Welcome to Issue 5 of ‘The Marvelous Da7e!’
Real quick mission statement: this column is for discussion of superhero movie news and superhero movies. Titular allegiance aside, this sphere includes non-Marvel properties.
This week: I think the cinema has misused Superman as a character and a podcast about functional design blows my mind and reveals the Man of Tomorrow.
Down in San Diego, our brethren unite to cover television, movies and comics. I can promise you full analysis of the superhero movies next week, but what’s the fun of calling shots when each new day could potentially bring new pictures of Jamie Foxx’s Blusferatu Electro make-up?
Instead, I think it’s time I face a new fear I’ve developed since the release of Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel: Maybe we’ve all been misusing Superman as a character in movies the whole time.
In a Twitter conversation with critic Todd Gilchrist, I stumbled across my own cognitive dissonance involving my relationship with Superman the iconic character and Superman as he had been portrayed in movies. I think this might be happening to a lot of us who turn out with reasonable hopes for Superman movies only to have this weird feeling during the credits that it all could have been better, somehow.
To me, Superman was never a compelling character to center a film on. Assuming that basic tenants of dramatics apply, it’s hard to change Superman and change is what makes a story a story. It’s why the Marvel Comics movie characters don’t have as hard a time with origin stories as the DC Universe characters do: Marvel characters get their powers in the realm of metaphor (scrawny teenager becomes Spider-Man, guy gets very serious anger issues from gamma radiation). But the two major DC Heroes were older than their Marvel counterparts and they also beat the other comics house to the silver screen, getting multiple films before Blade, X-Men and Spidey came around. In the early days of superhero cinema, there was no internet to make filmmakers feel responsible, so – in theory – they only had the restrictions of the movie to work around. To a certain degree, Richard Donner (‘78, Superman: The Movie) and Tim Burton (‘89, Batman) could shape the perception of these heroes, and to a great extent they did.
The choices that Richard Donner made in concocting Superman: The Movie were made out of concern for what was on the right side of that colon, not as an adaptation of what the character had been used for in the comics (though who could blame them after the Silver Age shifted the focus away from Supes himself and onto a colorful menagerie of Super-Stuff). “You will believe a man can fly” is a special effects promise, not a tagline to a plot. Superman: The Movie is fun. But it’s not a movie about Superman as he’s been represented in the American zeitgeist since his creation. When I tweet: “Superman is a movie about performances and flying and time travel.,” what I mean beyond a character limit is that Superman: The Movie is elevated by Christopher Reeves, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, flying special effects and a character-breaking plot twist that soils the story-universe because that’s what it takes to make God mourn at the climax of your movie. An all-powerful Superman is, fittingly, dramatic Kryptonite.
Franchise filmmaking being what it was, Superman II, III and IV provided diminishing returns as other creatives struggled to force Superman into something that could be used as a movie plot, but – because the comic book fan is capable of squaring continuities across multiple books, our natural inclination is to seek continuity in franchises as a manifestation of our fandom – all were doomed because they all were sequels to Donner’s movie about a guy who can turn back time literally without breaking a sweat. It was a mistake to do that as a storyteller, a mistake Tim Burton avoided in his Batman adaptation. Burton’s solution to distill what an iconic character is down to a digestible film was making The Joker responsible for Batman’s creation and Batman responsible for The Joker’s, so he’s avenging his parents and coming to terms with his own vigilantism. That, of course, is a comics continuity flub, but it didn’t matter at the time (and certainly doesn’t matter now). Continuity between sequels didn’t warrant much attention until Warner Brothers realized two things: You can’t recast Bruce Wayne film-to-film and you can’t trust Joel Schumacher with his idea of camp. Then, one-year after Christopher Nolan kicked-off our current era of character continuity, Bryan Singer inexplicably decided set Superman Returns as a Donner-sequel. Except this time he gave Jesus a son that Jesus abandoned, and we all remember the piano-destroying way that went down.
Zach Snyder made a good Superman movie. Unlike Donner’s universe, this new one can exist with a very powerful, but not all-powerful Superman. He punches and flies, but he’s up against a villain that represents his past (Batman-like) and that is a real threat to him. Maybe the only threat to him. What I saw on screen jives with the character I associate with the icon. Man of Steel’s sin, in my eyes, is rebooting the Superman universe in a way that AGAIN had to shuffle around the cinematic version of the character’s non-action. In this case, David Goyer uses slight of hand flashbacks to distract us from the fact that adult Clark Kent has already made the decision to be humanity’s savior by the time we fade up on bearded Henry Cavill. The character actually makes his decision somewhere in-between Pa Kent’s death and when we catch up with him fully grown. Zod does force him to make himself known to humans, but that feels as cosmetic as him getting the suit, because we don’t see him struggle with it and we don’t get the idea that things have changed. He hid out in some job secretly saving people at the beginning of the movie and by the end he’s killed enough of Metropolis’ population to hide out in a reporter’s job and secretly save people. Once again, Superman causes a lot of problems for everything around him, but as a character remains unchanged.
