Why Superman Ought to Be an Immigrant

dc comics

dc comics

The stand alone Superman-only sequel to Man of Steel has been put on hold, according to Yahoo News. Maybe someone realized that despite its robust box office, the first Man of Steel was loved by almost nobody. This means that Superman will inevitably be recast and rebooted for the umpteenth time. When this happens, I have a casting suggestion:

Don’t make Superman all-American. Cast him as an immigrant, because that’s what he’s always been.

The laboriously titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will wander into movie theaters sometime next year. As someone who grew up on DC Comics as a kid, I look forward to watching about 15 minutes of it on cable before flipping back to a baseball game.

Why? Because the trailer for this sequel to Man of Steel looks about as much fun as The Road or Fitzcarraldo. This film is clearly Warner Brothers’ attempt to cash in on the craze for a multilayered DC cinematic universe similar to Disney/Marvel’s. Their timing couldn’t be more perfect as the lukewarm receptions for Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant Man, and Fantastic Four hint that audiences might be getting a wee bit tired of THE BIGGEST FUCKING SUPERHERO MOVIE OF ALL TIME HOLY SHIT THIS IS THE EPIC YOU HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR being shoved down their throats on a weekly basis.

The trailer for BVSDOJ (as it will inevitably be referred to) is joyless and devoid of wonder as the film is based on graphic novels — instead of fun, kid-friendly stories. Because it was made in the 21st century, it has an inevitable 9/11 sequence, which this author could really do without.

But one shot caught my eye. Like the proverbial blind squirrel finding a nut or the broken clock that twice a day gets it right, director Zack Snyder may have stumbled upon something interesting.

Look closely and you will see Bill Crudup's blue CGI dick

Look closely and you will see Bill Crudup’s blue CGI dick

In the frame here, you can see someone holding a sign that says “Superman = Illegal Alien.”

That is an aspect to the Superman story, at least in the movies and on TV, that seems to have been forgotten.

Not his origin; Between the first half of the Richard Donner Superman, the entire show Smallville, and the unwatchable Man of Steel, I think we have the origin down. Please, no reason to revisit it.

But remember, despite all the “truth, justice and the American way” elements associated with Superman over the generations, his story is that of an immigrant, and a first generation immigrant at that. What’s more, the story of being an immigrant and assimilating to the American way is the story of our country (along with slavery and the Trail of Tears, but I digress.)

If BVSDOJ ever addresses Superman’s immigrant status, it will likely do so with all the delicacy the auteur of 300 and Sucker Punch can manage; i.e. none. Donner’s film and Smallville dealt with Clark Kent’s loneliness and ostracism. Bryan Singers’ disappointing Superman Returns included a pilgrimage to find the remains of his home — and Singer’s snoozefest was The Godfather compared to Man of Steel.

Yet the immigrant experience has not really found it’s way into the cinematic versions of Superman. This is odd as that was a huge part of Superman’s origin and initial appeal.

In a USA Today article written in 2008, writer David Colton relayed the story of Mitchell Siegel. He was an immigrant from Lithuania, who escaped Eastern Europe right around the time that was imperative to do so if you had a Jewish name. He set up a clothing shop in Cleveland, Ohio that remained open during the Great Depression.

In the summer of 1932, Mitchell Siegel was killed during a robbery but no arrests were made. Siegel’s son, Jerry, an awkward teenager, had to deal with his own congealing sense of identity and foreignness in the aftermath.

A year later, Jerry and his friend Joe Shuster created Superman.

On the surface, their character is unassuming, a face in the crowd, one might even say ‘mild mannered.’ He changed his name to help him blend in with everyone else, just a working stiff living in the city. But in reality, this individual has a whole other name, a homeland he can never return to, and super-human powers. He uses these in pursuit of justice.

Sounds like a depression era Jewish kid’s fantasy, right? Especially if that kid’s father got killed.

Even the names Kal-El and Jor-El have connections to Hebrew. The suffix “El” means “Of God.” And the image of the baby being sent away to avoid a great calamity only to grow up and become the hero to his people has more than a few parallels to the story of Moses. (Snyder turned the story into a Christ parable, one of many things he seemed to get totally wrong. I digress.)

