It is clear that people love Batman. There is something to the Dark Knight that the public responds to and much of that is attributed to the fact that, at its core, the character of Batman is a human being. To be Batman all you need is the desire to push yourself beyond all physical limits… and have access to an endless multi-billion dollar fortune and significant mental psychosis from watching your parents get shot to death in a dark alley when you were eight. This is why the first Iron Man movie was such a unexpected blockbuster. It’s about a guy – yes, another billionaire genius haunted by daddy issues – who wears a suit that he made. Inside the gleaming CGI metal suit there was a charming narcissist character created by Robert Downey, Jr. that audiences responded to.
The best part of any sci-fi or fantasy or wham, bam , pow adventure is the character and it is here where most of the above genres lose their way. We want to cheer for the protagonist because the story being told is one that engages us emotionally and dramatically. Please note, I used the SAT word, “protagonist” and not “good guy.” If you look at the most beloved long form TV dramas of the past decade you see not bastions of truth, justice, and the American way, but flawed human characters who battle their demons as much as they battle their opponents. MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD, THE WIRE, DEXTER – the moral line is blurred and negligible. We cheer for these self-interested characters who define term “anti-hero” more so than “gritty” characters like Dirty Harry ever could. So where does that leave our heroes? Do they all have to be judgmental, cynics quipping one-liners like they were guest-stars on the GILMORE GIRLS? What about altruistic heroes with no emotional baggage and a genuine desire not to subvert truth, justice, and the American way, but to uphold it? Of course, there is only one character who by definition and self-proclamation is the embodiment of everything that modern protagonists – sardonic laser blasting heroes and grizzled crooked cops, alike – seem to do to circumvent. Superman.
Superman is the first superhero. He is the basis and template for every other superhero that has come down the pike since his first published adventure in 1938. Capes, colorful boots, underpants over spandex? Superman. Superman is everything we expect from superheroes and it is in defiance of this concept that superhero movies have been so very successful over the past decade. If you look at the first big blockbuster super hero movies 1989’s BATMAN, 2000’s X-Men, and 2002’s SPIDER-MAN by Sam Raimi, you see a triumvirate of movies ostensibly about outsiders who never fit in and are so gifted that they can save the world in their own way. They are honor bound to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves and never take any credit. They escape into the night back into the real world that fears them. The inherent drama is naturally engaging. The “everyday” character who can do so much more than anyone every expects from them. These movies feature characters seemingly destined for pathos and character driven stories. Contrast that with what the public knows about Superman. He’s bright – literally all glaring primary colors, he’s all powerful and only one thing in the universe can stop him. What can one do with such a character? Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN from 1979 was an amazing attempt to make this god-like character more relatable , but so much of that came from the charm and grace of Christopher Reeve’s underrated performance rather than from the character itself. We laugh when Reeve as Clark Kent is aloof and overlooked by world, but we are in on the joke. Superman is such a lofty character that even when the love of his life dies, he is able to reverse time and save her. Where is the conflict in such a character? Where is the moral ambiguity about someone who, when first introduced to the world, wears his hyperbolized earnestness on his spandex sleeve?
Superman can move mountains, throw all of Earth’s atomic weapons into the sun, race around the world and crush coal into a diamonds with his bare hands, but most people would rather watch Vic Mackey from THE SHIELD bust down a door, beat up a perp and plant the drugs so he can cover up his own crimes. We root for Mackey not because of who he is, but rather how what he does is presented to us week in and week out. We want to root for Superman, but how do you root for someone who can just about do anything he wants? How do we relate, as an audience, to an almost omnipotent being? Could we accept a Superman shooting zingers from the hip Robert Downey style? Would such humor in the hands of such a powerful character be seen as an almost disrespectful carelessness? Would we accept a darker, more BATMAN BEGINS style Superman movie? Director Zack Snyder’s attempt to do just that was last summer’s MAN OF STEEL. Drawing from the heart of the Donner/Reeve film and then layering in a lumbering orgy of modern special effects, Snyder seemed to want the best of everything that Superman represents without sacrificing the visual spectacle of what Superman’s all powerful abilities could do. Snyder spent long stretches of film attempting to make clear how important Superman’s upbringing by Ma and Pa Kent was to who he became. Instead of Donner’s altruistic Americana Snyder paints the portrait of an outsider, forever trapped in the terrifying knowledge of what he could do with the abilities that he is almost shamed into keeping secret. Instead of embracing who he is and what he can do, going off to Metropolis to become a mild-mannered reporter, Snyder’s Superman runs from his gifts, escapes into anonymity until he is forced to accept just who he is. Unlike the joy and abandon young Clark Kent feels with the discovery of his abilities that Donner and Bryan Singer’s SUPERMAN RETURNS revel in, Snyder subscribes to a narrative flavor of heroism more along the lines of Wolverine or a Peter Parker freshly exposed to his powers via a spider bite. Instead of embracing the icon, Snyder tried to scuff up and tarnish the glowing emblem that is Superman’s image. The costume Snyder chose was muted and less vibrant. The powers on display were not whimsical or even tinged with any amount of awe. The Donner film’s tagline was “You Will Believe a Man Can Fly.” Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL could have been just been a sequel to any other summer blockbuster where cities get destroyed. While it was exciting to see these larger than life fight scenes with mind blowing special effects, just like any sci-fi story, without character – without heart – it was just CGI debris in yet another THX enhanced IMAX explosion.
It is ironic that in a film so devoid of heart, and the ultimate whimsy of the Superman character, Henry Cavill’s Superman explains that it is not an “S” on his chest but a symbol from his native planet, Krypton, that “stands for hope.” In his role as Jor-El, 1978 Superman’s father, Marlon Brando educates his infant son that the people of Earth could be “a great people if they wish to be. The only lack the light to show them the way.” I have a hard time believing that the Superman of MAN OF STEEL is a Superman that anyone would really trust. After the film’s “twist” climax, my son turned to me and without hesitation and said, “Superman wouldn’t do that.” Now, I’m not saying we should return our modern day superheroes to their roots or even to their Superfriends popularity to appeal to elementary school kids, but there is something that Superman needs to represent that is lacking in modern storytelling. Have we lost the ability to believe in altruism and a genuine concern for others? Does Superman need to find out he is dying from radiation poisoning and turn into a Kryptonian Walter White in his attempts to put a stop once and for all to Lex Luthor? Now that sounds like an interesting story, but is it the iconic Superman that I want to see on screen as John William’s horn section sends chills down my spine?
I’m not sure how, or even if, a Superman movie could be made by anyone other than Pixar. They have already proven to be masters of almost every genre and THE INCREDIBLES is one of the best superhero movies ever made. Why is it that in animation we are allowed to escape into a world where everything that makes Superman is just another tool for storytelling and not a hindrance to computer generated explosions or toppling skyscrapers?
Batman is a creature of the shadows with a cool costume and batarangs that he flings at deserving criminals from the shadows and every one, young and old, talks about how cool he is. Superman can melt through a building with heat vision but is seen as an icon of a bygone era with no place in the modern world. I’m not sure if that is more of a commentary on the character or the stories that we, as a world culture, want to embrace.