Making Superman Interesting Again

Wonder Woman was a really good movie, so I recommend seeing it if you are remotely interested in superhero movies, or movies in general. And with that in mind, I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about the rest of the DC Extended Universe and ignore Wonder Woman almost entirely. I wasn’t even going to mention it, but its opening weekend success makes it impossible to ignore. Like diarrhea in an elevator.

Superman is a boring character. He is so ridiculously powerful that in a fight between him and just about any other character, he’s going to win unless bullshit happens. For a lot of superheroes, they have to fight villains who are around the same power level as them. For Superman, that’s fucking hard to do without literally destroying the world, because if the bad guy isn’t capable of destroying the world in seconds, the fight is only going to last seconds.

yawn
YAWN

On top of his completely stupid power set, he doesn’t really have an origin story like other superheroes do. Yes, he is (sometimes) the last Kryptonian alive, but it isn’t really an origin story in the same way that other superheroes have their origin stories. There is no “I was this way, but then some shit happened and now I’m a superhero” moment in Superman’s life. He was born with stupid strong powers and a pure and selfless outlook on the world. There is no driving force for change in Superman besides his childhood, most of the time. Other than rewriting the story so that Supes grows up in communist Russia, there isn’t a whole lot interesting you can get out of an origin story for Superman. At some point you have to show him learning that he is OP as fuck, and maybe put in a couple lines from the Kents about being a good person, and that’s all you get.

superkid
For Superman, “character growth” means “he is now physically larger”

And finally, he’s…. kind of stupid. For all his ridiculous powers, he is still outsmarted all the fucking time. It’s the entire basis for his rivalry with Lex Luthor, and the core reason why “Who wins: Batman or Superman?” isn’t a trivial question. All of the intelligence skill points allotted for characters in Superman’s universe went to other people, and while that can create for interesting villains, it makes the main character even more boring. And besides, all that ends up happening is that the villain outsmarts Superman, but because Superman is Superman, he still ends up winning through punching shit.

Characters like Superman do not exist in other stories, because those stories tend to suck a little bit. He is as close to a flawless character as possible, which means that continuing to grind out interesting stories just isn’t that possible after a while. But the DC Extended Universe is still trying to do it, in a pretty clever way.

Superman is part of the setting for the universe.

superman monument
See?

Rather than trying to make Superman an interesting character, DC seems to be focusing much more on how his mere existence changes other characters. Think about it. Man of Steel more-or-less created a new “year zero” for the people in that world: before and after the reveal of Superman. Between Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the world has been trying to figure out what the hell to do. He and Zod’s fight to the death killed a shitload of people, and did an insane amount of damage, but can you really hold Superman accountable for that shit? What if he doesn’t want to be held accountable for it?

Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne have another perspective. The only reason that Superman’s existence hasn’t destroyed the entire fucking planet by now is that Superman is a good person. As an audience, we know that Superman is, like, the best person, but think about the nicest person you know. They’ve probably made a mistake before, or hurt someone before, right? If Superman pulls that kind of shit, a lot of people could die, and that’s a pretty massive risk.

Imagine that instead of having control over a gas-powered stove, you just had to trust that Billy the Benevolent Gas Monkey would turn it on when you needed it, and off when you were done. You would be constantly worried the Billy the Benevolent Gas Monkey didn’t burn your goddamn house down. Sure he’s a really well trained monkey, and he seems to really like his job, but that’s a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of a good-natured monkey. So obviously you’d rather just have control over your own stove.

Billy the Benevolent Gas Monkey
Like everything else that DC tries, Marvel has already done it, with much less subtlety.

Lex and Bruce just want to be able to turn their own gas on and off. They have different lines of reasoning that lead them to this conclusion, and the outcomes of their efforts are vastly different. Bruce begins to formulate a plan to eliminate the threat for good by killing Superman, but in the end realizes that Superman is in fact the best person to be in charge of the gas, and can in fact help protect the stove from other monkeys (maybe one named Kalibak? And you thought that analogy was silly). Lex tries to get the world to understand that Superman is dangerous by simulating the damage he could cause, but only ends up proving Superman’s inherent benevolence, while sending himself further down the rabbit hole to insanity.

Throughout all of these events, Superman doesn’t really change. He’s the same force of nature as he was at the beginning of the movie (well, except that he’s dead. Kind of. He got better.), and it’s the other characters in the film that change around him. Exploring Superman’s effects on other characters is a fantastic and ingenious way to make DC’s poster boy interesting. And this is exactly how you make Superman interesting: explore how he affects other characters. And this is exactly why I am so hyped about the possibility of an Injustice variation showing up in the DCEU. The entire universe is built around coping with the existence of a Superman that is good and pure and incorruptible, so what happens when Batman and Lex Luthor’s darkest fears about Superman become reality?

Wonder Woman actually builds on the underlying themes of the Injustice series quite well. So much so, in fact, that I’m not going to talk about right now, so that I can milk this topic for more content. There is a ton of stuff to talk about on this topic, so expect more. For now, just know that I’m bad at writing conclusions.

 

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