3 Reasons It's So Hard to Make Superman Interesting
On June 14, I will pile into a dark theater like millions of other people to watch a flawless demigod knock fist holes in the face of injustice before hucking it across space like a stone on water. I will not, however, be holding out hope that Man of Steel will be anything more than that. Despite the extraordinary combination of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan (two men whose superpower seems to be making superhero movies), I don't expect much from the new Superman. In 80 years of existence, Superman has revealed very few weaknesses, but carrying a compelling narrative is certainly right up near the top next to kryptonite.
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As counterintuitive as it sounds, there is only one way to make a great Superman movie, and that's to make a movie about someone other than Superman. Let me try to explain.
The Diomedes Dilemma
If you had to read The Iliad in school, then you likely remember that it's almost entirely about Achilles being really, really angry and killing a bunch of guys. The son of a goddess and destined for glory, Homer won't shut up about how Achilles has no equal. Achilles is, in all respects, a superhero before superheroes existed. But unless you're the type of person who squandered your college years in a Classics Club, you probably don't remember that there's one other Greek warrior who consistently and quietly proves throughout the entire epic poem to be just as great if not greater than Achilles. His name is Diomedes, and understanding why he's so forgettable is crucial to understanding why Superman can never be the center of his own story.
Diomedes is essentially Achilles without the existential crisis. He is younger, smarter, and more consistent. He defeats everyone he faces, and when he runs out of Trojans to kill, he starts fighting and injuring gods instead. Not even Achilles can make that claim. The Trojans, cowering in their walls say, "He fights with fury and fills men's souls with panic. I hold him mightiest of them all; we did not fear even their great champion Achilles, son of a goddess though he be, as we do this man: His rage is beyond all bounds."
That's him stabbing Aeneas, father of Rome, right in the bazooka. For some reason the Greeks put all their best action comics on the sides of jugs.
And while you may have never heard of him before now, you can still see the Diomedes archetype pop up again and again in pop culture: Legolas in The Lord of the Rings, Snake Eyes in G.I. Joe, Leonardo in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and especially Superman in the DC universe. They are the people (and turtle) who are reliable, morally uncomplicated, and generally superior to all the other characters. While we love them, we will never be willing to watch an entire movie about only them.
Those heroes are pillars of solidarity, they are ideals, but unfortunately they have nowhere left to go. For an audience, at least an adult audience, we want the central character to change for the better by the end of a film. We want someone who is deeply broken, who is struggling to keep himself together in the face of adversity, and most importantly, we want a character who isn't invincible. We love Spider-Man and Batman because they are driven by complicated, selfish emotions like guilt and revenge to do extraordinary things under the constant looming threat of death. Superman is what each of those characters would look like divorced of any such threat or ugly motivation. Is it still heroism to leap into a burning building when you know it can't hurt you?
That's why making a movie that's only about Superman represents a fundamental misunderstanding of why we love superhero movies in the first place: We aren't nearly as interested in acts of heroism as we are in the madness it takes for vulnerable people to become heroes. The only way to fit Superman into that mold is to strip away some of his power, but the problem with that is ...
Superman Stops Being Superman as Soon as He Has Artificial Limitations
Many writers have tried to weaken Superman or take away his abilities in order to make him more interesting, but they always run into the same problem: The second Superman is no longer tempering his own limitless power for the sake of humanity, it negates everything he stands for as a hero.
Quick, what are Superman's special abilities? Flight, X-ray vision, super strength, solar power, invulnerability, super speed, but what about the intangible power he possesses? Arguably the biggest part of what makes Superman Superman is that he maintains an incorruptible moral fiber and an urge to help humanity despite his overwhelming superiority. Like standing on top of an ant hill while they all bite you and each other, Superman has the patience to try to help them every day. It is the one thing separating him from the dick-swinging Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. Given the potential to control the world, Superman never succumbs to ego, or entitlement, or even objective detachment, because he has a sort of super humility. Despite everything he's seen, he stays compassionate toward a species that's not even his own, but that compassion only means something as long as he possesses the power to destroy everyone on a whim.
"Fuck stick shifts!"
So if he's weakened by kryptonite or blotting out the sun or some other scheme to rob him of his abilities, that power of character that makes Superman a symbol of greatness suddenly doesn't matter. A story writer forcing him to falter is actually ruining the best part of who Superman is.
Now, knowing that he can't be perfect and still be interesting, and also knowing that he can't be broken without sacrificing exactly what makes him a hero, there's only one way to make a great Superman story arc: He has to be presented with a problem that even Superman at full power can't fix.
There Are People Superman Can't Save (and That's a Good Thing)
Batman has Gotham, the Flash has Central and Keystone City, and Martian Manhunter has Middleton. While Superman may live in Metropolis, he is America's hero. He has a lot more ground to cover, and also divides his time hanging out on other continents (wintering in the Fortress of Solitude, etc.). Now, a man who can travel faster than a speeding bullet still can't be everywhere at once, which suggests that somewhere there are people dying in warehouse explosions and mass murders and roofing accidents every single day because he's busy flirting with Lois Lane or fighting Lex Luthor. For every person he saves, there are hundreds more, some of them children, taking their last breath while staring hopefully at empty skies.
Superman can't help but set a precedent he can never live up to. From the first time he stopped a bridge from collapsing or diverted a tornado from a town, he instilled a false hope among Americans. That means that every day, even if he never bothered to put on glasses and go to work again at The Daily Planet, Superman is still letting down hundreds if not thousands of people.
Somewhere, someone left an infant in the car with the windows rolled up. Superman has to decide which life is more valuable.
Add on top of that everyone who is dying of societal problems that are beyond his capacity to fix, and suddenly a really interesting portrait of Superman starts to emerge. Nearly every writer who has ever tackled a Superman story arc has tried to test the limits of his powers by pitting him against an alien being who's even stronger and more super, but they are completely ignoring the potential all around them for an engaging narrative about Superman struggling and failing to help everyone all at once from broad, systemic issues.
He stands for truth, justice, and the American way, but justice and the American way don't always see eye to eye. There's no way Superman can stop homelessness, disease, teen suicide, or domestic abuse. How could he? One of his powers isn't lobbying local politicians. That's why the most interesting Superman arc isn't about Lex Luthor building a secret island or bad guys coming from another galaxy to wipe out civilization. It's about a country of people who live at the edge of Superman's capacity to help, but because of that part in his super brain that wants to protect humanity at all costs, he nearly destroys himself trying. It wouldn't be about Superman, it would be about the people struggling and dying in a world where he exists, but he still can't save everyone. Give me that movie and I would watch it over and over just to see the greatest version of a human driven to the breaking point like an engine with no oil. Superman could be our test-drive hero. I would watch the hell out of that.