In Man Of Steel Superman has lost his usual red underwear. Well, more he never has it in the first place in this adaption. It’s no wonder why, no one, not even Batman, wears their underwear outside anymore.
That said, Superman still has his cape, something that’s seemingly as much an artifact as the underwear thing. Yes, Thor and Loki both have capes, but they’re demigods. Batman’s cape is explained away as serving not only the effect he creates but a utilitarian purpose as well. Hardly anyone wears capes these days. In The Incredibles, the first superhero deconstruction you saw if you’re my age, Edna Mode goes to great lengths to explain the impracticality of capes in a morbidly comedic sequence.
So why does Superman still have his bright red cape? It’s doesn’t make much sense (see Edna Mode’s list for reasons), yet it’s part of his costume and and he doesn’t rip it off. More importantly, why did the filmmakers choose to keep the cape? It’s iconic, sure, but nothing is sacred in adaptions. Here’s the deal: capes are heroic. There’s the image of the kid with the towel tied round his neck pretending to be a superhero. That’s Superman. He’s the Boy Scout, the Kansas-bred all-American hero.
And his cape is an integral part of that. Look at the use of capes in the film. General Zod, when we first see him, is wearing a cape. It doesn’t take long, however, for him to shrug it off and, of course, become the villain he is. When we first see Superman in his outfit we first see his red boots and red cape. When Superman meets the military, we once again focus on his cape. His cape is what sets him apart. Zod doesn’t have a cape, nor do any of his followers; but Jor-El, Superman’s father, does. It’s a beautiful visual cue, one that speaks to the basis of our pop culture mythology: the person wearing the cape is a good guy, a hero.
Such is Superman: he’s the archetypical superhero. The cape-wearing, evil-fighting man in tights. Contrast him to Joel, from The Last of Us (because that game is amazing and bears referencing). Joel is not a hero, he’s not even a good guy. Joel is a desperate man who’s more than willing to do horrible things. Joel is a survivor, he acts solely to survive and protect his own interests. Superman, conversely, simply is good and will protect anyone.
So where do we get a narrative? Joel’s comes from challenging his interests and upsetting his status quo to see how he reacts. The narrative/arc is clear from the onset, though Naughty Dog makes several bold choices with where to take it. Superman has no obvious arc. He’s invincible and infallible; any impending doom or moral dilemma lacks tension because we know Superman can’t be hurt and will always do right. After all, he’s wearing a cape. So where does the narrative tension come from? How does Man of Steel craft a story that doesn’t undermine his character but still delivers an engaging story?
The movie addresses the question of the cape. The story’s primary tension comes not from Superman vs. Zod, but rather within Superman himself. Clark Kent must become Superman… Or must he? The Clark Kent we meet is a Clark Kent divided. He has these powers, but should he use them? How should he use them? There lies the conflict; the tension is the question of should Clark Kent wear the cape or hide in anonymity. Granted, we already know the answer, but it’s a far more interesting arc than “will he survive?”. Once that question is answered, however, a new one arises: to what lengths will Superman go in pursuit of what the cape means? How far will Superman go to protect someone?
Zack Snyder has described Man of Steel as the least ironic movie he’s made. It might be the most honest recent superhero movie besides Captain America, there’s no attempt to give Superman the dark and gritty treatment so common in our era of antiheroes. Where The Last of Us gives us an antihero who rings closer to a villain, Man of Steel presents a hero with no doubt of his goodness. So Superman wears a cape.