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It Ain't Easy Being A 21st-Century Superhero

With the latest incarnation of Superman on the silver screen in "Man of Steel," we see the most evolved form of the complicated and conflicted superhero.

Extraterrestrial homesick blues
Extraterrestrial homesick blues
Samuel Blumenfeld and Frédéric Potet

David S. Goyer's arms are covered with tattoos. He's been proudly displaying them since his breakthrough as an aspiring screenwriter, back in 1989 when he had just sold his first script at the age of 26. Granted, Deran Sarafian's Death Warrant, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, was not exactly a masterpiece, but Goyer knew it would change his life nonetheless. So he decided to celebrate by getting both his arms indelibly inked.

Goyer is a jack of all trades: director (The Unborn in 2009, Blade: Trinity, in 2004), video game designer, TV series writer (Da Vinci's Demons), novelist. But it's in his work as a screenwriter that Goyer's talent shines the brightest – in particular when it comes to adapting and modernizing superhero stories. Starting with Batman – Christopher Nolan's trilogy: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – and now Superman, with Zack Snyder's Man of Steel.

For many, these movies represent a significant step towards genuine 21st-century superheroes. "Why does Clark Kent put on a costume and save mankind?" Goyer wonders. "Who'd choose to do that? Which begs the question: is humanity ready to accept someone like him?"

The universe of caped and masked crusaders is roughly divided between two houses: DC Comics (Batman, Superman) and Marvel (Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Iron Man, X-Men, Thor, The Avengers). But the two brands have not shared the same fate on the silver screen – Batman and Superman being, by far, the source of the greatest number of film adaptations since the 1980s. Endlessly reinvented even after their creators died, they have now become the epitome of the superhero genre.

This phenomenon is due notably to the rise of graphic novels, which allowed characters to escape the limited frame of comic books and take on a greater dimension. Talented artists managed to turn Batman and Superman into tragic icons, whose potentially limitless adventures could be modernized, updated, or made more complex. "The interest of graphic novels lies in the fact that they are supposed to be "one-shots' stand-alone stories that generally try to distanciate themselves from superhero clichés," says French writer Jean-Marc Lainé, the author of several essays on comic books.

New source material

In Batman's case, several such graphic novels reshaped our vision of the "world's greatest detective." Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Batman: The Long Halloween, or Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Batman: The Killing Joke... All of them directly influenced Goyer.

Batman: Year One paints the bleak picture of Gotham City in the hands of corrupt police forces – something new for the Dark Knight, more used to punching baddies than dealing with the core of society gone to the dogs. The way Bruce Wayne's world is represented has changed too: From a Metropolis-like city – in the drawing of the character's creator Bob Kane, as well as in Tim Burton's two film adaptations Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) -- Gotham City has evolved into a more realistic representation in Nolan's trilogy, now somewhere between New York and Chicago.

The metamorphosis of our heroes in tights is also closely linked to geopolitical changes. With The Dark Knight, Batman entered a post-9/11 America, complete with its fear of terrorism hitting the home front. The country is under the protection of a man who looks like a bat, and whose power and authority begin to be questioned.

For Man of Steel, screenwriter Goyer faced a sizable challenge: show Superman in the 21st century. The character has always had close ties with his country's geopolitical situation. Created in 1932, Superman was the idealized brainchild of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – two 18-year-old Jews who had fled Nazi Germany to settle in the U.S., much like their creation who left a dying Krypton to land in Kansas.

But our superheroes are a-changin" with our changing times. Superman had to adapt, and managed to do so in graphic novels. For instance, in Superman: Red Son (2003), Mark Millar and Dave Johnson transferred the character to an alternate reality by asking the question what if Superman had been raised in the Soviet Union?

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Cover of Superman: Red Son - DC Comics

"Superman is a universal character and has been around for more than 70 years, so people are used to seeing him evolve with time," says Jean-Marc Lainé.

But before Man of Steel, Superman's metamorphosis hadn't made it to the theaters – its most famous cinematic adaptation, Richard Donner's 1978 movie, remaining remarkably faithful to the original spirit of the comic book. This time, Goyer's script throws the superhero in the middle of a geopolitical reshuffling, in a multipolar world with changing mentalities. A world where the immigrant from Krypton is perceived as a potential threat.

Alien origins

"I followed the spirit of Michael Straczynsky's graphic novel Superman: Earth One, which shows Superman as a teenager scared of his powers and reluctant to use them, because he's so afraid of being cut off from mankind," says Goyer. Kal-El's rite of passage and the mastering of his powers proves a clumsy and awkward task. We're light-years away from Siegel and Shuster's original version, where the superhero's natural integration on Earth is a foregone conclusion.

Superman's alien origins are the cornerstone of Goyer's screenplay. In Man of Steel, although he ends up saving our planet, Superman remains first and foremost an extraterrestrial, a stranger. "I was interested in the idea of the first contact between an alien and humans. If one day, an extraterrestrial lifeform was to come and visit us, it'd change our world forever. In the movie, we wanted to show Superman as an undocumented alien."

And even though he's not technically American, the red-and-blue superhero considers himself as such. "Superman can't be a nationalist," says Goyer. "That was one of the most brilliant aspects of the novel Superman: Red Son, where the superhero turned his back on America. In a multipolar world with intricate geopolitical relationships, where wars are being waged by private powers, drones and militias, it's become increasingly complicated to tell a Superman story."

In 2011, Goyer wrote The Incident, a short story in which Superman renounces his U.S. citizenship – the fictional gesture sparked violent reactions on the Internet. But for Goyer, it simply meant that Superman refused to be a mere agent of the American government. "How could Superman find a solution to the Arab Spring? What can he do against famine in East Africa? It's far more difficult than battling General Zod in Man of Steel. Twenty-first century Superman is born of this reshuffling of cards. He's a helpless super-human."

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