Yesterday I finally saw Man of Steel. What a bad movie. There were some lovely scenes that worked, including some of the bits on Krypton and some of the little family moments with the Kents. The way Pa Kent died was stupid in the extreme, but otherwise those moments were ok. The overall movie, however? Bad. Bad, bad, bad. Clearly written by someone with very limited understanding of Superman’s character and some bizarre desire to make him “darker”.
That’s a trend among superhero movies, or at least it was in the 1990s. Consider the most successful superhero movies of that time period: Batman and Batman Returns. Both were literally, physically dark, and featured a dark and troubled set of characters. The X-Men films then came along and began bucking this trend. Since then the most successful superhero movies have been the Spider-Man movies and the recent Marvel Universe films, all of which are bright, colorful, and feature basically zero angst.
Angst isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Batman is and should always be an angst-ridden character who is constantly tormented by the demons of his past. That’s what causes him to be a hero, and it’s good to see him skulking about, occasionally on the wrong side of the law, but always on the right side of justice. It’s also perfectly fine and acceptable that he doesn’t kill people; he shouldn’t given his past.
Somehow over the last few years, DC has decided that since the Batman movies feature a dark character with dark stories and dark villains, well, clearly what they need is to make Superman, of all people, a dark character, especially since having a relatively light character in the form of Green Lantern didn’t really work. That leads us into Man of Steel.
Now spoilers ahoy for them as needs the warning, but I suspect you don’t. You probably already know that this is the movie where Superman straight-up murders a guy. True, he had arguably a very good reason to do so, and the guy in question, General Zod, had made it clear that either he would die or Superman would die. Also, Superman killed him in the process of saving an innocent family from being burned alive, so there’s that.
But here’s the problem: Superman doesn’t kill people. He can’t do that and remain Superman. He is essentially a god among men. He’s a genius, he’s super-strong, he’s basically indestructible. He is someone that it is very, very easy to become scared off. It is therefore essential that he be the “big blue Boy Scout” character. He has to be a paragon of virtue, or the public in the DC universe would be scared shitless of him. Darken him even a little, and the public would start to see him as a threat.
He is also a character of very clear moral clarity. This is, basically, a product of his idealized mid-Western upbringing. He might sometimes doubt, on rare occasions, that he’s doing the right thing, but that’s never very often, and he always, always prioritizes saving the innocent over just about everything else. He’s absent any kind of angst, with the exception of his relationship with Lois Lane, and that was completely discarded with this movie.
The Superman that we saw in Man of Steel may be a Superman, but he certainly isn’t the Superman. The real Superman, as he’s been shown time and again, would not allow a fight like the one we saw in the movie to take place in Smallville or inside Metropolis. He would have lured Zod and company away to a desert, or out above the oceans, or really any place where there weren’t innocent people in the way. One could argue that if Superman were in a situation where he had to kill Zod, or Zod would kill an entire family, he’d kill Zod. But Superman wouldn’t get into that situation to begin with. By the time the movie ends, most of Metropolis and whatever passes for downtown Smallville have been destroyed. Thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, are dead. Remember that on 9/11, two skyscrapers fell over and something like three-thousand people were killed. Imagine how many more died from the apparently dozens of buildings wrecked in Metropolis.
Now in contrast, consider The Avengers and the associated movies. No darkness, no angst, and even a scene where Captain America is shown coordinating the evacuation of innocent civilians to try and minimize casualties. Sure, it isn’t much, and doubtless many people still died, but at least it was something, and it was surely a lot more than Superman did.
All of the Marvel movies are like this. Marvel, notorious for dark and mature themes in the comics, makes movies that are light, bright, and enjoyable. DC, however, makes ones that are grim, depressing, poorly-lit and generally not very good, the recent Batman trilogy not withstanding. It’s a formula that works for Batman because his character requires it, but it doesn’t work for Superman, and wouldn’t work for Wonder Woman, the Flash, or most of DC’s other major characters.
DC keeps losing to Marvel on the movies front. This can and should change, but it cannot change while all DC does is try to make darker and grittier versions of their characters. All they do when they do that is alienate their core audience. Yes, Man of Steel did ok at the box office. But it should have been better, as should the movie. DC shouldn’t ape Marvel completely, but they also shouldn’t abandon their own characters just to try and twist them into something they think might work. It almost never does.