Yes, you can probably file this under “Chris is thinking too much about Superman again.” But the latest trailer for Man of Steel is out, and I am almost physically excited by the chances for this movie now.
I admit, I’m an easy target for anything about Superman. As a kid, I wore the Underoos, I ran around in a red cape, and read the comics. I saw Superman III in the theater, and even that did not kill my love of the character. So I was going into the theater on opening day, no matter what.
To put it in the kindest terms possible, that hasn’t always been the case.
Superman, despite being on the level of a primal myth for us now, is not an easy character to bring to life. The idea behind him is elegantly simple, and almost encoded into our DNA: a perfect man comes from the stars to save us all. That’s easy to understand and often incredibly hard to pull off in execution.
But two things in this trailer makes me think that’s going to be time and money well spent, that make me believe the filmmakers really understand what a Superman movie needs — what every Superman story needs.
This is the first: when Lara says to Jor-El, “He’ll be an outcast. They’ll kill him.”
And Jor-El responds with one word: “How?”
That’s brilliant. It’s more than just a badass line. It shows a fundamental understanding of what makes Superman so compelling.
In most fiction, the threat of death — “They’ll kill him” — is the ultimate raising of the stakes. I’ve read that every good story ends with a death, and while that may not be true, it’s definitely true that death is the engine that drives the drama. Characters seek to escape it, avoid it, or deal it out to their enemies. But they cannot ignore it.
Except, as Jor-El points out, Superman can. By virtue of his powers, he is beyond the usual punishments and sanctions that mortals must endure. He is outside the old rules of the game, and that makes his story a new and compelling set of problems. How do you create drama where the protagonist is invulnerable — literally — to what usually drives the story?
Many writers have a problem with that, which is one reason why Superman stories are not easy. It’s hard to find conflicts that a perfect man cannot end simply by spinning the world in another direction.
But the second moment in the trailer is what makes me confident they can do it.
When Clark first reveals his abilities by saving a school bus that’s gone into a river, his foster father Jonathan Kent (played by Kevin Costner, because, come on, who doesn’t want the guy from Field of Dreams to be his dad?) tells him that he’s not from Earth.
Clark responds by asking, “Can’t I just keep pretending I’m your son?”
And Jonathan Kent pulls him in close, and, voice cracking, says, “You are my son.”
If you didn’t choke up a little at that, well, you’re far less sentimental than I am.
Moses and Christ allegories aside, this is where we see how Clark chooses to deal with the legacy of great and unearned power from Jor-El and Lara. He still wants to be human. And his father embraces him for everything he is — not out of fear, but out of love.
Superman is not about what he can do. As Chris Sims recently said, if Superman wanted, he could rule us all and force us to be good, because after all, the dude’s got laser eyes. It’s about what he chooses to do. And he chooses to be good. He chooses to do the right thing. He chooses to care about humanity.
His enemies will say that this makes him weaker. But because of what he’s learned from the Kents, it’s actually what makes him a hero.
That’s the movie I want to see.
With super-punching, of course. Because you’ve got to have the super-punching.
Needless to say, Lex Luthor got a lump of coal that year.
Got the new Action Comics #1 yesterday and managed to save it for the very end of the evening, with ice cream.
It was totally worth it.
If the whole DC reboot has done only one thing right, it’s given us Grant Morrison writing a new take on Superman. And it’s pretty freaking great. I’ve been reading a lot about Superman (and Supermen) lately, including Supergods, Morrison’s own book-length essay on comics, Tom DeHaven’s Our Hero: Superman on Earth and Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, which is a dystopic look at Superman gone evil.
The main problem with Superman is that everyone knows his story. Morrison himself summed it up in eight words: “Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope, kindly couple.” When a character grows into an icon, it’s harder to tell new stories about him. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to generate dramatic tension about a hero who will always survive whatever is thrown at him.
Of course, all franchise characters always survive. (Wolverine and Batman are somehow more realistic than Superman? Really? When was the last time a bullet stopped either of them?) The tension comes from tricking the reader into forgetting that fact for a moment.
Morrison gives us a new way of looking at Superman. This is Superman fresh off the farm, confident in the way only someone who’s never been hurt can be, and absolutely determined to save everyone. He’s having a great time, too — outracing bullets and police cars and knocking the crap out of bullies. It’s the same laughing, joyful Superman De Haven describes, the one who appeared in the first Action Comics back in 1938. (The slightly more mature version who showed up in Justice League #1 last week only shows up for one panel, but he radiates that same easy confidence with a little more calm.)
