Superman: The Unauthorized Biography (2013)

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Author: Glen Weldon
Publisher: Wiley Publishing

© Copyright Wiley Publishing

© Copyright Wiley Publishing

Glen Weldon, a writer for NPR and panelist on the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, recently published the timely Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, which I brought up in my piece about the Man of Steel (2013) trailer. Released mere months before Zack Snyder’s reinvention of the Superman mythos broke box office records, the book front ends a lot of information that can be whittled down to a pretty basic thesis: Superman is not the hero in which we see ourselves but the hero we strive to be. He’s an example. He’s hope. He’s the man of tomorrow.

After nearly a decade of not reading comics (but still claiming status as a comics nerd), I remember suddenly taking to the Internet to catch up on where my favorite heroes had wound up after I stopped diligently filing them away with bags and boards. Weldon’s book reads like an exceptionally well written Wikipedia entry and trots along at a nice clip. Our culture at large tends to think of Superman as a single thing, but comics fans remember the dark, hairy-chested mullet years and realise that the character has always been malleable, changing with the times, his writers, but most especially his readers.

As Superman: The Unauthorized Biography intimates, the man of steel was invented at a time in history when comics readership was comprised exclusively of pre-pubescent kids. The character is not so much mythic, as the modern spin would have you believe, as he is childish, and purposely so. The pieces are big and boldly colored. They fit together nicely, and there is little nuance. It isn’t until the angst-filled sixties that comics titans became solipsistic, perpetually suffering adolescents. Superman and his writers tried to keep pace, but the essential nature of the character never could, which is one of the reasons Marvel’s “why me, oh, poor me” heroes have made a more successful transition to the big screen. We want to see ourselves in our heroes, not measure against them.

As far as the thesis of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography goes, I don’t think Weldon is far off. In fact, I salute his point about hope as one of those things I read with some envy. This brings me to Man of Steel, for which I feel very little jealousy, except perhaps in regard to Henry Cavill’s physique. I tried to look at the film from an outsider’s perspective, ignoring a child’s love for a tale that never reaches the nuance we require as adults. As science fiction, Zack Snyder’s tale succeeds. As a superhero yarn, though, it doesn’t quite get off the ground.

The narrative tension comes not from a sense of empathy over Clark wandering the globe and feeling alone but from a juvenile sense of knowing as we follow a person who could win any fight, yet has never thrown a punch. All the drama comes from the wait for that first punch, but, when Clark finally lands it, there’s no hurrah, just rubble. The sheer exuberance of the ensuing violence sickens and then bores. The property damage and the likely dead hang over the whole final act of the film. This is the good people at Warner Bros. watching The Avengers (2012) and failing to understand what clicked. Whedon’s movie was counter-programming to The Dark Knight (2008), and here they’ve gone and turned an opportunity for levity into The Matrix Revolutions (2003).

Similarly, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography largely disappoints, even as Weldon’s genial voice pleases. If you put the word “unauthorized” in a title, readers are allowed to expect some dirt, some background information that might shock the white-bread Boy Scout if it were to be exposed. No such luck here. Still, the book serves as useful background leading up to Snyder’s Man of Steel, and I’d recommend the two as a pair. Caution: they both take longer to get through than you’d think.

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