I’ve been thinking a bit about Superman this weekend. I’ve been reading the tie-in miniseries to DC’s big summer event “Convergence” (I haven’t touched Convergence itself, which everything seems to be screaming was a wise instinct). On Saturday, I got the back half of a set of two-part miniseries’ I was particularly interested in. Goodbyes to Renee Montoya (in a poignant piece bringing what is, effectively, several characters’ two-decade story to an end), Wally West and his kids, and Barbara Gordon as Oracle, complete with her two strongest relationships intact: Black Canary and Dick Grayson. All these comics meant a lot – not the least for the way in which the creative teams managed to craft some great stories around the limitations of a crossover – but also for the fact that, for these characters, who have been gone for a while, they served as a proper goodbye, rather than the truncated semi-appearances that they had in the immediate pre-Flashpoint era.
I also read Dan Jurgens and Norm Rampund’s Convergence: Superman. As much as this was a goodbye (and indeed, it promises a new status quo for those characters were we ever to see them again which might well change the nature of things), it also felt like saying hello again, because this was Superman, in a way I hadn’t seen him for a while. Whatever your opinion of the merits of the story (which I liked a lot), its greatest strength was the deployment of Superman in a way that was authentic to his character and served by it. Though there have been some offshoots and some derivatives we’ve seen lately – some of whom call themselves Superman, right enough – it felt like seeing an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time.
It was only natural to contrast this with the dominant Superman images of late – the post-Convergence Superman of the bloody knuckles and the buzzcut, the rainswept wrathful god of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman (vs, damn it, it’s not a court case) and wondering how it keeps coming to that.
I’m not – exactly – going to post a full exegesis of Superman’s character, because fundamentally everyone reading this is likely to know what it is, or at least what I’m suggesting it is, in its core aspects. Honesty, decency, integrity, selflessness, bravery and compassion. Superman. You know what he’s supposed to represent.
Why do people keep trying to change him? That isn’t an empty rhetorical question, nor an implied attack. I’m not even saying people are wrong to – I’m just thinking about why they do. And I think, fundamentally, I’ve arrived at an answer today.
The common objections to Superman tend to amount to the idea that he’s boring, usually expressed by the idea that nothing ever challenges him, that everything is too easy to be interesting. I’ve always found that to be a pretty fallacious argument, because superhero stories generally manage questions of scale effectively. You can say that you find the threats faced by Superman unbelievable, but not that he’s not threatened – he’s routinely put up against his betters in power, or his ostensible equals in ingenuity. He often wins, but that’s because he’s the hero of the story, and they usually do, at least in superhero stories. There’s no qualitative difference in six guys with sticks fighting Daredevil and six guys with space lasers fighting Superman in terms of the threat; the actual threat level is zero, it’s an invented scenario, and the characters are in the same amount of danger at all times – whatever the author wants to happen to them will happen. No-one ever says The Hulk isn’t threatened, or at least, not in the way they talk about Superman.
If your argument is that he’s too “cosmic”, that space aliens and herculean feats feel too “big” for you, that’s a different story, and I hear that argument bandied about a bit too. I’d be much more inclined to believe it if I heard it more often about any of the other fundamentally implausible superhero characters. But while there are always personal preferences, the numbers don’t stack up – readers (in so far as the word ‘droves’ can apply to comic books nowadays) flock to equally implausible premises, the Flash has proven successful on TV and for all the complaints leveled at the Thor films, the fantastic setting is rarely among them.
So, what are we left with? That he’s a milquetoast, a goody-goody. For all the jokes about it, however, no-one seems to count that as a principle mark against Captain America, or Captain Marvel, or any other character you might choose to seek to raise to moral stakes. These are stories about heroes for the most part after all, and heroes tend to be – on average – good folks.
These are all questions, and I said I was thinking about answers, I know. So, what do I think it is?
I think it comes down to the assumed nature of the audience, and the assumed nature of their wish-fulfillment fantasy.
