Sunday, 22 May 2016

Once and Future Superheroes

First of all, you like superheroes.

Sure, you think you’re above that sort of thing. You picture muscle-bound men in Mardis Gras outfits, floating through air shooting eye lasers, fighting people with names like Doctor Atrocity and making little “BLAMMO!” signs when they punch. And yeah, that can happen.  

Here’s the thing, though: As long as humans have existed, we have told legends of people with super-human abilities, and delighted in stories of how they faced danger and out-fought or out-witted enemies. Gilgamesh for the Sumerians, Odysseus and Jason for the Greeks, Samson for the Hebrews, Beowulf for the Saxons – ancient scriptures, barbarian sagas and oral traditions swell with superheroes. In a more modern era the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, Paul Bunyan, the Lone Ranger, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes are all basically super-heroes, doing things real people can’t do. Every culture has stories like this; our forebears told them around campfires or mead-halls, 20th-century kids read them in comic books.

By the end of the century, moreover, comic books had grown up with their audiences, until series like Sandman or Watchmen won literature awards competing against regular fiction. Moving to the silver screen, though, proved a delicate business; men in fluorescent tights look better on newsprint than on a five-metre-tall screen, and the countercultural types in Hollywood weren’t keen on Captain America’s values anyway. The last few decades left a long string of embarrassing failures, painfully campy or painfully dark.

In this century, though, the superhero genre took over Hollywood as thoroughly as musicals and westerns once did, and pitched to adults as much as children. Literally fleshing out a two-dimensional hero, though, means keeping the basic traits and the broad strokes of the mythology, while distilling decades of character development down to a few hours. Do it badly and you keep the juvenile tone and just make it boring or violent. To see both of these choices in action, you can see this spring’s two competing blockbusters, Captain America: Civil War and Superman vs. Batman.

The films came from each of the two rival comic-book franchises that dominated the industry since the Great Depression, DC and Marvel. Both pit two of their central heroes against each other – one a patriotically-coloured, super-powered, idealistic hero from the World War II era (Superman, Captain America), the other a genius playboy billionaire who invents a techno-suit in his cave (Batman, Iron Man). Both sets of characters are orphans in fights that involve their dead parents, both involve superheroes giving testimony to government committees, and both involve ordinary humans who became collateral damage in superhero fights in previous movies now plotting revenge.

More importantly, both films deal – or in Superman/Batman’s case, pretend to deal – with the thoughtful questions that must be answered in any modern, grown-up treatment of superheroes. If we learned that demigods hid in disguise among us, how would that change us? Would we regard them as celebrities? Would we fear them as aliens infiltrating the human race – which, to be fair, Superman is? Would they become the new nuclear weapons, and tip the global balance of power?

More importantly, any one super-battle destroys far more than the September 11 attacks did; how would that change us? Superheroes break laws all the time, from New York’s anti-mask laws to international treaties – to whom do they answer? If they answer to no one, and have power over all of us, how do they represent freedom and democracy? On the other hand, should they answer to governments that we don’t trust ourselves?  Americans increasingly have a problem with the behaviour of regular, non-super-powered police officers, who don’t fire lasers from their eyes.

These questions could launch a great story, in which the moral dilemmas allow decent people with the best intentions to take opposite sides. None of it works, though, unless the superheroes are, on some level, decent people. Both films promised; one delivered. 

Superman/Batman failed with critics and audiences, seeing its mammoth opening weekend collapse after word got out. Much has been made of the lava-pit colour scheme, the incomprehensible plot, Jesse Eisenberg’s grating performance, and director Zac Snyder’s slow-motion action scenes – but a uniformly mediocre film would not have angered audiences as much. This film upset fans because, like Snyder’s Superman reboot Man of Steel, it had a few promising moments early on, only to squander their potential later. 

Man of Steel’s hopeful early moments dealt with a young Clark Kent, discovering as a child that he could see people’s skeletons, or a young Superman just learning to fly. Few premises are as reliably engrossing as a regular kid realising he’s special and having to hide it, as fans of Harry Potter and a million other young-adult books can attest. It also makes a character sympathetic and relatable, particularly vital when portraying a laser-eyed alien.  

