It is fitting that the latest Superman movie, Man of Steel, opened the weekend of Father's Day, because the Christopher Nolan produced radical reboot of the franchise is largely concerned with the influence Superman's two fathers, Jor-El (on Krypton) and Jonathan Kent (on Earth).
It's an eye-popping spectacle, available in the standard movie format as well as in 3D and IMAX, if you don't mind driving to the nearest IMAX theatre. Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) directed the film, and his digital wizardry is on display in the film's climactic battle between Superman and Krypton villain General Zod.
Yes, the villain from the Richard Lester directed Superman II (1980) is back again in the film, once again emerging from the Phantom Zone to get revenge on the son of Jor-El, who banished him to the zone from Krypton before the planet exploded and Jor-El sent his son, Kal-El to Earth.
The film begins on Krypton, where Jor-El has discovered that the planet is about to be destroyed, and he and his wife send their son off to Earth, where he is discovered and raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, played perfectly by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane.
While the story of Clark growing up and learning about his powers is told in flashback, the film does a more realistic version of his days growing up in Smallville than the earlier Superman films. In one touching scene, young Clark as a child completely freaks out over his x-ray vision (which makes those around him appear as skeletons) and his super hearing, prompting him to lock himself in a closet until his Mother, Martha, appears and calms him down by telling him just to focus on her voice. It's a tender moment, more heartfelt than we saw in the earlier Christopher Reeve Superman movies.
While Henry Cavill's performance as Superman takes center stage for most of the movie, at its core Man of Steel focuses on Superman's two fathers, Jor-El (played byRussell Crowe) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). Costner is especially wonderful as Superman's adopted father, informing his son that “you're the answer to the question of whether we're alone in the universe.” His portrayal of Jonathan Kent recalls his role as a husband and father who builds a baseball field in a cornfield in Field of Dreams. While Crowe doesn't quite bring the star power that Marlon Brando brought to Christopher Reeve's Superman, he does a fine job as Jor-El, appearing later in the film as a hologram in Superman's Fortress of Solitude.
Like the Batman trilogy he directed and produced, Christopher Nolan's Man of Steel has little of the humor the earlier Superman films had, and is a definite improvement over the earlier sequel, Superman Returns, which wasn't successful enough to lead to sequels starring Brandon Routh. But with Man of Steel crushing the competition at the box office, with over $200 million in ticket sales (boosted by 3D and IMAX premium ticket prices) we're certain to see a second and likely a third movie helmed by Nolan and Snyder.
How much you enjoy Man of Steel probably has a lot to do with how Superman appeared in your life. Some are fans of the comics. Older moviegoers may remember listening to the Superman radio show in the 1940's or watching the Superman 1948 movie serial starring Kirk Alyn. For baby boomers, George Reeves played Superman in his first TV series during the 1950's before apparently taking his own life (although there is some evidence he was murdered).
There was also a Superboy TV series in the 80's, and Lois and Clark (starring Terri Hatcher and Dean Cain) a series that focused mostly on the characters' love story. Also Superman has appeared in cartoon form in series ranging from Superfriends and other Saturday morning cartoons, and more recently, Superman: The Animated Series.
Most recently young viewers were introduced to a different, younger Superman in the series Smallville, which ran for several seasons, taking Clark from a teenager learning about his powers, finally moving on to Metropolis where he became a “mild mannered reporter for the Daily Planet.”
So why has Superman inspired so many different versions, from comics, to radio and TV, feature films, animated series and licensed merchandise around the world? Truth be told, Superman is the original superhero in comics, the creation of two young men in Cleveland, Ohio, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster.
Superman first appeared in Action Comics in 1939, after about a decade of Siegel and Schuster attempting to find a publisher for their stories. They were influenced by Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling film heroes, and earlier heroes in comics and pulp fiction such as The Phantom, The Shadow, and Doc Savage.
A recent bestselling book on the history of the Man of Steel, Superman: The High Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero, relates the little known story of Jerry Siegel's father's death in June of 1932. The young Siegel was crushed by the loss of his father. Soon thereafter, while brainstorming comic strip ideas with Schuster, the duo came up with Superman. In an early story Superman saves a man during a robbery, standing in front of the would-be victim as the robber's bullets bounce harmlessly off his chest. It's difficult not to believe that Siegel was imagining a hero who could have saved his father, whose heart failed during a robbery.
