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'Man of Steel': Superman a true Midwesterner

Christopher Borrelli

1:42 PM CDT, June 7, 2013

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Metropolis was founded in 1839 on the banks of the Ohio River, about as far south as you can go in Illinois without stepping into Kentucky. Its settlers were enthusiastic: They assumed the waterfront real estate would result in a metropolis, hence the name. They were a bit off. Metropolis became a small city (population: 6,500), though in 1972 DC Comics proclaimed it the home of Superman, and the town found its identity. So every June for the past five decades, Metropolis has hosted a four-day Superman festival (this year's concludes Sunday), the centerpiece of which — indeed the centerpiece of Metropolis — is a colorful, 15-foot-tall bronze Man of Steel, his hands poised at his hips, standing watch at the foot of the Massac County Courthouse.

Sturdy, Midwestern.

And, actually, the second Superman statue to stand there. The first was unveiled at the 1972 proclamation, and "DC hated that thing," said Carla Ogle, the longtime co-chair of the annual Superman Celebration. "But then, everyone hated that thing. He looked flimsy. He was probably fiberglass, like from a miniature golf course. He had sideburns and was short and on the heavier side. His feet were huge! He was a little garish."

According to lore, that first Superman was so flashy and surreal that he had to be brought down a notch.

So, a few locals tested his bulletproof capabilities; now he's bronze.

See, Superman may be the Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow, the Last Son of Krypton. But, mostly, Superman is a Midwesterner.

It's not a point that's often made about Superman, who is celebrating his 75th anniversary this summer and starring in director Zack Snyder's quite Midwestern movie, "Man of Steel," opening Friday. What with all his universe saving, the intergalactic lineage and the part-time big-city address, the fact that Clark Kent grew up on a Kansas farm has never been the sexiest part of the legend. And yet, for better or worse, his Midwestern-ness is the key to coming to grips with what has for decades been alternately one of the most durable and tedious of cultural icons, a symbol of American can-do albeit delivered with an insistent piety.

Feel free to scoff, considering that what follows is coming from a transplanted New Englander, but:

Superman is the embodiment of Midwestern character — the well-meaning, the sturdy, the pious and the provincial. In "Man of Steel," when young Clark realizes he can hear literally everyone on Earth, he runs into a broom closet (a scene shot in Plano's Centennial Elementary School, in far west Kendall County), presses his hands against his ears and refuses to leave, moaning "The world's too big." The response from Ma Kent (Diane Lane) sounds distinctly Midwestern: "Then make it small."

Indeed, that "unapologetic embrace of modesty" is by design, Snyder said in an interview last week.

"I hated how in the past Superman movies, that 1978 one especially, Superman's Midwest origins were always embraced in these stylized, condescending ways that kept the Midwest just shy of being a real place," Snyder said. "Even in the Bryan Singer (2006) Superman film, they say, 'Truth, justice and that other stuff' instead of 'American way.' Which I might have done myself a decade ago. But we went after the Americana wholeheartedly. Not to be political, just to say it's OK for Superman to remind us this mythology is based in its Midwestern-ness. He's unapologetic about his roots. We even have him saying to the government, 'Look, you can't rein me in, you can't control me. … But I'm from Kansas!' And in a way, I think there's trust in that."

Without giving anything away (I swear, there are no spoilers here): "Man of Steel" tells the story of a guy who comes from a place where fracking (or at least the Kryptonian equivalent) creates earthquakes. He settles in a town where expanses are flat, and barns and windmills and water towers stand tall, breaking up the rows of corn. He gets into fights at the IHOP and is reminded by his parents he is better and more upstanding than everyone else but shouldn't flaunt it — stay modest. He watches college football, wears a Kansas City Royals T-shirt, tends to keep his feelings bottled up. He's hard to read but turns deeply moralistic, stoic and judgmental, willing to go out of his way to help anyone but eventually siding with the authorities. He heads off for the big city and gets beaten down by hipster jerks who wear a lot of black. But finally he decides that though people outside of the Midwest can't be trusted, he will be nice to all of them.

Sounds like the Midwest to me.

Some of the best Superman comic book tales of the past few decades have had an air of repressed heartland stoicism (Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?") or focused on Superman trying to retain a tight, manageable community (Brian Azzarello's "For Tomorrow"). But in its Midwestern iconography, self-proclaimed American values and locations, none comes close to Snyder's "Man of Steel." For instance, Metropolis, usually a substitute for New York City (partly because Superman films tend to shoot there), is more distinctly a Midwestern metropolis now, partly because it's Chicago you're looking at.

"I don't see Chicago as a stand-in for New York," Snyder said, "or even Metropolis as really Chicago. But I was attracted to all the modernist architecture, the Mies van der Rohe buildings, which is the architecture of the Midwest."

Then there's Smallville, Superman's Kansas hometown, which, in the film, is Plano.

