02 Jul Superman Author Larry Tye Talks about Henry Cavill and the new Man of Steel Movie

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Larry Tye runs the Boston-based Health Coverage Fellowship, which is designed to help the media do a better job covering critical health care issues. From 1986 to 2001, Tye was a reporter at the Boston Globe, where his primary beat was medicine. He also served as the Globe’s environmental reporter, roving national writer, investigative reporter, and sports writer. Larry has written several books, including Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend and his latest Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero. We asked him about the new Man of Steel movie and Henry Cavill’s performance as Superman.

In your book, you talk about the movie versions of Superman and say this "But a new film called The Man of Steel, intended to air during the summer of 2009, died on the vine. While Warner Bros. is making another Superman movie, neither Singer nor Routh is involved." Do you have any plans to update your book with information about the Man of Steel movie just released in 2013?

That's up to Random House and not sure, since the paperback just came out, what the plans are. But your question has prompted me to ask them. (Note: We’ll let you know if an update is in the works!)

 

You wrote extensively about how the mythos of Superman has changed over the last 75 years...with writers and actors, directors and producers all changing and adapting for the times they were/are in. What do you think Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan and Henry Cavill have brought to the Superman story for the times we are currently in?

I love that they have updated and enlivened the creation story, hopefully reeling in a new generation of fans the way George Reeves did my Baby Boom generation and Christopher Reeve did those who came of age in the 1970s and 80s. Ironically, the times we're in now in many ways mirror those of the 1930s — from persistent economic woes to a series of dangerous international entanglements — when Superman came to life. And the new Superman seems like a hero suited not just to making us feel better about our times, but giving us confidence we can prevail.

That said, I wish there had been less time devoted to Superman and Zod duking it out at the end. I wish there'd been more concern for collateral damage during that fight, since one of Superman's trademarks was caring in a way few superheroes did about civilian casualties. And, I wish the directors and producers were a bit more subtle in setting things up for the inevitable sequels, although I am glad there will be sequels.

 

Larry TyeLarry Tye

Is it fair to compare this film to other Superman films like Superman Returns or the four Reeve films?

Absolutely fair, I think.

My favorite of all was the first Christopher Reeve, Superman: The Movie. I think it had a lot in common with Man of Steel, including mixed reviews by the professional reviewers and a more enthusiastic response from fans. Both also had a Superman I think was really convincing, although to me Reeve was even better than Cavill at showing that Superman could laugh, and that he looked and acted differently in his Clark Kent alter ego.

I liked Superman Returns better than most reviewers and fans did, and surely better than Warner Bros. did, since it didn't invite back its Brandon Routh or Bryan Singer.

 

The Superman as Christ figure in Man of Steel is a huge theme, so much so that Warner Brothers marketed the film as a teaching tool for churches. In your book, you argue that Superman is Jewish. How do you square this?

I'm right, at least in terms of what Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had in mind.

The evidence of his Jewish roots starts with Kal-El, his Kryptonian name. El is a suffix in Judaism’s most cherished birthrights, from Isra-el to the prophets Samu-el and Dani-el. It means God. Kal is the root of the Hebrew words for voice and vessel. Together they suggest that the superbaby rocketed to Earth by his dying father was not just a Jew, but a very special one. Like Moses. Much as the baby prophet was floated in a reed basket by a mother desperate to spare him from an Egyptian Pharaoh’s death warrant, so moments before Kal-El’s planet blew up, his parents tucked him into a spaceship that rocketed him to the safety of Earth. Both babies were rescued by non-Jews and raised in foreign cultures – Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter, Kal-El by Kansas farmers named Kent – and all the adoptive parents quickly learned how exceptional their foundlings were. The narratives of Krypton’s birth and death borrowed the language of Genesis. Kal-El’s escape to Earth was the story of Exodus.

Clues mount from there. The three legs of the Superman myth – Truth, Justice, and the American Way – are straight out of the Mishnah, the codification of Jewish oral traditions. “The world,” it reads, “endures on three things: justice, truth, and peace.” The explosion of Krypton conjures up images from the mystical Kabbalah where the divine vessel was shattered and Jews were called on to perform tikkun haolam by repairing the vessel and the world. The destruction of Kal-El’s planet and people also rings of the Nazi Holocaust that was brewing when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were publishing their first comics, as well as the effort to save Jewish children through Kindertransports. Superman’s lingering heartsickness was survivor’s guilt.

A last rule of thumb: when a name ends in “man,” the bearer is Jewish, a superhero, or both.

All that said, every faith on Earth has embraced Superman over the last 75 years.

Christians see in the Superman story shades of Jesus, the child dispatched to Earth by his omnipotent father to save mankind. The fact that Clark Kent’s adoptive mother originally was called Mary adds to their argument, as does Superman’s cape that looks like the wings of an angel. If Superman’s story reminds Jews of Old Testament heroes like Moses and Muslims of Muhammad, Catholics and Protestants find the holy saints when they read between the cartoons’ lines.

Christians and Jews are not the only ones who see Superman as theirs. Muslims, at least some of them, see in the Superman creation story a reflection of their own origins, with Superman’s Kryptonian father dispatching his son as a messenger to mankind much the way God did Muhammad. Buddhists put in dibs, too, seeing the superhero as the Man of Zen. Non-believers have a different take: Superman is a paragon, but he isn’t a Christian, a Buddhist or a worshiper of the ancient gods of the sun that gave him his power. He is so strong he can truly move mountains and so pure he would neither litter nor jaywalk. He can crawl away from kryptonite but is undone by moral relativism. He never asks his followers to die in his name or to proclaim themselves the chosen ones. This vision of Superman as a secular messiah taps into America’s cultural myths and oral traditions – into its communal do’s and don’ts – which is just the way agnostics, atheists, and spiritualists would have him.

The bottom line: Superman is a fantasy character, so anyone can see in him what they want. And his handlers in any particular medium and at any moment can add their own biases and flourishes, the way Warner Bros. has in giving us a decidedly Christian hero in the Man of Steel.

 

You are a lifelong Superman fan. Having researched the character in film, television and on the printed page, where would you put Henry Cavill's portrayal of Superman in the lexicon of the Man of Steel?

I'd put him relatively high — behind George Reeves, who while not a great actor made me fall in love with his hero, and Christopher Reeve, was a great actor and set the model for the character on the big screen. As I mentioned before, I also liked Brandon Routh, and think Henry is equally good at making us believe in Superman and in the hero buried inside each of us.

 

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