I’ve been thinking a lot about Man of Steel. I don’t like it. I don’t like what it says about Superman. I don’t like what it says about us. It seems like the final grimdarkening, the moment when the final optimistic hero has successfully been brought down in a way that even comic books in the 90’s couldn’t do to him. But when I think about it, I realize this is a bigger issue than one movie. There are, after all, plenty of movies I don’t like for a lot of reasons, and so what does one more mean? I could sit here and write about why I think one movie makes mistakes, but it would be such a limited discussion. I’m not here to counter one movie. Instead, I’d like to use Superman himself as a springboard for some basic elements of storytelling that I think get so often overlooked when it comes to what makes Superman interesting.
Thus begins THE SUPERMAN REBUTTALS.
The idea here is that I’m going to talk about all those things people say about Superman in general, and how those things are wrong. They’re wrong because they want to cram storytelling into a one-size-fits-all box, and if you need all the standard tropes of “good storytelling” then, yeah, Superman isn’t your guy. He violates a lot of rules, and by doing so, he forces us to view storytelling from a different perspective.
Basically, if you want to write a good Superman story, you really have to throw away ninety percent of what you rely on in so many traditional stories. If there is one failing at the heart of Man of Steel, it’s this. They took a character who violates so many of the standard rules and forced him into a by-the-numbers tale, and how you feel about that will largely determine how you feel about the movie. From what I can see, the reviews and reactions are pretty mixed. Either you really dug the film for staying in that box or you hated it for that.
Today’s aspect we’re going to talk about is the idea of THE BOYSCOUT.
Probably the most common criticism of Superman is that he’s just too good. Without flaws, he isn’t a character we can relate to. The problem I’ve always had with this argument stem from two thoughts.
First of all, Superman isn’t supposed to be someone we relate to. Superman is a character we look up to. He’s someone we admire. Literally, he is designed to stand above it all. That isn’t an accident. That’s the entire point of the character.
There is a very real problem a character for like Superman though. We are so often told that flaws are what make a character interesting and that people who are genuinely good are boring. I’ll admit I’ve never understood this. I’ve never had a fascination with villains, who tend to be far less interesting to me than heroes. Perhaps it’s because villains are so easy to relate to. They’re small. They’re petty. They’re cruel and egotistical. The Joker is simply a maniac and killer. Lex Luthor is a man who could change the world, but it so busy indulging his own powerful ego that he wastes many of his gifts.
But even assuming that flawed people are innately more interesting than heroic people, that doesn’t have to mean every character needs to be flawed. While I would argue it’s easier to tell an interesting story with a flawed character (though I think making a character flawed is often mistaken for making them more interesting, which I don’t always agree with), not every character should tell the same story. Otherwise, why have different characters at all?
This is why I’ve always enjoyed the superhero genre for its incredible diversity in terms of characters and their stories. A Punisher story is innately different than a Silver Surfer story. They are designed to be so, and that is why I like reading the adventures of both those characters as well as many others. They don’t just have different stories. They have different themes, different points of view. They represent radical and unique experiences that I can enjoy.
This is why so many people, fans and writers, don’t seem to “get” what I love about Superman. He isn’t designed like any traditional protagonist these days. He’s a straight up good guy with incredible power. He is virtually flawless, and his idealism is warranted because he can make a difference. I’ve never understood why a writer would want to write a story where Superman is like us. Instead, a great Superman story should be one where we ponder being more like Superman.
This is why, I believe, so many people have a hard time relating to Superman as a character because he expects you to care more, to be more invested in doing the right thing, than you probably are in real life. When someone says they can’t relate to Superman, they so often seem to say to me that they don’t want to imagine being more than they are.
Superman, more than just about any character out there, demands our imagination. He wasn’t made to be brought down to our level. He was made to bring us up to his level, to instill hope and triumph, and a boundless optimism about how we could all make the world a better place if we had his powers and, more importantly, his attitude.
Realism is not and has never been the purpose of a Superman story, and when someone complains that he is too unrealistic, it’s a fair complaint. But it’s missing the point. Not every character is meant to be realistic. Not every universe is about creating a believable experience. Although I’ll note that realistic and believable in this context always seem to mean dull and unpleasant, which is an objection I’ve raised before and will continue to raise in the future.
Speaking very briefly about Man of Steel, I would say this is why the film both succeeds and fails, depending on your point of view. If you want a Superman who is like us, then he’s a pretty solid example. Motivated by guilt, conflicted, confused, heroic but unimaginative, powerful but dangerous. If you want a Superman who is better than that, you’ll be disappointed.
Superman, like all fictional characters, is certainly open to interpretation, and while I’m loathe to say I hate Man of Steel or that it really says much about anyone if they love or hate it, I am disappointed as a storyteller that we are so beholden to formula at this point that even Superman, a character who defies formula, is now stuck in it. More than even the disappointment that the movie just isn’t very good from my perspective, it says to me that we’ve lost the ability to appreciate true story variety.
And that’s the real crime of every bad Superman story. Without the imagination to believe in a better world, without a desire to bring triumph and joy, there is only the story of a guy who can fly and punch bad guys through buildings. It might be fun to watch, but it isn’t challenging. It’s really quite the opposite. It’s safe and easy, and any decent writer can make Superman one of us.
But a great writer should make us all into Superman.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,