Several of the movie's biggest scenes were shot there and, though Snyder and Co. were there two years ago now, the town has stayed unnervingly committed to remaining Superman's Midwest residence. The downtown is three blocks long and devoutly Smallville. The train depot still reads "Smallville Town Hall." A sign in the window of Cooper Home Furnishings, a Plano staple since the 1800s, still reads "Go Smallville Spartans!" And signage for Smallville stores, put up by the production, are not going anywhere.

That decision is courtesy of Mayor Bob Hausler, who explained to me that "Witless Protection," starring Larry the Cable Guy, was shot in Plano, and he always felt Plano could do better. Now that it has, he plans to make the most out of the town's luck. Hausler is a receding guy, with a large trophy from a national walleye fishing contest on his desk and a framed piece of "Man of Steel" pre-production art, an eerily prescient portrait of a sleepy Midwestern Smallville that looks a lot like Plano, though it was painted before anyone from the film had visited Plano. He was quiet until I asked about Metropolis. Then, as forcefully as I imagine he gets, he said, "The difference between Metropolis and Plano is that Superman was actually in Plano, and he's never been to Metropolis."

I told Metropolis' Ogle.

She replied that Plano "is just a place where they filmed some movie scenes, and we're the home of Superman. We're Metropolis!" Which is not very Midwestern of either, particularly because, talking to residents from both cities, Superman would feel at home in either place.

Jim Hambrick, who runs the Super Museum in Metropolis, said: "I came here from Los Angeles, so I know what it's like to arrive and learn the language of the Midwest and become acclimated. The people here like that the streets roll up at night, right up until they don't like that their kids always leave because they can't find anything for them here."

Which is what Superman does: He moves away.

"Actually, Superman is so Midwestern he would be from any Midwest Rust Belt area," said Brad Ricca, who teaches literature at Case Western University in Cleveland and recently wrote "Super Boys," a history of Superman's creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. "But Superman is from Cleveland because his creators came from Cleveland. The first stories are basically in Cleveland. Superman fights hoods and guys who beat their wives, and the city looks terrible and has these generic problems. It's so Cleveland. Superman even sends a telegraph back to Cleveland. It's hard to say if Superman is staunchly a Midwestern literary figure, but he does pack his bags to ply his trade in the big city, which is another example of Midwest brain drain."

It's also kind of perfect that Siegel and Shuster, sons of immigrant Orthodox Jews who settled in the heartland, would create him in Cleveland, which is technically in the Midwest, though it doesn't much feel like it.

If Superman has a tendency to seem a bit too upstanding, too wholesome, that may be because, to an extent, his Midwestern values were intensified later, by DC's East Coast writers.

"The farm stuff didn't come in until after Siegel and Shuster, in the late 1940s, when Smallville was invented," said author Tom De Haven, who wrote a well-received 2005 literary novel, "It's Superman!" "I've even heard the first Smallville was going to be in Maryland." Likewise, Ricca told me he always believed Superman's Kansas roots were "an Easterner's arbitrary idea of the Midwest, just a stand-in for the Midwest, for Middle-American values."

Nevertheless, it stuck.

"I see Superman now as a Midwesterner in the sense that he has definite moral values," said Larry Tye, who wrote "Superman: A High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero." "And as a born and bred Bostonian, (I think) that certainty of right and wrong is probably a heartland quality."

In a similar vein, Zachary Baker-Salmon, who produced the balletic "Superman 2050" for Chicago's Theater Unspeakable, said: "Superman is about not being a jerk, not being arrogant, nobody is better than anybody else. We're definitely embracing Midwestern stereotypes, but I do think that moral compass makes him the most Midwestern superhero."

Frankly, Superman's self-congratulatory decency, that sense that he stands for justice and morality in a way no one else could understand, grows exhausting and probably hasn't helped his relatability. And yet there's a secret to getting Superman right while still retaining his Midwestern character, explained DC's Scott Snyder, arguably the most sought-after superhero scribe in comics, now writing "Superman Unchained": Remind the audience that Superman is sincere but not always right.

"Traveling through the Midwest I always think of things as being big and small at the same time," Snyder said. "You're humbled by the landscape but feel huge if you're the only thing there most of the time. Which speaks to Superman. He is the most powerful being on the planet but a deeply human character."

Which is somewhat the feel you get from Plano, a pocket-sized drama surrounded by an epic, the modesty of its sand-colored bricks and quiet streets slouched alongside a grand, green horizon. Indeed, the next time you're driving into Plano, watch for the welcome signs along U.S. Route 34, amended recently to reflect a significant chapter in Plano's legacy. The signs are large and tasteful, and the greeting welcomes you to Plano, birthplace of the mechanical farm harvester. Then beneath that, a boast: "Smallville, USA." Then beneath that, in a much smaller font, a qualifier: "Scenes from 'Man of Steel' were filmed here."

Civic pride with an asterisk. Superman would approve.

cborrelli@tribune.com | Twitter @borrelli