Every era has some laughable, distinctive media trend. Some sort of idea that begs explanation when looked back upon. Now more than ever we can easily see how things have changed because film characters are constantly being reimagined through modern remakes, sequels, adaptations and even squeakquals. We don’t have to guess how Alvin and his fraternal chipmunk band would be created for modern audiences, because we, unfortunately, were given that vision.
The same figures and brands that were prominent 30 or 40 or 50 years ago are here now, and often barely recognizable. Some figures that seemed immutable are being changed in significant ways. Enter Superman.
However, to get to the star-spangled defender of truth, justice and the American way, I will start with his darkly-clad crime-fighting colleague. Did you know that Batman used to be campy and bombastic? Adam West would wear pajamas with little ears and his punches and kicks were marked with huge, colorful “Pows” and “Bams.” It was the nature of the time: kids watched Batman on television, so Batman was the unamiguously good comic book hero who put away bad guys and solved mysteries simple enough for the audience to follow. It leaves a lot to be desired, and when we look back it seems silly, but it simply reflects a particular style and at least it is a fun one.
Now, things have changed and Batman, along with so many other heroes, have become darker than their nemeses used to be. For Batman, it mostly works. His character thrives on moral ambiguity and he is meant to be dark and frightening. Give me Christian Bale as Batman over George Clooney any day.
Batman’s changes were part of a natural progression from the ridiculous. Comic books have evolved over time, and the serious-minded Dark Knight makes sense and works well. But these changes have consequences. Viewers claim to crave thematic complexity, which more often than not recently has manifested as angsty strong men beating each other up. This “darkness” is just as simplistic as the over-the-top shows from the 60s, but not nearly as entertaining to watch.
This is where the new Superman comes in. His transition to gray-palette, boring shlock has been quite jarring. Modern studio innovations may prevent you from believing this, but from his inception Superman was an interesting character. He is a near all-powerful alien who lands on Earth full of possibility to accomplish anything. He could have easily been a super weapon, but his adoptive parents make him human by instilling into him a code of ethics. Basic humanity culled his destructive potential and made him a functionally positive force. Even without the following 70 years of elaboration, Superman is a character complex through a deceptive simplicity.
Superman is such an iconic figure because his story and plight are so understandable. He simultaneously represents American exceptionalism and the inherent drawbacks to a law-based system. Superman could eviscerate Lex Luthor, but he doesn’t because his biggest conflict is not physical, but philosophical. Without a pained soliloquy or contrived explanation, audiences understand the character of Superman and are intrigued by him.
The reason I go into all of this is to demonstrate a contrast. When Superman cracked jokes with Jimmy Olsen at the Daily Planet before tossing a bad guy in jail and flying around Metropolis with Lois Lane, larger issues were still evident. It was the light-hearted element that made the dramatic more impactful, and made his character more interesting. Now, the feats of amazing ability are not spectacular or enjoyable, but necessary demonstrations of ability. Superman is no longer the well-meaning inspirational hero, but someone who saves the world seemingly out of obligation.
Overall, the biggest problem with this new Superman is that he has become something he never needed to be. I openly welcome adaptation of Superman for new generations, but this is a classic case of remarketing an old brand for the sake of profit. If Superman is going to be interesting you have to let him be the larger-than-life figure, inhibited by ideological restraints. When he becomes nothing but another joyless, big strong fighting-man who can punch the bad guys through buildings really hard, you might as well make Michael Bay the director.
Thankfully, it seems we are nearly out of this extended flirtation with “darkness” in superhero movies. While Superman and some other D.C. heroes have been relegated to joyless films recently, Marvel goes out of its way to add levity, sometimes almost to a fault. The best example is the Ryan Reynolds Deadpool movie, which shocked audiences by reminding them that superheroes could have fun. Hopefully the huge critical and popular success of that film put the fun back in the genre.
Conlan Campbell ’18 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Burnsville, Minn. He majors in English.