Superman struck a chord in Depression Era America in ways that may fly over modern readers’ heads. This was not the tale of a prince, a la Prince Valiant, or a blue blood like the blonde haired Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon (a polo player before the 1980’s turned him into a quarterback for the Jets.)  Superman had black hair, like many Eastern European immigrants. Superman wore glasses. He lived in the city and needed a job.

But despite all the connections to the immigrant experience, how has Superman been portrayed on screen?

You are damn right Christopher Reeve has the biggest picture!

You are damn right Christopher Reeve has the biggest picture!

From Kirk Alyn and the serialized Superman to George Reeves’ TV show; David Wilson in the musical to the Superboy series; to Brandon Routh to Henry Cavill to Smallville: none of these faces make me think “immigrant” or “Jew.” None of them would have any trouble getting admitted to Bushwood Country Club. (Yeah, I know Cavill is British, but nothing screams American more than British actors these days. And yes, Dean Cain has a little Japanese ancestry.)

How has the ultimate immigrant and a hopeful symbol for the refugee Jewish community in their lowest moment been turned into such a WASP?

You would think there would have been at least ONE Jewish Superman over the years! Some pretty qualified actors who are Jewish or at least 1/2 Jewish would have kicked some butt in the role over the years.

Kirk Douglas? He’s Jewish.

Harrison Ford? He’s 1/2 Jewish.

Like you wouldn’t plop down money to have seen a young Jeff Goldblum as Kal-El.

Uh.... Up, Up and... uh... I guess away.

Uh…. Up, Up and… uh… I guess away.

In a few years, Superman as a character turns 80. Like anything that has been around and passed down from generation to generation, the character needs to adapt to the times or it will cease to have pertinence. (Not a lot of kids are into Dick Tracy or Charlie Chan these days.)

As my brother wrote in an earlier post on this blog, Superman has subtly evolved from decade to decade. Starting as a New Deal crusader to a fighter of the Axis to a beacon of hope in post Vietnam America, elements of this superhero manage to stay relevant. But the core of a character using his powers for good remains the same (except when he snaps General Zod’s neck and turns Metropolis into rubble, but again, Zack Snyder doesn’t get it.)

Unless you are Donald Trump, you know that, today, most immigrants come to America from places they don’t wish to return to. They are attempting to find a new, better life and a way to make this country their home. I am sure many of those immigrants would love to have a connection to something that is as universally recognized as American as Superman.

As American as an immigrant! That’s Superman.

Now picture it. The blue suit, red cape, and YES red shorts (seriously Zack Snyder, how much can one person screw up Superman?). Forget trying to make it dark and edgy. Make Superman both updated and honor his origins.

Imagine a Latino, Middle Eastern, or South Asian Superman. Oh they are out there. There are cool and potentially bad ass immigrant Supermen out there who can be kids’ heroes and get adults’ hearts to beat faster, as well.

Meet Bollywood Star Prithviraj Sukumaran. I think he can fill the suit out nicely.

Meet Bollywood Star Prithviraj Sukumaran. I think he can fill the suit out nicely.

Or maybe the key is to cast someone whose race is tough to pin down and can be embraced by many different audiences. (See The Fast and The Furious movies for examples.)

I know there have been some people who wished that a younger Jon Hamm could have played Superman. Personally, I wish they made one with The Rock. Tell me you wouldn’t see that!

Of course there will be people screaming that Superman needs to be white, because aliens tend to be white…

But Superman belongs to all of us. He was born from the experiences of those new to this country and should continue to be loved by all Americans, whether their families have been here for centuries or for days.

From the moment Mitchell Siegel died in Cleveland, Superman has served that purpose. He is a figure that unites us all. No matter our origins, we are all now Americans, fighting for truth, justice, and the American way — which definitively includes acceptance.

So keep an open mind in casting this reboot, people, which if the recent news is true, will probably get underway before this post is published.

One response on “Why Superman Ought to Be an Immigrant

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.