If the new film Man of Steel is any indicator, then it’s true: DC doesn’t really get Superman anymore. At one point, they did. When Superman first appeared in 1938, he was a quintessential crime-fighter. He replaced the beat cops and detectives of classic crime comics with something new and exciting, an outsized and morally superior force for truth and justice. On the brink of an impossibly ugly world war, Superman was simple, beautiful. DC had it on lock back then. But now DC has no idea what to do with this guy.
Marvel is actually probably to blame for DC’s current predicament. DC was riding high for a very long time. But after a lull in the popularity of superhero comics, Marvel unleashed its own set of heroes. To a certain extent, Marvel’s innovation was to create superheroes who were also human, not morally superior crime-fighters, but people with families and challenges. Iron Man had his drinking, Spider-Man had his girl troubles and family drama, and the Hulk had some… anger issues. Marvel in essence put the emphasis on the man, not on the super.
DC saw the tide turning, and to remain part of the superhero market, they had to respond. Batman survived the transition easily, thanks to a crop of new writers that developed a more Marvel-flavored mythology for the Dark Knight, chief among them Frank Miller. His Dark Knight Returns series redefined Batman as driven by revenge and obsessed with turning the tide of crime in Gotham, an angst ridden human being with a reason to fight. Considering the wide-eyed biff-bam-pow image of Batman from before this era, it’s a crazy reinvention, one that was so wildly successful that it spawned Christopher Nolan’s eventual character-defining trilogy.
Superman, on the other hand, didn’t survive this transition as easily. In this humanized era of superherodom, Batman was tested by the death of someone he loved and psychologically tortured by an actual mad-man; Superman faced such alien challenges as being killed and reborn in an alien regeneration chamber, trying to solve world hunger, or being split into two versions of himself. Not very accessible.
There are other indicators of Superman’s failure to adjust. His aloof moral superiority actually aligns him with the villains in the aforementioned Dark Knight Returns series. And that’s not the only time Superman’s quaint old-timeyness was a major plot-point. The interesting Superman stories all take as granted his moral superiority and invincibility but subvert either the setting or consequences. In The Dark Knight Returns, Superman has been remade into an American poster boy, a living breathing nuclear deterrent. He’s also been re-imagined in a vastly different social structure as a communist hero. He’s even become a dictator.
Superman is an iconic and important figure in the American cultural landscape. But he earned that status by being the best version of humanity in an era facing the worst of humanity. The idea of heroism and morality, in the most broad sense, has been complicated significantly since the 40s and 50s, when superman came of age. In today’s world, where heroes need to be complex and troubled to match our conception of heroism, uncomplicated moral authority and invincibility just aren’t interesting. But, Superman is incompatible with moral gray areas and human struggles. It’s a hard thing to work around.
So. Zack Snyder and David Goyer made this movie. And if you’ve heard anything about the movie, I’m sure you can already tell: I had problems with it. (some mild spoilers ahead)
This new superman film is called Man of Steel, which, tellingly, doesn’t even have the word Superman in the title, despite ostensibly being an origin story. And when reduced to its barest bones, it does sort of look like a Superman origin story: the planet Krypton is nearing its final end, and one desperate statesman sends to Earth his only begotten son, that whosoever he rescueth shall not perish etc. etc. etc. The people reject him, but he fights for humanity despite its flaws, and he eventually towers above them as their savior. Hallelujah.
You can choose your biblical parallel: in both this film and in the last one 7 years ago, at some point during the heroics, Superman prominently foists his arms outward and adopts the stance of Jesus on the cross. You could also go slightly more semitic: Superman isn’t the only baby boy ever placed in a basket to escape genocide. Superman was created by two Jewish gents in the 30s and 40s, a time rife with antisemitism. In fact, some of Superman’s earliest stories involve him fighting Nazis. Jesus or Moses: either way, uprightness and self-sacrifice are in Superman’s DNA.
Yeah, this movie maybe didn’t do its research on how Superman is supposed to work. Instead of the son of a farmer with a moral imperative, we’ve got an itinerant hobo determined to let others die through inaction and a penchant for coldly snapping his enemies’ necks. What went wrong?
Well, let’s start with the emotional core of this movie: presumably, Clark Kent’s relationship to his dad and how that influences his decisions as Superman. That is, in fact, the emotional core of most Superman origin stories.
In an early scene, Clark saves his classmates from a bus crash, and we seem to be getting off on the right foot. But, strangely, Clark’s dad reprimands him for his heroics, telling him that sometimes you just have to let people die to protect your own secret. It’s bonkers, but Clark internalizes it, and later, when Pa Kent must sacrifice himself to save the family dog from a surprise tornado, Clark follows dad’s advice, stands by, and forces himself to watch in anguish as his father dies in order to protect his own secret identity.
There are so many problems with this that I can’t even list all of them. But for our purposes, this fundamentally misunderstands what Superman is supposed to be about. Superman is the one who has the power to stand up to injustice because he cannot be threatened by evildoers. He is an unquestionable arbiter of right and wrong, always making the choice that helps the greater good. He isn’t supposed to let people die to protect himself, let alone on the orders of his ostensible humanizing influence, his father. It’s disgusting.
And it only gets worse. As Superman is fighting against General Zod and his forces, he lays waste to two towns: first Smallville and then Metropolis, the only homes he has ever known. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people die during Superman’s epic battle against the fugitive Kryptonians, and Superman doesn’t go out of his way to save a single human life throughout this protracted struggle. He just fights aliens while buildings topple, people get crushed, and things explode. It’s wanton, blind destruction; the supermen fight, and the weak are crushed underfoot.
I would love to be able to state concisely what this movie’s vision of Superman actually is, but, in fact, the movie doesn’t bother to hash that out. At one point, Superman says he’ll protect Americans, but only on his own terms, though it’s not clear what that even means: he’ll only fight the aliens if he isn’t held accountable for the countless civilians he indirectly kills in the process? What exactly does Superman think his job is?
So fine, this movie doesn’t really understand how to address Superman as a mythological idea. But the whole disaster leaves me wondering what happened. It shouldn’t have been like this. The people responsible for this film are all pretty heavy hitters with at least partially proven track records. Zack Snyder directed this movie, and he also helmed the totally passable Watchmen adaptation and the actually pretty great Dawn of the Dead remake (ignoring momentarily his other utter failures). David Goyer wrote the screenplay, and he was an integral part of the really great previously-mentioned Dark Knight film trilogy. And Christopher Nolan helped with story and produced; he’s an established visionary in both comic book films and big-budget action movies in general. In the end, it seems clear that none of these men (and they are ALL men, gender problems being another aspect of this production that stinks pretty strongly) has any idea what to do with Superman.
Superman is hard. I get that. He’s a paragon, a perfect man, and it’s hard to make a perfect man interesting. But others have tried and succeeded; this movie doesn’t seem like it’s even trying. It’s the laziest, flashiest, most boring, and most incomprehensible superhero film in years. And, from what I can tell, there are already very serious talks about sequels and spin-offs. Maybe this movie did get one thing right: humanity really does need a savior. Just not this one.