Grey Dawn for the Justice League – Or, The Problem with Superman

Man, DC just can not catch a break, right? Apparently, Batman v Superman: Dawn of a Hastily Thrown-Together Franchise is not performing in test screenings as well as WB execs hoped, and they’re already talking about scrapping most of their upcoming superhero slate. They must be nervous, because their solution to Man of Steel not performing as they wanted was the usual “Aaaahhh! Quick! Put more Batman in it!” and all that’s done is make people like the Batman parts.  They also like Lex Luthor and the bits with Wonder Woman, but poor Superman doesn’t seem to be very popular, reduced to second billing in what was supposed to be his own sequel.

Okay, let me get this out of the way up front: there is no problem with Superman. Superman is a great character, and my favorite superhero. The problem with Superman is not with the character himself, it’s with how he’s being presented and how he’s being perceived. For proof of this, go read “All Star Superman”. You will believe Superman can be awesome.

The thing you hear a lot from people (usually entertainment executives) is that Superman is “too powerful” and “too much of a Boy Scout” for people to relate to. Right. We can relate to a wealthy martial arts master/brilliant detective/genius inventor with the flawless physique and chiseled features of an underwear model who spends his time running around in leather fetish gear and punching murder clowns every other week, but Superman is just too much for us to grasp.

The problem is that Superman shouldn’t be unrelatable. When you strip away most of what’s been added to the character over the years, you’re left with a man possessed of great power who wants to use that power to help others. That’s it. That’s Superman. It says more about us than it does about him that we can’t relate to that very simple concept, but we can relate to a billionaire fetish model who beats up the mentally ill.

Anyway, on to the meat of this article, which will focus on the current big-screen Superman, last seen in 2013’s Man of Steel, and soon to return in next month’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Grimdark Rage-Punching. Because when you’re mad at a god-like being over the fact that he wrecked a city the last time he got in a fight, the most logical course of action is to pick a fight with that god-like being in the middle of the exact same city.  Great idea, Batman. That can of gasoline will definitely put the fire out.

Now, I’m saying all of this as someone who actually liked Man of Steel, and is looking forward to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Unless the Movie Underperforms, then it’s Dawn of More Batman Movies, This Time with Ben Affleck, and Also Maybe Wonder Woman).  I thought Man of Steel had some great ideas. Zack Snyder knew he’d be operating under the same shadow every Superman adaptation has operated under for the past 30 years, and decided to just break completely from anything resembling that.  As a result, he made a Superman movie that feels brand new, yet also does its best to remain true to the character, with varying degrees of success.  So let’s break down what I liked and what I didn’t like, after which I’ll talk a bit about how Man of Steel works as the first installment of a larger series of shared-universe movies (spoiler alert: it kinda doesn’t).

What I liked about Man of Steel:

  • It was framed as a first-contact story, bringing his alien heritage front and center. In most Superman stories, the fact that he’s from another planet, and is therefore living proof of the existence of intelligent alien life, is always kind of shrugged off. “Oh yeah? You’re an actual alien? That’s cool, I guess. So anyway, what color is my underwear?”
  • The Kents are portrayed as actual parents, rather than angelically perfect wisdom machines. They’re still very morally upstanding people, but you also believe that they love their kid, and would do anything to protect him. You know, like parents tend to do. Lots of Superman fans lost their minds when Jonathan Kent said “maybe” in response to Clark’s “should I have let them die” question, but I loved it, because that’s exactly how I would respond to my own kid. “Hell yes. You let every one of those little bastards die if it means the government won’t come along and vivisect you in front of me before shipping me and your mother off to Gitmo.” (Hmm, that sounds bad – I might actually be a terrible father – I’m glad I’ve never had to address this issue) The thing is, movie Jonathan clearly has plenty of good ol’ aw shucks better-father-than-me Pa Kent in him, because right after saying “maybe”, his next words are pretty much “Well, obviously you can’t let people die, and you should always try to help people in trouble, but maybe don’t let them see you lift the bus next time, okay?” And it looks like we’re getting a similar scene from Martha Kent in the next movie. When Clark tells her about all the people that hate and fear him, her response is essentially “Fuck those assholes. You’re awesome.” Because, duh. She’s his mom. That’s totally the kind of thing my own mother would have said to me. (It’s possible this is a genetic problem)
  • He’s not actually Superman in this movie, or even really all that good at using his powers, and his inexperience is a huge part of why everything goes to hell.  For most of the movie, he’s just Clark Kent, super powerful guy walking the Earth, having adventures, secretly helping folks while trying to figure out what the hell his deal is. Even after he finds the ship and meets Hologram Dad and gets his costume, he’s still pretty much Clark Kent wearing Kal-El’s clothes.  He isn’t truly Superman until the very end of the movie, after the destruction in Metropolis, and after he snaps Zod’s neck.  That’s something else that bothers a lot of people, because they’ve confused “guy who kills someone in a desperate act of self-defense” with “hardened, brutal killer”.  Clark does not want to kill Zod, and in doing so, he realizes he’s failed. In that moment, he knows that he allowed the situation to spiral so far out of his control, it led him to the point where his only option was killing someone. In that moment, he swore he would never let that happen again, and in that moment, he became Superman.
  • No Clark-Lois-Superman love triangle. You don’t really appreciate how much you hate something until it’s gone. Look, I can believe a man can fly. What I can’t believe is that a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist wouldn’t realize that two of the people she spends most of every day with are actually the same person, just because one of them wears glasses and does pratfalls. One of the best things Man of Steel did, if not the best thing, was have Lois figure out his secret by doing the thing that’s essentially her most defining trait.
  • By all accounts, Henry Cavill has decided not to go the Spazzy McGee route with his portrayal of Clark Kent, and chose to instead learn what the phrase “mild-mannered” actually means. Here’s a hint: it doesn’t mean stumbling around, knocking things over every chance you get, and generally making a ridiculous spectacle of yourself. Clark Kent should blend into the background of any room he’s in. People should forget he’s there. The more he draws attention to himself with his falling down and knocking over coat racks and setting himself on fire or whatever, the more the people around him are going to look and him and ask, “Man, what is the deal with Clark?”  And, you know, that’s not really a question you want a room full of reporters asking about you. To my mind, the best portrayal of Clark Kent I’ve ever seen was George Reeves in the old Adventures of Superman TV show.  He played Clark as this cool, calm, laid-back dude, which really helped set him apart from Superman.  Let’s hope WB sent Cavill the box set for research.

