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superbland?
we don't need some other hero
by mike julianelle
4.6.11
pop culture

In a pattern that is so common it's now merely referred to as "summer," another crop of superhero movies will be sprouting up over the next few months. And regardless of whether they clean up (Captain America) or don't (Thor), more are on their way -- including new installments for the three most famous: Spider-Man, Batman and Superman.

A few years ago I wrote a column about Superman's most recent attempt to reclaim his spot as the most super-heroic of all the superheroes. It didn't quite work out that way, and so here we are again, waiting for Superman. At least I am. Judging by a lot of the chatter going around these days, I might be the only one.

I've spent much of the past five days in heated debates about Superman. The crux of my argument?

Superman is not boring.

Superman Returns is boring. It's a dull, somber, slow-moving non-spectacle built from a foundation that was 30 years old. But that wasn't the character's fault. It was Bryan Singer's fault. It was the screenwriters' fault. It was the studio's fault.

They'd been scared away from radical reinterpretations of the character, from the potentially-farcical Tim Burton/Nic Cage collab to the fanboy-repelling JJ Abrams reboot, and so they went in the opposite direction and wedded a 21st century film to a beloved but out-dated series of movies from the late 70s. Love the originals, glad they kept the theme, but the rest? Boo.

I'm campaigning neither for an off-the-rails re-envisioning nor for a simple reboot -- Superman's origin story is well-known enough we don't need to revisit it with every new flick. And investing the Man of Steel with some life doesn't require reboot or makeover; it requires a re-dedication to what Rebecca Black calls “fun fun fun fun fun!” and some new explorations of pre-existing characteristics.

The main thing that was missing from Superman Returns, aside from almost any action whatsoever, was a sense of fun. It's got to be fun to fly. It's got to be fun to be able to annihilate a mountain with a punch, to outrace a jet, to use a car as a baseball bat. There should never be a situation where Superman's abilities become ho-hum, especially not with today's special effects. And for the love of Zod, there are other villains besides Lex Luthor! A superhero is only as good as his rogues gallery (both Batman and Spider-Man easily trump Supes there), so let's give him an on-screen foe more formidable than a rich criminal; a foe that requires a full exploration of his powers, a foe that pushes him to the brink.

Let's break this down for a minute: aside from inexplicably sapping the excitement from the character, what makes Superman boring?

Two things:

1. He's borderline invincible, which robs him of danger and makes him impossible to relate to.
2. He's morally stalwart and has no sense of humor, which robs him of both dimension and sex appeal and makes him impossible to relate to.

I'll start with #2. They don't call him the Big Blue Boy Scout for nothing: he’s got no jokes and he’s a goody-two-shoes. Morality, like comedy, is subjective; there's no reason Superman's can't be compromised. His sense of right-and-wrong isn't enhanced by earth's yellow sun, it was merely instilled by his hick parents. And who doesn't disappoint their parents by making the wrong decision once in a while? Plus, can someone give the guy a sense of humor, please? He doesn't have to be a smart-ass teenager like Peter Parker, but even Obama manages to get off a funny line once in a while and he isn't exactly the edgiest guy on earth.

As for the invincibility thing, um…when's the last time you saw a movie in which the hero died? Nearly every Hollywood hero is invincible when it comes right down to it.

Besides, if you want to try something new with the character, his invincibility is a great place to start. Being impervious is a double-edged sword for the Man of Steel. No, he can't be hurt easily or much at all (aside from Kryptonite, of course, but when used to much it just becomes a contrivance), but in the face of human frailty, such indestructibility serves as a constant reminder of how different he is.

Why not explore the alienation he feels as a result of that isolation, or the superiority he wrestles with as a demigod living amongst mere mortals. Why not combine the resulting loneliness and latent arrogance in the service of shaking up his implacable Midwestern values? Think of the frustration he must feel on a daily basis, as the put-upon reporter, the rebuffed would-be Romeo, the bumbling Clark Kent. There's more than enough reason for his bright-eyed altruism to sour into spiteful contempt.

I know. That approach doesn't totally jibe with the whole "fun fun fun fun fun" thing, but a multi-dimensional exploration of Superman's personality needn't require an absence of fun or excitement. The problem is, no one wants to see a brooding superhero. Unless that superhero is Batman. No one wants to see a morally compromised superhero. Unless that superhero is Batman. No one wants to see a self-destructive superhero. Unless that superhero is Batman.

More to the point, no one wants to see a brooding, morally compromised and self-destructive Superman. And I get that.

But Superman isn't sacred. Too often, the character is handled with kid gloves. I suspect it's due at least partially to apprehension that toying with him will corrupt the meaning of the things he represents: goodness, hope, America.

It's not unreasonable to suspect that subverting the Man of Tomorrow's character might tarnish America's image (and a dilute the movie's foreign box office). Except, of course, that America's image was tarnished decades ago. I think both Superman and his adopted nation can stop pretending they've been dominating since the '50s, because neither of them have been. Why not let Big Blue take a hit or two the same way we have? That way, when he finally bounces back in the third act it will be far more powerful and rousing if it's linked to America's post-Bush struggle for redemption.

