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Conflicted Superheroes in Film: A case study of the Man of Steel (2013) and past Supermen

June 16, 2013

Many comic book heroes have come and gone across the silver screen leaving either accolades (e.g., Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, X-Men 2) or soul-crushing disappointment (e.g., Hulk, Cat Woman, Superman Returns, X-Men: Last Stand, The Green Lantern) in their wake.  Often, success simply lies in the vision and execution of the writers and director.

The greatest success stories (and failures) accompany the greatest challenges: seriously conflicted heroes on their own.  Tim Burton delivered a less conflicted Batman (1989), but replaced the more viciously somber aspects of his revenge-addled psyche with dark world-building and focused on his twisted Joker for his darker components.  Quite the opposite, Christopher Nolan kept his setting more practical and unleashed the beast within Bruce Wayne in his series opener Batman Begins (2005).  Two very different approaches employing different versions of Batman targeting different audiences…and both very successful.

Now, I in no way mean to belittle the fine work of Burton or the epic success of Nolan, but Batman isn’t that tough for audiences to swallow.  He’s either a dark, witty, PG antihero (a la Burton) or an angry, revenge-driven bone-breaking machine on the verge of becoming a monster.  Nolan provided fine character development, but it took little backstory outside of the main plot to do so convincingly.  Also to Nolan’s advantage, showing an entire movie about Batman’s origin was a cool, doable idea.  Such is not the case with Superman.

Superman’s origin is largely based in his childhood and adolescence–and it’s not a short explanation.  Young Clark slowly discovered his powers, learned to control and focus them, kept them a secret at the expense of his own teen ego (perhaps the biggest hurdle!), and wrestled with his identity as the Kryptonian adopted son of the Kents.  So, unless you’re a Smallville (2001-2011) fan, you’ve never seen a good backstory to justify the cinema-scale Superman.  And, by the way, Smallville’s Jonathan Kent served as an amazing storytelling device, a lens through which we could contextualize Clark’s (Tom Welling) issues with love, trust and humanity.

Richard Donner’s Superman (1978; starring Christopher Reeve) was like the Diet Coke of Superman.  Like Burton’s Batman, Superman’s conflict was underplayed while instead highlighting the gravity of an intense villain (Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor).  Now, Christopher Reeve gave us one Hell of wholesome, family-friendly Superman.  And that’s a good thing.

But the goody-two-shoes superhero is afforded little credibility in the minds of adult superhero and action movie fans. Maybe Donner didn’t want to spend over 30 minutes presenting Clark’s youth in a time when the average blockbuster was a humble 90 minutes.  Maybe he wanted to go wholesome; so showing us 10 minutes of baby Clark lifting tractors on the Kent farm with his “awww shucks” smile in front of his awestruck parents was all Donner needed to show us to demonstrate how good-natured his hero was.  So I’m not pointing at a fault here.  I’m just pointing out that justifying a wholesome character is much easier than it is for a deeply conflicted one.  Tom Welling’s Smallville role captured all of the wholesome as well as some deep-seeded regret and resentment–of course, he had 217 episodes to do it.  LOL

Fast forward through three more Christopher Reeve franchise movies by two more directors and we find more mature storylines that put Superman in more grave situations.  But I’m still not sold on this franchise.  I really never want to see these movies again.  They just lack depth.

Perhaps trying to catch the coattails of the darker Batman Begins (2005), so followed Bryan Singer’s darker Superman Returns (2006).  Now, while Doomsday never made an appearance in this movie, I thought it would have been better titled The Death of Superman.  This box office failure came as shock after Singer’s conquests with X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003).  So what went wrong?  Let me count the ways…

Brandon Routh was a nobody and they gave him no good, memorable lines. Even after seeing the movie I was referring to “that guy who played the new Superman.”  His performance carried no impact and the writing just exacerbated the situation.  They went too dark and quiet.  Routh hardly spoke and was a very distant Superman to whom we couldn’t relate?  Why couldn’t I relate to him?  No solid backstory to justify it and basically no character development.  I could get into Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor and his ridiculous main squeeze, but that’s not the point here.  The point is I just didn’t give a damn about a guy named Superman.

Most recently Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, The Prestige) and Zack Snyder (The Watchman, 300), two men who have championed dark protagonists, got together to finally give us a cinema Superman who has both a convincing backstory and deep inner conflict.  They succeeded by doing what their predecessors did not.  They gave us an elaborate background.

The first segment of the film feels like a completely separate movie of its own.  For the first time on film, we see the turmoil on Krypton and the power struggle between Jor-El (Russell Crower; The Man with the Iron Fists, The Next Three Days) and General Zod (Michael Shannon; Premium Rush, Mud, Take Shelter), formerly friends, now enemies.  Snyder shows off his worldcrafting vision with alien cityscapes complete with weird animals, social structure and spacecraft dogfights in the background.  We even learn a great deal about Kal-El’s conception, its special significance and why Jor-El chose Earth for his son.  Snyder took a few sentences from past Superman movies and gave us a mini-movie!  And this is all before we transition to Earth…

The next segment of the movie is an elaborate storytelling of Clark’s relationship with his father, using his powers and his difficulty fitting in during his formative years. These scenes alternate with scenes of Clark (Henry Cavill; Immortals) in his late 20s and early 30s living a transient lifestyle as he moved from town to town and job to job.  Even as an adult he struggles to control the urge to use his powers even for what he perceives to be the right reasons.

In fact, our Clark doesn’t even assume the role of Superman until he is 33 years old–when General Zod comes to Earth seeking him.  This is when the Superman in Superman really gets into gear.

This slower, very developed and elaborate storytelling approach made for a long movie with slow points that received some criticism as “boring” from thrill-seeking fans.  I would jump to Snyder and Nolan’s defense.  While these scenes were not always exciting as watching our Man of Steel battle fellow super-strong baddies with high budget special effects, they were still every bit as emoting; truly capturing the mood of the film and the inner turmoil of Superman. So I call this a tremendous success!


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