In which I make a brief foray into moral philosophy and mock the state of Kansas
"Science? Huh. I think I've heard of that."
One of the big events at San Diego Comic Con was the newest footage from Batman v. Superman. With it came lots of speculation about the film (which I don't care about) and some interesting reflection on the characters (which I do). The one I saw bouncing around Twitter came from Joshua Rivera at Business Insider. Rivera says Zack Snyder and company have missed the point of Superman.
There are two popular explanations for why Superman can't succeed in modern movies: 1. He's too powerful; and 2. He's not interesting, because he's just a big ol' goodie two-shoes.
This is a pretty good summation of my own view, not of Superman as a character but of the stories writers tend to want to tell about him. Bo-ring.
People are often skeptical that a Superman movie can be good because stories need conflict, and conflict seems pretty hard to come by when your hero is a person who always does the right thing and can't be hurt. That, however, is a reductive way of looking at the character and the secret to why Superman stories are so great: They're never really about him. They're about us.
This last point is the really important one, and it's one I wish more people would notice. The thing is, it’s not unique to Superman. All good superhero stories are really about us. They’re about what we would do if we were given the same power. That’s why Peter Parker gets bullied, why Bruce Wayne loses his parents, and why Steve Rogers is frail. It’s why one of the major tropes is that the heroes get their powers because of a freak accident. Their powers are actually injuries. These heroes suffer from problems that could happen to any one of us, and have happened to many of us.
Superman is actually one of few exceptions to that rule. Most of the best-known heroes are victims of injustice, cruelty, and bad luck. The fact that they rise above it is what makes them heroic. They do what we hope we can do ourselves.
So here’s Rivera again:
Superman isn't good or special because he's an alien who crashes on Earth and ends up being incredibly powerful. He's special because after all that* he becomes someone who always does the right thing because he was raised by a couple of decent people from Kansas. That's it.
Okay, let's examine what follows from that. Superman is special because he could be the bully but he chooses not to be. He’s special in the way a kindergarten teacher is special for not beating up all the children, despite the fact that she’s vastly more powerful than they are in every respect.
Dude, if this is your super power, I’m not interested.
I have a Lex Luthor story I’ll have to indulge in later, but for now I’ll stay on message. Rivera says, ““To make a good Superman story, you have to embrace a few unpopular notions about what makes good superhero stories,” the most important of which is that you don’t have to get dark and gritty like Batman; “fighting for good because it's the right thing to do is a compelling enough reason.”
This is almost true, but I think the most important point is missing. The only interesting stories you can tell about Superman are the moral quandaries. The 1978 film Superman is the perfect case in point. Lex Luthor fires nuclear missiles at both coasts. Superman wants to save Lois Lane in California, but he made a promise to stop the missile aimed at New Jersey first. A tough moral choice.
Compare that to 2013’s Man of Steel. General Zod wants to destroy all life on Earth, and the only solution Superman can think of is to beat the bejeezus out of him. I thought the solution was obvious: “Hey, Zod, I love the idea of bringing our people back from beyond the brink of destruction. Count me in. The thing is, Mars is right next door. Let’s rebuild Krypton there, where we won’t have to kill anyone.”
Why doesn’t Superman take the obvious nonviolent solution? The only reason I can think of is that he was raised in Kansas, where the state Board of Education has rendered the science curriculum so anemic that Clark Kent was never taught that Mars exists.
Here’s the upshot: fighting for good because it's the right thing to do is not compelling enough to give us a decent story. There's a long-standing rule in moral philosophy (attributed to Immanuel Kant, if you want to know) that says "ought implies can." If it's ever the case that you ought to do X, it must be the case that you're capable of doing X. And if Superman can do almost anything, the question of ought is the only one worth answering.