Why Superman is Still Not Relevant (Yet)

Like so many others, I saw Man of Steel. Unlike many others, I went primarily because Hans Zimmer did the soundtrack.

Alright, alright, to be fair, I also went to see if Christopher Nolan could do anything to make Superman compelling. As I’ve told a lot of friends who are sick to death of me saying it, I’m convinced that Superman is not relevant to modern audiences. Superman is a product of the era that spawned him – a perfect being, who only exists in two states. Total omnipotence, and utter powerlessness. This worked just fine when America wanted a flawless specimen to idolize, to chase away the horrors of world war. He is a historical landmark – Superman is the dawn of all superheroes, and I would never dare to discount his significance upon comic books and the development of society’s obsessions with superheroes (really it’s the evolution of our obsession with fairy tales and pantheons of gods, but that’s an entirely different post).

Ahem. Anyway. Superman as he is classically built as a character is BORING AS HELL in 2013. He has no flaws, no issues to overcome, beyond “gee, I guess I’ll put on these glasses so people will overlook my insane muscles.” Audiences have changed since Clark Kent’s introduction in 1938. We no longer want an ivory pedestal for our heroes. We want them in the trenches, battling the same issues we are. We want protagonists who have gotten – and continue to get – their hands dirty, but still reach to climb out of the muck. We want someone we can relate to, underneath the super strength/magic cloak/adamantium skeleton. Superman is not relatable. To attempt to make him so would be a monumental re-booting task that only a truly fine storyteller could hope to achieve.

Which was why, when I heard that Christopher Nolan was part of Man of Steel, I thought maybe ol’ Kal-El might finally have a chance. “If anyone can change my mind, it’s Nolan,” I said, ad nauseum, to my friends who nodded enthusiastically, just so I would quit going on about it. (I have really got to learn to abridge my thoughts in conversation.) I was also aware that Zack Snyder was directing – someone known for spectacle, not storycraft. “Maybe the Nolan won’t be overpowered by the Snyder,” I hoped. “Maybe they can strike a balance and it’ll be a good story that’s a spectacle. That would be the best case scenario.”



There are two parts of my brain that watch movies. One half is capable of enjoying individual elements separate from the whole. This is the part of my brain that really likes rocket launchers, samurai swords, backflips, and giant rideable dragonfly-things. (Seriously, I want one of those.) So there were a handful of things I liked. There was some interesting cinematography; I liked the sort of dreamy way they shot a lot of the flashbacks to Clark’s childhood. The flaming oil rig was a great spectacle (Snyder really does have a flair for that, I’m not discounting it). And that scene where Zod shows him the potential future and Superman is sinking into this sea of skulls – duuuuude. This part of my brain thought Man of Steel was pretty ok.

The other part of my brain, the one that pulls apart everything I watch/read and won’t turn off, was pretty non-plussed. Though I’m told Man of Steel is a dramatic improvement over the previous Superman reboot (which I did not even bother to see), this movie did nothing to give me hope for Superman’s future. They totally failed to give Clark/Kal any personality whatsoever – there was the briefest moment early on where Clark jacked up that one jerk’s truck, which was cool, but then absolutely nothing after that.

I think what drives me nuts about this movie is that I can see a ton of potential in it, and none of it was capitalized on. They spent a long time on Krypton, watching it blow up, setting up Jor-El’s character and Zod’s. This was actually the most compelling part of the movie, in my opinion. Jor-El felt like the only character with any real development to me. No one else was given enough setup time. Then, they move from baby Kal getting shot into space directly to adult Clark Kent picking a fight with truckers. No segue.

Okay. Interesting move, but I was willing to let it play out. Turns out they want to intersperse the main story with little flashbacks to Clark’s childhood. In a different movie – let’s say, movie #2 or 3 of a set of Superman movies – I think this could work. But this is the FIRST movie. By not opening with any personality-formative material, you have robbed the audience of any context for who Clark is as a person, other than “a guy who uses his powers to save people.” Which is a good quality to have, clearly he’s a hero-type, but is that the extent of his identity? Did he prefer calculus to literature in school? Is he a sports fan? Does he like shawarma? Does he have facial expressions? (Copied Russell Crowe really well, there, buddy.)

And what little bits of childhood memories we do get, all repeat the same message. “You’re special, Clark. Save people.” Which again, missed opportunity: you could do something with that, too. Wouldn’t getting told that your ENTIRE life mess with your head? I mean, if I were in his shoes, I’d totally have developed some kind of complex. Either Clark could have ended up with a huge ego he has to keep in check, or maybe he’s sick and tired of saving people, and just wants people to leave him the hell alone, and the story would be about him learning to care again. Hell, at this point, Cyclops is a more compelling hero than this guy. And this is coming from the girl who wrote a song about how much she hates Cyclops.

But I digress.

Just for fun, here’s a few options for things they could have done to improve this reboot:

  • Maybe including an actual joke or two wouldn’t kill anyone. This is a superhero movie – I’m not saying make it Adam West, I’m just saying that a little nod here and there to certain inherently ridiculous aspects of the premise is in good taste. Yes, Nolan’s Batman was a success, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to be so ding-dong serious all the time. Take a lesson from Joss Whedon. PLEASE.
  • Make the entire first movie “The Fall of Krypton.” Jor-El vs. Zod. Seriously, don’t even have Superman in there at all. There was some real potential for a good story there. End it with the planet blowing up and baby Kal getting shot into space and landing in the Kents’ backyard.
  • Make the entire second movie “Clark Meets World.” Let’s watch the kid grow up, let him learn to deal with his powers – let him be AWKWARD for heaven’s sake. Awkward is endearing. Perfect is alienating. (Get it? He’s an alien….yeah.) Teach the audience to root the guy, give us an actual feeling of connection.
  • Then, in movie #3, NOW Zod shows up, now that there’s been significant buildup of both sides of the coin. And now that the major characters have been established, you have time to bring in new ones and give them personality. (By which I mean the Daily Planet folks, who were totally throwaways in Man of Steel.)
  • Even if this first movie was still going to be about adult Superman fighting Zod, here’s an idea: Lois Lane had NO PLACE in this movie. REMOVE HER. I think Amy Adams is an interesting casting choice, but by forcing the Daily Planet plotline in, there was less room for Clark development, and no room for Lois development, which did neither of them any favors. Lois would be a movie #2 addition in this scenario.
  • Overall – Slow. Down. The plot points were hammered down so hard, all the story splintered away.

Maybe there will come a day when someone writes a Superman movie that truly melts face – but until they redefine the character, I’m afraid we’ll just continue to see improved graphics for flight scenes and a new so-perfect-he’s-not-even-attractive actor.

TL;DR: What Man of Steel gave us is a cardboard cutout of a man who shoots lasers and goes at sonic speed. A real American hero fifty years out of date. Call me when they remove Snyder.

Oh, but of course, the soundtrack rules. Hans FTW.

/end rant