SPOILER ALERT for Man of Steel. And, for that matter, for Superman II.
I remember, back in the 90s, seeing a promo for the TV show E.R., then starring everyone’s favorite bachelor, George Clooney. Over footage of Clooney carrying an unconscious woman into the emergency room, a grave voice announced, “Tonight on E.R., a hero falls.”
I remember thinking then, as I do now: who would want to watch that?
Lately my sons and I have been watching Star Trek TOS, them for the first time, me for the gazillionth. And I’ve grown to appreciate all over the primal appeal of telling a self-contained story in 50 minutes (fewer commercials back then). Further, there’s something incredibly pleasurable in watching characters you admire try to do the right thing whatever the circumstances. They’re not perfect–I wouldn’t want to work for Kirk, and Spock is one step from an emotional breakdown way too often–but they are heroes.
We don’t get that much anymore.
Even Superman, the quintessential modern hero, is now little more than a flawed character who, in Man of Steel, not only kills General Zod with his bare hands, but allows the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Metropolis. This ain’t Superman, pal: this is just another alien-visits-earth movie disguised as a Superman flick, written and directed by people who, for whatever reason, don’t see Superman as a hero.* They let the villain, Zod, determine the kind of character Superman is going to be, instead of having Superman define himself. Superman becomes a killer because Zod makes him.
Why is that? I mean, I know the world sucks right now, and there simply aren’t many real-world heroes, especially in positions of power. But have we totally lost the ability to even conceive of one? Can we not accept a Superman who (as he did in Superman II) finds a way to outsmart General Zod rather than snap his neck? Can we not imagine a Superman who is a super man?**
I write a lot of stories, and not all of them have a hero: many feature a protagonist, which is a different thing. But what I don’t do, and never want to, is to take a legitimately heroic figure and de-heroicize him (or her; for me, “hero” is genderless). That doesn’t mean you can’t make him or her flawed, and interesting, and even dark; it means that, at the end of the day, they fight against their flaws with the same drive, and with the same success, as they do battling the villain.
I mean, I’m unashamed to say I like heroes. I like Indiana Jones, who always seems to be working at the absolute limit of his abilities. I like Treasure Island’s Jim Hawkins, a boy who’s neither a fool nor a coward. I like Huckleberry Finn. I like Selene in the Underworld series. I like Philip Marlowe, going down those mean streets and trying not to turn mean himself. I like John McClane in the first Die Hard movie (he’s a caricature in all the subsequent films). I like Captain America, particularly in the films. I like Atticus Finch.
I could keep going, but the point is, these characters are heroes. Superman should be in their company, but as David Goyer, Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder have given him to us, he’s not. He’s in the company of Walter White, Tony Soprano, Tommy Gavin from Rescue Me, Rayland Givens from Justified. And while I enjoy all those characters, they’re not heroes. And neither, alas, now, is Superman.
*You want to see the true nature of director Zack Snyder’s soul? Watch his pet project Sucker Punch, if you can. I only made it about twenty minutes. And this is the guy they’re trusting with Wonder Woman.
**One of my favorite bits from Superman II is, as Superman rescues a boy from Niagara Falls, someone in the crowd exclaims, “He’s such a nice man!” No one would say that about the character in Man of Steel.[An addendum about Superman II: the fate of the three Kryptonian villains is rather ambiguous in the final version, but scenes exist that show them, as well as Luthor, being arrested and taken away by law enforcement officers in special snow vehicles (see image below; you can find these scenes as special features on the “Richard Donner Cut” version). In addition, the overall tone of the scene implies they are not killed, but simply placed in some sort of confinement (it’s not a natural ice structure, remember, it’s the Fortress of Solitude). Superman II was completed in chaos, and the fact that it holds together at all is a tribute both to the skill of the two respective directors, and truthfully, to sheer dumb luck.]