Superman: Too Perfect For the Modern World?
I’ll always remember when I saw the first Superman film, directed by Richard Donner and released over a decade before I was born. It blew me away. Yes, I was only eight or nine, maybe ten, and easily impressed by simple, passé things like seeing a man fly, but I stand by the original assessment I gave while sitting cross-legged on my living floor; it is amazing. Even now, the original Superman film holds a place in my heart reserved for those things in childhood which make you gasp with wonderment and awe. So much so that I can watch it even now and marvel (geddit, ‘cos he’s DC) at how well it holds up. It still has a certain naïve magic in the unassuming perfection of Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent before the cruelty of the world confined him to a wheelchair, Margot Kidder as a gorgeous, feisty Lois Lane prior to the full revelation of her mental health issues, and Gene Hackman having a whale of a time as a villain whose plan makes exactly no sense. Superman a wonderful, bold, Technicolor extravaganza where time is somehow tied to the rotation of the Earth and you really will believe that a man can fly. There really is only one problem with the film: there’s simply no room in the world anymore for moral and personal perfection.
So, while I have nothing but love for the 1978 film, I must concede that Superman lacks some of the sheen that he once had as a character, and I don’t think this is the fault of anyone in particular, least of all Superman himself, it is simply a reflection of the times in which he was created. Superman originated in The Great Depression, a time where the mass, populist entertainment of the American people seemingly had very little room for darkness. People wanted certainty: they wanted their good guys good and their bad guys bad. They wanted Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney, sweeping romances and precious little ambiguity. It was escapism for a time and place from which any of us would want to escape and a way for young boys to vent some of their frustration at the world around them. It’s telling that in Michael Chabon’s novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, which was set in the late thirties and early forties and centred around two Jewish boys creating a superhero comic, the name of their character was The Escapist.
If you were a boy in the 30s when the character was created, you didn’t want to know about the internal turmoil and complex motivations of your hero, you just wanted to see him whaling on some bad guys and saving the day. As such, Superman has a sense of moral certainty, of absolute right and wrong, woven into his DNA. He has bold adventures in bold colours, drawn with thick strokes and little subtlety. Any attempt to deviate from this pattern needs to be done with utmost skill, else it risks undermining what makes Superman so engaging. To take a character too far from what made that character great in the first place is always risky business, and this is especially true of a character as iconic as Superman.
This creates the previously mentioned problem in that, as a culture, we’ve grown far too hard and cynical to simply accept someone as perfect. All of our idols are shown to have cracks: John Lennon hit his wife and abandoned his child, Ghandi was quite possibly a sexual deviant, Martin Luther King Jr. shagged anything that moved, Jimmy Savile, famous for his work with children, has been shown to have been a serial child-molester, Michael Jackson quite possibly had similar perversions, JFK… well, I could go on. Perhaps, though, the most potent demonstration of the fallibility of the seemingly infallible lies in the fates of those who have played Superman. George Reeve was so psychologically damaged that he committed suicide and Christopher Reeve, the man who could fly, spent the last decade of his life unable to even move his arms.
The outcome of this seems to be that we cannot blindly trust the motivations of anybody, least of all our superheroes. This is why modern superhero films have precious little which can be taken at face value: they feature fleshed out characters, with genuine fears and insecurities, rather than grand, shining golden beacons. Our heroes, it seems, can no longer afford to be godlike, and must instead be fractured, deeply fallible beings, relatable as people we could imagine and understand. Where, then, does this leave Superman as a character? Surely, simply to make him a dramatically viable character in the 21st century, some work needs to be done to add depth and demons to the otherwise flawless Kryptonian demigod.
Zack Snyder, in making Man of Steel, seems to have tried to mask the problem of Superman’s perfection by swaddling him in the events of his origin and formative years. By placing a colossus of a man in the middle of impossibly colossal events, I can’t help but get the feeling that Snyder is admitting defeat. He almost seems to be accepting that Superman exists more appropriately as an idol, an empty vessel for our own hopes and aspirations, than as a person in his own right. Indeed, watching the film through, you never get a sense of a person of any description, just a blank, half-formed figured in the centre of events much bigger than him. Instead of fleshing out Superman, he fleshed out the events surrounding Superman, and that is exactly the wrong approach to take.
