We have at this point had enough actors play Superman that we can have a conversation about who did it best, much as is done for James Bond and Batman and (for some reason) Jack Ryan. For me, the order goes like this:
- Brandon Routh
- Christopher Reeve
- Tom Welling
- Dean Cain
- Henry Cavill
- George Reeves
I’ll accept argument about the lower four, but not the top two. Chistopher Reeve owned that part – it was part of his being, much like Sean Connery will always be Bond and Johnny Weismuller will always be ‘the’ Tarzan. Brandon Routh, though, gives us the most interesting and balanced performance, bar none. His movie is the best Superman movie. When I think of Superman, I am either thinking of #1 or #2 on that list.
Superman Returns gets a bum rap. People seemed to have not liked the movie, and I don’t quite understand why. To be fair, Routh is simply playing Reeve playing Superman to some extent – it’s the exact same character in the exact same plot continuity – but excised of a lot of the stuff that made Reeve’s movies silly. Instead of a fairly flat tale of Superman flying around and saving people, we get an in-depth character drama circling around one of the more interesting love triangles in superhero-dom. Oh, and we have Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, and I don’t think anybody can seriously suggest anybody did it better than he did. Even Gene Hackman pales next to Spacey’s sharp, witty portrayal.
Anywho, in Superman Returns, Supes comes back after being gone for five years – he journeyed to Krypton to see what was left. When he gets back, the world has moved on without him. Most interestingly, Lois Lane is now engaged and has a kid. Lane is the same high-octane reporter and no-nonsense girl, Clark is the same befuddling goofball, but now we’ve moved on from the will-she/won’t-she anticipation of the Superman/Lane relationship. This is good – it was a bad idea for a relationship, anyway. Clark, though, isn’t quite willing to let go.
Enter the other man. Lane’s fiancée is (surprise!) a nice guy. A good guy. He’s handsome. He’s tall. He has a job. He’s good with the kid. He’s kind to Lois. He is a completely, 100% decent human being deserving the girl he’s got. I LOVE that about this movie. I am so very, very tired of the old superhero trope that reserves the affections of certain women (named Vale, Watson, Lane, Potts, and so on) for their specific heroes, as though they are some kind of franchised and licensed appendage to the male lead. No, bullshit – Lois Lane didn’t wait for Superman. Why should she? Some jackass flies off for five years and, what, she’s gonna just hang around? Not her. Oh, and the movie also gives her the respect of assuming that an intelligent, capable, and strong woman like Lois is able to pick a guy who isn’t a jackass, a liar, a jerk, or any of that crap. She doesn’t need to be rescued from her own life by some guy in a cape. Sure, she needs to be rescued from a crashing jumbo jet and a sinking boat and what-not (she isn’t a superhero), but Lane has her life figured out. She’s living it. She doesn’t need Superman. Well, almost certainly not.
That, right there, is the central conflict of the story: Lois might not need Superman, but does she want him? Clark may not have her, but should he get her back? Yes, yes – Lex Luthor is in the midst of a dastardly plot and Lois gets mixed up in it and Superman has to stop him – but the purpose of that plot is to demonstrate and explore Clark and Lois’s feelings for one another and their new relationship. This is interesting on a number of levels, not the least of which is this: the writers realize that the only conflict interesting enough to sustain Superman is one that he cannot punch his way out of.
Did any of you get bored in Man of Steel after the 45th straight minute of indestructible people punching each other? I did. I mean, jeez – they are invulnerable superbeings. Throwing them through a wall isn’t going to do crap. They know it. We know it. Everybody knows it – why do we go through the motions? Man of Steel seemed fueled by the juvenile and visceral enjoyment involved in destroying large portions of real-estate with immense special effects budgets. Yeah, it’s fun, but it lacks a certain trueness to the character. Brandon Routh safely stopping the crashing jumbo jet from smashing into the baseball stadium and then setting it on the field was iconic. Every part of that scene was quintessential Superman – the guy who is so good he can’t be from this world. That’s what it’s all about.
