Jun 18 2013
It seems like there’s a fundamental difference of opinion these days surrounding America’s first superhero and the use of his famous power set.
With Man of Steel, Superman has been physically unleashed. Sure, he’s done incredible things in comics and various animated things, but this is a significant moment in the history of Supes as a cinematic fighter.
Also, the release of Man of Steel has given rise to a lot of comments about Superman Returns, which was a Superman feature where he DIDN’T throw a single punch. A lot of people seem awfully relieved that the Man of Tomorrow is beating people up.
And frankly, I’ve found it kind of bothersome.
There’s a lot of disappointment when Superman doesn’t throw a punch. The lack of punch-throwing was one of the main criticisms aimed at the underrated (or at least over-hated) Superman Returns. At least, ever since Man of Steel‘s marketing department started putting action scenes in their trailers and TV spots.
This particular criticism, if you can’t tell by now, is one I don’t get with at all.
Firstly, let me just point out that Superman doesn’t get involved in fisticuffs in the 1978 movie, either. So obviously you can make a great Superman movie without them. Sure, he throws down with Zod in Superman II, but come ON people… Superman Returns wasn’t the first work where the character doesn’t wind up in a superpowered brawl.
It’s amazing to me how many people seem to have missed this particular point.
Moving on. The question of whether Superman needs to punch people obviously isn’t about whether or not Superman has ever been violent, or if fighting is a contradiction to his character. Clearly it’s not, and we’ve got three-fourths of a century’s worth of comics to back it up.
Or, if you don’t like reading, the animated movie versions.
The question instead is simply whether or not Supes HAS to throw a punch. Is that really the point of his character? It would have to be the point, or at least part of it, for people to legitimately criticize a movie for not including it.
And that happens. Which in a way makes sense, because the superhero genre has pretty much always been defined by action first. Hell, the first Superman comic was called “Action Comics.”
Still, the core of Superman lies elsewhere.
Superman has the powers of a Greek God. He can kill with a stare, build or level cities overnight, and essentially rule the world. For him to function at all, his must constantly exercise restraint. He must fit into our world.
This is the thing the ’78 movie nailed. Supes is often referred to as a “Boy Scout,” sometimes fondly and sometimes dismissively. The misread here is that Superman is only preoccupied with helping old ladies cross the street and other such trite things.* But there’s so much more to the character than good deeds.
It’s not just a tone thing, either. The character need not be portrayed cheesily. I think the early half of Man of Steel is digging into an interesting side of the character, too. The idea of Kal-El being the first Krypton (Kryptonian?) born free of a genetic disposition is fascinating.
In fact, that wrinkle highlights a core aspect of the character: Superman is a being of choice. The movie understands this, and the genetic eccentricity of his origins brings it to the surface.
Which is why it’s all the more befuddling that the action seems to have no consequence. Sure, it’s cool as hell from a visual standpoint. Superman and Zod duke it out, their kicks and punches bringing down skyscrapers and sending out shockwaves. But aside from Superman’s eventual victory, nothing else is accomplished.
I’m not going to get into Snyder/Goyer/Nolan’s new movie any more than that right now, but if you want a passionate argument against their treatment of the character, Mark Waid’s will do nicely – actually, I recommend it. The guy literally wrote the book (or at least a couple important books) on Superman. Anyhow…
This seems like a tangent about Man of Steel, and it sort of is, but the point is that this is what people wanted! Superman punching! When the imperative is “more punching,” the punching becomes the main priority. Unfortunately, when violence is the point, the violence ceases to matter from a narrative standpoint.
Which brings us back to that question. “How can you make a Superman movie where Superman doesn’t even throw a punch?” The question only makes sense if some part of Superman’s core makeup is tied to the execution of hand-to-hand combat. If punching in and of itself MATTERS.
By the way, there are superheroes for whom this idea would basically be true. Batman, for instance, has historically been a character defined by his confrontation of our darkest impulses. He’s out to set an example, sure, but the example he sets is that this will not be tolerated. As Nolan so clearly pointed out, he’s the Dark Knight; the one who will do what needs to be done today for us to survive until tomorrow.
Superman, on the other hand, is the Man of Tomorrow. Where Batman’s cynical, Superman is sincere. Where Batman gets his hands dirty as he cleans the underbelly of Gotham, Superman stands tall to set an example for us to aspire to. For Batman, violence is a part of life. For Superman, it tends to be a last resort.
I’ve read certain opinions (like this one) that claim it’s hard to wring drama from Superman stories. I don’t get that. Drama is largely determined by the stakes, and for Superman, the stakes are often our souls. Superman wants us to be our best selves. Far from being robbed of conflict, this is a hero who sometimes literally bears the weight of the world on his shoulders. Any parent or older can tell you how hard it is to be a constant role model. Multiply that by six billion.
Furthermore, despite all his powers, Superman is an alien in human form. The ultimate outsider. Even though his friends accept him, and some citizens love his feats, Superman has to live every single day as (essentially) the last surviving member of his race.
Wait, this is all sounding rather familiar…
For those of you unfamiliar with The Doctor and Doctor Who in general, rest assured it’s great stuff.** The Doctor, like Superman, is an immortal alien demigod whose defining personality trait is a love of humanity. He’s also a declared pacifist. And while he doesn’t have heat vision and super strength, The Doctor DOES carry a device called a Sonic Screwdriver that basically exists to help him solve plot problems.
Surely, this is just as “hard” to find tension in as a Superman story. And yet when the show is on, the writers of Doctor Who get drama out of this character every… single… week. They simply put him in situations where all of his powers, all of his strengths, might not be enough.
Again I have to call out Superman: The Movie for finding a good, cinematic way to depict this conflict. Look, they really did mostly get this guy right the first time.
I’d cite this one, too, but you guys would just get mad at me.
So if you liked Man of Steel, I hope it wasn’t because Superman punched some people. And if you dislike some of the other Superman films, I hope it’s for some reason other than there’s not enough fighting. Because at the end of the day, that’s not what this guy is about.
*This is actually a misread that applies to Scouting, too. Not to QUITE the same extent, but y’know.
**Well, except for the most recent season, which was kinda a huge letdown. Some great episodes, sure, but the season as a whole was a total misfire. Still a great show, and one that’ll probably bounce right back.
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