Sunday, June 16, 2013

Superman Is Boring

So there's a new Superman movie, Man of Steel. It did very, very well in its opening weekend; so far it's at $125 million in box office. Which still leaves $100 million to go in order to match its $225 million budget, but it's a good start.

I don't go to very many movies, but even if I did, I'd probably be steering clear of this one myself. It's only getting 56% on Rotten Tomatoes, and even the positive reviews are rather qualified statements that could really be categorized either way. The general consensus appears to be that the actors all did what they were supposed to do in the technical sense, in that everyone performed competently and professionally, but nobody elevated the thing past its convoluted, brooding script and generic summer-blockbuster special effects.

All in all, another lackluster Superman movie. I'm not surprised. Superman isn't built for movies. In fact, he's not built for much serious storytelling at all these days. (Oh yes, we're going after him again.)

There's a reason for that, and Soren Bowie of Cracked noticed as well. When Superman's original appearance in Action Comics #1 happened, it was 1938. Back then, plotlines could be very simplistic and get away with it. The comic book as a medium was only about five years old at the time, with the first, Famous Funnies, having gotten underway in 1933. It was still the feeling-out period. All the avenues for superhero creation were open. The basic package of powers allotted to Superman wound up being a very easy and popular set to use: super-strength, flying, invulnerability. It today is known as the 'flying brick' package, with Superman's other major powers of super speed, heat vision, X-ray vision, super breath and super hearing tossed in as optionals. Of course, Superman hasn't just been stuck with that set. Different writers give superheroes different power loadouts as time goes on, and for a time Superman got decked out with all sorts of other powers. He got to do ventriloquism. He got to fly so fast he could make time go backwards in one of the movies. He got telekinesis. He got shape-shifting. He got super-hypnotism. He got super-weaving at one point. Super-friction. Super-landscaping and I am linking you to shots of the actual comic panels if you don't believe me. He got any power the writers wanted or needed him to have. Superman has so many superpowers you can't even keep track of them all.

In the 1930's, even in the 1950's and 60's and 70's, this was perfectly fine. You could get away with this. But sooner or later, you have a superhero who's so powerful that Earthly villains cease to be realistic opposition, Kryptonite or not. Once you've made someone that powerful, the usual solution is to ship them into space to fight galactic-level opponents. But Superman can't do that, because Superman's supposed to be Earth's big champion. You can't get him away from Earth on a permanent basis; you can only bring threats to him. Anything less than Darkseid showing up is effectively a Globetrotters game: you know Superman will win because it can't plausibly end any other way; the question is how is it going to happen.

So you need some other source of conflict. There's a problem there too, though: Superman is a total boy scout and nobody buys him any other way. He's the moral upstanding citizen everyone else looks up to. When the Death of Superman storyline took place in 1992, op-ed writers, unaware that DC Comics had every intention of bringing Superman back just like every other dead superhero, howled about how society apparently no longer had a place for Superman. In the days of the Comics Code Authority- the Hays Code of the comic book industry- every superhero acted more or less like that because nothing else was allowed. But while other heroes grew out of it, gained some sort of personal issue they could use for storylines, or at least restored one that existed before the Code, Superman never did. And he couldn't. The most anyone has really tried is giving him some sort of angst about his place in the world, but it's always been swiftly rejected. Superman knows his place. His place is being a hero.

As Kevin Smith noted in 2000 upon being handed a movie script for what would eventually become the 2006 movie Superman Returns,

"Batman is about angst; Superman is about hope. That was the thing that bothered me about Greg Poirier’s draft: they were trying to give Superman angst. They had Clark Kent going to a psychiatrist at one point. Superman’s angst is not that he doesn’t want to be Superman. If he has any, it’s that he can’t do it all; he can’t do enough and save everyone. It’s not enough to make him want to quit being Superman; it’s enough to make the guy stay up at night so he’s out doing shit constantly." 

(Smith would later leave the project not long after executives told him the script was to be little more than a vehicle to sell as much merchandise as possible. Don't bring the finished product up in his presence unless you want to see a head explode.)

As Soren Bowie pointed out in the Cracked link from earlier, that angst- the angst of not being able to save everyone- is probably the best hope for Superman to have an actual conflict that's a match for him. You can't be in Metropolis stopping a bank robbery and in, say, Africa trying to tamp down a civil war at the same time. Being super-fast doesn't mean you can be in two places at once. Nobody ever gave Superman a cloning power (even if they did give him a clone). So every time he's out saving someone, there's someone else he's not saving. But even that would prove extremely problematic... because solving those problems would require a lot of physical inaction. Talking. Debate. Legislative action. Judicial action. Charity work. All worthwhile... but not nearly as fun as punching a problem until it's fixed.

And even if pulled off, it can still backfire... because of the actual real-life societal problems that peskily refuse to go away. In 1993, the X-Men began a storyline regarding the 'Legacy Virus', a disease that infected and killed only superbeings. It was a thinly-disguised AIDS analogy, just like a lot of current-events issues that get taken on in the comic world. The thinking was probably that the Legacy Virus would get cured when AIDS did. Nine years later, the writers gave up and cured the Legacy Virus by making one mutant kill himself to cure everyone else. Colossus volunteered. (Colossus is, of course, no longer dead.)

Without that kind of conflict, though, there's not much left to give Superman enough of a challenge to be able to suspend disbelief. He is the perfect good guy who always wins. He's so powerful that it's questionable as to whether he even needs teammates anymore, because it's tough to think of anything the teammates could contribute other than removing Kryptonite. He is, to put it bluntly, a Mary Sue facing an audience that used to tolerate Mary Sues but no longer does. This is not to say there isn't a place for Superman. There's always a place for an incorruptible moral beacon.

But when that moral beacon is almost incomprehensibly powerful as well, he can be easily written into a corner. And that is Superman's true greatest weakness.

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