Cut back to him and Lois, we are watching a genuine moral dilemma. Superman possesses the power to get Lois back – nobody doubts that, not even Lois. She still has feelings for him and could probably be convinced, as much as she might not want to be. In the end, though, Superman doesn’t get her. Lois chooses the other guy. The other guy distinguishes himself as a hero in saving Lois. Superman backs off, knowing this is for the best. It’s a little bittersweet, but we feel good – this is the right decision. That, to me, is what Superman is all about. He is about making the right decision. He is about taking the high road, despite his feelings. No movie or show has ever told his story better than Superman Returns. Not that I’ve seen, anyway.
Unfortunately, such subtlety seems to have been lost on movie-going audiences. They much prefer the near-genocidal violence of Man of Steel and a character who is less ‘super’ and more aloof and detached. Cavill’s Superman is a stock hero – he’s Wolverine in different underroos, he’s Batman with laser vision, he’s yet another version of the ronin, the disgruntled knight errant. A good character, sure, but not who Superman is. Superman is the Paladin. The incorruptible, unachievable paradigm. People seem to think that’s boring, but I disagree. People just don’t seem to think hard enough about how interesting and difficult journey it is to do the right thing for the right reasons at the worst times.
A tough week to be a Bostonian. To be honest, I don’t really want to talk about it; that’s not what this blog is for. I am angry, though, which makes it hard to do other things. I want revenge; not justice, no, I want revenge. That’s the wrong thing, I know – vengeance solves nothing. Justice, while not a ‘solution’, per se, is something that salves the pain and doesn’t spread it further. It’s an elusive thing, justice; I worry about it’s existence sometimes. It seems a phantom ideal, something which we as a species have fought long and hard to define, and yet have never once agreed upon.
All in all, I find myself thinking back to a post I wrote last July in the wake of the Aurora Colorado shootings. It is both tragic and terrible that I need ever revisit that place, but here we are again. I link to it here because I can’t bring myself to write it again. It’s about geeky stuff, of course (that is what this blog is about), but it’s also about this past Monday at the Boston Marathon and all other days like it. Here:
Coincidentally, the trailer for the new Superman movie is up, and it echoes certain sentiments in the article I wrote there. I won’t lie, it made me choke up a bit. We all need a hero like that. I feel fortunate that I live in a city full of them; a city where, when the bombs exploded, more people ran towards the danger than away from it. That is the sentiment I want to hold on to. I want to drown my lust for vengeance in it. As has been said many times, darkness can never drive out the darkness – only the light can do that.
Be safe. Be well. Be good.
I’m not going to touch what happened in Colorado. It’s monstrous, and I have things I want to shout the same as everybody else. Shouting, though, is seldom wise and never calm, and wisdom and serenity are most important in the face of terrible acts.
So, to shift gears a bit and steer us away from the immediate and into the realm of the metaphorical (as is the wont and duty of every spec-fic writer), let us consider Superman and Batman. Of the two, Batman is much, much more popular. He has the best stories, the best writers, the best of everything. To call him ‘better,’ though, is to betray a cultural bias, not state a fact. Batman and Superman are poles on a spectrum of behavior. Their goals are identical, their heroic roles in society are similar, but their philosophical underpinnings are fundamentally at odds.
Criminals are, by nature, a superstitious, cowardly lot. To instill fear into their hearts, I became a bat. A monster in the night. And in doing so, have I become the very thing that all monsters become – alone.
All societies posit values through the heroes they idolize, and Batman is no different. If he is popular, it is because he scratches something we want scratched. So, what is that thing?