The fact is that there is room for vulnerability inside that iron shell, some of which is hinted at, but never fully elaborated on. We get a sense that he might be lonely and alienated (literally), but the loneliness and alienation shown is mostly explained through his adopted father rather than the man himself. Superman still remains unknowable and perfect, but we don’t even get the fun, energy and bombast that made Superman so much fun to begin with. Instead, we get a portentous, heavy mess which fails to any better define the character. By making the perfect man nothing more than the eye of the hurricane, the vacuum around which the fury of the rest of the story revolves, Man of Steel strips him of whatever little relatability he may have once had. It is a brave attempt, but ultimately, I feel, a noble failure.
The problem is, I suppose, that there’s precious little room for any grey in a world of red, white and blue. In 1978 when the first film came out, America was in a pretty terrible way. Watergate had given way to the Carter administration and stagflation, a phenomenon so rare I can’t even begin to explain it. There was a gas crisis and, as Carter himself put it, the country was in a malaise. America was in such a desperate state that, only two years after Superman came out, they elected to the Oval Office a man who once shared top billing in a movie with a chimp. I’m English, and wasn’t alive then, so I can’t speak with too much authority, but I’m willing to bet that after a decade of Vietnam, scandal and depression, America hadn’t been more in need to a Superman since the days of his creation. The crucial difference between then and now is not the circumstances (which aren’t so wildly different), it’s us. We have an almost insatiable appetite for superheroes, but of the darker, deeper, more serious kind. Maybe this is fueled by our jaded modern cynicism, or maybe it is just that we prefer all of our characters to have a certain dramatic weight. Either way, the outcome is that we prefer our superheroes with a depth of character that Superman seems to lack.
Maybe Superman will always and forever remain the domain of the kind of young child I was when I first saw Christopher Reeve flying through the air. Adults know that no one can be that perfect, no matter how hard they try or how much we wish they could be. Everyone shatters and falls eventually, be they a politician, an actor, a writer, a friend, a parent, or just someone we admire. No one is perfect, not even the perfect man, and to claim otherwise would be disingenuous. The perfection of Superman means he can seldom be anything more than a player in the uncomplicated, boys-own adventures typified by Richard Donner’s 1978 film. I’m willing to bet that around the world there are young boys and girls who will know Henry Cavill as Superman, and that, for them, he really is the man of steel. For me, however, he is less a man of steel than a hollow, metal automaton, because no man can be made of steel, not even Superman. Until that cold, hard shell is filled with and actual person, I fear there might be no room left in the world for Superman.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Superman is still a great hero, but I do believe that audiences today are looking for someone a little more flawed. They like heroes with a little more dimension, perhaps with good qualities along with some not so great ones. I think audiences see themselves in the underdogs, and they want characters with loveable flaws.
I can agree about the 78 film and the need for darker heroes, but not about MoS. Snyder’s approach was far from new, just new to film. The works of major comics writers like Waid, JMS and Morrison just to name a few are very evident in this film and all have taken that same approach.
Superman has become that empty vessel in the last 35 years or so. The character from 1938 disappeared completely in the 1950s and was replaced by the stupid hokey crap appropriate to the Silver Age. The character has changed more than once in the decades since and will continue to do so going forward.
He is an empty vessel precisely for that reason. More than any other fictional character today, he is a reflection of what the world around him needs and wants. He has always been this. Snyder’s film captures very well the classic Superman elements that are a must (doomed planet, desperate scientists, kindly couple) and added in the modern world.
Except for the ending, it is very much the classic Superman, just through the current filter of our needs as a culture.
I’m not saying that Snyder’s approach is new as such, but I still don’t like it. Man of Steel has all the elements of a good Superman story except for a clearly defined Superman. In previous films, even the bad ones, he had a personality, even if it was one-dimensional. Man of Steel tries to build on this one-dimensionality by fleshing out the events of his past. All this does, in my opinion, is take focus from his already ill-defined persona and move it onto those events. All of which leaves the film without a compelling central presence. He just comes across as a little dull, which is never a good trait for a superhero.
You’ve hit on one of the elements that I don’t like in many contemporary superhero films – the incessant darkness, the continual ‘everyone is flawed’ motif that after awhile just becomes dull. Even Iron Man, the best of the lot, has that tendency. And you’re right – Superman is one of the least flawed superheroes and Snyder has tried to give him darkness without adhering to what is one of his essential characteristics: he’s a greater hero than all of us combined. Snyder tried to make him into Batman.
As a culture we seem to have tended towards darkness, and as you say it has no basis in our circumstances (I don’t think you can get much worse than Vietnam, the Great Depression or the nuclear arms race). But it’s not a more realistic attitude – it’s just more nihilistic. One of the reasons I never really liked Batman was because of the fascistic undertones. Now it appears they’re instilling Superman with the same thing.
