We continue with The Superman Rebuttals.
In my first post, I mentioned how that writing a Superman story requires a writer throw away much of what is considered essential about good stories and how he requires a level of imagination most writers seem reluctant to exercise. While these posts aren’t meant to specifically address Man of Steel, there’s little point in denying that the film was the final straw in an ongoing war over the perception of what is right and wrong with Superman as a character and concept. And it’s fair to say, from my perspective, that the movie does highlight everything I dislike about cramming Superman into a traditional story arc.
There’s nothing wrong with writing a beginning for Superman or even exploring what it would mean to put on the cape for the first time. The problem is that Clark Kent was well on his way to becoming Superman before he put on that cape. He isn’t like Spider-Man, a character who stumbled into his powers and thus, given his background (and, if I can be so bold, terrible parenting of his aunt and uncle), it’s justifiable that he first abuses them in his own self-interest. Peter Parker is an outsider, a broken kid. He is, sadly, usually presented as something of a loser, which for many folks is, I suppose, his charm.
I’ve always found that a bit puzzling. I can certainly see the appeal of a superhero who is “an ordinary person”, but as is so often the case, ordinary seems to equal sadsack who can’t get his act together. But that’s a musing for another post.
Because of who he is and how he was born with his powers, Superman has had to grapple with this issue long before he put on the cape. Even if we’re talking about the version where he gets his powers slowly, we’re still dealing with a character who has had to think about his abilities and how to use them for a long time. In addition, he was raised by Ma and Pa Kent, two genuinely nice people who believe in helping people.
Of course, that’s the Ma and Pa of most traditional Superman stories. The Kents of Man of Steel are a lot less supportive, more conflicted about their adopted son’s role in this world. I might not like that change, but I can go along with it. The movie even sets up Clark’s conflict by killing Pa Kent in a way that Superman could’ve easily prevented.
I would argue that the movie misses its mark at this point. This should be the turning point for Clark. Of course, traditional storytelling says that the great cathartic moment must come near the end, not the beginning. But that’s why the film stumbles because it is at this point that young Clark should vow never to let it happen again. Instead of simply being an excuse for having Clark be mopey (and to saddle him with a guilt-ridden motivation for do-gooding rather than just being a good person), the story could use it as Clark’s turning point.
The line between Clark and Superman is a thin one. Unlike Spider-Man, who is almost two entirely different people in and out of costume, Superman is Clark Kent. He’s just Clark without the glasses. So it is short-sighted and simplistic to believe that Superman hasn’t wrestled with issues of his own powers, especially when the film goes out of its way to show that conflict.
Where a lot of bad Superman stories fail is their fundamental misunderstanding that a character like Superman must have dealt with these issues before, must have seriously considered them. Don’t we all in a way? We live in an imperfect world, and imagine if we had the power to change it. If you or I hear about a war going on or a natural disaster wreaking havoc, we can only sit by helplessly. Young Clark Kent had to debate every one of these reports and the limits and requirements of his ability to affect them.
The problem in this film, and in many so-called sophisticated Superman stories, is that they act as if Superman, because he is good, has never had to confront this question. It’s almost as if because he hasn’t mentioned how much he wants to kill people that it’s assumed he never thought of it as a solution. But surely he must have. Many, many times.
The thing about “learning to be Superman” stories is that you might be able to convince me that Superman would consider killing someone for the greater good, but once he does, you’ve also convinced me that there’s no going back. You’ve created a Superman who lacks the imagination or restraint to find any other solution. Then he really is just a really really strong guy who smashes stuff.
Superman Returns gets a lot of flak (justifiably so) for being a dull, plodding film. But one of the complaints I never understood was that Superman doesn’t punch anything. While I sort of get where that’s coming from, I also think the few action sequences in the film showcase Superman’s true power. The scene where Superman saves a plane from crashing is one of my favorite Superman sequences ever, and when he prevents a series of minor catastrophes in Metropolis, thus saving countless lives, he proves himself not just powerful, but creative and caring.