Batman is an avenger. He fights crime with terror. He responds to criminal threats with threats. He is the visceral, essential wish-fulfillment of a society which has lost hope in the goodness of its own societal framework. When you look at the news and recoil in horror at the terrible thing some jackass has done to someone else and you feel that deep, cold knot deep in your guts – that’s Batman. Batman would go and kick that guys ass. He’d break every bone is his goddamned body until he was weeping with terror and begging for mercy. And then, because Batman (because we) is the hero, he gives it to them. He gives it to them, though, with a promise: I’m letting you go, but if you ever…
Batman doesn’t mess around. He doesn’t pull punches. He doesn’t hold hands. He’s a regular guy who’s made himself superhuman by dint of his own personal obsessions, which is itself a perverse reflection of the American Dream. He devotes his massive wealth to populist causes, but we know and he knows and everybody knows that the real work to improve society happens on the street. That’s what we go to see – Batman making the people who terrify us quake in terror. His mania is our release; his story is stress relief for the modern urbanite who fears for their safety.
He’s also identifiable. He’s flawed, lonely, and mortal. We see ourselves in him more readily and wish to be him with more ease. His life seems at once idyllic and adventurous – wealthy, carefree playboy by day; courageous, brilliant hero by night. Every kid’s dream, right? Even once we grow up and see the cracks in Wayne’s psyche, we still find Batman’s life appealing. That says something about us. Something very important.
They can be a great people, Kal-El–they wish to be. They simply lack the light to show the way.For this reason above all – their capacity for good – I have sent them you… my only son.
~Superman, the Movie
Superman is different; Superman is not us. Superman is held to a higher standard than Batman. If Batman fails somehow, if corruption continues to spread despite his efforts, if he beats the Joker unconscious and the Joker lives to kill again, we accept this as part of Batman’s humanity. He doesn’t need to be perfect. Superman does and, to some extent, Superman is.
Superman’s the nice guy with the great physique and the gleaming smile who does the right thing, all the time. He works hard for little pay as a reporter, trying to tell people the truth. When he stops crime, there isn’t much fuss – they can’t stop him, they can’t harm him. He walks into the bank, bends the crooks’ guns in half, and marches them off to jail. He does this in plain sight; he is not frightening. He doesn’t use tools like terror or cruelty, even against those who deserve it. He smiles a lot. He’s chivalrous to women. He tells the truth.
Superman is not as popular as Batman, and it should come as little surprise that it is because of what Superman represents, ultimately, to the viewer. In Superman stories, it isn’t Superman who fails or makes mistakes. He is not culpable, morally or otherwise, in the terrors that afflict Metropolis. This is distinct from Batman who, as a wealthy person and a regular human being, is de facto embroiled in and responsible for the society in which he lives. The Kryptonian (and country farmboy) is not so tainted by the stains of humanity and the big city. He is a faultless paragon; if anyone has failed or made mistakes, it is us. While Batman holds up a shadowy mirror in which we may examine our own faults, Superman stands on a pedestal as an exemplum of what we ought to be.
Ironically, there is something harrowing about this. It’s all well and good to indulge in your darker side with Batman, but appeal to your lighter side? Ask you to do the right thing? Demand that you take the high road, like Superman does? We sneer at that. Some of you are sneering at that right now. “Oh, well, being good is so easy when you’re Superman!” you say, or “Superman doesn’t get dirty because the writers don’t let any dirt stick!” Well, maybe you’re right, or at least partially. The writers don’t let dirt stick to Superman, true, but expecting dirt to stick is simply cynicism. Superman sees in us something good and light and honorable and asks us to bring it out (it is not accidental, the Christian overtones in that quote I put up there). That’s hard work. That’s deeply dangerous thinking. Superman isn’t stress relief or visceral satisfaction, he is inspiration. He is a call to be better people.
It is telling to me that Batman is so much more popular than Superman. It isn’t just because Batman has had the better choice of talent (remember, the talent is attracted to his story, same as us), but also because we think we live in Batman’s world. We don’t have to, though, which is what Superman has been trying to tell us all these years. As a character created as a reaction to the Nazi brand of Fascism (which also built its power upon certain strategies Batman might recognize), he stands in direct opposition to visceral action as a result of that cold feeling in our guts. That feeling makes us love to escape into Batman, yes, but we mustn’t forget Superman, since his is the world and he the example that we all, ultimately, want to become.