Superman’s Metropolis (1996) – Fritz Lang, Futurism and the Mother City

The city of Metropolis. A staple in the Superman mythos. The city is as iconic as Superman himself, they go hand in hand the same way as Batman and Gotham. You can’t have one without the other. Many Elseworld stories like to play around with the location Superman lands and the city he protects. A big example would by Superman: Red Son [Miller & Johnson.2003] which made Superman a protector of the USSR rather than the USA. However, Superman’s Metropolis [Lofficier, Thomas & McKeever.1996] plays with this relationship far more, by experimenting with the city itself. In this case, transforming this comic book Metropolis, into the film version of Metropolis.

Despite its strong ties with the Man of Steel. The city remained unnamed for over a year until Action Comics #16 [Seigel & Shuster.1939]. “On June 7, 1939, Clark Kent, while on assignment in ‘Boravia,’ sends his editor a telegram addressed to ‘Metropolis, NY.’ Meanwhile, in the September 1939 issue of Action Comics (Which would have been on newsstands in June), Clark Kent poses the question ‘How come gambling is permitted to flourish in the city of Metropolis?’ These concurrent instances represent the first time the Man of Steel’s home city is given a name.” [Weldon.2013:39]

The word ‘Metropolis’ comes from 1350 – 1400 Middle English, Late Latin. Meaning ‘Mother State’ or ‘Mother City’ referring to the parent state of a colony. In modern times, the phrase refers to the chief or sometimes capital city of a country or just a very large city. [Dictionary.com:2018] In the DC Comics universe, Metropolis itself fits this by taking the form of New York City, a trait it shares with Batman’s Gotham City. However, while the cities share an inspiration, both show a different side. As stated in The Many Lives of Batman, “The difference between Gotham and Metropolis succinctly summarizes the differences between the two superheroes. As current Batman editor Dennis O’Neil put it: ‘Gotham is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at 3am., November 28th in a cold year. Metropolis is Manhattan between Fourteenth and One Hundred and Tenth Streets on the brightest, sunniest July day of the year” [Pearson & Uricchio.1991:009]. This duality in a city can also be seen in 1927s Metropolis [Lang.1927].

METROBIG

Superman’s Metropolis takes its lead and plot from Fritz Lang’s classic film. Which is in itself is adapted from the novel of the same name by Thea von Harbou [von Harbou.1925]. The story is set in 2026, the city of Metropolis is ruled by the wealthy industrialists while the working and lower class operate the machinery underground, out of sight. The city is essentially run by Joh Fredersen, while his son Freder spends his days in the pleasure gardens. When a young working-class girl named Maria brings a group of children to visit the high-rise towers to see how the other half live, Freder is smitten before she is ushered away. Freder follows her back into the underground where he witnesses one of the machines explode, killing and injuring many. He hallucinates a worse incident, where a machine is powered by being fed the working class. As Freder retains his senses, he runs to his father to tell him the conditions the working class have to put up with, but upon seeing his father’s reaction, he vows a secret rebellion against him. Vowing to help the workers.

However, secret maps are found in the possession of some of the dead workers, and the foreman, Grot, brings them to Fredersen. Fredersen takes the maps to the inventor, Rotwang, a man who had once been in love with Fredersen’s now deceased wife, Hel and has created a robot in order to “resurrect” Hel. The maps show the catacombs under the city and as Rotwang and Fredersen investigate, finding a gathering of workers, including both Freder and Maria. Maria is addressing the group, prophesying the arrival of one who will unite the working and higher classes someday. Freder believes that it could be him, and declares his love for Maria while Rotwang and Fredersen watch on. Fredersen orders Rotwang to give his robot the Maria’s likeness in order to spread chaos through the underground and disrupt the rebellion. However, Rotwang plans to use the robot to kill Freder and take over the city as revenge for the death of the woman he loved. Maria is kidnapped and her likeness is given to the robot, being sent to Fredersen when the transfer is complete. Freder walks in on the robot Maria and Fredersen in an embrace and falls into a depression at the idea of losing his love, and the one he wants to fight for. During this time, Maria is unleashed into the world and using her charms and influence drives men to murder and causing dissent amongst the workers below.

