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?

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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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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