Thursday, March 7, 2024

Superman 2025: Climbing the Story Mountain and the Soft Application of Dunning-Kruger

You can follow along with this series under the label for Superman2025, a series of posts leading up to the release of WB's new movie in 2025.  All Superman posts since the start of this blog can be found under the Superman label.

With James Gunn's recent social media posts about the start of principle photography on Superman (2025), we now enter into one of the curious aspects of Superman as a character and property:

Everyone has an opinion

Folks have ideas about what the movie should and should not be.  They have bold ideas that haven't been tried before.  They have ideas about period settings, and what would *finally* make Superman click with a wide audience.  They have opinions about why Superman doesn't work for them, but *could* if they just did X.  Folks demand they not do an origin.  Or, they demand Superman dies.  And so on and so forth.

There are the occasional think-pieces and social-media threads arriving in various levels of provocativeness and consideration.  These are usually more focused on the characterization and actually worth glancing at as the writer is often someone working through a thought experiment of the challenge of writing for a guy who can bend steel with his pinky finger and melt a tank with a hard stare.  

One such thought-exercise which made the rounds this week was from writer Michael Chabon.

The ideas thrown out there by social media users and the deeper thinking is welcome.  It's engagement.  It's people with feelings about one of the original superheroes and an American icon.  It's sometimes quality writers pondering the challenges of writing for a character who has been around since 1938 and which seems stuck in place - and so we want to throw an idea or three out there.

It's nice that we *want* to like Superman, and we are being helpful.

I'd say the primary issue with 95% of these takes, including from well-meaning writers, is that we think of Superman a bit like we think of Santa Claus.  We know some basics (and both live at the North Pole!) and maybe we know a tad more lore around the character because we pay attention to trivia or retain knowledge from movies we saw or a comic or three we read in the 1980s.  

But for the most part, like Santa, we can take Superman for granted.  We get his basic deal.  He wears a certain costume, he shows up when there's trouble, he has a whole bunch of powers.  But we also know, like we know about Santa, he's a nice guy.  (Conversely, Batman isn't a nice guy, and that makes him *cooler*.)  

What else is there?*

Chabon's thread is noteworthy, because I - and I assume most long-standing Superman followers - would nod along in agreement.  I think he captured a lot of the recognizable challenges and some pitfalls for someone approaching the character.  He digs into what may be the important thing(s) to focus on, and what resonates.

But I'd also say:  we know.  

For folks who've been hanging around as Superman fans for a while, what Chabon puts down in his thread is great, but we also know it's not for us.  We're well aware of the challenges he lays out, and we're also aware of the conclusions he comes to.  And it's lovely to see him get there.  All of us went on that journey at some point as well.

If Chabon and others take folks along the way and help set the table, groovy!

For the folks who pitch story ideas - when they seem to basically get who and what Superman is - most of the ideas thrown out there are well-covered.    

Over 85 years of Superman, we've seen him age.  We've seen him die multiple times.  We've seen him tutor new superheroes.  We've seen him crosswise with the law and governments and policy.  Some of the stories have happened just in the comics, and so I get that people haven't read them.  Others have happened (or are currently happening) on television, or at the movies.  And that's... fine.  But don't get your feelings hurt when you're told "that is literally the plot of the current and pretty-good show currently running on the CW.  Check local listings."

But I can also say, when you point this out, I do not believe literally anyone has ever said "oh, then I will check that out".  

What I do think the exercise demonstrates, beyond a general desire to get right with Superman by many people, is that it defies the notion that there are no stories to tell with Superman.  People with minimal insight into the character can cook up a story they see as viable.  They can maybe put together a whole plot, if pushed.  

I'd seen a post from Reddit (I won't link to) that a controversial opinion on Superman was "it's not a fantasy about power, it's a fantasy about using power for good", and folks were falling over themselves about how great this notion was.  And it is!  But, man, the impact of some bad decisions made in comics and movies over the years became abundantly clear.  

We've had multiple movies, years of comics, TV shows - live and animated - and this is *still* an idea people find startling.  Which tells me that maybe that at least the version of Superman that's reaching people isn't telling the story that's the point of Superman.  And. y'all, that was *obvious* from Action Comics #1.  

In the first issue, he's stopping abusers, stopping executions of innocent men, he's stopping Lois from a kidnapping...  The point is that he can do things and mortal man can't seem to slow him down, and he's doing it to *help*.  Lois Lane exists in our earliest appearances to bear witness to and report to the public that this impossible man is somehow even more impossible than he seems.  As Ms. Tessmacher might observe, "he's too good to be true!"

