Why the world still needs a Superman.
The recent failure in representation, namely the cinematic endeavour, has only strengthened the argument that the character of Superman has always been the weaker link in DC Comics; the politically-correct buffer between Batman’s vigilante cool and Wonder Woman’s neofeminist chic. So often dismissed as ‘the boy scout’, Superman has existed under the yoke of one-dimensional do-gooder and had paled during the ‘gritty realism’ of the 90s and the advent of ‘widescreen comics’. In light of work such as Frank Miller’s 'The Dark Knight Returns' and Grant Morrison’s ‘Arkham Asylum’, and bolstered by Christopher Nolan’s more recent cinematic contribution to the Dark Knight legend, it was Batman who flourished during this era. With both he and his adversaries mired in madness, angst, trauma and angry-loner wish-fulfilment, the Batman is ripe and has been fleshed-out by some of the best and ‘edgiest’ writers in comics. Benefitting from a British film director whose early work is steeped in psychological drama, the deal is sealed. The camp comedic missteps are forgotten and Batman, the concept, is now invincible. Any further additions to the canon, regardless of poor quality or day-glo excesses, cannot diminish what, in this Internet age, has been carved in the stone of public consciousness.
And it is the Batman franchise’s infallibility that reflects quite poorly upon the Last Son of Krypton. In this new age of ‘gritty-realism’, it is thought that our heroes should be ‘dark’; flawed and anti-heroic in their methods. We should also relate to them, share similar experiences, even if it be of the traumatic variety to grant a revenge motive. Batman is the ultimate human being. He is the best, with the exception of a certain Lex Luthor, that humankind has to offer and he is still one of us. But this is where Superman runs afoul of bias, for he is not us. And he makes us look reaallly bad.
Batman appeals because of his tortured and mutilated psyche. His head is a virtual haunted house of dual-personae, survivor guilt and parental abandonment. In a certain fashion and, hopefully only to an extent, we can all relate. Not so with the Kryptonian. Superman is an unflinching and unshakeable straight-arrow in his thoughts and deeds. He knows no self-doubt nor avarice, and is inflexible in matters of right and wrong. He is an idealised psychological simplification and perhaps this is what repulses us the most. By comparison, we are cowardly, stupid, indecisive and weak. We will all be orphans, someday. We might be lucky enough to have a fortune of millions bestowed upon us. Some of us may even dedicate our lives to honing ourselves into perfect and brutal fighting machines. But none of us are ever going to be born into a superior and advanced alien civilization, the last of our kind, completely unique. It is Kal-El’s extra-terrestrial origin and perceived perfection that offends the most. He could not be more alien, more ‘other’.
Yet, this is where Superman is at his most fascinating. His moral compass cannot have it’s origins in his corn-fed Kansas youth. Raised in an idealised, wholesome farming community, working the land and caring for animals; none of these things are guarantors of anything save a basic understanding of agriculture and economics. Despite, the romanticised notions of ‘salt of the earth’, it is an environment devoid of moral extremes and the notions of innocence and purity associated with pastoral landscapes are mere cliché. Consider how many spree or serial killers have had an identical upbringing. Like all of Superman’s attributes, his superior morality is rooted in his superior biology. Or, in this case, his superior neurophysiology. His brain is so unlike our own that it appears as an iron-cast, binary construct, partitioning all existence with an unbreakable Manichaean philosophy. Kal-El never has to ponder the right move in any given situation. In his black-and-white world, there are no grey areas and this is why he is capable of split-second action, harnessing his abilities to enact instant justice, and never be in the wrong. He makes no errors in judgement. In publications such as Brian Azzarello’s ‘Lex Luthor, Man of Steel’, we see Kal-El through the eyes of his nemesis, a horror of alien invasion received with unforgivable docility. An inhuman engine of destruction that borders on the infernal, destroying all in his path in the process of correction. Indeed, this is why some of the best Superman comic book stories deal with the removal of this percipience. When a being of such power makes even the slightest of mistakes, be it due to red kryptonite or the machinations of Brainiac, the consequences are colossal.
The problems with the Zack Snyder’s recent 'Man of Steel' motion picture are myriad. Leaving aside the technical and narrative failures, ignoring the crimes against canon, let’s focus on the purpose of this blog entry: Superman was not present in this movie. The screenplay depicts ‘Clark Kent’, confused and unsure, bumbling his way from one good deed to the next. During a supposedly formative experience, he watches his own father, Jonathan Kent, die a violent death rather than put himself at risk by exposing his abilities. Mr. Kent, according to legend, keeled over and died of a heart attack metres from his own home, perfectly illustrating to his impressionable foster child the true and ridiculous fragility of these humans. ‘MoS’ has a young Clark Kent cowering in shelter while his father is beaten to death in a tornado. This serves to teach the young alien…what exactly? Self-preservation at the expense of the weak? It is a confusing and erroneous deviation from the canon.
