March 29, 2016

What Does Superman Mean Now?

I'm pretty much the definition of double-dipping my content...

This article was originally published in The Odyssey online magazine; there have been minor additions made to the material below, but you may read the original here! Be sure to share it on social media too!

Over my spring break, I sat down and watched Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and yes, it was just as bad as most people have been led to believe. But, as a casual DC fan, I was even more disappointed in just how off this version of Superman is compared to his comic book or broad pop-culture counterpart.

While this version of the character made his debut in the previous film Man of Steel - a film criticized for its own depiction of the character - there was at least a sense in some parts of that film (namely in the training/flying scene) of grandness, and the meaning of his S chest symbol as meaning "hope" offered audiences a glimpse at who this man is... if only we'd gotten to know that man better in the film. But in Dawn of Justice, what little meat there was to the Superman character of Man of Steel is utterly, perhaps even gleefully, snuffed out in favor of making him this brooding, lonely, bitter man who's depressed because he's getting bad press (that's not even a joke; the film has a scene between him and Lois Lane wherein the former expresses his disappointment over how he doesn't seem to be winning over the public).

In fact, philosophically speaking, this is not an unreasonable outcome for the character given that he has all these abilities and powers, so much so that he is technically capable of just saving the world here and now. But Superman, for many of his fans and in-universe friends, means more than just saving people. His purpose -- nowadays especially, given how as an audience we tend to relate to the more human or flawed characters in comics -- seems to me to be more about inspiring others to do their best, to be a symbol of that optimism and a literal representation of what Jor El said to Superman in the original film (and later in the Superman Returns teaser trailer): "They can be a great people, Kal El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son." And indeed, Superman has lived up to that charge throughout his comic book appearances, in the animated Superman: The Animated Series cartoon and its various spin-offs and expansions -- notably the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited follow-up shows.

But there is little of this inspiring of humanity to be better in Dawn of Justice. Superman is there, but he's just there. Indeed, the entire premise of the film is for Batman, himself a human being and thus a flawed man wanting to be a better person (inferred through Batman's own history as a character more so than through the actual film), going head to head with the Man of Steel himself. This does not seem like a representation of one being trying to lead by example the rest of humanity to our own betterment; no ideological disagreements between these two characters discussed, no greater debate linked throughout the movie made manifest with this fight. It is a fight for its own sake, and the Man of Steel and what he stands for are decidedly absent from it, if not physically then certainly spiritually. And the rest of the film follows this odd -- and at times feeling as though this were intentional -- misstep with the Superman character. He's framed for multiple attacks and tragedies throughout the movie and offers up no defense. At one point, after he is blamed for an explosion that killed many people, he confesses to Lois that perhaps he didn't want to see the bomb planted in a man's wheelchair that he could have so easily identified with his X-Ray vision. And while in a vacuum this sounds like a good twist to the character -- that he himself wishes for humanity to be better so much so that he willfully ignores our own acts of aggression -- instead is framed in such a way that makes Superman come off as a bit of a self-centered prick. The majority of the film follows this line of thinking, a distinct lack of hope radiating from the last son of Krypton and from the humanity of this world that he seeks to protect. And his being an icon seems to be treated here as more of an icon of controversy yet again missing the logical progression of that theme in regards to the character, not just in a vacuum. To quote Den of Geek writer Mike Cecchini on the flaw of the DCEU from his own article pointing out the flawed representation of Superman:

"By stripping the DC superheroes of their aspirational qualities, and crafting a world in nothing but increasingly bleak shades of gray, the creators not only remove what makes these specific characters so unique, but they fundamentally misunderstand why audiences enjoy superheroes in the first place. Over the top action and all of the DC Comics references in the multiverse don’t mean anything if they aren’t tempered with sympathetic characters and aspirational heroes who display traits like empathycompassion, and selflessness." [Emphasis added]

From what I've read of the comics (granted, my knowledge here is limited -- I mostly read Supergirl, Justice League, and Batman), Superman is a man who knows he has great power and has the ability to save everyone, but also recognizes that were he to do so that he would be in a class of men who hold themselves in such high regard as to be harmful to the rest of the world. And while the film tries to tackle that issue, it does so without first pinpointing what Superman should stand for in the first place.

I'm of the opinion that Superman's character is not boring, a claim that has been touted as the case for the past fifty years or so. His pop-culture iconic status might be simple, but when dissected as a character and as a man -- the tail end of his name so often overshadowed by the "super" part in front of it -- he becomes a great character indeed. And should you want to understand Superman's character well, read the decades of character-driven story that he's helmed; watch the old cartoon series; watch the old films; hell, give the new Supergirl show a whirl -- while Kal El himself only appears in silhouette and in text messages between he and Kara, even there the writers understand his character better than either Man of Steel or Dawn of Justice. There are myriad of places to look for a good exploration of Superman. Dawn of Justice is not one of them. This is a film that offers audiences a crusade to whittle Superman down to his power-set and then twist the meaning of his cultural icon-hood into something bleak and irritatingly pessimistic. He's known to most as "the Man of Steel," or "the last son of Krypton." But he's also gone by "the man of tomorrow," embodying that sense of hope and optimism that we as a species should all strive for. And Dawn of Justice doesn't do that, and I think it signifies how our culture is at a point now where we seem to be lacking in a wanting to be better, or in a want to see that represented in our culture. And if grim and gritty is what Superman means now, then that's a declaration that even our most optimistic hero, our cultural symbol of hope and betterment and strength of optimism and strength of character, can fall. And where's the inherent good in that? What does that say about us as a people?

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