Monday, July 20, 2015

839. Superman: beyond good and evil?

Next year we'll get to further the conversation about Zack Snyder's Superman, once Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is finally released.  Snyder's Man of Steel has been endlessly debated as being too dark, too unrepresentative of Superman in, ah, his best light.

Which prompts the question: What is Superman in his best light?  Those who consider Snyder's Superman as too dark insist that the character should be beyond ordinary human pettiness, that he's a paragon of virtue, much like the old mantra of "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" always suggested, or the nickname pegging him as the Big Blue Boy Scout.  After years of one-dimensional but crowd-pleasing movies based on Marvel comic book superheroes, Snyder's Superman is uncomfortably associated with Christopher Nolan's Batman (two out of three with titles literally including the word "dark," apparently just so there was no confusion).

They use as justification that Superman's origins include the famous adoption by a kindly Kansas farmer, who instilled in him good old American values.  All this is very curious, however, because Superman's appearance in Man of Steel is in response, in many ways, to another ongoing debate entirely, to whether or not the character is still relevant at all.  America has been at the reluctant forefront of the globalization idea for decades at this point.  To say "...and the American Way" has been a part of Superman's legacy that has undergone as much reconsideration as Star Trek's "...where no man has gone before" (revised in The Next Generation to read "where no one has gone before").  So whose values does Superman represent?  If we remove one part of the equation, where does the rest end up?

Actually, Superman's comic book counterpart has been examining that for years, mostly in obvious but interesting ways.  One of the most famous examples is Superman: Red Son, in which the rocket from Krypton lands in Soviet Russia instead of Kansas.  Interestingly, even though he becomes a Communist dynamo, Superman is still a hero with exceptional morals.  If not Jonathan Kent, then who?

The question here is really the classic nature versus nurture.  Superman's nature is actually pretty straightforward to analyze, not because of his alien origins but his awareness of them, his emerging abilities and what they mean about how he'll be able to interact with the world around him.  Superman is a story about an outsider.  This is what the best writers understand.  That he chooses to help rather than hurt is an example all its own, and because he's the most famous superhero, by default Superman has always represented superheroes as a whole.  But at the character's heart is something more complicated than that.

Defensive mechanisms always spring from ideas that are at first rejected by society as a whole.  Tim Burton's Batman rejected Adam West's, went completely the other way, just as Joel Schumacher's was crafted as a response to Burton's, and Nolan's as a response to Schumacher's.  Bryan Singer's Superman was meant as a continuation of Richard Donner's, the rare instance of accepting rather than rejecting (which isn't odd at all, since Singer's X-Men movies were patently created as allegories for the gay community, and his later visits have been to reintegrate new interpretations with the old) something that has come before.  And yet, Snyder's Superman was clearly a rejection of Singer's (even while it was a continuation of Nolan's work).

Marvel's characters are only just beginning to see reinvention come into play (even though the Hulk took three tries to reach popular approval).  Spider-Man's second cinematic life was rejected mostly because his first is still roundly celebrated.  The Fantastic Four have gotten a reboot because their first appearances were deemed unsatisfying.  Daredevil has gotten a new incarnation.  You can imagine how poorly it'll go when Iron Man is played by someone else for the first time.  Can you say George Lazenby?

When Snyder focuses on the effect Superman has around him, lets us see how the world develops around him, we see the character from an entirely new perspective.  Superman normally is depicted as nearly instantly formed, everything he needed coming from his Smallville upbringing.  He's seen as Moses to some people(rocket for a basket), and Jesus (another obscured development of a savior) to others.  Yet he's just a comic book character, and he only means as much as the stories he's in, the impact he's allowed to have.  If he's presented as "just" a great heroic figure, then he becomes just another action hero.  Movies have plenty of those.  What they don't have is Superman, one whose presentation is as confident as his legacy in the culture is to date.  Later generations, you may need reminding, won't know or care what we thought.  If the material doesn't speak for itself, Superman will slip into oblivion.

He has a chance to become something greater.  Snyder recognizes that.  He has a chance to embody everything his character suggests.  If reduced to mere functionality, he's nothing.  That's the simple truth.  What does he say about good?  What does he say about evil?  Superman becomes a hero, in Man of Steel, because he doesn't have a choice.  He feels compelled.  He can do a thing, and so he does.  He rescues people.  His father, Jonathan Kent, cautions him to be fearful of the reaction.  Because people fear what they don't understand.  He'll be hounded.  Nolan had his Batman hounded, too, but that was because he really was just a man.  He could be chased.  So inevitably, he would be.  The consequences are different, however.  Batman was always subject to human laws.  Superman isn't.  He transcends all of them.  In time, this is something everyone is bound to discover.  He's more than a man.  He's an idea.

People tend to try and make every fictional character from the past to be a real person.  They want to find the historical Robin Hood, the historical King Arthur.  Or they want to make real people into fictional characters.  They say Homer didn't exist, that Shakespeare didn't.  People can be funny.  They want Superman to transcend the one thing he shouldn't, which is internal logic.  If presented with a given set of circumstances, despite variations, the end result is a man who becomes Superman.  He's more than a superhero.  If you believe that your life can have an impact on the world, you will believe in Superman.  But to have that chance, you have to overcome great odds.  So does Superman.

To achieve that, you have to overcome great obstacles.  In Greek myth, Hercules (to be completely accurate, Heracles) had to undergo a series of legendary labors.  This part of his story is thrilling.  Less so the part where he's murdered by his ex-wife.  Yet without that murder, the story is incomplete.  You can't tell Superman's story properly without delving into the dark.  Because otherwise he doesn't have a chance to shine.


Pat Dilloway said...

I recently read Gladiator by Philip Wylie which was an inspiration for Superman. The main character's fear of being deemed a freak and roving around in a search to fit in reminded me of Man of Steel.

Tony Laplume said...

Hadn't heard about that previously.


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