On the way out of “Batman v. Superman: No Idea Why They’re Fighting,” I saw a boy, probably 9 or 10 years old, walking with his mother. Like everyone else in the theater after the initial shock had faded, he had this baffled look on his face. Finally, as he approached the door, he turned to his mother and said, “So, wait, like, nobody won?”
I suppose that’s as good a summation of the facacta movie as any though I’m not here to add to Ben Affleck’s sadness or Anthony Lane’s brilliance. It has all been said about “Batman v. Superman.” What I do want to talk about for a minute is Superman, and why it is ceaselessly depressing to me what director Zack Snyder and others are doing to him.
I have never been a huge comic book guy, but I have always loved Superman. When I was a kid, there was a half-hour animated superhero show after school on Channel 43 in Cleveland. It was called “Superman and Friends” (I think). I never missed it. The showed featured three mini-cartoons. The first cartoon always featured Superman. The second one usually was just Superman Part II, though every now and againt it featured Superboy (and Superdog). The third cartoon was another hero, usually Aquaman but on special days, it might feature the Flash or Wonder Woman or someone like that.
Through the years, I never grew tired of these Superman cartoons, even though the plotlines were the same. Superman would run into some master villain and, in about seven minutes (all the time they had) crack the case and save the world. There never was much drama. The villain would invent some robot that was just as strong as Superman (not), or some monster would be released, or Bizarro Superman would show up for a fight or, mainly, Lex Luthor would get hold of kyrptonite. It would look dim for Superman for about 21 seconds, and then he would figure out some fairly obvious solution (send Bizarro back to his dimension!) and save the day just in time for him to turn back into Clark Kent and have some witty banter with Lois Lane.
LOIS: “Where have you been all this time?”
CLARK KENT: “Gee Lois, I got locked in the bathroom.”
LOIS: “It’s OK Clark, we can’t all be Superman!”
I loved Superman then and love him now . My office overflows with Superman stuff my family has bought for me through the years (they always buy me Superman stuff). And I’m only now coming to grips with why I so thoroughly loathed the last Superman movie (“Man of Steel Destroys Things”) and, even more, loathed “Batman v. Superman.”
Superman has too many powers. This is the complaint that my buddy Michael Schur always airs. Superman can go as fast as the speed of light. He is strong enough, essentially, to do anything. He is impervious to pain, and his body cannot be pierced by bullets. He can see through stuff (though not lead, a plot device often used) and he can burn things with his eyes, and he can blow a wind so cold it will form ice and, at the end of Superman II, he kissed Lois Lane and made her forget that he was Clark Kent. There’s a decadence here — does this guy REALLY need to be able to see through walls? — but that’s Superman.
Superman’s only physical obstacle, of course, is kryptonite, which –fortunately for hackneyed comic book writers everywhere — is readily available at every corner villain store or at a museum with one mopey security guard. It goes without saying that kryptonite plays the key role in “Batman v. Superman” because BvS is the sort of dull, uninspired movie that needs kryptonite.
I would not argue with Michael’s complaints about Superman except to say that I think it misses the point about Superman: He is not like other superheroes. Others, like Iron Man and Batman and Wonder Woman and Spiderman especially, the thrill is in the escape and the capure. They have limited powers and, so, are often in real danger. Their plight seems hopeless. They somehow find a way.
Superman is not like that. He cannot be defeated. He is never the underdog. If some new thing came along that could crush Superman, he would undoubtedly discover a new superpower to counter it (“Hey, look, I can go inside the computer and defeat the virus! I had no idea!”). This is the part that “Man of Steel” and, especially, BvS get so, so, so, so wrong. They treat Superman like he’s just a strong superhero who can fly and shoot heat lasers from his eyes.
But he’s not. He’s Superman.
And in missing that, they they miss the part that has always made Superman so compelling to many of us: He’s good. That’s his real superpower. He does not have delusions of grandeur, does not long for revenge, does not feel underappreciated. He’s Superman. He’s utterly incorruptible, thoroughly kind, intensely decent. Those seemingly silly gags of Superman coming down and saving a cat from a tree are important because that’s Superman — his singular purpose is to help people. He will use his Superpowers to save a cat so that a little boy or girl will be happy. That goodness is wired into his kryptonian DNA. The world’s problems, every one of them, are his problems.
Zack Snyder took this goodness away from Superman, and in doing so he took away everything that was ever interesting about the Man of Steel. He and actor Henry Cavill gave us a muscular vacant lot, a brooding Superman who will do a few good things if the mood strikes him, but feels put upon for even that.
“You don’t owe this world anything … you never did,” his earth mother tells Superman in BvS, in one of the worst and most depressing bits of advice a mother has EVER given their child. I cannot imagine what was happening in the writer’s heads when they wrote that line.
I don’t want to get into the BvS plot (in part because I still don’t understand it) but I do need to say: Snyder pulls off a bit of movie jujitsu so horrifying that he should be forced to answer for it in front of some sort of movie tribunal.
In “Man of Steel.” he has Superman fight General Zod in Metropolis, destroying countless buildings and killing however many people happened to be in those buildings. It was so un-Superman, that it made me want to throw up. Superman would sooner GIVE UP than allow all those people to die; that’s what made him Superman. He doesn’t make the sort of cynical calculations that others have to make (a few thousand die now so millions don’t die later). He saves EVERYONE.
So that was bad enough. But then, Snyder started off BvS with that very same fight, only this time from the perspective of Batman, who now sees the destruction caused by Superman and it (I guess) plants in him the rage that will lead to their battle.
That takes some real gall there, to first give us a grotesque version of Superman and then to build a whole second movie around his grotesqueness.
As mentioned, I’m no comic book expert and so I cannot say what true fans think of Superman. Maybe they are thrilled to see him go a little bit dark. Maybe they enjoy seeing him conflicted. Maybe they want him wearing deeper blue and red colors and fighting a lot at night.
I want a Superman in bright blue and red who wants to not only catch the bad guy but one who will do everything he can to make sure no one gets hurt along the way. I want a Superman who laments every loss, even among the so-called bad guys. I want a Superman who loves Lois Lane, sure, but one who knows that his greater purpose will prevent him from ever fully embracing that love. I want a Superman who realizes that his greatest weakness is not kryptonite, but that he is only one man and cannot be everywhere, and so has to inspire others to be their own heroes too.
I suppose that’s corny and childlike, and maybe comic book heroes are not like that anymore. I also suppose that’s a harder story to tell than one with kryptonite and bad guys kidnapping someone Superman loves. I despised Batman v. Superman, of course, because it’s a terrible movie, but mroe than that I mourn for the Superman I grew up with.
And don’t even get me started on Affleck as Batman. He didn’t “Kapow!” even one henchman.