It’s no secret that WB/DC is actively courting, as its primary demographic, males between 15 and 35. Studies suggest that the lower end of that age range may not be their core demographic at all – at the very least- but it’s the demographic where they’re targeting their marketing and their aimed appeal. So, why don’t they want Superman?
It’s part of the reason that DC places such a primacy on Batman (to be fair, to usually significant success) because the nature of the fantasy in that demographic has changed from what DC comics were originally designed for. In his initial incarnation, Superman was aimed at kids, usually just preadolescent, and was a power fantasy. The essence was pure wish fulfillment: what if I secretly had the power to reshape the world as I saw fit?
Superman’s moral sense made that acceptable, rather than monstrous – the audience knew Superman was genuinely looking to help others and would generally succeed. Rendered palatable, it becomes a scenario of power capable of surmounting challenges, a fantasy not restricted to, but common to children.
Batman, on the other hand, has become a fantasy not just of power, but of defiance. Criminals run Gotham City, but Batman defies them. The media say that he’s a menace, but he defies them. The police hunt him as a vigilante, but he defies them. Wronged grievously, now he’s going to set everybody straight about what’s what, even if they hate and fear him. It’s why arguably the longest shadows cast over Batman come from The Dark Knight Returns, because that book is fundamentally a fuck you to everyone: street gangs and the urban poor who comprise them, disaffected yuppies, the government, the military, the establishment, Superman, lovers and friends. All of them are responsible for part of the world Batman lives in, all of them are trying to restrain him, all must be defied. Batman’s not just about fixing the world, he’s about beating people to do it – and I don’t just mean violently. Batman punches up against authority figures, and down against criminals – he is, quintessentially, a man going it alone. In The Dark Knight Returns, Robin and the Sons of the Bat both volunteer, but ultimately there’s no sense of peerage there – they try and fail to fully comprehend and live in Batman’s shadow, carried on in his wake – and that is the best anyone can do, in that narrative. This is reinforced in tonnes of ways in other Bat-narratives in varying degrees of subtlety: it’s why Batman falls on goons and they’re just out cold, or why he disappears when his friends are halfway through talking to him. It’s why Alfred and Robin are around, most often nowadays, to be pushed away in the service of “the mission”, so Batman can have people he cares about, but who just “don’t understand”.
It’s not just about power, it’s about feelings of persecution and alienation. “Screw all of you. I can handle this without you.” Spider-Man feels a continual tension with how much the community dislikes him, but Batman to a degree relishes it – it’s his chosen modus operandi. He doesn’t play well with others, and more and more the narratives that surround him suggest that he’s right not to, because they’re holding him back.
It’s not the only construction of Batman’s character by a long chalk, but it’s a common one. It’s so common, I think, because it speaks to elements of the demographic DC are attempting to chase, and it’s the element that translates well into that version of adolescent angst and persecution complex. Batman as a two-fisted Holden Caulfield.
It’s a notable aside, by the way, that this is particularly true of Batman, who exists in a bubble of rarified privilege – a straight, white, physically perfect, genius billionaire tough-guy. This is the guy who modern society most wants to embrace as a part of the community, the dominant paradigm of “people like us”. Bruce Wayne is effectively as far from an “outsider” as one can really be – which is probably why his “alienation” narratives are so easily appropriated by privileged people who still want to feel like their anger and difficulty with isolation is justified; an audience crying out that despite all these advantages they have it worse off than anyone knows.
This is the narrative of “the badass antihero”, a dominant cultural icon I’m sure I don’t need to analyse or explain. Badassery tends to be a function of being capable of “playing by your own rules”, walking away from the conventions that restrain you from being all you can be. That’s the fantasy – that you could take all comers, and march your own route without people being able to stop you.