Unfortunately, the movie soon descends into giant action sequences that seem to obliterate most of a city, like Superman causing Nagasaki. With its tin ear for humanity, the film treats the end as a happy, romantic embrace between Superman and Lois Lane, apparently unconcerned with the thousands of corpses all around them.  

In the same way, Superman/Batman begins brilliantly, seemingly correcting Man of Steel’s mistakes by showing that same destruction from the perspective of the victims – including Bruce Wayne, running in civilian guise into the disaster to rescue his employees. It gives us something superhero movies have long needed: actual people, not just pointing at the sky and waiting to be saved, but acting to save each other when their ordinary day turns tragic. Yet this, too, quickly falls by the wayside as Snyder’s heroes stop acting heroic, or even sane, after the first few scenes. 

As directors accumulate a filmography, quirks that we forgave in isolation look uglier when exposed as part of a pattern. Woody Allen looked brilliant as the director of Annie Hall, but after thirty movies about neurotic upper-class intellectuals having affairs with younger women in a bizarrely white city, it started to feel creepy. Tim Burton seemed refreshing when he made Beetlejuice, but not after a quarter-century of unnecessarily grotesque films masking thin, inconsequential stories. 

Likewise, Zac Snyder’s heroes look awesome – literally -- on screen-savers and trailers; they come back-lit by halos and spotlights, their violence captured in sensuous detail, not so much filmed as uploaded in computer-generated glory. When they fly, they hurtle through the clouds; when they punch, their fists appear solid as marble, and when they land the shock wave obliterates neighbourhoods.    

But in what sense are any of his heroes … heroic? The Spartans in 300 kill their handicapped babies, but audiences rationalised that as historical accuracy -- even in a film where the Persian army had mutant troll-monsters. The two-fisted protagonists of Sin City and Watchmen largely failed to save anyone, although we could write that off as a “deconstruction of the superhero mythos” or some other English-major phrase. Pa Kent in Man of Steel scolds his teenaged son from rescuing his drowning classmates, but we told ourselves that was simply a creative step away from the cliché of the angelic dead parents. 

This film, though, is the last straw. Snyder’s Batman brands the flesh of criminals with a hot iron, which we’re told condemns them to be killed by other prisoners when incarcerated. It’s a bizarrely sadistic detail for a character defined by his unwillingness to carry a gun or kill, and just raises more questions -- Why would being branded by Batman mean death from other inmates? What difference is there between shooting someone and condemning them to death? How did he suddenly get a hot iron? Then again, this Batman carries a gun and kills people, so perhaps torture is not too much a stretch for him. Ben Affleck turns in a decent performance; the trouble is the script, which puts an actor in the costume and has them act like some other character than Batman.

Superman receives even more disservice. Let’s be blunt: there has never been an interesting story about Superman. Any interesting story is about Clark Kent. He has the power to leave his office job, punish his bullies, and earn the adulation of billions – and every day he must say no. He is Jesus forever tempted by Satan, each moment refusing to turn the stones to bread. He must endure casual disrespect from the woman he loves, knowing secretly that he is the man she loves. That makes for an interesting and sympathetic character, in a way that a man in underwear throwing giant things is not.   

Here, though, the one relatable aspect of Superman’s character is removed; Lois knows he’s Clark Kent from the beginning. They whisper a few Meaningful Conversations, but she has nothing interesting to say; she exists to be rescued as much as Lois did in the 1950s children’s show, but that Lois came across as an intelligent professional with a personality.

The basic conflict, and Batman’s armour for it, seem modelled after Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series, which helped redefine comic books and superheroes into their modern incarnation. At the end of Miller’s series, Batman fights Superman for logical reasons – he is an anti-hero fighting crime outside the law, whereas Superman works for the government, and is sent to bring him in.

That’s the very premise of Civil War, and would have made sense for these characters. Instead, they went with a baffling plot full of loose ends and nonsensical developments. Superman is being framed for murder, and the public thinks he shot people … with a gun, even though he’s Superman. When a building is destroyed by a bomb, people believe Superman did it …. with a bomb. When he’s Superman.