I do love a good Superman Punches Stuff story, but not if that comes at the cost of reducing Superman to a big, dumb bruiser who can’t think of any way to stop a bad guy other than killing him.
And yet, even all this doesn’t bother nearly so much as the fact that there’s almost no dramatic tension to be had in a Superman who doesn’t care about every single life, who doesn’t seek better resolutions than reluctantly killing his opponents. Far from being an unrealistic impediment for the character, it is the only thing that gives him any conflict at all.
After all, a Superman who accepts casualties and doesn’t mind killing is basically truly invincible. How can he fail? If Metropolis is reduced to ruins and thousands are dead, but the bad guy was stopped, then by that metric, Superman has won. But that’s why the best Superman stories realize that, even if winning isn’t ever in any doubt, the cost of victory is what makes or breaks Superman. By refusing to accept even the smallest loss of life (even the villain’s), Superman’s stories become a challenge to him. Otherwise, they’re just action hero adventures with a ruthless, invulnerable guy who can’t be stopped.
Basically, Superman’s powers require him to care or there’s absolutely no dramatic tension. Superman could easily stop nearly any villain if he chose to ignore loss of life, property damage, and moral quandaries. And in fact, in Man of Steel he triumphs because he is willing to kill rather than let a family die. Yet how many families died already? Why exactly is this supposed to be the breaking point? It’s because he’s there, I suppose, and watching it happen. Never mind that this overlooks the fact that Superman has supersenses, and no doubt, he heard every anguished cry for help below, every dying scream, every crushed civilian. No, it’s only when he’s looking right at them that he suddenly decides it’s worth killing over.
This is really to me the moment that the story misses its Superman moment. At that moment, grappling with Zod, Superman realizes he might have to kill Zod. And he chooses not to. Not because Zod doesn’t deserve mercy but because he decides there is no more death today. Not even a bad guy. It is Superman’s moral event horizon, and he chooses not to cross it. Instead, he puts his hand over Zod’s eyes, and even as Zod burns him and Superman screams, he refuses to let go because Superman would rather burn in agony than allow another death.
Instead, he takes the easy way.
And make no mistake, it is the easy way.
In comparison, one of my favorite Superman stories came from Superman: The Animated Series. It was the culmination of an attack by the evil space tyrant Darkseid, who succeeds in breaking Superman, who poses a very real threat to the Earth. The people of Earth, confronted by this threat, stand up and say they will fight. Darkseid, seeing they aren’t properly broken, decides to return to his world. But not before he uses his deadly omega beams to disintegrate a single human life. He does this, not as an act of spite, but because he realizes it will hurt Superman more than anything else he could do.
Just one life.
The stakes of a great Superman story don’t need any more than that. The paradox of Superman is that though he’s a character who can punch asteroids, he only needs one life at stake to create a great Superman story. Even if, ironically, that life is the villain’s. And it’s impossible to feel as if there’s any triumph in a Superman flying over the crater that was Metropolis because there simply isn’t. It’s a Pyrrhic victory for the Man of Steel, and there’s no sense of accomplishment.
I might even forgive such things if the movie presented it as such. But instead, Superman flies over to Lois Lane, gives her a kiss, acts as if everything is all right now, even as he stands on the graves of thousands of Metropolis’s citizens. Hell, even The Avengers (which pales in terms of destruction and death beside Man of Steel) shows our heroes utterly exhausted and has a montage showing the rescue efforts and mixed reactions of the citizens of New York. And even the after credits gag shows our heroes beaten and quietly recovering with not a smile among them.
Part of this isn’t really Man of Steel‘s fault though. Star Trek: Into Darkness crashed a starship into San Francisco with such callous disregard that none of the other characters seem to acknowledge it, even mere moments after the disaster took place. And perhaps that’s what really happened to poor Superman in this movie. He fell victim to disaster one-up-manship. Destroy a section of New York? I’ll destroy half of Metropolis! And we’re all supposed to just act as if it doesn’t really matter.
But Superman never should.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,