As for goodness and hope, bah. Such virtues don't exist in a vacuum; they are only worthwhile because of their respective positions on their respective continuums. There's nothing wrong with a character who personifies those values showing some stretch marks as he struggles to maintain his high standards. Invincibility needn't mean infallibility.

Fuck with the guy a little: have him blow it once or twice and not save the day; see how he handles that. Or put him in a position where his morality is tested. Singer gave him a kid, but ill-advisedly made the kid super (even though the narrative he was building off of had a power-less Clark sleep with Lois). What if the kid had been fully human and was discovered as Superman's heir? How would the Big Blue Boy Scout react if his son were in danger? What would happen to his values then?

There are ways to make Superman interesting for non-believers. He shouldn't take a backseat to angst-ridden superheroes like Batman, and he doesn't need to become copies of them to be engaging to today's audiences. Fun and depth aren't mutually exclusive.

All that angst is appropriate during a recession, but rumor has it, things are turning around. It's high time Superman's reputation did the same.


ABOUT MIKE JULIANELLE

Let's get real here. You don't want to know about me. You want to know about "me".

more about mike julianelle

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COMMENTS

geoffrey gamble
4.7.11 @ 1:02a

Factual error alert! You have used one too many "fun"s when describing Rebecca Black lyrics. Rebecca Black says "fun fun fun fun". There are four repetitions of "fun", not five! If you want to garner any respect at all, GET YOUR REBECCA BLACK LYRICS STRAIGHT.

russ carr
4.10.11 @ 3:14p

[brando-as-corleone]

I do not know which is sadder, Michael: that an icon of heroism continues to be kicked in the street like a whelp of a dog... or that the only portion of this essay to garner attention is a throwaway line about some talentless daughter of veterinarians who have not yet understood that she is being played as a fool. I am... disappointed.

[/brando-as-corleone]

mike julianelle
4.10.11 @ 6:36p

Breaking News: Michael Shannon in as Zod.

I have to say, I LOVE this piece of casting. Dude's a great actor, and if he plays Zod as slightly unhinged, it will be interesting AND he'll kill it. "Slightly unhinged" is Shannon's bread and butter.

russ carr
4.10.11 @ 7:10p

Awesome! Now we know that we can look forward to Chris Rock playing Gus Gorman in the *next* reboot.

mike julianelle
4.11.11 @ 1:08p

go to hell!

Not sure what the reluctance is to go big (i.e. not human/Kryptonian) and new with the villain. If Green Lantern can do a space epic with alien enemies, why can't Superman?

russ carr
4.11.11 @ 4:10p

Because the moviegoing audience at large has no idea who Green Lantern is, who his traditional villains are, etc., which means there are no preconceptions. He's a character whose power came from aliens, so the space aspect can't be ignored. And since his powers are entirely a special effect, it makes sense to put them in a situation where they can exploit that beyond him making a giant boxing glove to clobber bad guys with.

Frankly, GL is a huge gamble for WB, because they're essentially bringing a second-tier character to the forefront. But unlike when Marvel did it (Iron Man) they're throwing a convoluted story, way too many characters, and a leading actor better known for comedy into an environment that's so far from grounded that I don't know that audiences will "get it." I'm calling it now: of the summer superhero movies, Green Lantern will have the fastest, sharpest drop-off (followed quickly by X-Men First Class).

Superman's problem is baggage: Lois, Lex, kryptonite. And, thanks to Superman 2, he's got Zod. For some people, that's all they know (and if that allows S3 and S4 to fade from the collective consciousness, that's good). As a result, WB has made Superman their "safe" hero, watering down plots in favor of tried and true, and the red, white & blue. That's why we're getting another regurgitated villain. Though at least Supes can HIT Zod.

You want a good Superman movie? Check out the new All-Star Superman animated feature. An excellent story there.

mike julianelle
4.11.11 @ 5:10p

I will check that out, been recommended several times.

I was surprised by the Green Lantern footage, as in, surprised that I liked it. It looks unique for a superhero movie. It has scope. I hope it's good.

Growing up, Green Lantern was part of the Justice League, as such he was one of the core guys for me. I never understood anything about him, but I counted him as part of the group.

I am less concerned with audiences getting Green Lantern or Superman than with them being good movies. Though if GL is good but doesn't get a sequel because it doesn't make enough $$, I won't care. If Superman is good but doesn't get a sequel, I will leave this country. If only to avoid yet another tepid reboot in 5 years.

I wouldn't mind Superman failing and then the next "reboot" actually foregoing convention and TRYING SOMETHING NEW. But that will never happen in this environment.

brian anderson
4.12.11 @ 8:26a

Grant Morrison is Exhibit A of how Superman can be compelling in the hands of a good writer. The All-Star Superman movie jettisons about half of his 12-issue comic series in favor of a stronger plotline. It's as good an adaptation as you'll see, but necessarily a different animal from the source material (which is exceptionally good).

I could argue that with Geoff Johns at the helm, Green Lantern has become more central to the DC books in the last five years than Superman has.

brian anderson
4.12.11 @ 4:15p

In fact, thinking about this: watch the movie first. Otherwise you might be distracted by what's missing. Once I got over that, I appreciated it a lot more.

mike julianelle
4.12.11 @ 5:38p

Will do, Brian, both because Superman rules AND because your suggestion is right in line with my "see the movie BEFORE you read the book" argument.



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