And, yet, this is who the character is.  If you think, "well, gee, it's not always clear what the right thing to do might be..."  Congratulations!  You've found the essence of Superman as she's been portrayed for decades.  From that stance, you can tell a million stories.  

Hilariously, Chabon - in describing the character is bringing to light the thing that makes Superman fans irritating.  We don't mind being the guy in the office you can ask about Superman trivia, but will respond to what the asker believes to be an easy question with "how much time do you have?", which is probably how most normies experience our awareness of Superman's IRL multiversal existence across all these media.

I also don't want to go too hard on anyone who goes on this journey, because - starting in the 1990's, it became *very* popular for various outlets to publish think pieces on why Batman is great (anti-hero!  complex!  morally challenged!) and used Superman as a straw man for what sucks about superheroes and why Batman is *better*.   The picture drawn of Superman was sketched from half-remembered bits of a movie - that was well-aware of what it was doing (though the kids watching it might have missed that).  It was the Superman known via birthday party plates and balloons, from snippets seen here and there over the years.  But not so much from any place of knowledge.

The seeming endless stream of these think-pieces (which friends would email me when people did that) had the cumulative effect of flattening the character in the minds of many, and driving to an agreement in the zeigeist of what Superman shouldn't be.  And I think that wound up informing a lot of what happened with the DCEU version of Superman.

It's a journey up a mountain.  

I'm not suggesting everyone need read every Superman comic - because I can hear you whining even now!  But recognize that there is a history, and it didn't start in 2013.  Or 1978.   Legions have worked on Superman.  100's of millions of people have enjoyed the character.  It's okay not to know something.  And having strong feelings on the one thing you saw is great.  But I'd also ask you ponder - maybe that's not the full picture?

Comics are written and drawn and edited by teams, and Superman generally has at least two ongoing series at any given time (Action Comics and Superman), plus other, supplementary mini-series.  He's in Justice League sometimes.  He guest appears in any title in the DC Universe.  According to Comic Vine, he's appeared in almost 19,000 comics.  He's been in novels, a daily newspaper strip, a very long-running radio show, multiple TV series (Adventures of Superman, Superboy, Lois & Clark, Smallville, Superman and Lois), multiple cartoon series, multiple movie series...  you get the idea.  Hundreds of people have written Superman.  Armies have filmed him.  Innumerable people have played him on screen and given him a voice.  

Knowing Superman from those birthday plates and references from a Spin Doctor's record may not be giving one the full picture.

Coming to the *point*, that at it's core, the concept of Superman has always been about selflessness and the wonder of power used for the benefit of others, is something we get as kids.  We forget it as adolescents and, as teens, reject the idea of a selfless hero who doesn't clobber people because he can.  As young adults we see it altruism as naive, or the notion someone couldn't be corrupted as *impossible*.  

And then there's the moment of realization that what we started with was right all along.  What makes Superman fascinating is that the same version we had of him in our heads as kids is the one that works best for us once we've passed through the tactical advantage fantasy heroes, or the edge lord heroes.  What we're left with is:  what does it mean to be try to be good in a world not bent toward goodness.  And what would you use that power for if you could?

How this Superman will reflect the core of the character will be the trick.  But it doesn't hurt that Gunn seems to know his comics, his Superman, and - in fact - what may have been missed in recent big screen adaptations, that maybe didn't bother to dig deeper than where one winds up as that surly teen or cynical 20 year old.  It's possible that the knowledge had by those filmmakers wasn't enough to lead them the right direction, and certainly the studio execs were in the same boat.

I have no idea what the new Superman film will be about.  There's a hint or two, and I could be right.  Or I could be totally wrong.  What I hope for is that the folks behind this film, have climbed this particular mountain already - and early indications suggest that they have.  Gunn is signaling with selection of some "inspirations" from the comics where he's headed.  

*I'm no Santa nerd, but I think we can all say "actually, there's a 1000 years of history there and multiple traditions, as well as the American commercialized version..."  Yeah, I know.  And that's the point!


Stuart said...

"Oh, then I will check that out!"

Anonymous said...

Personally, but think any writer, producer, etc., who approaches Superman as a character to “fix” is already heading in the wrong direction. You’re right that people picked up the idea that being good is lame and boring, which would make Superman as lame and boring as you could get. But again, that’s missing the point. Being an asshole, being mean and selfish and “edgy” is easy. Being a decent person is HARD. It’s a constant struggle, in small and big ways, and I can only imagine how much more exhausting it would be if I also had the ability to flick someone’s head off. But Superman DOESN’T. And he doesn’t want to. That’s what makes him interesting. He has this incredible privilege and he uses it in service to others. If someone can’t understand that, or thinks that’s somehow naive, they should really take a long look in the mirror.

Maxo said...

Oops, that was me leaving that comment!