I did not like Man of Steel or Batman v Superman for many, many reasons. I didn’t think they were well told stories, nor did I think they were entertaining blockbusters.
This note is not about any of that.
Rather, it is instead much more simple and direct: I was and continue to be legitimately disheartened by how Superman was written and portrayed in those films - that is, as a more flawed, angst-filled, and relatable character - from the level of initial conceit all the way to what ended up on celluloid for all of us to behold.
Now, before I get into this, one point needs to be made clear here: I will not be spending this time complaining about the movies, because there’s no reason why any of you should be subjected to that yet again; it won’t be your standard list of gripes; it’ll be approached from a pro perspective, not a con.
I am pro Superman - as is, in the classic sense - in every way imaginable. I don’t need him hip, cool, or bad ass. I don’t want the focus for his character to be about relatability, or in making him easier to identify with. I don’t wish he had more emotional issues or felt more conflicted about his place in our world. And while it is logical to surmise that this all stems from a devotion to the past and a longing for things not to change on my part (as is human custom), I’m afraid it’s not that simple.
Because this actually isn’t about Superman as a character; it’s about what we expect from our heroes.
For those uninitiated, there is a range of personality and behavior within the world of fictional superheroes. I call this the “Human to Hero Spectrum,” which every superhero you’ve ever heard of has their own given place upon.
On the one hand, the human hand, you have those most like us - those who overtly and directly face the problems of living a human life, constantly dealing with their own frailties and fears as they go along. For these characters, it’s about wrestling with a dark past, trying to overcome their own isolation and anger, or addressing former mistakes and crises of their own making. These are your Punishers, your Wolverines, your Iron Men.
On the other side, you have your idealized heroes - those who are struggling with a higher calling and the principles of living consistently moral lives through consistently righteous choices/behavior. For these characters, it’s about overcoming the errors of their colleagues, dealing with the foibles and hypocrisies of those they serve, and basically just cleaning up everybody else’s messes. These are your Captain Americas, your Professor Xs, and your Wonder Women. (Note: Batman is over here too. People keep thinking he’s the most relatable superhero simply because he has no superpowers, and that is misguided; when you really think about it, there’s not a whole lot to identify with for us when it comes to an eight year old aristocrat who witnessed the street murder of his supposedly socially untouchable parents at the hands of a bum... who then dedicated his inherited fortune and the entirety of his life to pushing both his body and mind to heretofore unimaginable heights... so as to eradicate crime and corruption - all of it - in his home city of millions over a span of decades... as a freaking coping mechanism.)
And it’s crucial to note here that the point of this spectrum is not to say those more on the hero side are better and those more on the human side are worse, that it’s better for you to pick one side over the other in terms of who you personally dig. They all have something to offer - it’s why they’ve endured as long as they have - whether they be on one end, the other, or right smack dab in the middle (like Spider-Man). It’s just to say that each of these individual characters have their own space to occupy, their own super-beat to walk.
And who occupies the furthest reaches of the most idealized end of the spectrum? Who walks that beat? Who is the most heroically heroic of all heroes? That would be Superman, quite obviously. He is the highest ideal of hero we can conceive of, the guy struggling the least with his own limitations and the most with everyone else’s, a being who seems too good to be true but isn’t, a person granted powers far beyond those of mortal men (not to mention 99.9% of all other superheroes). And what does this living god wish to do with these unstoppable gifts?
Help. Just help everybody out when they need it. Not to take over, or fix everything, or conquer death, or tell anyone else what to do. He just wants to help out as we all live our own lives. You fall off a building? He’ll grab you. You get trapped in a forest fire? You’ll be outta there in no time. You get desperate and rob a bank? He’ll step in and make sure you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else. An asteroid is coming to blow up the planet you and everyone you love inhabit? He’ll move it. A woman who is made of living electricity crashes your party? He’ll remove her without letting anybody die, including her.
Bottom line: Something comes along that’s just beyond you to deal with - whatever that may be - and he will, before leaving you to do what you like and how you like it with the rest, feeling no need to involve himself where he’s not needed or wanted.
Imagine that: the most powerful being and most humble person occupying the same body, showing us all what the very best looks and acts like, all the time. He, and he alone, occupies that corner - the absolute furthest end of the hero side of the spectrum. (Note: This, in no way, should be confused with him being “perfect.” He isn’t, nor should he be.)
And it is here that my potential appreciation of this newly relatable, “modern” Superman was doomed from the start. Because you see, Superman’s occupation of the most heroic corner of the "Human/Hero" spectrum means that moving him away from the ideal side and towards the flawed, human side - the way they admittedly set out to do in these last two movies - actually moves the entire spectrum over in that direction; if he moves off of the far end, then that end immediately becomes less far; what we can expect from our heroes, or heroism itself, is made smaller. What it means to be one to and for us - as an entire idea - becomes less heroic, less aspirational and inspirational.
It means we’ve lowered the bar.
This is why I don’t want Superman to become angry and full of doubt as a character. I don’t want him to perpetually brood in his angst, or constantly question his place in our world. And I definitely don’t want him to be so consistently preoccupied with why we might fear and/or not appreciate him.
I don’t want him to care about any of that. I just want him to help. I want him to just want to help. I want that to be enough for him. Because that’s the ideal... the ideal for all of us:
Help out. Do your best to make things better because it’s the right thing to do, and not worry about getting the credit and/or what it all means for you. Get over yourself; it’s not about you.
This should be the goal, for all of us always, when dealing with other people at low points or just flat out in need. And yea, we’re barely going to hit it and, even when we do, it will rarely be flush. But the solution to that should absolutely never be to lower the bar to match our own resignations about ourselves; it should be to try harder.
It should be to try. It should be to try to be the ideal - even if we only reach it for a moment, once in our lives, with just one other person. Superman needs to hold down that corner, so we can have our target. He should be right there, where he’s always been for us: Up in the sky, with a bright blue suit, flowing red cape, and a giant “S” on his chest for all to see. His presence in our personal and cultural psyche should make us aspire to fly up there with him.
He shouldn’t come down to us. We have enough people already on that particular case.