Zack Snyder’s new Superman reboot flick, Man of Steel, is a mere two weeks away at this point, and here in New York City, us city folk have been treated to a new Gillette promotional campaign featuring the Last Son of Krypton. The ads, which I started seeing yesterday on the train, tie into a viral video campaign that asks various celebrity nerds such as Kevin Smith and Bill Nye the very important question of “How does Superman shave?” In the videos, Nye theorized that Superman uses some kind of grinding technique, which would allow him to use something less powerful than his own hair to trim it, and Smith said he probably uses a shard from his super baby rocket pod.
Of course, as Smith pointed out in his video, this mystery has already been solved by creator John Byrne in 1986 when he illustrated Superman using a mirror to reflect his eye lasers onto his face and singe off each individual follicle. This solution was presented in a post-Crisis (remember when you could say that and only be referring to one Crisis?) retelling of Superman’s origin story called, coincidentally, The Man of Steel.
This seems like a pretty sound answer to the question of how Superman shaves, at least sound enough for me, and I’m really not sure what else Gillette hopes to accomplish with this campaign. I mean, if we already know of one way in which he does it, then why do we still need to ask? It’s more of a trivia question than some unanswered mystery of Superman’s mythos. It’d be like asking “what are the three things that he stands for?” or “what does he do for a day job?” How about asking, “why can’t they make a decent Superman movie without Lex Luthor or General Zod as the main antagonist?” That’s the real mystery. Or just, “where did his red underpants go?” But I digress.
To be perfectly honest with you, I’ve never read The Man of Steel. I mean, I’m almost certain that I’ve read bits and pieces of it, and Byrne’s recreation of the Superman mythos was pretty much the status quo for a long period of my comic book reading career, but I don’t believe I’ve ever had the opportunity to sit down and enjoy the entire series all at one time. This is something I hope to change in the very near future. You see, by the time I was ready to start getting hot and heavy into Superman titles, Superman’s origin had already been retooled again in Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu’s epic, Superman: Birthright.
I love Birthright; it is without a doubt one of my all-time favorite Superman stories. I understand that DC heroes, especially Superman, are like folk heroes in that almost every creator that works on their book will have a different interpretation of their story to tell. I love all the various incarnations of Superman, but for me, the character in Superman: Birthright is my Superman (although he’s neck-and-neck with All-Star Superman). And while I am aware that the filmmakers behind Man of Steel have said they aren’t adapting any particular Superman comic, and are instead kind of pulling from a ton of various influences and adding a few of their own original touches (such as, well, taking away his red underpants), I am inclined to think, based on the previews I’ve seen, that a lot more of Waid’s Birthright than Byrne’s The Man of Steel is finding it’s way into the new film. If that’s the case, here are a few things that I hope Man of Steel can borrow from Birthright in order to make a superior Superman film.
1) NO MASKS. Early on in Birthright, we see that Clark has been spending some time abroad as a travelling reporter (an exciting way for a young reporter to spend his best years that, unfortunately, seems drastically out of reach for just about anyone I know who has actually graduated with a journalism degree). During his travels, Clark winds up in West Africa where he meets a man named Kobe Asuru, who teaches Clark the value of taking pride in your heritage through your tribe or clan’s traditional garments. “Colors and styles are handed down through the generations,” Asuru says. “What we wear, we wear to connect with that. To symbolize — and remind us — of our heritage.”
Clark then responds in agreement, but notes that he disagrees with the concept of wearing a mask, explaining that he sees it as a symbol of distrust. This is a great little character moment right off the bat where we establish the logic behind Superman’s big goofy suit that covers him from head to toe in bright, primary, seemingly patriotic colors, but leave his head completely untouched. Writer Grant Morrison has said before that Superman’s costume is like it’s own flag, and that’s essentially why he’s wearing it. It’s a symbol of his heritage, a symbol of Krypton, that he wants to honor and keep alive. And if you’re wondering why he doesn’t protect his identity, it’s because he needs mankind to trust him in order for this patriotism to be respected. From the looks of it, Clark will be doing quite a bit of travelling during his early years in Man of Steel as well, so maybe we’ll see some of this stuff play out on the big screen.
