We are currently witnessing a new golden age of the superhero genre. Since the early 2000s Hollywood has produced over fifty high-profile superhero films that have generated billions at the box office and have been embraced by a new generation of comics fans. But as I suggested last summer in my review of The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises (“There’ll Be No Shelter Here!”), and Dan Hassler-Forest has established more forcefully in his book Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age (Zero Books, 2012), the recent spate of superhero films is in need of radical critique. Hassler-Forest argues that modern superhero films are in fact some of the “clearest articulations of the many contradictions, fantasies, and anxieties” of neoliberal capitalism (p3). To sum up Hassler-Forest’s main points: superhero films are often a-historical, patriarchal, and obsessed with end-of-the world disaster/terrorist narratives which assert that there are no alternatives to capitalism. The new Superman film Man of Steel is no exception. Reviewing Man of Steel in light of Hassler-Forest’s ideas can contribute to a much-needed critical conversation about today’s golden age of superhero films.
In contrast to Christopher Nolan’s dark and pessimistic “Dark Knight” Batman trilogy, the makers of Man of Steel claim that their spin on Superman offers audiences a great deal of hope. In the film Superman has rugged good looks, incorruptible principles, and otherworldly powers, and, most importantly, provides the people of earth with “an ideal to strive for.” Mid-way through the film Superman (Henry Cavill) even explains to Lois Lane (Amy Adams) that on his home planet of Krypton the infamous “S” on his chest literally means “hope.”
Yet despite its optimistic rhetoric, Man of Steel provides little real hope for those living in today’s troubled world. Instead, Man of Steel, like other recent superhero films (e.g. The Avengers, Iron Man 3, etc.), ultimately reinforces many problematic ideals and beliefs underwriting the current neoliberal capitalist age. While superhero films like Man of Steel are entertaining, in order to buy the message of hope that such films are selling audiences must ignore their deeply problematic political messages that normalize our neoliberal world. Indeed, as Michael Chabon states in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the heyday of American comics, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, “every golden age is as much a matter of disregard as of felicity” (p325). Thus, a review of Man of Steel offers an opportunity to critically analyze the film itself as well as the political implications of the recent golden age of superhero films more generally.
The origin story of Superman in Man of Steel will be familiar enough to most audiences. Kal-El (a.k.a. Superman) is actually an alien refugee from the soon-to-be-destroyed planet Krypton; he was sent to earth by his parents Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van in an attempt to save him and the vestiges of Kryptonian civilization; Kal-El’s ship crash-lands in Kansas and he is subsequently rescued and raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent as a regular American boy named Clark Kent. As Clark grows older he can no longer contain his mysterious powers or his desire to discover his true identity and he eventually learns to embrace his superhuman gifts. Superman then decides to use his powers for good to defend humans against the tyrannical General Zod (a Krypton survivor played by Michael Shannon) who is bent on wiping out all of humanity. Amongst these major plot points, however, are many troubling scenes that, to focus only on a few, erase America’s history of colonialism to portray it as a victim, normalize patriarchal power, and support disaster capitalism by tapping into post 9/11 trauma.
Whether intentionally or not Man of Steel de-historicises America’s bloody history of colonialism. As Superman is learning how to harness his powers and contemplates giving into General Zod’s evil plans, Superman experiences a dream that depicts what could happen if he chose to use his powers for evil. In this dream Zod explains that “a foundation [for a new Kryptonian civilization on earth] must be built” on human extinction, as Superman sinks into a pit of skulls symbolizing human genocide. After waking from this dream Superman refuses to join Zod and instead chooses to protect humans and his fellow Americans. This scene effectively establishes America as a helpless victim—as an innocent country with no sordid history—worthy of Superman’s help, and, in doing so, white-washes America’s genocide against Indigenous peoples and its history of slavery. In reality America more closely followed Zod’s plan of extermination to build a new society; the very foundations of America are drenched with the blood of Indigenous peoples who were forcibly removed from their homes and gunned down by the US Army during the “Indian Wars” of the nineteenth century. Man of Steel ignores this messy historical reality to help audiences claim a clear sense of victimhood necessary to rationalize Superman’s choice to save America.
Man of Steel also reinforces troubling patriarchal gender norms. Like Batman, Spider-Man, and Iron Man, Superman is driven to re-establish the power and authority of his dead fathers, Jor-El and Jonathan Kent. His search for identity follows a stereotypical path of masculine self-discovery which leads him to being muscular, handsome, and popular with women, all assets that help him to secure his legitimacy as earth’s true saviour. Moreover, Lois Lane is initially portrayed as a strong, independent character, but, ultimately, Superman must save her in the end, and he even claims her as a trophy in the conclusion. Superman achieves transcendence by saving the world while Lane gets a boyfriend. Man of Steel is another example of the frustratingly conservative gender politics of most popular superhero films.
Lastly, Man of Steel plays into the familiar trope of foreign terrorists attacking a major American city—in this case Metropolis is a thinly veiled stand-in for New York City. The concluding scenes show Zod’s army invading Metropolis and people running for their lives amidst chaos and destruction in the city’s streets. These scenes will be immediately recognizable and relatable to most audiences in the post 9/11 era. Once again, America is depicted as an innocent victim of terror in a way that allows audiences to cheer for Superman’s intervention, supported by the US military, to restore normalcy. Superman is, after all, the superhero saviour of the status quo. But not only does the conclusion of Man of Steel legitimize America’s continued involvement in the “War on Terror” and rationalize the status quo as natural and inevitable but it does so through a form of cinematic disaster capitalism that taps into post-9/11 trauma: as Metropolis is being attacked by Zod audiences are bombarded by blatant advertisements for the US Army, Nokia, U-Haul, and 7-11!
In the end, Man of Steel falls far short on its promise to deliver hope for humanity and instead can be viewed as yet another capitalist superhero film. And with more caped crusader films already in the works and the new golden age of the superhero just dawning, now is the time to establish a critical conversation about these films. While blockbuster superhero movies are, of course, intended to be fun escapes, it is important that we don’t ignore their problematic politics that normalize the status quo. Instead, as embodiments of the current neoliberal capitalist age, such films provide opportunities to create critical conversations with friends, family members, and coworkers about how we might use our own powers to make the world a better place.
Sean Carleton is a PhD student in the Frost Centre for Canadian and Indigenous Studies at Trent University. He is a founding member of the Graphic History Collective and an author of May Day: A Graphic History of Protest (Between the lines, 2012).