I completely agree with all of your points in this piece! These days it seems as though to enjoy something light-hearted, such as the original Superman films, is a crime against cinema and that there has to be a more serious underlying tone for it to be taken seriously. The cinema is an escapism from daily life and I personally don’t want to be reminded of all these real-life issues whilst trying to forget!
I actually like how Superman is less flawed. I realise that Nolan’s Batrilogy was well done, but it was so dark that it became unenjoyable for me. It’s why I love MArvel movies- some angst, some humour, some romance. I think Man of Steel was sort of a compromise between the two.
Superman does seem to embody a strange contradiction in superhero film audiences – for while we seem to long to see ‘people’ do extraordinary things, we also seem to need a tension to arise from the idea that our heroes may just lose. I agree that this makes a new Superman series a difficult one to develop as, unlike Batman or Iron Man, there is essentially little worry that he is not going to beat the bad guy as he is an invincible alien!
Thanks for the read!
That Donner ’78 movie really is something to watch sitting cross-legged on the floor, really nice description.
I’ve always thought what made Superman so human is his immigrant and orphan history. For the new film, imagine if Goyer and Snyder had done the exact opposite of what you described: “instead of fleshing out Superman, (they) fleshed out the events surrounding Superman.” What if there was no Krypton and no Zod, just a kid in Kansas who discovers his parents aren’t who they say they are, and who struggles to define himself without any Kryptonian artifacts (at least in this first rebooted movie). A kid who grows up to become a young man carrying around with him a funny symbol on a blanket, maybe a memento from the ship his parents tell him they found him in, and that’s it. Imagine that blue and red suit was Clark Kent’s imaginative invention (an idea that John Byrne played up in the 80s comics), and what if building a Fortress of Solitude was his own idea. The new movie forced so much Krypto stuff down our throats and Clark’s, that I think in the end we didn’t have a hero who got to define anything for himself. An “empty vessel,” like you said.
I’ve always felt the Clark-Lois romance is the heart of these stories. Here in the new movie, Goyer decided to take all that away. Such a shame…
I’ve always been pretty excited about the potential of a Superman film to be brilliant, but I think this is one occasion where straying from the comics a little more would actually benefit the character, whereas with Batman and co sticking with the comics is generally best. I think Superman as a character needs to be very carefully thought through for a film audience as opposed to a comic book audience, he doesn’t translate as easily to the screen as Batman IMO. The key is to show that yes Superman is a god ON EARTH, but out in the universe he’s just another alien, and there are plenty of villains who can easily challenge him and Earth. As well, there’s plenty of good mileage for a kind of X-Men style ‘them and us’ thread, because Superman is not like the people of Earth, how would people actually respond to an alien, or, more emotively, an immigrant, to this planet arriving and proclaiming himself as our saviour? Lots of interesting possibilities there. Plus with all of the alien planets and races it’s possible to show in a Superman film, the potential is there for a really exciting, action-packed space opera film. MOS wasn’t it, IMO, but hopefully one day will crack it. Just ripping everything straight from the Superman comics, a lot of which seem to me to be convoluted and generally not very exciting, isn’t going to cut it on this one I don’t think.
*one day someone will crack it
A wonderful article, I enjoyed in particular how you contextualised and rationalised the existence of such an old and traditionally one dimensional hero. To fit the modern consumer however, is the question you have left us with, to do what Snyder could not, to make Superman more man than super.
I can add that one route has been explored far more than the other. Superman seems to be written if ever with character as a villain. The idea that perfect and infallible morality exists quite comfortably moves into totalitarianism, e.g injustice gods among us and a few offshoots in the comic sphere (don’t cite me on that mind you).
The second and more elusive path is to play it straight, but with flare. The character of Batman for example is most effectively explored by the situations and villains he faces; Joker constantly makes a mockery of his efforts, designed to instil doubt or abhorrent clarity in the mind of the audience. The Penguin is Bruce Wayne, but less fortunate. Superman has Lex Luthor, a man so bent on ruining superman because he is the easy answer. A terrorist threat? No matter, the US has a living god.
My answer would be it is too difficult, particularly in one films sitting, to take this second route without eventually devolving into the first.
My favourite line from Kill Bill Volume Two ( paraphrased); “Clarke Kent is weak, he is unsure of himself, he is cowardly. Clarke Kent is Superman’s critique of the whole human race.” A film that follows through on this phrase could be the breakthrough Superman needs, for it is indisputably relatable to hold contempt for the weak.