In Superman's earliest stories, Superman was much different from the superhero he came to be known as. During the Depression years before World War II, Superman was a tireless crusader for social justice, battling criminals and averting disasters, but also battling slumlords and corrupt businessmen.
Much has been written about the Christian symbolism in Superman. Jor-El sends to Earth his only son, who like Christ is meant to help others and bring peace on earth. There is a bit of Moses in the story also.
The comic industry was in its infancy when Superman appeared on the cover of Action Comics #1 in 1939. So many American kids were asking for “that comic with Superman” that the ten-cent comic was soon bringing in millions of Depression era dollars for the publishers, National Periodicals, now known as DC Comics.
Siegel and Schuster signed a standard contract with their publishers, which gave the company the rights to publish and merchandise Superman for a few hundred dollars. Since the contract also paid handsomely for the work of Siegel and Schuster on the comic and a later newspaper comic strip, the two Cleveland boys were thrilled. ASaturday Evening Post article in the Forties estimated Siegel and Schuster were making about $30,000 a year, which may not seem like much, but in today's dollars it comes to about $220,000 a year, a fortune during the depression.
However, years later, when the superhero comics craze of the Forties died down after the war, the two creators became convinced they had been swindled, as they saw their employers become millionaires from the merchandising and comics sales. So began a battle over legal rights and profits from Superman that has lasted until today. Fortunately for Siegel and Schuster, although they lost almost all of their court battles, DC comics did eventually try to make things right by Superman's creators, giving them an annual salary and most importantly medical benefits, as both men's health faded in their later years. While Siegel and Schuster have died as well as their wives, their children are still battling in court to receive what they feel is fair compensation for the billion-dollar industry their fathers created.
DC Comics has done a masterful job of keeping Superman interesting and relevant over the last 75 years. In the comics, this has meant a series of retellings and revisions of Superman's origins. In 1986 writer/artist John Byrne's Man of Steel revised the story of Superman. Also in 1986 legendary comic writer Alan Moore gave us “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” in a two part story that ran in Superman and Action comics, giving a proper finale to the story by imagining the last part of Superman's life.
1992 brought the world “The Death of Superman”, as DC rocked the comics industry with Superman falling to the super villain Doomsday, before being brought back to life in four versions which were later resolved into one Superman, largely like the previous incarnations.
2003 brought Red Son, written by Mark Millar (Kick Ass), re-imagining Superman as if his rocket from Krypton had landed in the Soviet Union and not Smallville, Kansas.
In 2004 DC published “Birthright”, another retelling of the Superman story, this one penned by famed writer Mark Waid. This was the first time the emblem on Superman's chest was explained to be a symbol on Krypton, not an S standing for Superman. Man of Steel incorporates that element, when Lois Lane is interviewing Superman she asks what the S stands for and Superman responds that it stands for “hope” on his home planet.
One issue worth pointing out is that Man of Steel is not as kid and family friendly as the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. Man of Steel doesn't go for humor with Superman disguising himself as a clumsy and awkward Clark Kent. In fact, we don't even see him as a reporter for the Daily Planet, although we do get a new take on Perry White courtesy of Lawrence Fishburne. The onscreen violence isn't that much more intense than those in the Chris Reeve series of films, but it might be too graphic for very young viewers.
Much as Nolan did with Batman Begins in his Batman trilogy, Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer have crafted a movie that can entertain younger viewers while being a mature story for adults, without the goofiness and humor of the first Superman movie from 1978.
Readers interested in learning more about The Man of Tomorrow should read Superman: The High Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye (409 pages,Random House, 2012) and Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerald Jones (384 pages, Basic Books, 2004). The former is a look at how Superman was created and delves into his many incarnations in comic books and comic strips, radio (did you know Superman battled the Ku Klux Klan?), the various TV series, and the motion pictures. The latter is a more general look at how the comic book industry began, kickstarted by the introduction of Superman and Batman at National Publications.