So there appears to be some brouhaha over the newest trailer for Man of Steel. I have seen complaints about this on no less than 3 different political web sites, which seems a bit much for a trailer, but since they want to make a federal case over it, it should be pointed out that their case is baseless. Namely the problem seems to be with the following lines:
Lois Lane: What’s the “S” stand for?
Superman: It’s not an “S.” On my world it means “hope.”
Now the first complaint is that this is changing the story, where it has always stood for Superman. This is a silly claim, especially for a comic book movie, which is based on comic books that have been restarted so many times with so many variations D.C. comics actually had to come up with a storyline about multiple universes just to keep all the versions straight (still didn’t help). When you’re translating a story from one medium to another it’s pure insanity to think everything can remain the same. Further, yes you might be justifiably angry at those changes…but only if those changes make the story worse. The new Star Trek stripped all the good out of the original series and created a cheap sci-fi film that would never have gone anywhere without banking on the greatness of the original…so there bitching about the changes is justified. Conversely, Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy took the Batman story from a more simplistic action/detective comic and created one of the deepest most meaningful films ever made. Those changes made the story better, and so whining about purity of the original story is just bunk. Rewriting stories is a part of literature dating back to when Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides rewrote the works of Homer for stage, nobody in their right mind claims they ruined the stories. Now it may be that whatever changes Nolan and Snyder have made to the Superman myth in this film may make it better or worse, we’ll have to see, but change is not necessarily good or bad on its own.
The other reason this is silly (and keep in mind I’ve never read a Superman comic in my life, and even I could find this out easily) is that in terms of the meaning of the “S” they haven’t really changed anything. In the original film starring Christopher Reeve, the symbol stood for the House of El, the Kryptonian family that Superman is a part of. But what about the “Hope” thing? Apparently some on the Right are having knee-jerk reactions to the word and thinking that this is intended to be a reference to Obama. It’s not. This actually is taken directly from the 2004 comic Superman: Birthright written by Mark Waid (Obama had only come onto the national scene at the 2004 Democratic convention in July, the comic came out in September which means it was probably written well before July). I will shortly come back to why using Waid’s work as a basis for this movie is a very, very good thing.
Finally there are of course the constant complaints still going on about the line from the last movie “Find out if he still stands for Truth, Justice, all that stuff” and how the writers shoved away the phrase “the American Way” and the worry that this will still continue in this film (this of course ignores that the line came from Perry White, the most cynical character in the Superman universe who probably would find the phrase silly).
Well what is the American Way?
Contrary to what many believe, it has nothing to do with land, or resources, or economic success, or military prowess, or scientific achievement. America is America because of our ideals. The ideals of liberty, of meritocracy, that anyone can achieve by their own will. Or as I have stated before:
We’re the nation that fought to create a republic where the haves and have-nots gave equal measure. We’re the nation that fought our own citizens to free slaves. We’re the nation that pioneered capitalism and law that gave liberty and opportunity and progress to more people than any other country in history. We’re the place where “tired, the poor, the huddled masses” come to be energetic, successful and stand on their own feet. We’re the country that conquers whole nations so that others may be free then tries to rebuild them and then leaves without tribute or power. If you don’t think we’re the “shining city on the hill” you don’t know history, philosophy or human nature. We’re not perfect, we’re not always right, but we are consistently the nation that calls for the best in humanity to put down the worst.
The American way isn’t a habit, or a land, or a race, or even the citizens of this particular country, it is an ideal that believes the best in humanity can always rise above the worst in humanity, that the individual left to their own devices will rise to the pinnacle of achievement and not sink to the depth of depravity.
And just in this trailer alone, we see that way, that ideal.
We see it in Jor-El’s statement
What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended? What if a child aspired to something greater?
Are you going to tell me a line about how a single individual can rise above the shackles of whatever society throws on them, and achieve because of their own will and merit isn’t at the very heart of America?
Or perhaps Jonathan Kent’s:
I have to believe that you were sent here for a reason. And even if it takes the rest of your life, you owe it to yourself to find out what that reason is.
The belief that life has a purpose. It has been seen in philosophy since Aristotle, but it has never been realized until America. And this quest to find meaning is a personal one, “you owe it to yourself,” not one laden down with obligations to family, or clan, or religion, or state, or culture, or history or whatever other un-American claptrap other nations have followed.
Or perhaps we should go to first trailer, with another line from Jor-El
You will give the people 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.
Shining city on the hill anyone? The beacon of hope and light that America is supposed to be.
Oh I said “beacon of hope” which brings us back to the symbol and them taking that point from Mark Waid. This is important that they are drawing form Waid’s version. Why? I would direct you to an essay written by Waid in the book Superheroes and Philosophy entitled “The Real Truth About Superman and the Rest of Us, Too.” (It’s an excellent essay which you may want to read.)
The essay covers the thought process Waid went through when the head of D.C. asked him a simple question: “Why does Superman do what he does? Why doesn’t absolute power absolutely corrupt in his case?” He quickly found the stock answer of, because he’s Superman, to be unsatisfying to the employer who was hiring him to revitalize the franchise.
What follows is an argument that references two of my favorite philosophical beliefs.
The first is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Waid starts from the premise that even though an alien, he has the same needs in the same order as any human. Physical needs then Safety needs then Emotional Needs then Achievement needs then finally the need for Self Actualization. (You’ll find that the American beliefs in liberty and capitalism parallel this order of needs quite well). Now for Superman, the first two, physical and safety need, aren’t an issue at all. So that leaves emotional, achievement and self actualization needs. Now he might gain some emotional connections by just being mild mannered Clark Kent, but certainly not achievement or self actualization. Which then comes to a question of how much does he need to achieve…and this is where Waid turns to another idea, a quote in fact (which I’m hoping against hope will make it into the movie):
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” [Italics on the last part added]
It is the realization that Superman is who he is because to do anything less would not lead to his Happiness, and that a central theme of the story has always been that we should all strive to the edge our abilities, as Kal-El does, not just to help others achieve their goals (You will help them accomplish wonders) but to also achieve our own Happiness (you owe it to yourself).
So this is why I’m happy they are pulling from Waid, with the concept of Superman being a symbol of hope, the city on the Hill, because it places the whole story in a very strong and correct footing of spiritual values and Aristotelian virtue based ethics.
Now while Waid, or Marianne Williamson who first wrote this in her book A Return to Love: Reflections on A Course in Miracles, don’t make the connection, it is only through the American Way of personal liberty and personal achievement that we achieve the heights of shining our brightest. So I feel the need to again point out, that the American Way is being championed in this movie already, whether they say the words or not.
Now, no one has seen this film yet, so it could either suck or make the Dark Knight Rises look like an F film student’s half-hearted attempt…or anything in between. I am merely pointing out that the complaints based only on this trailer are completely unfounded. This movie appears to appeal to the best in this story, the core ideals that have let it rise above whatever flaws have plagued the various incarnations over the years.