Austin Superhero Experts Check In on 'Man of Steel'

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By Nico Chapin

In Bryan Singer's 2006 film Superman Returns, Lois Lane won a Pulitzer for an article entitled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." With Zack Snyder's reboot, Man of Steel, which opened last Friday, it becomes an interesting question. Since 2006, audiences have seen the Avengers assemble and the Dark Knight fall, then rise. They've watched the Spider-Man trilogy completed and then rebooted, and movies like Green Lantern fail to take flight. One then has to wonder: Is there any place left for the original superhero?

Certainly there's no denying his historical importance. Gesturing at walls lined with stacks of comics, Eric Burke, co-owner of South Austin's Tribe Comics and Games put it simply: "Without Superman, there wouldn't be any of this."

Yet it's been seven years now since the movie Superman Returns came out and by then, 19 years had passed since the dismal Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Meanwhile, since DC rebooted their comic line in The New 52, Superman has seen its sales drop from 118,376 when it debuted in September 2011, to just 52,572 this past November, and Superman Returns maintains a mediocre 72 on the online score aggregate Metacritic.

"Superman was the template for every superhero that came after, so every cliche of the superhero had its birth in the pages of Action Comics," says Austin writer John Gholson, who writes features about comic books and film for Movies.com.

One thing that could account for the character struggling to find footing in the 21st century is that Superman is simply dated. Action Comics #1 was published in 1938. Zack Carlson, Fantastic Fest programmer and line producer of Zero Charisma, said that at the time "people were feeling vulnerable and Superman offered a feeling of empowerment, that here was somebody that could take action and who was not powerless." Clark Kent is very much a product of the time he was created, complete with connotations of American jingoism and World War II era morals.

Simultaneously those qualities are inseparable from who Superman is. When I asked Brandon Zuern, store manager at Austin Books and Comics how he would describe the Last Son of Krypton, he paused, and then replied, "He is Truth, Justice, and the American way. Anything that shows him differently just isn't Superman."

However, those traits may be exactly what make the transition to film so difficult.

"Superman might be less popular today because we don't feel oppressed. We don't need to place our fantasies on the backs of the powerful," Carlson noted.

Gholson echoed the sentiment, explaining, "Superman is an unrelentingly optimistic character. This is what has given him his lengthy career, but it's also a thing that some people recoil against." In other words, it can be hard to tell a story when the main character is so good that they become unrelatable.

Even visually, there's a disconnect when it comes to the Man of Steel. The traditional costume, composed of primary colors that stand out so boldly on a printed page nevertheless approach kitsch on screen. Red, blue and yellow-- we rarely see such a combination in real life, and thus it makes the character harder to relate to outside the context of a cartoon or comic.

Local filmmaker Emily Hagins (My Sucky Teen Romance) had her own complaints about Superman's previous outing.

"My main problem with the film was a lack of heart [or] emotional connection with the characters, and without that investment it became an unmemorable movie for me," she explained. Which makes sense. It's incredibly difficult to portray a character who is seemingly invincible while also making them vulnerable enough for the audience to empathize with. In the videogame for Superman Returns, the city of Metropolis had a health bar instead of Superman. This provided the developers the sole avenue towards a true "Game Over," at least in the context of the game, and goes to exemplify problems such a powerful character can raise.

But difficult does not mean impossible, and just because somebody is physically invulnerable does not mean they cannot be a compelling character.

"Superman still has human emotions, which can be hurt to great effect, and Superman's concern about keeping others from being hurt provides a lot of great conflict, even when he's impervious himself," Gholson observed. A common reply when asked, "Is Superman is boring?" was that he's dull only in the wrong hands, and only in bad stories.

When I asked Burke why Superman's popularity may be flagging, he pointed out that "he's fast, strong, and can't be hurt, and that less-than-stellar writers might have trouble writing around that."

How do you take an invincible character and make them interesting? Or a property worth adapting at all (besides the money that superhero movies bring in)? Outside nostalgia or the debt that the comic industry owes Superman, in order to be taken seriously, Zack Snyder and Co. have to justify bringing him back to the screen.

To Burke, "part of the appeal comes from the fact that Superman is an everyday guy. His life is at odds with his powers." He explained to me that Superman is unearthly yet down to earth, and this is what made him so iconic.

Zuern echoed that sentiment, explaining that Superman is one of the best examples of us, even if he is not of us, that what makes him compelling is that he chooses to be human.

"Superman is isolated from his own culture, raised by humans but can't feel like one, can't get close to people because he is invincible and if he does they might get hurt," said Carlson, comparing Superman to Frankenstein. He added that Frankenstein's monster was rejected by society, but Superman is accepted by a people that at the same time are fundamentally different from him.

Recently in Geoff John's monthly Justice League, Superman is seen explaining to Wonder Woman the concept of a secret identity.

"I'd rather good people trust me than bad people fear me," he tells her. That is who Superman is: a character who despite recognizing that people are capable of bad can also have the capacity for so much more. He is a hero that by being truly good, despite how boring that may seem, hopes to bring out the best in people.

This is the standard that audiences should demand from Man of Steel, and not, as Hagins put it, most comic book movies' tendency to put "style over substance, and [use] surface level issues with two dimensional characters to speed up the plot to get to the action". Too often comic adaptations veer towards quick cash grabs (see Jonah Hex), as the characters they seek to portray are left merely to fill out computer generated set pieces. Superman, the original superhero, who is responsible for where comics are today, deserves better, and audiences deserve better too. The hope is that Man of Steel can capture the sense of the wonder that Superman, at least according to my dad who collected comics when he was a kid, used to inspire.

Despite the fact that Superman may be invulnerable and is, for all intents and purposes, a big blue Boy Scout, he is also an ideal to be looked up to, a source of good so sometimes when we get lost in a world of extraordinary renditions and wiretaps, of drone strikes and school shootings, we know that people are capable of so much more. In Man of Steel there is too much potential to be wasted on just another action movie. We already have G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Fast and Furious 6 for that.

Nico Chapin is an Austin Film Society intern.

I think the audience would disagree.

With earnings in its first week exceeding $140 million, I believe there is still a strong audience for Superman. Yes, Superman IV performed dismally. Dismal films bring dismal numbers. Comic fandom is definitely a performance driver on these films. The fans are the ones who rush to see a comic film early and often, and they spread the word, good or bad, to their friends and family. And Marvel has done a better job maintaining a stronger fan base than DC with comics that are, frankly, a lot sexier than most of DCs offerings. That is an area that is really difficult to write for Superman, the ideal image of 'wholesome'. You can't sex up the character without betraying the character. But Snyder and Cavill still managed to make an incredibly compelling, and sexy, version that perfectly embodies 'truth, justice, and the American way'.