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Thursday, July 23, 2015 

Why it's hard to do Superman right in the movies

Business Insider took a look at the narrow view some people, Hollywood citizens included, have for the Man of Steel, and what they fail to understand. Trouble is, even the writer of this article has slipped too:
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: "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 who is in the script, not the one from the comics.
Just a moment now. What does he mean the "one from the comics"? Is he saying what they make in the movies is valid, but not the one back in the four color pages? Because even in comics, there's a script with a character in it. That part is certainly sloppy and unhelpful.

At least he's right that dark-shaded vigilantes aren't the only thing I'm interested in reading about. Even stories with darker angles can wind up badly written, and if you know where to look, there are duds of a darker nature around. The Bruce Wayne: Murderer/Fugitive storyline in Batman from 2002 is a perfect example of a dark tale that wasn't worth the paper it's printed on.
It's a shame, then, that the story he's given simply doesn't show an understanding of Superman. It also totally buys into some of the worst assumptions about the character.

There are two popular explanations for why Superman can't succeed in modern movies: 1. He's too powerful; and 2. He's a 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 "Man of Steel" director Zack 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.
They also overlook some of the other weaknesses Superman has back in comicdom, like magical energies, something particularly notable in the Silver Age, and was put to use for many years afterwards too. There have even been giant robots who were menacing enough to Supes. It's not just Kryptonite that weakens him. How that continuously escapes many people is mystifying, but proves they never read any of the past tales where these weaknesses were conceived.
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. [...]
Quite likely. That's why it's very regrettable Morrison is one of the most overrated writers around, because even some of the Superman stories he wrote at the time of the New 52 reboot were pretentious, and so too is most of his Supergods book. His dark-laden approach to X-Men is another example of how he's not as creative as he'd like other people to think.
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 he 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.
Bingo. Selflessness and altruism are the name of the game, not superpowers. Unfortunately, after making these good points, the writer harkens back to one of the worst of the recent politicizations in DC's output, which he'd reviewed himself:
This is something that has 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.
It doesn't make sense why he thinks a story built off of propaganda makes a good example for citation. And there's something fishy about trying to understand his foes without beating them. Is there something too simple/hard about writing a story where Superman actually fights criminals who either do or don't have superpowers, and does his best to emerge victorious? There were stories like those in the past, where, if he ran into people he knew were crooked, he'd work to bring about their downfall without hesitation. IMO, what should really be a focus here is Superman's interactions with co-stars and guests, and how he can help them if they need it, ditto his love affairs with women like Lois Lane. Isn't that what "us" alludes to? As for villains, what should be challenging about them is what kind of weapons they wield, physical, technological and psychological. And they don't all have to wear costumes or masks. Lex Luthor, as one of the earliest and most classic foes, didn't wear the latter, if at all.
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; fighting for good because it's the right thing to do is a compelling enough reason; and heroes' powers aren't their most important aspect (but certainly don't be afraid to show them off).
Yes, that's true. For every good story with a dark angle, there's also a bad one. The Daredevil movie from 2003 was dark, but it was largely unsuccessful (and so was the Elektra movie that followed later).
Unfortunately, that's not where moviemakers have been headed so far. And with the next installment, "Batman v Superman," it looks once again as if we won't get close.
Also because of the politics they've injected into the screenplay. It's a pity the writer doesn't understand why the political slant Pak used in his recent Superman story is just not good either, and insults law enforcement officials in the process. If that's what Pak and company are going to use the Man of Steel for, then they aren't doing Superman right in the comics any more than David Goyer and company are in the latest movies.

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I wonder if it's because live-action doesn't work too well at portraying comic book scenarios?

Superman under Donner was fine, if a bit dated now by being mired in the late 70s/early 80s.

Superman under Singer suffered from some stupid plot ideas (Superkid! Luthor Dumb Plot #421!), too much nostalgia for the Donner Superman, Superman being upstaged in heroics by the guy who was raising his kid, and the always-bad idea of putting its most thrilling scene in the first act.

Superman under Snyder was doomed once they screwed up the Jonathan Kent and Clark Kent relationship. Instead of Pa Kent teaching young Supes to do good and help people, he taught him to let people die and saddled him with a huge guilt trip by forcing Clark to let Jonathan die.

I have no hope the Superman character is going to be much improved in the next film.

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