And what’s most important is he can be trusted with this insane amount of power. The real secret of Superman is that he would scare us witless in real life. Waid’s Irredeemable shows this in graphic detail. What makes Superman a hero is not his power, but his ability to use it in a truly moral fashion. The little guys in Metropolis love him and the big bosses fear him for precisely this reason. Even the costume works in this context. Sure, it’s slightly dorky — a T-shirt, short cape and jeans. But when it’s on a guy who can jump from the top of a skyscraper and land without a scratch, it takes him from godlike status to almost human. And that’s why Superman wears it. He doesn’t want people to be afraid of him. He wants them to trust him because he really does want to do what’s best for everyone. That’s only possible if people can talk to him without wetting their pants in fear.
Further emphasizing the contrast between Man and Superman, Clark Kent is just a struggling freelance reporter. He’s a nobody. He can’t get hired by the Daily Planet because he lacks connections and an Ivy League degree. And he’s alone. His only friends in the city seem to be his landlady and Jimmy Olsen, who’s already more successful than Clark is. He hasn’t even met Lois Lane yet. (He owes a lot to Peter Parker here, both in his looks and the general squalor of his living arrangements, just like Peter Parker owed a lot to Superman back in his first appearance.) But he’s still exposing injustice even when he’s not in the blue shirt and cape.
While the pace of the storytelling in most of the other new 52 books is glacial– Justice League, I’m looking at you here — Morrison manages to cram all this information in between two big action set pieces, including Superman stepping in front of a speeding bullet train.
Morrison has done exactly what he’s been promising all these years. He’s made Superman a character who looks brand-new without losing any of what makes him special. It’s probably not going to bring anyone back to reading comics or restore Superman to his million-issue sales glory. And soon enough, we’re going to get Superman wearing the slick blue suit and full-length red cape. He’ll fight Darkseid and push planets back into orbit and all that. But for now, I’m really enjoying a Superman who slaps around wife-beaters, rescues innocent people, leaps tall buildings in a single bound, and does it all with a smile.
The biggest news in comics this week is, of course, the announcement that DC Comics, the venerable publisher of Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman, will re-start its entire line of books in what amounts to a gigantic do-over. There are comics readers who are understandably skeptical. DC — and the other big publisher, Marvel, now owned by Disney — have a history of doing this every couple of years or so. “Everything you know will change!” is comics-speak for “Yeah, we might put some new costumes on some people.” DC has rebooted its entire universe four times since 1986. This count does not include lots of little revisions and retcons, like the whole sordid history of Hawkman, whose backstory is far more complicated than you’d think for a character who is basically just a big guy with wings.
The news has thrown a lot of Underoos into a bunch. Comics fans — myself included — tend to take this sort of thing seriously. If someone points out, reasonably, that these are all imaginary stories and it’s sort of ludicrous to talk about which ones “count” and which ones do not — well, that person had better not walk around the darker parts of Comic-Con without a bodyguard.
Continuity is not only the structure that supports the suspension of disbelief. It’s also the payoff longtime fans get for investing time and money in years of stories. This is just as true with serialized TV or movies or books as it is with comics. Mess with the continuity, or discard it completely, and you are effectively telling those longtime fans: “Wow, did you waste your life.”1
Of course, there’s a counter-argument. Many fans say that DC’s comics have an insurmountable barrier to entry: decades of stories and details that have to be learned to get through a single issue of Superman. For instance, who exactly is General Zod? Which General Zod do you mean? What’s the deal with Power Girl? Where’s Earth 2? Why is there more than one Earth? Why are there so many Flashes? Didn’t Superman die? And so on.
I’m sympathetic to the urge to wipe the slate clean and start over. Really. But I don’t think it’s going to make anything better until the writing gets better. The biggest ideas in Superman’s books in the past couple of years have been 1) remove him from the books entirely and 2) have him take a nice, long walk.2
It’s possible to write great superhero stories without the history serving as clutter and distraction.3 However, I tend to think a good writer — like, say, Grant Morrison — can take all that history and make it entertaining rather than distracting.4
You can start over with brand-new characters and a clean slate, but it doesn’t guarantee success. One day after DC’s big news, Valiant Comics announced it will return to publishing. Valiant was an early 90s success story. It took forgotten heroes from the past — Doctor Solar and Magnus, Robot Fighter5 — and turned them into million-selling franchises. Sure, part of that was due to the speculator boom at the time — people who believed a foil-covered variant first edition of Solar was going to be worth as much as Action Comics #1. But it also brought in readers looking for something new. It worked.
