It is no accident that Man of Steel, the latest Superman movie, is opening on Father’s Day weekend. Television shows and movies based on Superman have always reflected America’s zeitgeist, but Man of Steel goes deeper into questioning America’s identify by examining the values that Superman-and thus, America-was raised with. As an inwardly directed memoir that illuminates our political conflicts, Man of Steel might as well have been called Dreams of Superman’s Fathers.
Hollywood directors with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars probably don’t set out to tell political allegories. J.J. Abrams, for example, likely did not tell the team of writers behind Star Trek Into Darkness to give him a script that helped Americans come to terms with the war against terrorism and Guantanamo Bay, but that’s what moviegoers saw.
And when you’re dealing with a character who exemplifies “truth, justice and the American way,” directors can’t avoid drawing political parallels when bringing the man of steel to the big screen.
The Christopher Reeve era neatly reflected the yearning for a simpler, stronger America. In Superman II, our hero unilaterally disarmed to pursue the love of a feminist only to leave America unguarded against foreign aggressors with otherworldly power. Superman being told to kneel before Zod made the case for a nuclear arms race as well as Ronald Reagan ever did.
Superman Returns told the story of an America abandoned by Superman to an America that had forgotten its highest ideals. America was bogged down in foreign wars, losing its standing in the world, and running its economy on excessive credit. The villain Lex Luthor had become a rapacious real estate developer who put a beating on Superman that looked as bad as Americans felt about their country. As a self-assessment, Superman Returns nailed it. As a commercial venture, the movie flopped.
Now comes the birther Superman, a foreigner upsetting the social order. If Superman Returns depicted America in need of a savior, Man of Steel asks whether America is ready for one. Even the S on his chest becomes a metaphor for our contemporary political conflicts and how we project our desires onto heroes.
“What’s the S stand for?” asks Amy Adams’ character while interrogating Superman under armed guard.
“It’s not an S. On my world, it means hope,” Superman says.
“Well here it means S. How about super?” she says.
Can we assume this Superman is a stand-in for Barack Obama? Yes we can. Though the character Zod is reprised in Man of Steel, Superman is the outsider this time. Upon sending him toward Earth from the doomed planet Krypton, his mother Lara worries, “He’ll be an outcast.”
“How?” asks Jor-El, his father. “He’ll be a god to them.”
Jor-El can’t get past the image of his son’s superiority and the progress that promises to humanity.
“You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders,” he tells his son.
But we live in an age of unbalanced Newtonian politics, when progress causes an outsized and disproportionate reaction, something Superman learns from his Iowa farmer stepfather
“My father believed if the world found out who I really was, they’d reject me. He was convinced that the world wasn’t ready,” says Superman. “What do you think?”
The image of Superman in handcuffs will drive other interpretations, especially amid revelations about electronic monitoring that make America seem more like a modern police state than the land of the free. But the question of whether the world is ready for Superman-whether America is ready for progress-is one we never stop asking.
How we achieve progress in the face of reactionary opposition is a question we may never answer. Likewise, we haven’t figured out how to balance our government’s exercise of super powers in the name of security with our values of liberty and transparency. But we tell the story of Superman over and over again because we believe this is possible. That is the audacity of Superman.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JasStanford.