But, says my inner self-loathing: Aren’t you being too harsh on a movie that delivered a version of Superman you recognized to the screen? Yeah, I might be, inner self-loathing. I used to say I’d just be happy if I could see Superman punch someone through a wall. That happens a lot in Man of Steel. But, inner self-loathing, you’re a fan of superhero movies. Movies that take superhero characters and mythology and explore them in compelling ways. I can’t, for instance, say I liked A Good Day To Die Hard because I’ve never seen John McClane jump through that much glass. I recognize it’s hard to live up to my expectations, but the movie doesn’t live up to the expectations it sets for itself (as many have pointed out, Superman doesn’t save a lot of people considering that seems to be his primary purpose, he ushers them into buildings he blows up seconds later), so we have a good Superman movie that is not in-itself a good movie*.
Now would be the time I would consider abandoning hope if this was a lesser franchise with a lesser character leading it, but this isn’t a lesser character: It’s Superman. If you know anything about his history, you know he was created by two Jewish kids to be the pinnacle of justice. He was adapted into a symbol for America and adds the spice of awesome to comics like Justice League and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight books. As someone who professes a deep love for this type of movie, do I even have a leg to stand on critically if I’m suggesting the archetypical American hero can’t be adapted into a satisfying film?
Glen Weldon, author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography and one of the four amazing panelists on the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, made an appearance on another podcast called 99% Invisible. It’s on episode 82, called “The Man of Tomorrow” and what Weldon had to say totally changed my expectations for Superman as a cinematic character:
“The thing you have to understand about Superman is that he was never intended to be the character we identify with. He’s not a hero like Batman, he’s not a hero like Spider-Man who have foibles and psychological hangups that we can empathize with. He’s not the hero we identify with, he’s the hero we believe in, it’s different. He’s an inspiration, he’s supposed to be better than us. It’s right there in the name. He’s called Super Man for a reason.”
I feel it all comes down to flying versus leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Flying is something humanity can’t do without the aid of a machine. But we can jump. We can’t jump a tall building in a single bound, but it’s the same thing Captain America hinges on with the Super Soldier serum: before he was given the means to fight, Steve Rogers was one of us. Superman is also that example. He jumps higher, he punches harder, he’s bigger, more muscular he’s MORE. Strip away everything we’ve added to Superman through other media, like flying and Kryptonite and he’s STILL an American Jesus, but in a tangible way. He’s not God descending from the heavens and telling us to love each other, he’s a guy that represents the best possible qualities of a human. He doesn’t want to secretly save us like in Man of Steel, he wants to publicly save us and be the example we all strive for.
Give me, if you will, a paragraph to speculate: What if Man of Steel’s plot was actually about Lois Lane instead of a science fiction story about a dead planet’s last survivors? Like, actually making Amy Adams the central character who has to change by story’s end? The movie feints a few times in the beginning that it might be interested in this thought before delving into more Kevin Costner tells-the-audience-what-to-think flashbacks, but never commits to Amy Adams. What if the movie didn’t center on Clark, but on Lois? It would be an imperceptible switch as far as the plot is concerned and, in my mind, I’d rather focus on a Lois plot that builds to the kiss at the end and sacrificed Ghost Crowe on the Zod ship. Instead, Lois could be made better by example, or at least expand her view of the universe knowing gods walk among us.
My point being that Superman films would do better if Superman was a character on the periphery. Not cameo-level periphery, but…like: who thinks the first Transformers movie would have been better if there was no Shia LaBeouf/Bumblebee storyline and we just picked up from Optimus Prime falling to Earth? You may think that, but you’d be wrong (and overlooking the best contribution Steven Speilberg made to that series as a storyteller). The stuff that’s fun about Richard Donner’s Superman is the stuff that isn’t about Superman being alone dealing with things. It’s about Margot Kidder’s one-liners and facial expressions selling the flying date. It’s about Christopher Reeve making Clark and Supes so different. It’s about Gene Hackman chewing the scenery. It’s the helicopter rescue. None of those things necessitate Superman as the protagonist, so why do it?
If a protagonist has to change and forcing Superman to change (or, hell, even doubt) causes massive story problems, maybe the solution is to let Superman be an example again. Don’t try to make Jesus a flawed person, let him be the example, show us how he appears to the people that have to enact real change. Like a punching Ghandi or something, not a compelling lead but a colorful addition.
SO, WARNER BROTHERS: If you insist on making Man of Steel 2 Superman-centric, just put Batman in the movie and compare/contrast The Vigilante against The Ideal, then we’ll all see: he was just a Super Man all along.
*[Not a good movie. Any future revelations I may have about the character, Man of Steel doesn’t function by it’s own rules and therefore falls short. I’ve had great conversations with people about how Iron Man 3 is about using the power of thought to overcome physical and mental disability, because the movie can support that level of reading. Man of Steel just has the Clark = Jesus imagery and - honestly - if Jesus didn’t die for everyone, what you’re left with is a guy telling us to love each other. Which is also to imply Jesus didn’t demolish most of a major city or make out with his disciples because it was the third act and something was supposed to happen. Man of Steel is more like a mood poem, but mood poems and fantasy-heavy science fiction are not two things easily mixed]