Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Trouble With Superman

Superman, as drawn by Jim Lee
** There may be what some consider SPOILERS for Man of Steel  below. **

I've been fairly quiet about Man of Steel ever since I first reviewed it.  If you need a refresher of what I thought, check out my review here.  Safe to say I was not the movie's biggest fan, and I am not the only one.  Many critics and fans were divided on the film, with diehard Superman fans literally split right down the middle due to the drastic changes in story and tone that the film represented.  I fell on the side of the divide that did not particularly like the film.

What's inspired this post are two recent opinion pieces, one from Herofix and the other from IGN, both trying to riddle out their own reasons as to why Man of Steel did not connect with the mass fan base like The Avengers or The Dark Knight trilogy did.  However, I don't think it's just Man of Steel that's the problem, I think the problem is simply with the Superman character in all of his different mediums.  This is why I feel it's time for me to add my own thoughts as to why I feel Man of Steel did not succeed, where I feel Warner Bros. should go with future sequels, and what DC Comics needs to do in general to their Big Blue Boy Scout.

Currently, I feel the character of Superman is languishing in obscurity, and I'm not just talking about Man of Steel, I'm talking about all of the comic books that feature Superman month to month.  It seems everyone that writes Superman, whether it be for film, television, or comics, no one seems to know who the character truly is.  I think there have been many admirable attempts in recent years trying to get back at the core of Superman, such as DC completely rebooting the Superman comics nearly two years ago with the New 52, but two years later and the Man of Steel is just as lifeless in the comics as he was onscreen this Summer.  The problem is, Superman has always been a hopeful, optimistic character who fights the bullies and stands up for the little guys, the thing is, modern audiences are too cynical to find a morally righteous man like that believable, so what do the writers do, they go in the opposite direction.

Screenwriter David Goyer wrote Batman Begins and came up with the stories for its two sequels, but Man of Steel just did not have the same zing or truth of character that his Batman films had.  Why?  Take another example, comic book writers Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder, both having written some of the greatest Batman stories ever, and when both tried to reinvent the Man of Steel in the comics over the past two years - with Action Comics and Superman Unchained, respectively - neither of their attempts were all that successful at getting back to the core of Superman's character.  The problem that these writers all seem to be facing is that they're trying to reinvent Superman rather than just letting him be who he is as a character.
his script for

A character that has existed for 75 years now has existed for that long, not because he's grown stale and is no longer relatable, but because people still like who Superman is and has always been.  There is no need to reinvent a character this popular, and when you try, all you do is anger or frustrate the people who have always loved these stories for what they are.  The problems with Goyer, Morrison, Snyder, and many other writers who have tried over the past few years to make Superman "relevant" again, is that they don't seem to understand what made Superman relevant in the first place.

Why have people always loved Superman, and what made them love him in the first place?  That's the question these writers need to be answering, and honestly, what has always made Superman relevant is that here is a man who literally represents the best of humanity.  Superman always makes the right choice, even if it isn't agreeable with everyone.  That's what makes him a hero.  He doesn't resort to murder just because it's the easiest alternative, and if he does kill, as comics writer John Byrne showed, he is filled with regret and his haunted by it, he's not bounding off and cracking jokes with the US military the very next scene (see Man of Steel to understand what I'm talking about).  The thing that no writer currently writing Superman seems to understand is that what makes Superman isn't his mythology or his powers.  You can make changes to those and I may question them at first, but at the end of the day, Superman has never been about that.  The varying forms of Superman in comics, television, and film have shown that the mythology and power set are indeed maleable, but what is not is who Superman is as a character.

From his earliest days, Superman has always done the right thing, even if it was the hardest thing to do, or even went against the grain of the law.  Superman showed up and taught the bad guy a lesson, even if it was a corrupt politician or someone in power.  There is a reason he got the nickname of the Big Blue Boy Scout, because Superman had a moral compass that always told him what was right and what was wrong.  He wasn't like other heroes like Batman, where he is conflicted as to who or what he should be.  Superman knows he has power and therefore it's his responsibility to use it to better mankind.  The thing is, it's not to say that Superman can't be represented with a dilemma where the right moral decision isn't so clear cut, or that he may not get depressed or feel remorse from time to time like any normal person would, but the truth of Superman is that he is a better person than us, and that's why people have always aspired to the character.