What I didn’t like about Man of Steel:

  • Too much telling, not enough showing. At every turn, we are hit over the head with the notion that Kal-El is supposed to be a symbol of hope to humanity. His family crest literally means “Hope”, and Jor-El seriously can NOT shut up about it. Even Pa Kent gets in on the act, despite also insisting Clark should never let anyone see him use his powers. The problem is, we never actually see him doing anything all that inspirational. At no point in the movie does he inspire hope in anyone, and, in fact, is hardly seen at all by average people, except when he’s getting his ass handed to him by the other Kryptonians. I mean, sure, that family he saved from Zod’s heat vision at the end probably like him a whole bunch, but I bet their friends are sick of hearing about it by now.
  • The scene with the drone. Ugh, what a waste of screen time. First of all, the whole point of him destroying the drone is to prevent the military from spying on him and learning his secret identity. The thing is, by that point, the military doesn’t need to use a drone to figure that out, they just have to follow the trail of destruction from downtown Smallville all the way back to the Kent farm. He even tells a general, during the “stop trying to figure out who I am” scene, that he grew up in Kansas.  He should have just said, “Stop trying to figure out that I’m really Clark Kent” and saved everyone a lot of time and money. A better use of that scene (and this ties into the last point) would have been to have the general approach him in the ruined section of Metropolis, where he finds out that Superman has been there since the fight with Zod, helping to rebuild. It shows Superman actually doing something inspirational, it establishes that he tries to clean up his mess, and he can then just look at the general and say, “I live here, okay?”
  • The Superman as Christ-figure trope. If anything needs to just go away, it’s this tired old chestnut. It’s inaccurate, and it cheapens both of them. It didn’t work in Superman Returns, and it doesn’t work here, so stop trying to make SuperJesus happen.

As much as I liked Man of Steel’s approach to the Superman story, it is -ironically- the least viable film to try to build a shared superhero universe off of. It’s obvious the whole “hey, this is our first step toward a Justice League movie” idea came very late in the process. This was clearly envisioned as a self-contained trilogy in a similar vein to Nolan’s Batman films, and trying to make it the cornerstone of a universe that also features people with magic wishing rings and a guy who can break the sound barrier on foot is ultimately going to feel forced. They set out to make a very grounded, high-concept sci-fi trilogy about Superman, and now they have to figure out how to fit in Aquaman.

Which is too bad, for a couple of reasons. 1) I think I would have enjoyed that trilogy, and 2) Superman actually works really well in a shared superhero universe, just not this Superman. Or, at least, not this Superman at this point in his career. At this point in his career, Superman is still figuring things out. If you’re going to put him in a movie with other superheroes, he needs to be an established presence, not just another schmuck in a costume.