Although I’ve spoken about this as an adolescent fantasy (particularly a male adolescent fantasy, and particularly still a privileged male adolescent fantasy), it’s not the only walk of life it translates to. Particularly following the path of DC’s assumed secondary demographic – men between 30 and 50, say, they’re also a demographic who are attracted to the narratives of how they’re being unfairly oppressed by strictures, and how “badasses” break out of them. Call it the Breaking Bad effect, men restricted and feeling isolated by economic pressures, unfeeling bosses, an uncertain world, and the sense that they don’t have the opportunities that their parents had.
None of this is to say, by the way, that these are bad metaphors, or wrong topics to analyse – I love Batman (though I prefer him less like this, which he often is) and Breaking Bad was great. I do, however, think that because of the culture of privilege with which the idea of this coveted outsider status often interrelates, and because of the reprehensible behaviours it can be used to justify (particularly towards the genuinely disenfranchised), it needs to be analysed, and not uncritically presented as a heroic narrative.
It also doesn’t work at all when transposed to Superman. Superman, unlike Batman, is not motivated by a sense of alienation. It’s antithetical to almost everything about the character – because unlike Batman he has every reason to be alienated and manages to overcome it. A literal alien, he nevertheless ends up with two sets of parents, a best friend, a devoted girlfriend/spouse, a set of allies and friends who respect and love him and a community that embraces him. Superman has the power to do anything, and nobody to defy. There are tyrants and villains for him to fight, absolutely, and in some stories they seem to be winning, but fundamentally, his core narrative is about how people will embrace you, if you give them the chance, and if you care about them back.
Batman’s afraid. This isn’t particularly deep analysis, it comes up all the time. He’s afraid, and he uses his fear to drive him to make a world he finds less scary. The shadowy forces of nameless crime, twisted monster criminals determined to commit atrocities, allies more powerful than you who you can’t really trust: the Other, who might be plotting against you. Superman, on the other hand, has no reason to be afraid. To borrow from Grant Morrison’s commentary about All-Star Superman:
“He wouldn’t puff out his chest or posture heroically, he would be totally chilled. If nothing can hurt you, you can afford to be cool. A man like Superman would never have to tense against the cold; never have to flinch in the face of a blow. He would be completely laid back, un-tense. With this image of Superman relaxing on a cloud looking out for us all in my head, I rushed back to my hotel room and filled dozens of pages of my notebook with notes and drawings.”
Superman doesn’t need to be afraid, to put up walls, to go it alone. Superman isn’t being pushed aside by necessity, it’s his whole goal to draw people close to him – and the narrative reinforces that this is a rewarding experience. That’s part of what makes him do things like ask people to stop fighting him all the time – because he’s had an opportunity to consider that care and co-operation is what gives you the best outcome. He’s not afraid of weakness, so he can afford to care about and trust people. He can be open without being vulnerable, because he’s invulnerable.
And openness is antithetical to the anti-hero narrative, because the anti-hero narrative presupposes that people are out to get you. It plays into your sense of being wronged, so you can feel justified about it. Perhaps the best thing about Superman is he’s genuinely above that impulse, which is pretty unworthy, when you think about it.
Unless you change him. You make a world that hates and fears Superman, that scrawls “false god” on his statues, that hunts him down with secret government projects. You isolate him by making him an “unwilling killer”. You make him scowl, and you put blood beneath him, suggesting that he’s keeping people out, in anticipation of the next violent confrontation. Suddenly, it’s about “badassery” again – Superman may be hated and feared, but he’s going to do things his own way, damn the detractors, who just don’t understand him.
He’s gone across to the demographic I was talking about before, because he doesn’t challenge their sense of isolation, he reinforces it. He’s trying to make them buy Superman comics, and (from a financial perspective, more importantly) see Superman movies, because he’s telling a subcategory of alienated young men that they’re right to feel alienated, that the best heroes are persecuted.
The tragedy, of course, is that this is a pretty terrible idea. For three reasons:
1) Because it’s going to reinforce a “heroic” narrative that rejects co-operation and understanding in favour of apex predator competitiveness and resentment.