Superman is what we want to be, or wish we could be, not because of his powers, but because of his virtue.  It's the cynical detractors that have spurred all of these writers to try and write Superman as a more complex character with gray areas.  At the end of the day though, Superman is a black-and-white character in the gray area of our world, and he has to riddle out what is black and what is white.  That's where the drama comes from in a great Superman story, not from human angst - because even though he learned his morality from humans, he isn't human.  Why are so many people eager to try and tear down and destroy people because they are too perfect, too kind, too nice, too virtuous, or too optimistic?  Do we really need to complicate a character who is all of those things?  I don't think it's necessary.

When it gets right down to it, we see these big budget films, watch TV shows, and read comic books, to escape from our everyday existence.  Sure, we want a good, emotionally involving story, but I honestly am getting frustrated with all of this entertainment that is trying to make our fantasy and escapism too realistic and serious.  That's the biggest point of the IGN article, is that blockbusters in general are just taking themselves too seriously.  They pointed out that Superman barely even smiled or cracked a joke in Man of Steel.  Since when does Superman being so serious constitute better?  As the same article points out, while Superman: The Movie is at times campy, it's just a whole lot more fun and  more emotionally involving than Man of Steel because all this seriousness and realism is sucking out all of the wonder of these fantasy films.

We're supposed to feel something when we see Superman defy the laws of gravity.  It's wondrous, it's magical, it's impossible, and that's why it is so impactful when represented right.  We can't do these things in real life, but for a few minutes or hours out of our lives, we can suspend disbelief and actually believe that maybe anything is possible, and that's why wonderment is so important in storytelling.  If we are constantly being reminded of our own reality while in these fantasy worlds, it's hard for that disbelief to ever be suspended.  This is why we need Superman.  Not to show us a reflection of ourselves, but to show us what to strive towards.

Take the recent Summer blockbuster, Star Trek Into Darkness, as an example of a film that did all of this right.  Yes, it was was a much darker, more solemn film than its 2009 predecessor (which I still prefer for it's naive innocence), but director JJ Abrams still created moments of sheer movie magic.  He gave us jaw-dropping wonder and moments worth cheering for and caring about, because he showed us these characters who chose to do the right moral thing regardless of if it cost them their own lives.  Man of Steel did not do that, which is why the ratings I gave the two films differ from A+ to D-.

Man of Steel did not work for me, not just because it misrepresented who the character of Superman always has been, not just because it made drastic changes in tone and mythology from previous interpretations, but because it just did not move me.  It was a movie that left me emotionally cold and questioning the moral decisions of the characters.  Jonathan Kent would never tell Clark to possibly let another person die to keep his secret.  The Clark I've always loved would never watch his dad get sucked up into a tornado just so he wont reveal his secret to anyone.  These are character things, but they're also moral issues that do not represent the Kent family values that people have grown to love over the course of 75 years of stories.  But most importantly for me, it's exactly as the IGN articled stated, Man of Steel just never had any fun or excitement.

There was never a rush of emotion when Superman saved the day or did something cool, because the filmmakers were so intent on representing everything as if it really happened in the real world and were taking it all so seriously.  While I am always pushing for comic books to be represented as genuine works of art, at the end of the day, they're still comic books.  They're supposed to be fun.  There needs to be some jokes in there to alleviate the tension.  Show me some wit, warmth, and charm.  We want to feel hopeful and safe whenever Superman comes onto the screen, but I never felt that.  In short, I just want to see a world that's better than our own for just a few short hours, and I didn't get that.

The Herofix article really hit that lost note home for me.  The writer of that article asked people out of all the superhero movies released, which world would they most like to live in.  Almost all of the people said the world of Marvel Studios, where Iron Man and the Avengers live.  Why?  Because it's more fun than our world, it's simpler, there are less gray areas, and heroes can just be that, heroes.  When the writer asked if they wanted to live in The Dark Knight trilogy's Gotham City or Man of Steel's Metropolis, the answer was a resounding no, because these worlds are even more messed up than our own.  Who would want to live in a world like that, so why would I want to spend hours on end watching this for entertainment?

The thing is, The Dark Knight trilogy I feel gets away with it because Gotham has always been the most messed up city on Earth in the comics, and even still, throughout all three films, there is a dry sense of humor from characters like Alfred, playboy Bruce, and Lucius Fox - especially in Batman Begins - that keeps the proceedings fun.  Man of Steel didn't even have that dry wit going for it.  Then you look on the flip side with something like The Avengers, that has you laughing and cheering all while feeling as if the world really is at stake.  How did The Avengers pull this off?  In short, they acknowledged that this is fantasy, that this is a comic book, they had fun with it, but the characters took the proceedings serious, therefore we believed in them, and we learned to believe in heroes once again. I never believed in Superman once in Man of Steel, even though I desperately wanted to.