2) NO MEAT. Also while spending time in Africa, Clark sends an email home in which he states that he chooses not to eat meat because his super-vision allows him to see an aura around living things, and he hates to see that light become extinguished. To me it was a stroke of genius for this version of Superman to be a confirmed vegetarian. It’s a small touch, but it says a lot about his character. He honestly values all forms of life and his enhanced physiology allows him to perceive the gift of life in a way that eludes regular people. Maybe if we had such a gift, we’d be a little bit more respectful of life as well. (Meh. Maybe.)
3) ACTING LESSONS. Another nice little tidbit of Clark’s origin is a moment that he spends with his parents in which they’re helping him get ready to move to Metropolis. At this point they’ve already established Clark’s gifts and his mother has already helped him tailor his trademark red and blue threads out of materials found in his super baby escape pod. Now that they’ve found a way for Clark to celebrate his alien heritage, they need to come up with a way to make him blend in once he reaches the big city. Ma Kent’s solution is what we would all come to know as the bumbling, earnest, mild-mannered reporter “secret identity” that Clark Kent uses, the identity that the character Bill in Kill Bill Vol. 2 espoused was the Man of Steel’s actual costume. Clark’s mom outfits him in some baggy clothes to disguise his otherworldly physique and gives him his famous nerdy pair of glasses to wear as a way of diminishing some of the brilliance in his Kryptonian blue eyes. These are the kinds of small touches that people who are around Superman or who see news footage of the hero are bound to notice right off the bat. She also encourages him to study acting in his off time in order to complete the transformation from alien super-being to unremarkable reporter/nerd. To me the concept of Superman working hard to downplay his own gifts when he’s in public, of his clumsiness and awkwardness being just a disguise that he puts on and can take off at a moments notice to become handsome and strong, is key to his character. It’s part of that whole adolescent wish fulfillment thing. I hope that we see a similar transformation for Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent in Man of Steel.
4) LEX LUTHOR. Okay, I admit, this one’s a bit shaky since IMDB doesn’t have the character listed for Man of Steel and to our knowledge this series has yet to cast Superman’s greatest foe. However, we were still able to catch a brief glimpse of the LexCorp building in a recent Man of Steel trailer, so perhaps there is a Lex Luthor in the film, he’s just being kept under wraps for now, while simultaneously being teased in movie preview Easter eggs. It’s a bit of a stretch, but we can still dream.
Anyway, a huge part of Birthright is exploring the relationship between Clark and Lex. While the Byrne story did away with the history between the characters and rewrote Lex as a business tycoon rather than a mad scientist (although, in reality, who’d be the bigger threat?), Waid reintroduced the concept of Clark and Lex being friends at a young age and even the part about Clark being inadvertently responsible for Lex losing his hair and, subsequently, his shit. I love the idea that the two classic enemies were at one point really good friends, misfits who bonded over their love of science. When Lex grew up and rose to power in Metropolis, he forgot all that, pushing his memories of Clark Kent into the farthest recesses of his mind. Meanwhile, Clark has been fighting him ever since as Superman, but at the same time hoping to reform his one-time bestie. There’s way more drama in that than just having Lex be a Donald Trump analogue who wants to one-up Superman purely out of ego, and I hope that when Man of Steel finally gets around to unveiling its Lex, this is the version that we’ll get.
5) THAT “S.” If you have your copy of Birthright on you, do me a favor and turn to page 255 real quick. See it? That’s my shit right there. Superman has just had the S-shield removed from his chest by an imposter claiming to be from Krypton, and was called a fraud by the guy. Of course, this does nothing but strengthen Superman’s resolve and just as a Luthor-made fake Kryptonian tank with a gigantic metal version of Superman’s shield on the front is about to attack a little kid, Superman takes the shield off of it and uses it to block the attack. Without this context, however, the image just looks as though Supes took the S off his chest and expanded it to the size of a bus and is using it to fend off a lightning bolt attack. It’s probably the single most badass image of Superman I’ve ever seen. Come on, Zack Snyder. You know you want to put this shot in your movie.
At this point it’s still too early to say how much of Birthright will make it into Man of Steel. It’s all pretty much up in the air (see what I did there?). However, as skeptical as I am of the decision to give Snyder the reigns to Superman’s rebooted movie franchise, I have to admit that I’m getting more and more excited for this movie with every new piece of promotion for it that I see. I’m desperately hoping that it won’t let me down, and that it will hopefully prove to be my favorite movie of the summer, maybe even favorite superhero movie of the year. I think that if we see some of these touches from Birthright translated onto the big screen, it’ll go a long way for making a more believable, grounded, and relatable character out of Superman, which I think is what they’re going for.