Superman - Secret Origin (2010)
Lois: “Are you an alien or a man?”
Superman: “I’m Superman.”
So, to fit in Clark Kent hides his powers, which naturally don’t stay hidden for long. This is ironic since I usually think of Clark Kent enjoying being Superman, and Clark Kent as his reason for anonymity. Nonetheless, here we see him break a friend’s arm in football, then, accidentally burn his school down with eye lasers after he’s kissed by a girl. Worse, he can hear his friends talking behind his back with his super-hearing. John Kent is distraught, and tells him the truth: He’s from Krypton.
In comics, part of what makes a good story is conflict of opposites that can be shown pictorially. (Hollywood has caught on.) So, just as we have young Clark struggling to find out where he comes from, we have Lex Luthor, who just pages after Clark’s revelation makes his dad drive off drunk (for being some sort of unspecified know-it-all.) and fall off a cliff road. Superboy (in his full costume.) catches the truck. Thus begins their rivalry.
Lex Luthor is established as the perfect ambitious rival to Superman. Superman is reluctant to move out of Smallville. Lex Luthor dreams of dominating Metropolis. Superboy wants to have friends. Young Lex considers himself above others, saying: “Glasses mean one of two things…either you’re genetically inferior or you read books.” That establishes his character. Black-and-white perception. No possibility of forgiveness.
While these dynamics are always in play, Lex is always trying to think of ways to thwart Superman, who is a threat to his arrogant selfishness. At the same time, I never saw Superman boast of his strength. (Except for when he reluctantly poses lifting cars or hands-on-hips for Jimmy Olsen, which was not a boast, but a response to polite requests.)
Indeed, in this comic, Superman displays an almost comical naïveté about his powers, in favor of not hurting anyone. During a battle with the U.S. Army (who fears he’s here to conquer Earth, per Luthor’s suggestion.) Superman flees into the sewer for fear of hurting innocent people who nonetheless want to kill him. Now, this is a scene I’m sure the Man of Steel movie will use, because it’s so difficult to show Superman visually as a sympathetic character. We’re used to seeing Superman confident; but here we see him torn between his childhood fear of hurting friends, and protecting those he loves. Superman, not Clark Kent, appears emotionally vulnerable.
So, who is Superman really? The cool answer is usually that his “true” identity is Superman, and that the klutz Clark Kent is a disguise. Here, we realize it’s a false dilemma. He’s both alien and man, which leads to his answer to Lois Lane’s above question. I will avoid spoiling the rest of the comic, for those that want to read it separately, or enjoy the Man of Steel movie without spoilers. Suffice to say, I’m pretty confident General Zod will be a stand-in for Lex Luthor. But, we will see the same conflict between cultural identity: is he a man or an alien (Or, in the case of General Zod, who’s sure to make the U.S. Army nervous, is Superman an alien supremacist like his fellow Kryptonian?) The answer of course is that culture is decided by individuals, and can’t be placed in rigid logical boxes. Superman decides Earth is his home, no one owns it. And so, when Luthor becomes enough of a threat, he decides to stop him from taking over, and spreading lies about him.
After a fight with the Luthor-created Metallo, Superman explains to the army (out in the streets!) that he’s nobody’s savior, and that Luthor isn’t either. We’re all in control of our own destiny. As cheesy a message as it is in comics, the affect is greatly achieved because it takes a great counterforce to his identity (Lex Luthor…who he lets off the hook many times!) in order for him to fully embrace his Superman identity. When he decides he’s had enough, he finally confronts his fear of hurting others and embraces using his powers for Good! I doubt Metallo will show up in Man of Steel, but this seems like the kind of conflict of opposites that great modern superhero movies are made of, so give it a read, and look for where Zod might fit in!