Unfortunately, it only took a little while to fall apart with its own reboots, continuity mishaps, and corporate struggles.6 Now Valiant is left with titles no one has ever heard of, despite its boast of “some of the most recognizable characters in the comic world.”7 Maybe people will line up to see a movie about X-O Manowar, but not because of name recognition.8
An excessive devotion to continuity is not the industry’s real problem. This is where the real news in DC’s announcement comes in. The company also said it will begin selling the digital versions of its comics on the same day as the print editions. Basically, DC is admitting that comics’ distribution model is broken.
This is more than saying that “print is dead” or that iPads are the future of publishing. Comics have seen their circulation go from millions of copies a month to a couple hundred thousand, tops. Prices have gone up, the content has become increasingly specialized for an audience of aging fanboys9 and the number of readers keeps dropping. Groceries and convenience stores have been more or less abandoned by comics publishers as retail outlets in favor of specialized comic book shops. Forget 76 years of history: the real barrier to entry for new fans has been just been finding comics.10
I’m not sure the solution to that is requiring people to own a $500 iPad before they can read the latest adventure of the Justice League.
The thing is, the audience is there. People want to read stories of ass-kicking, super-heroic, larger-than-life adventure. There are more people than ever ready to accept the idea of men and women in spandex saving the world. Look at the top-grossing movies of the last ten years if you doubt it. There is a chance to bring them into this world and make them fans for life.
I really hope that this works for DC . I hope the company has something more planned than just Superman not wearing his briefs on the outside of his pants because I love comics. And without new kids climbing on board, year after year, comics will never have a billion-dollar phenomena like Superman or Batman again.11 The industry hasn’t produced a new superhero with mass-market appeal since… well, Spawn. That alone should tell you how badly it needs to bring in new ideas and new readers.
Comics cannot survive on nostalgia forever. Sooner or later, someone’s going to have to invent something again.
1Admittedly, there are people who would say that anyway.
2Given the legal wrangling over the ownership of Superman, it almost seems possible that these were deliberate moves to devalue the property before ownership changed hands — like ripping out the copper plumbing of a foreclosed home. But that’s too much of a conspiracy theory even for me.
3Check out Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, where he gets to play with the idea of a Superman who goes mad and starts wiping out cities.
4In Morrison’s hands, Batman is both a dark, grim avenger in the night and a guy who hangs out with Superman while occasionally fighting saucer-people.
5These relatively obscure super-heroes from Gold Key/Dell actually had a bigger fanbase than they’re given credit for, since they were introduced at the time when comics were still selling hundreds of thousands of copies.
6You could probably say the same thing about Eclipse or Image or any number of the indie comics publishers that boomed and busted at the time.
8That said, I would totally love to see Eternal Warrior come back.
9Yes, that includes me.
10A couple years ago, I saw a kid in my local comics shop with his father. He kept saying, “Daaaaaad. I’m booooooooored. Can we go now?” Publishers have made an effort since then to reach out to kids again with Free Comic Book Day and kid-friendly titles. But the majority of sales still come from old geeks.
11Or even Wolverine for that matter.
All right, let’s see what the Internet is hurling at my skull today…
*Superman refuses to fly; starts walking instead. No, seriously. Lex Luthor is now the hero of Action Comics. And Lex is apparently shacking up with Lois Lane. Cripes, now there’s a metaphor begging for a national audience…
Publishing a PDF of somebody else’s work is the exact opposite of fair use: these sites engaged in a replication of a static electronic document with no links to the publication that took the risk, commissioned the work and came up with a story that tilted the national conversation. The technical, legal term for what they did is, um, stealing.
Seriously, Tim Kring though[t] Jeph Loeb wasn’t good enough to work on Heroes. Yeah, that’s a guy I want in charge of all my TV entertainment.
*On the other hand, if Loeb can equal the high insanity of Marvel’s 1970s TV shows, I for one will applaud:
*Texas Republicans are firmly against strip clubs, blowjobs, the UN and the Supreme Court. Funny, I know some Texas Republicans. I never thought they were anti-blowjob. And I know they are pro-strip club.
*My friend William Heisel continues to dissect the state of Illinois’ terminally inept system for informing the public of complaints against doctors.
(Post title quote from Mark Waid’s Twitter feed.)