I still wish almost anytime someone mentions Man of Steel that I had loved it, but I didn't.  As it is, the film has already grossed close to $300 million in just the US alone, with a sequel already announced.  With this cinematic interpretation of Superman more than likely carrying on for many more years, inspiring the interpretations of every other DC Comics character in order to do a Justice League movie, I think it's also worth taking the time to see what DC and Warner Bros. can do to try and win back the fans that did not like the first film, while still appealing to the ones that did.

The first step in the right direction for the sequel is that DC and Warner Bros. are making the film not just a Superman movie, but a Batman/Superman movie.  As was revealed at Comic-Con this weekend, the film will be a team-up between the two most popular characters in the DC Comics universe set for a tentative release date of Summer 2015.  Writer David Goyer has already proven that he's more than capable at writing Batman, just see Batman Begins for the results.  While Christian Bale will not be the Caped Crusader, nor will it be a continuation of Christopher Nolan's Batman universe, I think Zack Snyder's gritty, realistic vision for Man of Steel will make it very easy to introduce a believable Batman in this cinematic universe.  The great thing is this is very familiar territory for Goyer, lending a slight sense of security to the proceedings, and this also somewhat forces the filmmakers to step back and put more thought into representing the story of how these two become best friends, rather than taking liberties with the characters (at least, I hope).  However, I think the single greatest thing about this revelation for the sequel is that it has the potential to bridge the gap for the fans who did not like the first film.

Batman is arguably the most popular superhero of all-time, even more so than Superman, especially if you take into account the number of movies, TV shows, and videogames, made about him.  The mere presence of Batman lends a slight sense of security to fanboys, giving us hope that even if they don't fully rectify what we didn't like about Superman in Man of Steel, at least they can really nail Batman, seeing as how Goyer has already done it time and time again.  Of course, even with the inclusion of Batman and the story more than likely centering around the growth of his and Superman's friendship, I still think the movie will feature Superman more prominently than Batman, primarily because it is the sequel to Man of Steel.  This is where my concern comes in.  Honestly, if I had loved Man of Steel, my anticipation for this Batman/Superman movie would be through the roof, but unfortunately I'm skeptical, because the big elephant in the room for me is still their interpretation of Superman.

Personally, I loved Henry Cavill as Superman.  I feel that if he had been given a better script to work with, he could have rivaled Christopher Reeve, but that was not the case, and he was the only shining light in a dim movie.  Here's the thing DC and Warner Bros. need to do to win back fans, without alienating the ones who loved the first movie.  First and foremost, my problems with Man of Steel primarily stemmed from the simple fact that the Superman onscreen was not the optimistic Superman I'd always loved in the comic books. 

You can place Superman in a more gritty world, but don't make him so conflicted with human emotion that there is nothing inspiring or heroic about him.  Give us an optimistic Superman.  What makes Batman and Superman's friendship so rich is that they're literally polar opposites.  It's like The Odd Couple, but with superheroes.  However, if they presented Superman as he was in Man of Steel, opposite of Batman, there wouldn't be too much of a difference from Bruce Wayne to Clark Kent, because they're both pessimistic characters.  Not much room for drama or humor.  Secondly though, they just need to have more fun this second go around.

There is no need to treat everything so seriously.  This should be fun, seeing these two mythological characters meeting for the first time on the big screen.  There should be some humor in pairing them together and there should be some genuine stand up and cheer moments, such as the inevitable moment when they finally start to gel and work together as a team.  That's what made The Avengers work so well with fans across the board, and I think they can still do all of this with the same tonal style that was established in Man of Steel.  In doing so, they'd still satisfy those who dug Man of Steel, but by being more faithful with Superman's character and allowing room for more fun and not so much doom, gloom, and destruction, I think DC and Warner Bros. could seriously pick back up the fans that did not like Man of Steel

 In many ways I firmly believe that this could be like a blank slate for Warner Bros. to fix the problems with the first film, while still catering to its fanbase, therefore making the sequel a more crowd pleasing affair with a wider majority of fans.  Here's hoping that they actually listen to the backlash and don't just look at the big box office numbers.

The Comic-Con teaser image for the 2015 Batman/Superman movie

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