Who is Superman?
That question is ultimately at the heart of much criticism towards this year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the earlier Man of Steel; those two movies present a very specific take on DC Entertainment’s iconic hero, one that’s been described by those critical of the portrayal as being too dark. Unsurprisingly, Deborah Snyder — executive producer on both movies and wife of director Zack Snyder — doesn’t agree, but her reasoning might be more unexpected.
“He is more relatable,” she told Forbes when asked about fan response to actor Henry Cavill’s Superman. “Someone said, ‘It’s so dark,’ and I go, ‘Well, is it dark? He’s going through real problems that we go through as people every day.’ To me, that’s not dark, that’s life. We’re complicated people. And we’re making him in that way more relatable.”
Snyder continued: “People are complex, we’re not strictly just the good Boy Scout trying to do good. He does want to do good, and I think all of the things Superman represents are who he is, but he also stumbles along the way and learns from it. To me, that’s so much more interesting.”
As a long-term Superman fan — I have, I confess, been buying Superman comics on-and-off-but-mostly-on for 30 years this year; I was that kid lured in by rebooting the character in 1986 — I feel conflicted about what Snyder is saying here. On the one hand, she’s right: A conflicted, imperfect Superman is a more interesting character. That feels like a no-brainer to me; a perfect character generates no inner conflict, so, of course, it follows that a Superman who stumbles has more internal story potential. But then again … isn’t Superman going through “real problems” missing the point of Superman?
One of my favorite eras of Superman in the comic books is the late 1950s/early 1960s. In those days, Superman was intended to be a perfect character — despite harboring some very creepy attitudes towards pranking his friends to “teach them a lesson,” Lois Lane in particular — but it worked, because the story engine was built in such a way that the stories were never actually about Superman: “His” problems were all external, with the paternal Man of Steel spending each story helping others find the solution to their problems, some sense of closure or a transformative experience.
But even those problems (as close to “real” problems as the genre got at the time) were handled in a way that underscored the fantastical — and, ultimately, optimistic — nature of the genre itself. Financial problems or personal problems would be fixed with the assistance of aliens, or magical beings, or trips through time. And the problems, importantly, always had a fix; there were no explosions of courtrooms where Superman was on trial for endangering civilians, nor rampaging monsters who could only be stopped with Superman’s death. Everything had a solution, and everything ended happily ever after. These were modern fairy tales, more or less.
There’s something in the idea of Superman “going though real problems that we go through as people every day” that feels misguided to me, in light of this fairy tale past. Superman is, very purposefully, not a realistic character. For some reason, those who want to see him deal with realistic problems and self-doubt can accept that he’s an alien from another planet who can do impossible things, but find the idea that he can have a moral code stronger than regular people’s, or somehow finds a way to solve every problem and save everyone, too ridiculous for words. It’s a selective cognitive dissonance that is, at its heart, inexplicable: Why is one fantasy more believable than the other?
I actually really like Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, despite my fondness for a “perfect” Superman, in part because I can separate myself from “my” Superman to see the potential in the Snyder take. But I also see the events of those two movies as building towards a Superman I recognize as somewhat close to my own, however slowly it happens: one who believes that he can transcend everyday problems and inspire others in the process. If producers are hoping to keep Superman flawed throughout his entire movie career, I can imagine myself losing interest — after all, what kind of character learns nothing across however many movies he’ll appear in? — and wouldn’t be surprised if others find their own interest waning as well.
It’s a good thing to want to make Superman relatable, especially in his earliest appearances in the new movie universe, but he’s meant for better things ultimately. There’s a reason people know the phrase “Look, up in the sky!” after all — Superman is meant to be the superhero who we look up to, no matter what incarnation you’re used to. He’s relatable, not because he shares our problems, but because he’s the person we want to be, deep down.
Well, unless you’re Bruce Wayne, of course.