Most dispiriting, though, are the scenes with Superman’s parents, when his father (dead, in a dream) implies that there’s no point in helping people, and his mother (alive), tells him that “you don’t owe this world a thing.” If this guy doesn’t feel obligated to help anyone, in what way is he Superman? Comic books already have other costumed, super-powered characters who feel unconstrained by civic duty – they are called villains.

 Of course, the last few decades have seen a darkening of most film protagonists into joyless and amoral anti-heroes, and this just gives bus-throwing protagonists the same treatment. A humanoid alien throwing a bus into the air, that we accept readily – but to have a hero that’s a dutiful, well-adjusted person? That’s too unrealistic for many filmmakers these days.  

In a strange way, Zac Snyder’s films are starting to remind me of the Left Behind books, that wildly popular series in which a group of ostensible Christians ostensibly fight the Antichrist. The Left Behind authors gush over their characters, describing them as Tribulation Saints fighting for God against Evil in the End Times -- but in fact, the characters just come across as Colossal Jerks, disregarding other Human Beings and thinking only of Themselves during Actual Tragedies. They are saints in name, but never show compassion, nobility or even responsibility … kind of like Snyder’s superheroes.

If you want to know how to handle the same premise and issues well, you can look to Marvel’s Civil War film. Marvel did superhero movies intelligently, spending a decade building a world one hero at a time -- Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and finally combining them in The Avengers. Each film built on the last, not just in their trademark teasers and after-credit “cookies” but with genuine character development.  They recruited Shakespearean actors and comedians more than movie stars, people who could take goofy comic-book premises and imbue them with the proper gravitas or cheerful humour.  Most importantly, their films were funny without being silly, dramatic without being dour, and never forgot to have fun.

Thus, this film feels inevitable, as characters who began a journey several films ago have reached a logical conclusion. The mercurial Tony Stark, having spent much of his life irresponsible hedonist, is now burdened by his near-death and the deaths of others he caused in previous movies. Desperate to assuage his guilt, the former rogue commits himself to following the orders of a higher authority, even if it means turning on his colleagues. Captain America’s character arc has taken him on the opposite track; the quintessential patriot has seen his trust betrayed again and again in previous films, until he listens to no one but his own conscience. 

Other characters each rally behind the two leaders, each on their own journey. Most don’t get more than a few lines or camera shots, but we often don’t need a lot more; Spider-Man makes a brief appearance here, and the film gives him more character in his few minutes than Superman gets in Snyder’s two-and-a-half-hour film. Refreshingly, he looks and acts like a real teenager, unlike the 35-year-old bodybuilding models who usually play teenaged boys in American films, and the filmmakers had the intelligence to skip the origin story. He’s Spider-Man; we know who he is.

Most of all, Civil War has the courage to end on a note of tragedy, without the usual neat resolutions. As Norse epics did, it sets up a conflict between loyalties, in which good people betray one oath to keep another, and live with the consequences. Within the confines of a fun summer action movie, it shows its heroes as people – flawed, stubborn and conflicted – yet essentially good-hearted, taking responsibility for their actions, and striving to become better. About time; this is what superheroes were for in the first place.

All human cultures have had superhero tales, and when cultures are at their peak, they write about the heroic ideals to which they strive, as Sophocles did of Ajax or as Vergil did of Aeneas. During the Depression and World War II, the USA’s peak of power and conflict, it began creating superheroes, an image of what we would like to be.

When societies abandon that heroic ideal, when they acquire the “philosophic indifference” of Gibbon’s latter-day Romans, the culture is in deep trouble. As our country slipped away from the post-war glow into an era of escalating hedonism, it abandoned superheroes save as pablum for children.
Yet Generation X-ers and Millennials, children of the counterculture, embraced them even into adulthood, perhaps desperate for the heroes their culture no longer provided. In this century, as the nation grows ever more troubled, we are turning back to stories that give us heroes to believe in – a sign that there is hope for us.

Top: "Cú Chulainn Riding His Chariot into Battle" by J. C. Leyendecker, in T. W. Rolleston's Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911. 

Bottom: George Reeves as Superman in the U.S. government film "Stamp Day for Superman."

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