In the ‘final showdown’ set piece, to save a handful of human lives, somehow disregarding the tens of thousands that must have perished in their citywide brawl, Superman kills General Zod by breaking his neck. Setting aside issues with the unlikelihood of Kryptonian death under our yellow sun, this act is an impossibility in the mind of Kal-El. Murder to prevent murder is no viable option. The real Superman would have found a multitude of other options, of course. He’s Superman. By the movie’s own rationale, to remove the threat of Zod from Earth, he might only have removed himself, sacrificing his earthbound lifestyle in order to save the planet. He would have done that, without question. He’s Superman. He is fascistic in his implementation of selflessness and the preservation of all forms of life. The taking of a life by either action or inaction is anathema.
In perhaps his best written monologue, Quentin Tarantino has the titular character of 'Kill Bill II' deliver a summation of the Kal-El/Clark Kent dichotomy in order to illustrate the difference between the assumed and one’s true nature.
"As you know, I’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favourite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well drawn. But the mythology … the mythology is not only great, it’s unique. Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red "S", that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak, he’s unsure of himself, he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race."
Though it’s easy to accuse Tarantino of regular insensitivity and plagiarist film-snobbery, in this matter he has perfect grasp of the relationship between Kal-El and his alter-ego. This is the encapsulation of Superman’s psychology. Yet, in an attempt to make Superman ‘dark and gritty’, the makers of 'Man of Steel' misunderstood the basic relationship between the two personae and began an exploration of the false identity, believing his ‘human side’ to be fertile ground for trauma and angst. You know, that ‘dark’ stuff that’s so hot right now. 'MoS' is an idiot’s version of ‘putting Superman right’, taking what makes Superman special and perceiving it as a problem. In an attempt to reinvent the wheel, they instead delivered a shiny sports car, with no engine nor steering.
Indeed, Bryan Singer’s ill-treated 'Superman Returns' is an even greater success by comparison. Acknowledging the character as a Christ allegory, the film is loaded with resonant imagery, content to harness our innate senses of wonder and awe and frame his very presence as near angelic interventionism. His ‘alienness’ is also compounded by performance. Rarely does Singer’s Superman betray any emotion, save for moments of utmost dramatic importance. Witness the scene where Kal-El realises his Kryptonian embassy on Earth, his ‘Fortress of Solitude’, has been soiled and thieved from. He does not slap his forehead or pace in frustration. Instead, he merely stares into the ice and he brims. His reaction is unreadable, foreign, yet we are very aware of it’s intensity. Superman Returns is the narrative successor to ‘Superman’ and ‘Superman II’, though it benefits from the massive improvements in comic book writing since the 70s. Heavy on psychology, it explores notions of paternity with the deceased mortal Jonathan Kent, the godlike Jor-El, the prodigal Kal-El, and the lost son, Jason White. Where SR favours character development and exposition, MoS instead fills running time with senseless fight scenes that, for all their visual effects, amount to placing two action figures in a clear plastic lunch box and shaking it vigorously. Empty noise when you consider SR's airplane rescue. A furious descent of near-misses and panic that results in an expression of pure power and benevolence, accompanied by snatches of Gregorian chant in the soundtrack. SR also makes several subtle steps to widen the scope of Kal-El’s existence. The line uttered by Perry White, “Does he still stand for truth, justice…all that stuff?” carefully omits the “and the American way” portion, acknowledging America’s difficult standing in the world due to a disastrous foreign policy. News reports of Superman saving lives across multiple continents and speaking in foreign languages, establish him as an adopted son of the planet, not solely the USA. Contrast this with MoS, whose action never deviates from American soil, and the line, “I grew up in Kansas, General. About as American as it gets!” This apparently is the narrow view of someone capable of interplanetary travel, to whom all humans are the same delicate, breakable wonders. Such a limited vision and diminution is uncharacteristic of a man whom we believe can fly, the last son of a forgotten world, the man of tomorrow. Reductive and thoughtless in every sense, surely the real man of steel deserves better.
List of images:
1. Still from Man of Steel, 2013
2. Lex Luthor, Man of Steel, Cover art by Lee Bermejo
3. Still from Superman Returns, 2006