Superman is More Than A Fictional Hero

*mild spoilers ahead for those that have not seen “Man of Steel” *

A friend recently shared a music video with me that was created by one of her friends. In the video, the male artist sings the first verse while standing over a woman who is sitting down and whose hands are bound.  He sings aggressively and within centimeters of the restrained woman’s face as she wrestles with her bindings. By the second verse, the woman is freed and she dances for the artist. I told my friend that it was a nice-looking video but I wasn’t sure why she wanted to show me a video with such overt tones of male domination over women. She told me that I was over-thinking things and that the woman in the video clearly wanted the guy the whole time. Even on second viewing, I failed to see any indication that she wanted him and I told my friend that the video was yet one more entry in prevailing narratives that women will inevitably embrace men’s advances no matter how hard they might appear to be resisting. We walked away from the conversation agreeing to disagree.

I took the whole conversation as a reminder that I tend to judge media more harshly than many of my peers. So, when I recently walked out of a movie thinking that it had made a powerful statement about progressive manhood, then that’s something worth writing about. That’s what happened when I watched Man of Steel, the newest adaptation of Superman. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of depth from a big-budget, summer action movie, but I’m going to go ahead and say that the movie provided one of the best commentaries on contemporary manhood that I’ve seen in recent memory.

Granted I don’t go to the movies very often but hear me out.  Let me begin by saying that Superman’s fictional capabilities are such that you really cannot write a story about a more powerful being short of making a story about a god.  Because he is so immensely powerful (resistant to harm, super strong, and all that), many have commented that it’s awfully difficult to write a compelling story around Superman as he is never under any real threat of defeat. Many past writers have thus resorted to temporarily depowering him, giving him multiple or God-like adversaries, or internalizing his conflict in order to give him a challenge.

So, what does Hollywood decide to do with one of most powerful characters in American fiction?  They tell a story about restraint and the appropriate uses of strength. As Hollywood often does with its big-budget productions, subtlety is largely ignored in the film’s messaging.  The film beats you over the head with what you are supposed to be taking away but I’m a fan of what it’s trying to preach. There are many themes present in the film but much of Superman’s journey revolves around him determining the appropriate application of his abilities whether he is resisting the urge to squash a bully who is picking on him or being tempted to use his abilities to conquer the Earth.  His consistent response is that his strength is not to be used haphazardly or to harm others.  In fact, the only times that we see him use his abilities somewhat impulsively occur after those around him are threatened. I’m the first to throw stones at media outlets and their money grabbing, so let me give props to Hollywood for running with such a responsible theme for one of its summer blockbusters. Superman has often been portrayed as a boy scout of sorts but I don’t think too many of us would have been surprised to see corporate execs give him a “badass” remake for a new century and reimagine him as an unthinking powerhouse. They showed restraint just as their iconic character did.

Say what you want about the saturation of silly comic book movies in the summer movie scene but I’m starting to think that they are performing a valuable service to American boys. We can see other comic book-based franchises such as Spiderman and Batman also laying down a consistent position that we must give serious consideration to how we use our strength or we risk harming ourselves and others. This certainly seems to be an improvement over the action heroes that dominated my youth movie-going experiences. The good guys played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis also used violence to fight the bad guys but they were not nearly as introspective or as aware of how culture might push us to unconsciously use our strength for selfish purposes. There are consequences to many boys growing up without ever considering that there may be priorities beyond culture’s incessant urging to be “real” men who are tough, stoic, and powerful. Phenomenal rates of male-perpetrated violence are among them. If Superman and his other super-powered friends can get boys and young men thinking about rising above conformity to societal expectations, then he is not just a fictional hero who battles super-villains on screen but a hero who is helping to improve people’s lives in real life.

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