Growing up, I always had an affinity for Superman—but only the idea, the figure, rather than stories. Even when I was a very young comics fan, scrounging up my buck at the corner store, I preferred the soap opera theatrics of Claremont X-Men (and most especially their junior class, the New Mutants) over anything DC had to offer... But when pressed for my favorite comics characters, I’d invariably name Superman, Wonder Woman, and Hal Jordan. People I knew only through their Who’s Who biographies and indexes, whose histories were banked forever in that corner of my mind but whose monthly adventures—actually participating and enjoying them as they occurred—didn’t interest me at all.
For me, that math was simple and it remains simple: I like the idea of Superman and Wonder Woman, of inclusive human perfection, a lot more than the feet of clay that any given story demonstrates. I was a kid that loved soldiers and warriors, as ideas, but preferred my reading companions to be directly identifiable: I can talk about Superman all day, my house is frankly full of Superman crap, but I’d rather be reading about characters I understood and felt for.
Characters like Illyana Rasputin and Rachel Grey—even Rahne Sinclair—shouldering other people’s burdens at a much too young age and thinking that made them tainted forever. Doug Ramsey, coded alternately as either gay or tragically useless. Storm, in her Mohawk Nutcase phase. Emma Frost, who haunted my nightmares throughout childhood and grew to be my second-favorite person in all of comics. Franklin Richards, the Messiah that never happened. Jean Grey, the Messiah that keeps happening.
I realize this isn’t everybody’s experience, and it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out why those characters and stories appealed to me back then. But something about those DC heroes, their iconic—totemic—resonance, made my stubborn childhood self feel like I’d be betraying them if I watched them go through the vagaries of superheroics month after month. How are you supposed to love a God that ends up with a gorilla head once a month? Or whose compatriots included a flying super-horse, dog, mouse and cat that could talk?
No thanks. You can’t disrespect the numinous like that, not when the mutant kids over at Marvel were freaking the hell out like regular human beings, balancing their overblown real-life strife with an unending series of apocalypses, and most/best of all, throwing everything they had into loving the people that hated them.
Which is personal and specific and strange—although I’ve come across more people who agree with this formulation than I would have thought, as I’ve grown—but I think takes us to an interesting place in our geek heritage, which is what I’m interested in talking about: Is it possible to ever make a Superman movie that succeeds on more than one or two levels, or are we so locked into our culture of complaint that we’ll stick to everybody’s Bizarro internet discussion in which successful films are failures?
I like Zack Snyder. Whatever wavelength he is on, I feel it, and I try to support his movies. (And yes, if I had a Geek Card, you could safely confiscate it now.) But even after the honest-to-God masterpiece that is Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman—surely an exception that proves the rule—I still wasn’t positive about whether I’d ever see Man Of Steel. I’d seen Superman Returns and liked it okay, as a movie, but it definitely hit me in the same place: It was brave, it was interesting, it was modern, and it absolutely was not my favorite Superman Thing. (Alternately I never cared for Batman, but love those movies, because his hands come pre-dirty; they are the subject of the conversation the movie is having, rather than a troubled and problematic by-product.)
But recently I did see Man of Steel, and I loved it. It got to the parts of the myth that I identify with. It put an icon at odds with reality. It questioned hyper-powered vigilantism in the same way as Warren Ellis’s Stormwatch/Authority stories, which is to say it asked first whether Superman is a good idea, and then put his immovable force up against an apocalyptic irresistible force: Either way, Superman is necessary for today’s purposes. These are smart questions! If Superman is a notion of perfection, what happens in a post-Dark Knight comic book world where perfection, if anything, counts against you?
The details, as with Superman Returns, do get a little sticky. But as with the prior movie, something tells me there is a bit of retroactive complaint going on. Sometimes when we’re uncomfortable with an approach because it indicts us in some way, we backfill our reasons for being outraged. Which is not to read the minds of others, but it’s a pattern I’ve picked up. Girls backlash, for example, felt more like a need to control the conversation than to actually exact social justice. And in the case of Man Of Steel, and the prior reboot, it seems to point us toward that old totemic breakdown I obsessed on as a child.
Why am I talking about this now? Well, I just saw the movie—for reasons that directly involve this dichotomy—and two, because the Captain America sequel is on its way.
The complaints—not exhaustively, but substantively—point to a question not of “what Superman would do,” but of what Superman does not do. Superman figures out a better way; Superman has his eye upon the sparrow; Superman does not allow giant terraforming machines to have their way with the seven seas; and so on. But I think you’ll find—as I did, when I was a boy—that if you keep adding to the list of things Superman does not do, you soon end up with a very small list of things Superman ever does do. You can watch it wink out of existence.
