NEW YORK — The fictional city of Metropolis, a thinly veiled stand-in for New York, has long been the traditional backdrop of Superman's fight for truth, justice and the American way.
But there’s not much room for Metropolis in "Man of Steel," an origin story that focuses on a reluctant hero’s journey of self-discovery. Most of the non-linear plot to the film that opened Thursday takes place elsewhere: Krypton, the Kansas heartland, and the various outposts where Clark Kent travels as a migrant worker while struggling to come to terms with his otherworldly powers.
Only for the film’s knock-down, drag-out finale do Metropolis’s vast cityscapes — or what’s left of them, after an orgy of CGI-powered destruction — get substantial screen time.
For years, Superman comics, radio serials, cartoons and live-action TV shows were filled with winking nods to New York. Metropolis was referred to as “the Big Apricot” rendered with an Art Deco style of architecture that evoked Manhattan, with fictional landmarks based on their real-life New York counterparts.
The playful fictionalization — seen also with Batman's Gotham City — was in contrast with comics such as Spider-Man, Daredevil and the Fantastic Four, which were definitively grounded in a version of New York.
Yet in modern screen adaptations of Superman, Metropolis has been suggested to be New York City itself.
"Superman: The Movie," which hit screens in 1978 and effectively gave birth to the modern superhero movie, never explicitly referenced New York. But many of the city’s best-known landmarks — among them Grand Central Terminal, the Statue of Liberty, the UN Headquarters, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and the Brooklyn Bridge — were featured liberally in exterior shots.
In "Superman II," many of those landmarks were seen again. During the climactic showdown with General Zod, Christopher Reeve's Superman is memorably kicked into the torch of the Statue of Liberty with the World Trade Center prominent in the background.
When the franchise was rebooted to mixed reviews with 2006’s "Superman Returns," director Bryan Singer envisioned Metropolis as a stylistic cross between the New York of the 1930s and present day. That film also clearly depicted the Brooklyn Bridge, along with the American International Building, Battery Park, the MetLife Building, the Woolworth Building, World Financial Center and 7 World Trade Center.
In "Man of Steel," Metropolis exists solely to be destroyed on an apocalyptic scale — with unmistakable 9/11 overtones — during the final confrontation between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon).
That’s not to say Metropolis, and by proxy New York, is gone for good from the Superman canon. With "Man of Steel" covering Superman's beginnings, the sequel that’s already been green-lit promises to feature the city more prominently.
The latest installment in the Superman saga is a satisfying summer popcorn flick and a blockbuster-in-waiting. But if you're looking for a love letter to New York, you're better off seeing "The Great Gatsby."
"Man of Steel" is showing at 39 theaters across the five boroughs.