Some Batman v Superman spoilers!
Ever since the disappointment (to most) of Batman v Superman I have heard lots of talk (oh so much talk…) and one thing I’ve heard repeatedly is ‘Superman is a boring character. You can’t do him right in a modern movie’. When I first heard this I agreed. On the surface it seems obvious. He’s a near-Messianic character (especially in the Snyder movies) who only has one physical vulnerability of kryptonite. Perfection can be interesting in a way but it is more about the way that perfection is responded to not the character himself. But the more I thought about it the more I wondered if this was too easy an answer. If you think about Superman’s enduring appeal over the years there has to be more to him than his similarities to Jesus. Surely a boring character can not be consistently popular since 1938? So what went wrong and how do we make Superman interesting again? I have some ideas.
Now I should start by saying I am not a comic book expert but I have consulted a few, and I have seen all of the Superman movies. I know there are different eras in the comics and my friend at @howtolovecomics helped enlighten me a little bit on the character, but I am mostly going from a movie perspective.
Superman Returns is a flawed film but one thing I noticed on my recent viewing is he isn’t all brawn, and he isn’t all emotion either. He has to be smart in order to succeed. For example, in the great plane sequence he can’t just fling the plane around because there are people on board. And he can’t save each person individually because he’s still only one person. There are also multiple pieces breaking off and crashing at the same time so deciding what to fix where requires some smarts.
According to my friend, Superman was a smarter character in the 60’s comics. @Howtolovecomics explained “There were a lot of stories in the 60s where Superman had to use his brains to get out of a situation, which I like. He still used his powers, but he had to use them in a way that solved a puzzle.”
If you think about it this element of Superman’s intellectual abilities is completely missing in both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. In MofS he is confronted with brute strength and barely eaks out a victory. If anything Zod is actually smarter than Superman with some sound logic to what he is trying to do. Superman has the emotional weight of the film but most of the movie he gets advice from people. He doesn’t figure out much on his own (there’s not much to figure out just be bigger and stronger than your opponent and fight/hide at the right time).
With Batman v Superman, Superman is again completely disengaged intellectually. Lex, who can challenge Superman in terms of brain power, is solely focused on manipulating Batman into confronting the God-like power of Superman. Nearly every time he is confronted by Lex, Superman is caught off guard. For example, he doesn’t expect what happens to his Mother or put together anything before the Senate incident. Basically Superman in these films is a ‘big lug’- a sweet, big guy who is very sincere and strong. He’s like the Michael Oher or the Wreck-it Ralph of comic books. (In fairness Batman can be very easily manipulated in this world also but he is at least putting pieces together).
I guess this type of character can work but again it is usually because the things around him are interesting or the quest they go on is engaging. None of that happens to this modern Superman. He stands around a lot, saves people in montages and we are told contrasting views on how to think about him. No wonder the character seems boring!
One of the things that made Smallville a good show is there were constantly things that Clark Kent couldn’t control despite his massive powers. In addition, he was confronted with a smart enemy who challenged him in the best portrayal of Lex Luthor by Michael Rosenbaum. This is obviously easier to do with a Superman who is growing up and going to high school but not impossible as an adult. There are plenty of things that Superman can’t control as an adult that if we could see into his mind would make the character very interesting.
For example, in Batman v Superman we get a scene where he is rescuing a woman at Day of the Dead. Why did he pick that woman? Why not the surely hundreds of women in car accidents right there in Gotham/Metropolis? From what we see there is plenty to keep Batman busy. We are given no motivation and so we assume it is because Zack Snyder thought a Day of the Dead rescue would look cool. You see what I am saying? He’s still only one person and this modern version treats him like he can part the Red Sea and bring down plagues upon the entire world. He must make choices and those choices could be really interesting.
Not only can he not be everywhere and save everyone but he can’t control the choices of other people. He can give speeches at the UN (Superman 4 reference! Oh no!) but in the end he can at best be a symbol that hopefully will motivate a ripple effect of good choices.
Last year I did an Adventures in Reading segment over on my other blog. This was an attempt to dive into genres of literature that I hadn’t experienced. I still need to do graphic novels but did comic books and manga. It was a lot of fun and for the comic book segment I came across a Superman issue entitled DC 507 Adventures of Superman Bloodsport.
In this story a Vietnam vet looses a job to a black man in an affirmative action type situation. This causes him to become very bitter. He justifies his hatred by claiming those in the in a poor neighborhood called Hob’s Heights are ‘taking not giving people’. He only see’s them as welfare drains and addicts and thinks the world would be better if they were done away with.
While this type of villain could become very preachy, in the talented writers hands it could be very interesting. Hate is completely out of Superman’s control. The man in the wheelchair could have become this kind of character in Batman v Superman, but he is again used more to manipulate Batman than Superman. The thing that is interesting with Bloodsport also is that he is a trained army sniper, military veteran who takes over an entire project development- making it harder than you might think to get rid of him.
There is also an emotional heft to the story with a little boy who is murdered at the beginning. The Mother then turns to alcohol and Superman has to try and help her as well. Again, could be very saccharine but in the right hands it could also be another thing that Superman can’t control. You have this loss, grief, and addiction that he can’t make go away with his powers. There’s something there that could be interesting.
Now I can hear you saying ‘Boy Rachel, your Superman sounds like a real downer. Isn’t that what you didn’t like in Man of Steel?’. At least to me, in Man of Steel there wasn’t a moment of inspiration, a moment of hope- which is what Superman is about in the end. If he is able to use his powers, intellect and empathy to help make things better would that not be a more rousing hero movie? I mean that is ‘truth, justice, and the American way’ if I’ve ever heard it!
So in summary, if someone asked me to fix Superman I would give him obstacles he can’t control. Make him use his intelligence, not just his powers, to make decisions and win. I would present him with a villain like Bloodsport who truly hates for definable reasons. Not just being bad for the sake of being bad. This throws in more elements he can’t control. Give him characters he loves who make poor choices like addiction and then show him grappling to help those loved ones. This makes the character interesting instead of simply a God-like edifice we don’t care about.
What do you think of my idea? Anything there? How would you make Superman interesting or do you think he is an inherently boring character?