The Problem With Superman

Curious having seen Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, I rewatched Man of Steel.

Confused as BvS may be, I think it’s actually a better film than MoS. Rewatching it again, I have to say MoS is actually worse than I remembered. It’s such a mess of a film, and a lot of what is wrong about it carries over into BvS,  the lessons from it not learned but rather perpetuated with an anti-Superman dominated by over-the-top CGI hysterics.

stm1The problem with Superman is, well, Superman. They don’t know what to do about him, how to handle the character. Which is weird to me, writing this in 2016 because they nailed it, pretty much, in the mid-seventies with Superman: The Movie, way back in 1978. That film seems to be like the elephant in the room: the Kryptonian scenes were cool and majestic, the childhood scenes wonderful Americana, and the Metropolis scenes with our grown-up hero/Clark Kent alter ego just perfect comic-book escapism. With a template like that, it’s hard to imagine going wrong. So why are Snyder and Warner/DC so seemingly hellbent on distancing themselves from the 1978 classic?

Maybe it’s because Warners tried sticking to that Superman: The Movie template with Superman Returns, which got something of a box-office drubbing when it came out; $390 million worldwide on a $270 million budget (makes BvS something of a huge success with its current haul of $810million worldwide). Superman Returns was hardly perfect, the chief problem was it being overblown and badly produced (although how much of that $270 million was spent on earlier aborted Superman films, I wonder?).  I think it was much better than people perhaps appreciated at the time. It did many things right- particularly casting Brandon Routh who looked the part as Superman and was uncannily like Chris Reeve as Clark Kent. Kevin Spacey was a pretty good Lex Luthor too- indeed both actors are better than Henry Cavill or Jesse Eisenberg are in BvS.

The damnedest thing is that what was wrong about Superman Returns is the one thing that they carried over from it to MoS- namely, taking the title character way too seriously. In Superman Returns the character is saddled with unnecessary Messianic, Christ-like allegory and a semi-religious fixation, complicated with a pointless backstory of Lois Lane and a son.  Superman: The Movie had the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Superman Returns might well have had “You’ll believe a Messianic figure can be dull”. All this anguished soul-searching about Superman’s place in the world and What He Means to us is like a lead weight around Superman Returns and  now MoS and BvS after it.

I really wish they had kept the cast and creative team of Superman Returns for a sequel rather than trying to reboot though. If they had dropped that Christ imagery and just given the character a decent adventure with a bit more action rather than endless dull soul-searching we might have had a cracking movie.

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But they went the way of the reboot, and I can only despair at how they must have scrutinised Superman Returns and tried to analyse what was wrong with it. The main star looks great, let’s drop him. All that moody soul-searching that cripples the story, lets have more of that. But let’s go darker (did they get the notes mixed up, went with the ‘To Drop’ list instead?).

To some extent you have to blame Christopher Nolan and his Dark Knight films. Somehow they have been held up so high in critical regard and audience awareness that they are the established measure of how to handle DC characters. Like no-one figured out that Superman and Batman are polar opposites- you can’t approach them the same, the whole point of them is that they are so different. Trying to treat Superman like Batman with his tortured psyche is pointless and ignorant of the real character. Besides, there are quite a few fans of the Batman comics who will rightly contest that Nolan’s Dark Knight films rather missed the ‘real’ Batman anyway.

Hiring Zack Snyder to direct MoS was another bad move. I’ve nothing against Snyder, visually he has a knack for putting comic-book action panels onscreen, but he should be kept clear of producing or script-writing. He seems to think Watchmen is some kind of bible for showing superheroes on film, when Watchmen should really be considered of a genre quite apart from Superhero films. It’s a commentary on the Superhero genre not a blueprint of what it should be. Suggesting that the Superman or Batman comics should be more like Watchmen is utterly missing the point of them.

