It’s easy to think that making a Superman movie is very hard. Just ask the people making it.
“He’s a tough character,” Superman actor Henry Cavill told Entertainment Weekly when talking up “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” “People like the darker vigilante.” Then he offered a possible reason why: “I think it speaks to the human psyche more easily rather than the god-like being that we can’t really understand.”
That’s a load of nonsense.
To be clear, we really shouldn’t blame Cavill for saying any of this. He’s an actor, and a great one for Superman, with what looked like buckets of charisma utterly hamstrung by the dour script driving “Man of Steel.” It’s also his job to fully understand and portray the character that is in the script, not the one from the comics.
It’s a shame then, that the story he’s given simply doesn’t get Superman. It also totally buys into some of the worst assumptions about the character.
There are two popular reasons for why Superman can’t succeed in modern movies: They are (1). He’s too powerful and (2.) He’s not interesting because he’s just a big ol’ goodie two-shoes.
People are often skeptical that a Superman movie can be good because stories need conflict, and conflict seems pretty hard to come by when your hero is a person who always does the right thing and can’t be hurt. That, however, is a reductive way of looking at the character, and the secret to why Superman stories are so great: They’re never really about him. They’re about us.
This is something Snyder and his team almost get, but they come at it from an angle that totally misses the point of Superman. They treat him as a god among mortals, our greatest fear or our great salvation. The problem with this, though, is that it strips the character of his humanity, and makes him downright unapproachable.
There’s a great anecdote that legendary comics writer Grant Morrison — the man responsible for one of the best Superman stories in recent memory, 2005’s “All-Star Superman” — tells about Superman in his memoir “Supergods.” In the memoir, he mentions the inspiration for his story — he was at a convention, and he saw a handsome man in a Superman costume just sitting down and relaxing on a stoop.
That was Morrison’s epiphany: The most powerful man alive wouldn’t be tortured, but instead would be the friendliest, most relaxed person you ever saw. Thus this famous cover to “All-Star Superman” #1 by artist Frank Quitely.
And this, one of the most iconic, touching scenes in all of superhero comics, where Superman stops everything to hug a teenager who thinks life isn’t worth it.
Superman isn’t good or special because he’s an alien who crashes on Earth and ends up being
incredibly powerful. He’s special because after all that he becomes someone who always does the right thing
because he was raised by a couple of decent people from Kansas. That’s it.
He is someone with the power to be the most selfish being in all of existence, and decides to be selfless because he was raised by a couple of kindly farmers. And the beautiful idea behind him is that we don’t need to be bulletproof to be that way — we just have to be decent people.
This is something that’s been coming up again and again as I’ve read through some recent Superman comics lately, particularly Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder’s stellar run on “Action Comics.” The current story has Superman with almost none of his signature powers taking on police brutality, but just before that Pak and Kuder were working with a more classic Superman, complete with cape and powers. In those stories, they kept coming back to this basic, beautifully simple idea: Superman doesn’t try to beat his foes, he tries to understand them. Even when it doesn’t make sense to those around him.
He literally does everything he can to turn his foes into friends. That’s a million times more important to understanding Superman than knowing how much he can lift or fast he can fly or whether or not Batman could beat him in a fight.
That’s also a perfect source of tension: When someone or something is out to not just hurt you, but everyone around you … can you intervene in time to achieve these goals before someone else gets hurt?
As for his simplistic morality, the rebuttal to that is a simple one: Captain America is pretty much the literal definition of a Boy Scout, and he’s the guy at the center of two of the very best Marvel movies so far.
In order to make a good Superman story, you have to embrace a few unpopular notions about what makes good superhero stories: Dark doesn’t always mean better or more complex, characters fighting for good because it’s right is a compelling enough reason, and that a hero’s powers isn’t their most important aspect (but certainly don’t be afraid to show them off).
Unfortunately, that’s not where movie makers have been headed so far. And with the next instalment, ‘Batman v Superman,’ it looks once again like we won’t get close.
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