Thursday, April 30, 2015

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

Back in 2013, Man of Steel came out, and I was pretty excited about it. You may have noticed. Even when there were some pretty heavy criticisms of the movie, I defended it. When the Batman/Superman movie was announced, I was pretty ecstatic.

And now we have the first trailer:

And I hate it.

In the last couple years, I've watched Man of Steel maybe five or six times. Every single time I've seen it, I've liked it less and less. Now I can barely watch it at all; it grates on me to a point where I just don't enjoy any of it.

Here's the thing: Man of Steel is not a Superman movie. It's a movie that has Superman in it, but it's not a Superman story. It's an alien invasion movie, along the lines of Independence Day or Transformers, but way more serious and less fun.

Seriously, let's cross-examine Man of Steel's plot with the plot of the Transformers movies:

Man of Steel, and, from what's shown in the trailer, Batman v. Superman, essentially give us a morally gray universe and story. One where Superman isn't so much a hero as a powerful being, perhaps trying to do good, but in many ways seemingly failing.

And here's the thing: if Superman were real, in our world, these kinds of controversies absolutely would happen. It's a reasonably realistic view of the way things would work. But that runs contradictory to everything that Superman is.

Superman is a character made to challenge our views of what is possible or realistic. Not simply because he has superhuman powers, but because he dares to make a difference. In the 1930s, when Superman was created, problems like political corruption, economic devastation, and rampant crime were huge issues in the United States—far worse than today. Superman took those issues head-on. He helped save citizens whose apartments were literally falling apart above their heads. He stood in the path of gang violence. He shone a light upon corruption, and forced politicians to take personal responsibility for their actions. Even problems like domestic abuse weren't off the table.

It's been said (and rightly so) that at their core, superhero stories are adolescent power fantasies. That sounds juvenile and wrong, but it's a good thing at its core. It could be translated as, "what if I had the ability to fix society's problems and make the world a better place?" It's the idea that every young person has in his or her head, but most somehow lose in adulthood as the status quo of cynicism sets in.

And of course, that's the trick: we do have the power to change things; we only think we don't. We assume the world is broken in ways that can never be fixed, and we therefore don't even try. Every single problem that Superman faced in those early years is something that we can fix ourselves, as long as we're willing to try. Throughout his entire history, Superman has always encouraged others to do what they can to help in their own way, no matter how small. Superman himself—when written correctly—thinks of himself just like anyone else. At his core, he's "just a guy."

I've quoted this before, but I think it's poignant so I'll quote it again. Mark Waid, one of the greatest comics writers of all time—and one who claims to have read literally every Superman story ever written—once said this:

"Here is a guy with the power of a god, someone who can rule the world starting today if he desires. Who can have anything his heart longs for and get away with positively any deed imaginable, all without one single threat of reprisal. But with the totality of time and space subject to his slightest whim... he chooses only to help others. That is Superman's greatest power. When presented with the opportunity, he takes action to make things better — and that's a power that lies within us all."

Superman isn't a story about a powerful alien bringing simultaneous destruction and salvation upon mankind, nor is it a story of humanity's moral grayness. It's a story about making a difference; about improving our world through nothing more than our belief in what's right and our will to carry it out.

Ironically, there's something about the story seen in the Batman v. Superman trailer that I think perfectly captures my overall point. The world, as seen in the Man of Steel universe, is unaccepting of the idea that Superman is "just a guy" trying to do the right thing; they can only see him as a savior/destroyer. Man of Steel is the story of a world unwilling to let Superman be what he is. In Man of Steel, Superman never wanted the Kryptonians to attack Metropolis, and he was never directly responsible for any innocent deaths himself. He didn't want to kill Zod, and the fact that he was forced to practically broke him. And now in BvS, he's put on a pedestal that he undoubtedly never asked for. Like I said in the beginning, Man of Steel has Superman in it, but it's not a Superman movie. It's not a story of hope, or of positive change. It's a story of destruction, with a world angry at and afraid of an alien invader despite his best efforts. Batman, apparently, represents the voice of an angry humanity, ready to tear Superman down out of the sky.

Warner Bros. (and perhaps DC Comics in general) seem unwilling to actually let Superman be Superman in the way that he should be. Instead of meaningful stories of hope and "what might be," we're given darkly self-reflective stories that show humanity mired in its own fear.

If there is any hope in Batman v. Superman, however, it's that we know there's a battle. This is a chance for Superman to stand his ground and make a statement; to put his foot down and say "this is who I am; deal with it." And maybe when the dust clears, we'll have a story that proclaims "this is Superman." We'll have to see.