2) Because – and this is important – it’s going to create a message that the most privileged group (Superman’s a white straight American male, remember) is the one who is the most persecuted. Note that, in so far as we see superheroes of colour on the big screen (noted exception of Blade but that’s nearly 20 years ago now in his first incarnation) they’re fundamentally well-integrated co-operative types – Anthony Mackie’s easy-going, community spirited VA counselor Falcon, and Terence Howard/Don Cheadle’s decorated and establishment War Machine – they’re not complaining about how they’ve got the short end of the stick. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is allowed a degree of angst and inner turmoil (to the credit of the character) but note how it is all couched in a narrative of atonement – when Black Widow went it alone, she was a “monster”, and she’s trying to make up for that by becoming part of a community; the same goes for Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, in ways I won’t detail because Age of Ultron is just out. The exception to this is Jennifer Lawrence’s excellent Mystique, who in the for some reason glossed-over Days of Future Past is allowed to walk her own path as an actualised person despite the “handicap” of being a woman (though the X-Men are always a special case).
3) Because it’s been pretty much proven to be wholly ineffectual. Man of Steel made money, and in many ways wasn’t a bad movie (there’s a lot of good in there, which I’m willing to discuss another time), but it didn’t do Marvel business really, nor draw anywhere near as much affection from the broader audience or critics (though there are vocal defenders, who, interestingly enough from a wholly unscientific observer analysis seem to group in the demographic who enjoy “badass antiheroes). The aggregating complaint over time? Not necessarily that it was “too dark” (although that’s common) but that it’s joyless. This feeling of joylessness doesn’t come from the disaster or the stakes (no-one says that about the full scale alien invasion in The Avengers or the fact that the American government is planning to kill everybody in Winter Soldier), or even the civilian casualties (which are played sadly more as a non-entity than a plot point) but because the narrative is an isolating one. The Marvel movies have successfully perfected, at the least, one formula – ostensibly isolated characters coming together, co-operating and letting other people in. The wildly popular Guardians of the Galaxy ended with our ragtag hero team literally joining hands and winning with the power of love. There are tensions in letting other people in, but the Marvel movie universe also posits distinct rewards, and the audiences respond. While it doesn’t always hit the mark, the MCU at least, I would say, generally tries to be an inclusive one, rather than an exclusive one. It’s exclusionary elements seem to be bugs, not features. This might be why the Marvel movies seem to be more popular with a more diverse movie-going audience.
It’s no coincidence that DC chose Zack Snyder as their centrepiece director, and the blame can’t be laid at his feet, because this is the man who made a version of Watchmen that pretty clearly posited Rorschach as the hero of the piece and Warners knew what they were getting when they hired him. The manner in which the direction of DC has refocused implies a degree of line-wide refocusing on “badass rebels”: look at the concept art of the DC Cinematic Wonder Woman, scowl and sword aloft in grimy armor, ready to fight all comers. No open-handed diplomat there. (Big aside: They’ve done this for Aquaman too, but he’s actually a perfect character to do it with, so I have less qualms about it – Aquaman’s narrative is that of an outsider, and he has the 21st century Western World pretty much constantly fucking up his protectorate, mixed with the responsibility of being a sole and absolute ruler – he is alienated and has reasons to be angry, plus by virtue of standing for the environment and by casting a person of colour, they change the goalpost of what being a rebellious outsider means. I actually dig this construction a fair bit – pending script).
They’re trying to get lightning to strike twice (or more, remember how many Batbooks we ended up after the launch of the New 52?), but the problem is they kill the distinctiveness and interest of their universe by doing so, and more, that this is unlikely to be out of a great artistic fidelity to the cynical, but out of a cynical cash-grab itself. It’s using cynicism for cynical ends, and it’s scaring the fearful, Othering the Othered, and alienating the alienated to do so. That’s pretty much the antithesis of everything Superman stands for.