Freder eventually returns to the catacombs below and finds the robot Maria encouraging the workers to destroy the machines and rise up. Freder accuses her of not being the same person he knew, but the workers don’t listen. Leaving their children behind, they destroy the machines, causing the worker city below to be flooded. The real Maria manages to escape and rescues the children just in time with Freder’s help. The workers are horrified at what they have done, fearing their children dead. They turn on the robot Maria and burn her at the stake. Freder watches on horrified, until the fire finally reveals to them all that the false Maria is a robot sent to trick them. Rotwang appears, delusional. Believing the real Maria to be the long dead Hel, chasing her to the roof as Freder runs after them. Rotwang and Freder fight on the cathedral roof, Fredersen and the workers watching from the streets, until Rotwang falls to his death and Maria is finally safe. Freder and Maria return to the others, linking the hands of both his father Fredersen and the foreman Grot, bringing them together, and proving that Freder is indeed the one prophesised.

metropolis-image-9

Superman’s Metropolis tells a very similar story, though takes the ‘saviour’ metaphor of Metropolis and makes a more direct connection with Superman himself. Freder is replaced with the character Clarc. The son of Jon-Kent, ruler of Metropolis. While talking with another high-born woman, Lana, it’s Lois who brings the children and tells them of how the better live. As she’s being escorted away, she turns and looks at Clarc. Commenting, “The one I’m searching for is here…. But he doesn’t know it yet” [Lofficier, Thomas & McKeever.1996:07]. Clarc follows, and finds and workers in the underground, chanting bitter hymns with his father’s name in place, as they work themselves to death. Clarc witnesses the fatal accident, before returning to his father, telling him of what happened, only to be turned away. The plot continues the same, the maps make their way to Jon-Kent who takes them to the inventor, Luthor. Now bitter over the death of Marta.

Clarc, taking his friend Olson with him, begins working underground, wanting to help those down below. He attends the gathering lead by Lois. A corrupted Superman logo on the wall behind her. She speaks out to the crowd. “My brothers. Today I will tell you the story of the new Tower of Babel! There were men who wished to build a tower whose summit would touch the skies. And on it they would inscribe: ‘Great is the world and its creator, and great is man!’ Those who conceived the idea of this tower could not have built it themselves – so they hired thousands of others to build it for them. But those toilers knew nothing of those who planned the tower. While those who conceived the tower did not concern themselves with the workers who built it. The hymns of the few became the muttered curses of the many. Babel! Between the brain that plans and the hands that build, there must be a mediator. A Super-Man! It is the heart that must bring about an understanding between brain and hand! That saviour will rise to bring goodness and peace and love. The Super-Man will come – to free men’s souls of their inhuman bondage!” [Lofficier, Thomas & McKeever.1996:22-23]

Luthor and Jon-Kent watch on as Clarc is enraptured. Luthor even comments on Lois’ resemblance to the late Marta. Clarc stands and asks if he could be that saviour, declaring his love for Lois. She gives him a small version of the Super-Man symbol, before promising to see each other again tomorrow. As Lois leaves, she is kidnapped by Luthor, and in a departure from the source material, we briefly cut to Jon-Kent removing a book with the same symbol from a vault in his office. Luthor shows Lois the artificial being in his chamber, revealing his plan for the robot to take a human’s likeness. Originally that of his lost love Marta, having died by Luthor’s hand as revenge. But instead, he chooses Lois in order to disrupt the underground. As the robot is taking Lois’ form, Clarc and Olson discover the vault and a mysterious capsule inside. A slot on the front seems to fit the symbol that Lois gave him. As he placed the symbol inside, Clarc’s origins are revealed to him. His abilities, his history, the fact that when Luthor murdered Marta, he couldn’t kill Clarc as much as he tried. That Luthor learned so much from the craft that brought the boy here, and used this knowledge to take over. Swaying the mind of Jon-Kent, and erasing Clarc’s memory of his abilities or the death of Marta. With this new knowledge in hand, and the clothes he finds within the capsule, Clarc declares himself THE Superman! [Lofficier, Thomas & McKeever.1996:38]

Having now unleased the robot Lois into the underground, she used her sexuality and charm to sway the workers into an uprising. Smashing machines and destroying the underground. As the furnace is about to explode, Clarc flies down, complete in a new colourful garb and saves them. Asking Lois why she would encourage them to do such a thing. He tries to calm her, as he realises that she is not the woman he loves. As Superman and the robot battle, Luthor reveals that he has been experimenting on himself. Making himself part machine, and a possible equal to Superman, powered by Kryptonite. “I am more than human. Far more than just my hand was shattered on the night a projectile from space crashed near me. Even in my bed of pain. I supervised the doctors who replaced half my flesh with mechanisms I had previously created. Yet my crowning achievement was not those mechanisms – nor the robot in whose design I utilized many secrets I learned from that rocket. But this pulsing inorganic heart, held in its chromium cage – which makes my own still beat! I shaped it from the glowing metal fuselage of that star-spawned vessel – a last little piece of Clarc Kent-Son’s birth-world!” [Lofficier, Thomas & McKeever.1996:50].

