck in 1950 or 1978. These isn’t grandpa’s Superman. And just like you enjoyed your version of Superman, you should give the same courtesy to today’s fans and audience. This article stinks big time gramps.

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