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Let's Rush to Judgment: 'Man of Steel'

Last summer, the first trailer for Zack Snyder's upcoming big red reboot of the Superman film franchise, Man of Steel, was all about hiding its light under a bushel. Of crabs.

It looked a hell of a lot more like Deadliest Catch than you'd expect, is my point. So much so that you'd be forgiven for wondering if the film's villain might turn out to be a malevolent Alaskan snow crab. ("Kneel before Zod!" it would hiss, extending the claw of his right cheliped for the President to plant one on.)

Look, it's Snyder. It could happen. You saw Sucker Punch? You didn't? Well just trust me: you can't put even despotic Kryptonian crustaceans past this guy.

Plus, the only glimpse we got of our hero in all his primary-colored glory was from a great distance, a tiny figure streaking up through the atmosphere.

On the surface, a pretty weak (tartar) sauce, that first trailer.

And yet ... There was Jor-El's dialogue ("You will give the people an ideal to strive towards...") closely paraphrasing Grant Morrison's incredible and indelible All-Star Superman mini-series.

And there was that brief image of Clark as a young boy, running through his back yard with a towel wrapped around his neck. Then, in a tighter shot, we saw him standing with his feet apart. And resting his fists on his hips.


That was it. That was The Shot. That was the pose millions of kids have been striking for 74 years. It was the character reduced to his essence. It was a madeleine cookie of nerddom, packed with a potent, iconic, pre-verbal power to send a certain subset of the population caroming back to our own childhood backyards, our own poorly tied bathtowels. That fleeting glimpse was enough for hope to persist.

Now yes, granted, it was a wild, desperate hope. A hope capable of facing down Sucker Punch, which let's just agree is some strong-ass hope indeed.

And now comes the second trailer.

"The World's Too Big, Mom"

We see an adult, beardy Clark floating underwater, remembering his mother's advice to him when he was a boy as he struggled with what seems to be the sudden onset of his super-senses. The voice of Diane Lane's Ma Kent proves to be his lifeline out of the riot of sounds and color - a human connection strong enough to help him contain and control his alien abilities.

Superman's writers have historically depicted him coming into his powers gradually, as he ages. (Both Smallville and Geoff Johns/Gary Frank mini-series Superman: Secret Identity followed the X-Men "super-powers as secondary sex characteristics" conceit. Though of course Clark can't just hide the heat vision that suddenly manifests upon kissing Lana behind his Mead Trapper Keeper, if you follow me.)

"He Saw What Clark Did"

A slightly older Clark saves a schoolbus from going all Sweet Hereafter, and we hear the mother of one of his schoolmates trying to keep it together even as her voice frays with fear - a nice touch there, I think.

Enter: Parental concern over Clark's future. For decades, it's been handled as a mere plot point, a box to be checked, the inciting action that gets him to develop the Superman persona.

But here, in a move that will likely prove controversial among die-hard fans, Kevin Costner's Pa Kent is visibly shaken by the terrible FACT of his adopted son, and the prospect of what will happen to him if he is exposed.

"What was I supposed to do," Clark asks, "let them DIE?"

"...Maybe," Pa says.

Okay, whoa. Let's stop here for second.

For decades, Pa and Ma Kent have been portrayed as salt-of-the-earth types, fonts of homespun wisdom, simple country folk whose Midwestern values shape Clark into the man he becomes. They were roles, touchpoints, spouters of homilies that teach humility and forbearance. They were the flat characters, and that's fine: all stories need flat characters who exist to delineate and define the main character.

But ... what if they weren't?

And what if the story didn't summarily dispense with them once they'd inculcated Clark with their aw-shucksian worldview? What if instead they struggled with conflicts of their own, conflicts that continued to color Clark's perceptions into his adulthood?

And what if Clark's decision to face the world despite his father's fears and misgivings (which seem to be vindicated, by all those shots of the military targeting him, handcuffing him, etc.) wasn't simply a part of the character's backstory, but the question that drives the action?

It's an area the films have avoided, though the comics have addressed it in various ways. In Jeph Loeb/Tim Sales mini-series Superman: Man For All Seasons, Pa Kent struggles with his fear about what his son would become, and both Mark Waid/Leinil Yu's Superman: Birthright and the Johns/Frank Secret Origin, as well as Smallville, all toyed with the notion that Pa Kent, at least, might feel paternal jealousy about his son's Kryptonian heritage.

So seeing Costner's helpless "...Maybe" in the trailer? Is at the very least interesting, and perhaps even ... that rarest of commodities, when one is dealing with the 6th cinematic treatment of a character who's saturated the planet's collective consciousness over the course of his 74-year lifespan — dare I say it? --


Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.

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