“A lot of people say that the Superman symbol is the second most recognized symbol in the world other than the cross. A lot of people recognize the Spider-Man symbol, but it doesn’t have the same kind of weight that the Superman symbol does.” – David Goyer, screenwriter for Man of Steel
Superman is a symbol. As the world’s first superhero he is the most recognizable, the most enduring, and maybe even the strongest. And now 75 years after his creation he returns yet again in the $225 million Man of Steel to dazzle the world with supersonic flight, super-strength, and red hot laser beams shooting from his eyes.
Although the critics have savaged the new film, audience goers seem to disagree. It’s a big hit, filled with what is best described as cinema’s finest superhero battles that happen to make the urban destruction of The Avengers look like target practice.
Superman is back, but what does it mean for you and me?
Decades after his debut, what does he symbolize exactly?
He may not be real, but he gives us an ideal to strive towards. Through the wisdom of Jor-El and Jonathan Kent, we understand that Superman’s moral strength is as necessary as his physical strength.
The “S” stands for hope, we are told. Superman means something good. He embodies our collective and individual power to do good in this world, our chance to repel evil wherever it may rear its ugly head.
However as a film Man of Steel is not telling the whole truth. Superman represents more.
As part of their marketing efforts, Warner Brothers hired a theologian to write Man of Steel sermon outlines for pastors to preach to their congregations. One is titled “Jesus, The Original Superhero.”
It all makes sense now. Young Clark asking why God made him this way. The priest encouraging Kal-El to have faith. An innocent Superman willingly accepting his chains. This Man of Steel symbolizes the hope in a Messiah.
I would believe that, but the iconic Superman symbol means so much more.
Reportedly Man of Steel set the record for most product tie ins of any film ever made, beating out the previous champion The Lorax (who inexplicably peddled SUVs by the way). To the tune of $170 million dollars from it’s “partners”, Man of Steel was almost profitable before it even sold a single ticket. Peppered throughout the movie like gaudy billboards are gratuitous product placement for companies like Sears, 7-11, and International House of Pancakes.
Superman means hope, Jesus, and also pancakes.
Outside of the movie, dozens more brands will feature Krypton’s last son ranging from Nokia phones and the National Guard to Twizzlers and Carl’s Jr.’s Super Bacon Cheeseburger. This will all make sense in the movie when Superman explains to a wary military that he is very much an American.
When you can literally buy the right to have Clark Kent wear your brand of glasses, what does he symbolize anymore? Hope is the not the word that immediately comes to mind.
The real question is how far can you stretch a symbol to mean whatever you want?
Is it really possible for Superman to represent the collective power for doing good in the world, Jesus, and Pizza Hut’s Man of Steel box deal all at the same time?
As a summer popcorn film, Man of Steel works great. I recommend it wholeheartedly in my glowing review.
But as for an enduring symbol of hope?
Man of Steel reads more as symbol of American capitalism, a commodity easily sold to the highest bidder. A corporate branding tool, not a sermon illustration. I could go on to compare the symbol of the world’s greatest superhero to the symbol of the Christian cross, but I just got a strange craving for some pancakes.