Snyder seems to think that Dr Manhattan, for instance, is some kind of blueprint of how to portray Superman. Dr Manhattan isn’t that- he’s a commentary by Alan Moore on the idea of a Superman. His powers make him distant and aloof from humanity- he isn’t a hero, he’s a God-like figure increasingly remote from us, less human by the minute. Trying to treat Superman the same way is just crazy- Superman isn’t a God, he’s a hero. He’s an alien, yes, and one with great powers, but essentially he is one of us, actually becoming more human by the minute. Snyder is forcing Superman into some kind of Dr Manhattan figure and it’s totally missing the real point and crippling him and the movies.

mos1For one thing, look at the suit. The MoS/BvS ‘look’ just isn’t, well, really Superman, is it? Just in the same way as the true comic-book character is gone, so is the look. The bright colours of the comic-book, the rich red and blue, is lost, replaced by some muddy, washed-out look. It almost looks like the armour of Tim Burton’s take on Batman and is as much a miss-step as how the character has been portrayed.

It seems to me you can only go so far imagining superheroes in the Real World. Its something the Marvel films seem to have done quite well so far, although with the Avengers films and the upcoming Civil War I have to wonder if they are straying too far into this territory themselves. Comics aren’t Shakespeare, and directors and audiences shouldn’t really expect comic-book movies to be Oscar-bait dramas. They are escapist entertainment, with odd people with impossible powers wearing daft costumes and if Warner/DC go too far they will just ruin what chance they have of the success they clearly crave. Maybe part of the problem is Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. It was a solid, brilliant examination of the Batman character in a noir-ish Real World approximation of our world. But it wasn’t really Batman.

Superheroes couldn’t function in our Real World. I guess that was one of the lessons of Watchmen. You can’t really have costumed guys running around outside of the law; how long would that be allowed before the Government brought in the military to neuter the heroes? Before they were outlawed? Frank Miller had Superman acting as an American Super Weapon in TDR because that’s the only way the American government would find Superman acceptable. Its the same kind of thinking that runs through the rather dour X-Men films. It might be realistic but how far down the rabbit-hole do you go before you aren’t making the actual comic-book anymore? People read them because they are mostly escapist fun. Entertainment.

Superman: The Movie had a genius conceit, right from the start. Some kid opens up a comic book and the camera falls into a panel and it comes ‘alive’. But all through the movie, we are still in that comic.  And that’s a central point that Snyder and Warner/DC seems to be missing. We don’t go to see Superhero movies to see what they would be like in our world. We go to see Superhero movies to see what it would be like for us to be in their world. It’s a fundamental difference.

7 thoughts on “The Problem With Superman

  1. I think there are many, far-reaching reasons why superhero movies have disappeared down the rabbit hole of needing to make it seem like their stories could all happen in the real world. In Warner/DC’s case, I reckon they’ve very deliberately set out on the path of “not being the same as Marvel Studios”, no doubt spurred on by the success of Nolan’s Batman. For all the criticism of BvS, it’s hard to argue with a gross that’s going to be pushing the billion-dollar club.

    But it’s partly comics themselves, which learnt the wrong lessons from those seminal ’80s books by Moore and Miller. I don’t imagine Snyder-era Superman is that unfaithful to various comic incarnations (though I don’t read them so don’t know for certain), while clearly not being quite in the spirit of the character. But I’m not sure mass audiences want the clean-cut version either. Maybe if Man of Steel or BvS had flopped they’d’ve tried that, copying Marvel’s bright-and-colourful style after all, but money is money and (from a business point of view, which is fundamentally what drives the overarching decisions behind these things) why risk changing something when you’re making dough?

    1. It’s certainly a difficult balancing act, but I think there’s something clearly wrong with Snyder’s last two films. Not every superhero film has to be as dark and serious as Watchmen, but Snyder seems hellbent in furthering Watchmen’s agenda into everything he does. Which is a shame, because he can get the imagery onscreen- his 300 proved that, and Watchmen at moments literally puts comic panels onscreen. You just don’t always have to saddle things with all that social commentary angst. I’d like to see him lighten up, but I can’t see the Justice League movies going that way.

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