As Clarc’s long battle with the robot ends, he flies to his father to learn that Luthor has Lois atop the cathedral. Clarc flies over and begins to fight the robotically enhanced Luther, but finds himself weak around his Kryptonite heart. As the fight continues on, Lois falls from the roof, only to be saved by Clarc. Revealing that despite his weakened state, he managed to remove the Kryptonite, killing Luthor in the process. In the light of a new day, Clarc stands with both his father, Olson and the people of the underground. Declaring that the day of the Super-Man has come and gone. That from now, “your hands and the city’s finest minds will work together to forge the destiny of Metropolis” [Lofficier, Thomas & McKeever.1996:64].

Superman’s Metropolis continues the film’s spirit in its use of art. The early German film heavily used both Cubism and Futurism imagery to further its futuristic feel. Both movements began in the early 1900s, “among modernist movements futurism was exceptionally vehement in its denunciation of the past.” “Futurist Painting used elements of neo-impressionism and cubism to create compositions that expressed the idea of the dynamism, the energy and movement of modern life” [Tate.2018]. The artist of Superman’s Metropolis, Ted McKeever, used elements of cubism and futurism in order to bring the same feel to the book. “By breaking objects and figures down into disctinct areas – or planes – the artists aimed to show different viewpoints at the same time and within the same space and so suggest their three-dimensional form. In doing so they also emphasized the two-dimensional flatness of the canvas instead of creating the illusion of depth.

The incorporation of Superman into the story of Metropolis works well. Both Freder and Clarc are versions of Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero of a Thousand Faces’ [Campbell.1949]. However, Superman stands above them all regardless of this new-found equality. The Nietzschean Ubermensch that follows the idea posited by Nietche. A goal for humanity to set for itself. That human life would be given meaning by how it advances a new generation. [Nietche.1883]

  • Campbell, J. (1949) The Hero of a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books, New York: USA.
  • Dictionary.com (2018) Metropolis. [Online] Dictionary.com, LLC. Available from: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/metropolis [Last Accessed: 27.03.2018]
  • Kubista, B. (1912) Kiss of Death. [Oil on Canvas] Regional Art Gallery, Liberec.
  • Lofficier, R.J.M., Thomas, R. & McKeever, T. (1996) Superman’s Metropolis. DC Comics. Burbank: USA.
  • (1927) Film. Directed by Fritz Lang. [Blu-Ray] UFA: Germany.
  • Miller, M. & Johnson, D. (2003) Superman: Red Son. DC Comics, Burbank: USA.
  • Morrison, G. (2001) Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville can Teach Us about being Human. Spiegel & Grau, New York: USA.
  • Nietche, F. (1883) Thus Spoke Zarathustra. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, South Carolina: USA.
  • Pearson, R & Uricchio, W. (1991) The Many Lives of Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media. BFI Publishing, London: UK.
  • Poplik, B. (2008) Metropolis is New York by day; Gotham is New York by Night. [Online] March 29th. Barry Popik. Available from: https://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/metropolis_is_new_york_by_day_gotham_city_is_new_york_by_night/ [Last Accessed: 27.03.2018]
  • Seigel, J. & Shuster, J. (1939) Action Comics #16: Superman and the Numbers Racket. DC Comics. Burbank: USA.
  • Stella, J. (1919 – 20) Brooklyn Bridge. [Oil on Canvas] Yale University Art Gallery, Yale.
  • (2018) Cubism. [Online] Tate.org. Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/c/cubism [Last Accessed: 27.03.2018]
  • (2018) Futurism. [Online] Tate.org. Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/f/futurism [Last Accessed: 27.03.2018]
  • Weldon, G. (2013) Superman: The Unauthorized Biography. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New Jersey:USA.
  • Von Harbou. T. (1925) Metropolis. Illustriertes Blatt, Dusseldorf: Germany.
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