The best way to include Superman in a shared universe is as an elder statesman character. In the ideal DC superhero universe, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman should have a decent run as the only superheroes in the world before you bring people like the Flash or Green Lantern into it. That way, you can have Superman as an inspirational figure, not just to regular people, but also to other superheroes.  He should be older than the newer heroes by at least ten years, and be the one they all look to for guidance.  He’s basically the dad of the Justice League – stern but fair, kind but intimidating, a bit of a dork but also a solid role model. (If I’m going to extend the familial metaphor, Batman would be the weird uncle who lives in the basement and flips out when anyone goes in his room, and Wonder Woman would be the cool aunt who teaches young heroes how to fight and then takes them out and gets them drunk after)

The thing is, they could have set this up, if not for the fact that DC/WB are so desperate to catch up to Marvel that they’re throwing everything at the wall, and if nothing sticks their plan is to just set the house on fire. They don’t really know what to do, but they do know that it has to happen NOW, because “oh god oh god, Marvel is making freaking Ant-Man at this point and all we have is that crappy Green Lantern movie that everyone hated and a Batman trilogy that people only really liked the second installment of and that was mostly because it killed Heath Ledger”.  Marvel is King of Tough Guy Mountain, and DC is assistant to the Alderman of Not-in-the-Face Ravine. Because of that, DC feels like they have to rush to catch up, rather than taking their time and building the best version of their universe. As a result, they’ve announced a full slate of movies that they will likely end up scrapping in yet another frantic course-correction.

I get it, I really do. After The Avengers made all the money, everyone wanted a piece of that shared universe pie. Hell, Universal tried building a shared universe around their monster properties, not stopping to ask if anyone actually wanted to watch a movie about Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon teaming up to fight… aliens? Or something? Since their Dracula reboot was met with a resounding “meh”, they seem to be walking those plans back a bit. So, in light of Marvel’s success, the only other movie studio with a roster of actual superheroes threw Zack Snyder into the deep end, turned what should have been the second film in the Superman trilogy into another Batman movie, and then crammed the rest of the Justice League into it. They’re painting all the other characters with the same grim and serious brush they used on Man of Steel and the Nolan Batman films, even going so far as to cast Jason Momoa as Aquaman, hoping his sexy, buff, Khal Drogo-ishness will cover up the fact that he’s playing Aquaman.  Again, I get it. They want to jump on the train before it leaves the station, proper world-building and characterization be damned.

Here’s the thing about superhero universes though, which anyone who’s read superhero comics long enough can tell you: they start out strong, but eventually either collapse under their own weight, or unravel in a confusing sprawl of convoluted plotlines. You can already see it starting to happen with the Marvel movies. The first Avengers movie was a perfect culmination of the movies that led up to it, with a tight plot, a clear adversary, and a satisfying conclusion. By Age of Ultron, however, you can see the seams starting to split. It’s still a great movie, still builds on what came before, but it suffers from an overload of characters and a need to push the franchise narrative forward. I have every confidence that the two-part Infinity War will be an amazing spectacle that delivers on every plot thread introduced across all three Phases of Marvel films, but after that… well, Marvel claims to have plans beyond Infinity War, but I’m sure they’re nebulous at best. All the original stars will have reached the ends of their respective contracts, which means they’ll either have to recast or eliminate those characters.  After Infinity War, Marvel is going to start running out of steam.

And THAT’S when DC should hit us with Justice League. Just as Marvel starts winding down, DC could ramp up.  They should spend the next few years building up Superman and Wonder Woman within their own franchises, while making it clear both characters exist in the same universe. Batman is such a known quantity at this point that he doesn’t need his own movie, but he could be the connective tissue between Superman and Wonder Woman, similar to the role Nick Fury and Phil Coulson played in the early Marvel movies. So, you have a couple of Superman movies, a couple of Wonder Woman movies, thread Batman through them here and there, and then, just as Marvel is starting to drift into their post-Infinity War malaise, DC drops a Justice League movie and steals the spotlight. You make the Big Three the focus of the first act, bring in the new guys in the second, and they all come together as the Justice League by the third. Then you spin out each new character into their own movie based on how each is received, rather than an arbitrary schedule.

Of course, that won’t happen. I haven’t mentioned Suicide Squad yet, but I’m pretty sure that movie is going to be more successful than DC counted on, based on the response to the trailer. Add that film’s darkly humorous tone to the success of Deadpool, and DC’s new strategy will most likely be to scrap everything not currently in production and retool Justice League into an R-rated blood-soaked romp where Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman crack jokes while killing hordes of disposable extras before having a threesome atop a pile of corpses.

At which point, Marvel will release their G-rated Squirrel Girl movie, which will end up making more money than every other superhero movie combined, and then Disney will just buy DC and be done with it, so we can finally get that Justice Avengers movie we all secretly want.

No? Just me? Fine. I’ll wait.


Chris Wichtendahl

I’m a web developer by day, a writer by night, and a musician on weekends. I also fancy myself an amateur historian.

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