You then have the interlocking mesh of levels-of-fandom: The movie must satisfy people who vaguely remember Christopher Reeve, mainstream movie people, people who have been following the character’s history every week for decades, the people who—like myself—relate more to the insignia and the idea of the man and less to anything he’s ever said or done. That’s a Venn diagram with no way out, of course. And in this movie, those exact definitions—from every kind of fan or viewer—are all determinedly put to the test.
Likewise, while fans most often point to the bizarre plot of Superman Returns, the giant island of Kryptonite and so on, as the major problems, I think it’s because he got his hands dirty. He had sex with a woman before he left, and returns to find her happily raising that child with a man he can’t help but admire. In the film’s most indelible shot, a crayon drawing presents the boy’s (traditional, religious; correct) take on the situation: Superman lifts the father, the father lifts the mother, and they all lift the child into safety. Clark accepts his role as demigod, which is lonely; Clark becomes the father (or at least the protective uncle) of the whole world that is his home. That’s beautiful to me, but easy to trip on due to the sex part.
So then contrast that with Captain America—a hero I have always loved, in the Superman vein, without reading or caring about him (Kid Jacob: No mutants, no thank you). The First Avenger was a quiet success (relative to the overall Marvel domination of the world, I mean) and even more surprisingly, told its story humbly, sweetly, movingly. He did regrettable things—a Superman no-no—and repented them, and never stopped trying to excel or to better himself, and our world. None of which would work, or has worked in practice, for a Superman film.
It managed to tell a story of Steve Rogers as an avatar of America itself: Sometimes campy, sometimes compromised by corporate interests, sometimes the USO cheerleader for democracy and other times its dirty-handed (but not too dirty!) sleeper agent. In the end, the filmic story of Steve Rogers is the story of hopes—clean, strong, blonde, white American ones—forced unwillingly into a future with an altogether more elastic and relative morality. America is flexible, and to be American is to make your peace with that; but our love for the better part of ourselves goes on, even in the darkness.
Whether or not our nostalgia for American kitsch has retroactively forced this rosy-glassed view of a history—marred continuously by hatred, greed and violence as it is—it feels true. In the same way that Superman’s “birth” in humble Kansas, his boot-strapping success over adversity and immigration stigma, and the continual efforts of merely-human haters like Lex Luthor feels, to a lot of us, true. But one of them is the spirit of America, while the other is the spirit of something much larger and grander: We can turn and look at America and see how far Steve has to go, but we can’t really turn and look at ourselves and see Superman doing anything interesting, because—I think—it’s just too weird.
Or, you could say: Superman becomes “boring” at right around the same time vampires and werewolves become “sexy”: What’s healthy for us, in examining the humanity of our Evil monsters—Cylons, serial killers, William the Bloody—is very unlucky for Superman, as an unassailable Good. The metaphor falls apart, the totem doesn’t signify anymore: We take apart the numinous to put something else together—something new, that we haven’t culturally seen yet.
So the question becomes: Is it possible to tell a Superman story, in this day and age—and leaving out, again, All-Star, which is just wonderful—without tripping over this confusion? Critics say that Superman is impossible because he is, himself, boring. That perfection and mega-power add up to a story without obstacles or consequence. And when our stories introduce obstacles, or consequence—the gritty gorilla-heads and talking horses of superheroes, after Moore and Miller—they are tarnishing the perfection that just a moment ago was irritating us so much. You can imagine, without much effort, the response to a Superman movie in which he just stands around for two hours being better than everybody.
I think it’s a wider thing we’ve got going on, ideologically in this country, about what good and evil mean. If you’re on the internet, calling out other people for not being ideologically pure is a staged version of this fight that involves getting into vicious screaming fights with people that you agree with on every issue. Lotta hustle, not a lot of work. And so a movie that seeks to dig directly into this obsolete dichotomy is bound to fail, because our new definition of good is “whatever I am saying right now” and our definition of evil is “wherever we disagree.” Captain America can respond to this because he’s not an avatar of Good, he’s an avatar of America, which contains multitudes and plenty of fuckups. Superman doesn’t have that luxury; Superman is required to be both immovable and in constant motion at the same time.
We want a Superman movie just like the Superman movie we remember in our heads: Anything else is disrespectful or nonsensical. And we want a Superman movie unlike any Superman movie ever made, because Hollywood is a whore with no fresh, new ideas. And we want a Superman movie that leads to a JLA movie, but with any actors other than the ones we hear about in the trades and gossip columns. We want a story that isn’t cleft-chinned, cartoonish “good guy” exceptionalism, but we don’t want a story in which Superman does anything wrong.
We want a modern sensibility, but without the ambiguity that sensibility requires. This is nuts to me, and we all do it, and I’m not here to tell you why. Just that I’ve realized, for me, it’s because I never liked Superman in the first place. I only ever loved him.
Jacob Clifton is a freelance writer and critic based in Austin, Texas. He currently recaps The Good Wife, True Detective, and The Blacklist for Television Without Pity.com. Check out jacobclifton.com, Twitter and Facebook.