Every Superman is a product of his time, so it’s no surprise that “Man of Steel” is loaded with modern references. Jor-El, on Planet Krypton, has a digital helpmate who sounds a lot like Siri (and is equally unhelpful). Lois Lane connects with a Julian Assange type, a guy with the not-so-imaginative name of Woodstein. There’s an oblique reference to the Dream Act, when Krypton-born Superman declares that “I grew up in Kansas . . . I’m about as American as it gets.”
But the most 2013-era moment comes when, in the interest of preserving what’s left of his privacy, Superman uses his laser-eye powers to take down a government surveillance drone. This, we suddenly realize, is the scope of his modern challenge. Forget about changing costumes in a phone booth. This time around, Superman has to hide from the NSA.
Granted, that’s not really what “Man of Steel” is about. In this version of the story, Lois sniffs out Clark’s identity from the start, and the movie spends most of its time on yet another attempted-alien-takeover plot, succumbing to America’s box-office-proven love of blowing up enormous things onscreen. (When the destruction was finally over, Metropolis in rubble, I wondered: Will “Man of Steel 2” be about the quest to find a good contractor?) That’s a shame, and an opportunity lost. I came of age with the Christopher Reeve movies of the ’70s and ’80s, and I always connected to that story of Clark Kent incognito, toiling away at the Daily Planet, hiding his chiseled features behind thick glasses and faked clumsiness.
The double-identity saga, the notion of hiding in plain sight, is the most relevant part of Superman’s life, and the part this current movie assumes that we care about least. It’s not just that actor Henry Cavill’s Superman, all chin and abs and sullen mood, couldn’t be endearingly klutzy if he tried.
“Man of Steel” also ties into the very modern sense that hiding is a pointless endeavor. If Lois can find her way to Smallville with a little gumshoe reporting, you can imagine what the algorithm factories would do with the wealth of data Superman represents. His DNA would be mapped, his heat signature traced, his movements tracked via metadata, following things people said about him on Twitter. When Clark finally dons his glasses at the end of the movie, you wonder: Would that block the facial-recognition software?
Nah, Clark today wouldn’t be able to hide for a moment. None of us could; we’ve all willingly succumbed to powerful intrusions on our lives. One of the striking things about the Edward Snowden leak, this revelation about how far the government can legally reach into our movements and communications, is how many people seem to be perfectly blasé about the implications.
It could be that most people believe the government reassurances about checks and balances and limits. Or it could be that we recognize how much we’ve already given up willingly, not for the greater public good — the ability to stop the bad guys, Superman-style — but for the convenience of marketers, the better for them to sell us what we don’t necessarily need.
There’s something deeply disturbing about these stories about data that continue to roll out: the TVs with the ability to watch us, sending different ads depending on whether or not we’re alone on the couch; the way the 2012 Obama campaign targeted voters through analytics, figuring out who might be easiest to persuade by sifting through photos on Facebook.
The only antidote is to not give up that data in the first place, and that’s the one thing people seem unwilling to do, because it also means giving up our DVRs, our e-mail accounts, our instant messaging ability. If you think you have nothing especially super to hide, then the lure of convenience, of social connection, is far more powerful than the fear of someone watching.
In “Man of Steel,” General Zod finds Superman by tracking a data signal he unwittingly trips. It’s as good a metaphor as any. We’re all Clark Kents today, imagining that we can keep some part of our identities to ourselves, when we’re actually just a few clicks away from being figured out completely. What we need isn’t phone booths or the absence of drones. It’s superhuman restraint.