Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Batman & Superman: The Dark Side In Both

Superman is a sissy some say.

Batman is a...well...honestly I don't know what Batman haters say about Batman. But they're out there...somewhere, quivering in the shadows with their Dare Devil comic and a cardboard cutout of Ben Affleck.

People watch the Richard Donner Superman film today and they think that version of Superman is nothing but a goofy goody-goody and that Bryan Singer's rejuvenation of that franchise nothing but a lame, boring same-old, same-old version with no real depth. People who think this couldn't be more mistaken, however. Richard Donner and Singer are both extremely subtle in the way they explore Superman's humanity, far too subtle for mainstream moviegoers to give them any credit. It's easy to see Superman as a giant, flawless boyscout with no depth or intrigue and it's for a very simple, unrealized reason; he looks like this:

He says things like "Truth, Justice, and The American Way!" He never lies. His alter ego is a buffoon in arrested development continually pining for a woman he doesn't have the balls to get. Metropolis is a gorgeous city, shining and bright and its champion represents what is the best in us. On a very basic level, the colorful nature of Superman, his films, and his tale permits people to not take it very seriously and see it as nothing more than wish fulfillment and thoughtless entertainment.

Then there's Batman. It's very easy to take someone seriously when they look like this:

People associate the color black with "cool". The Gothic nature of Batman hearkens back to writers like Poe who explore the torment of the human mind and heart. Gothic imagery isn't subtle in the least. It gets right to the point and you don't have to really dig too deeply into the dark knight to see that he's pretty messed up and interesting. This is one simple reason why people identify more with Batman. His imagery is directly related to the dark psychosis in all of us and the psychosis that the story is attempting to explore. In Superman there is a disconnect between the imagery and the psychosis (which is not a bad thing necessarily, if anything it's very interesting and unique, but it's difficult for everyone to realize this and appreciate it). Batman is constructed in such a way, from his cape and cowl to his city and his rogues gallery, to very easily and simply tap into the exploration of the soul. Batman's alter ego is also much more enjoyable to watch than Clark Kent. Bruce Wayne shows us that we can get the girl, in fact that we can get any girl if we set our mind to it (but he also shows us that this is a meaningless pursuit that simply distracts us from the pain in our minds). On a basic, entertainment value level it's 100% fun to live vicariously through the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman. No one wants to live vicariously through Clark Kent, however, and that's another reason for the character's recent public fallout.

Wayne is an example of how we put on a front in public, how we have two sides. What makes Wayne that much more interesting than other comic book protagonists is that he's actually three-sided, something Kent is not. But this is only the way things are because Kent has not been adequately explored or portrayed with the intelligence and intensity of Bruce Wayne on-screen. And again, the imagery and the very nature of the character doesn't really permit it.

With Superman it's much more of a challenge, which, oddly enough, makes him a potentially more interesting and powerful character. Now I'm partial to The Batman, he's my favorite, but I've often wondered what I'd do with Superman in a film or a comic, how I'd showcase everything I love about him but also explore areas of his psychosis that have yet to be overtly shown to a modern film going audience. People like their heroes flawed these days and they need those flaws to be apparent. Hence why Batman is and will forever be so popular. The main reason for The Dark Knight's success is Heath Ledger's Joker, whom the audience is actually more inclined to root for than the Batman precisely because of how flawed and interesting he is. Modern audiences can't watch Christopher Reeves screaming with Lois in his arms or Brandon Routh staring at Louis through a wall or talking to her on a rooftop or looking down on earth and immediately get that it's character development. They can't see Superman look into the camera and smile and think anything but: That's so gay. They don't get that in that smile is something truly beautiful, human, and what comics and movies and entertainment are all about.

Now I believe one can go even deeper than the obvious with Batman and explore realms of depth beneath the apparent depth. There are the simple questions revolving around the world's greatest detective such as "Is he doing it for justice or revenge?", "Is he the cause of what he's trying to destroy" and so on. I argue that there is even more than that, that Batman has yet to be fully explored on-screen as he deserves to be and that if done properly could trounce any modern anti-hero.

With Superman, if one is to take him seriously and do him justice, there are also obvious questions at hand that the Donner and Singer films deal with in subtle fashion such as "He is a living God, what does that mean for us?" "What does his one weakness signify thematically" and so on. There's so much more, however, that one can gleam from these films but it takes effort, effort today's world is too stupid to perform. Also, society bashing aside, I feel Superman's psyche deserves to be overtly explored. I want to see more than him pondering. I want to hear him speak. I want action.

Superman is a living God, yes, and asking what that means for "us" is interesting. But it's much more interesting to ask what that means for Superman. He is an alien living amongst us. He is an outsider. Explore in the film how this makes him feel, what it means, and whether or not he actually wants this status of divine savior. Show us, as Superman stares down on this world, able to "hear everything" that it drives him insane that these weak little humans can take care of nothing for themselves, that they need him to save them again and again and again, that they've actually given up altogether because they know, no matter what, Superman will always be there. Explore how his strength, his power is an absolute curse that makes it impossible for him to relate to others. Explore what Quentin Tarentino very cleverly observed in Kill Bill, how Clark Kent is a critique of humanity. Show us the consequences of Superman's strength and power, how smashing through city walls isn't actually practical or helpful, that some of the citizens of Metropolis don't like the idea of some omnipotent, omnipresent alien floating around in the night sky. Explore that Superman knows he could take over the world if he saw fit, that he exists in a state of perpetual unrest, that there is never a moment where he can relax, enjoy life for himself. Explore what it means that a small, seemingly insignificant rock can bring down a god, and what it means that a piece of Superman's home, a piece of his past is what can destroy him. Explore a human Christ figure who is tired of being crucified night after night and that wants something for himself. And then...finally, show us that he learns, that he grows, that he changes, and understands the value of sacrifice.

Give us a villain that tests these weaknesses, that pokes and prods his unshakable nature. In this dynamic one can have a philosophical discourse about more than just a God's psychology, how that God's strength is nothing but a weakness that alienates him from others, but also a discourse on society, the way people relate to heroes, venerate celebrities and government officials to a God-like, infallible status. Explore what happens when we place our faith completely in a god.

This, and much more, exists in Superman and hopefully, one day, we'll see it on-screen.

People who love this character either love him for the above stated reasons as well as his strength and powers and the wish fulfillment inherent in all comic adventures. Or people love him simply because of the powers.

People who hate him, hate him because of the unexplored version of the character that all know so well, a flawless do-gooder whom they could never be. If this is all Superman is to you then he's impossible to like. He represents what you cannot have under any circumstances. This is why we have to make Superman's flaws apparent. We have to make it so that people don't scoff when they hear a little green rock is his only weakness.

The reason I love Batman and why I feel most people, and modern society prefers him, apart from the cooler imagery and better set of villains, is that Batman represents the attainable. Batman represents the pain that we have. Batman represents the person that we are. He is, in many ways, the worst in us.

Superman represents what we should be. He represents the absolute best in us, what we should aspire to become, but ultimately never will. Because we can't fly. We can't punch through walls. Superman reminds us of inability and failure, where as Batman tells us that suffering is normal and that if we work hard enough, by the means of our own ability we can make things better.

This dynamic would be wonderful to explore in a film at the same time but I fear a Batman/Superman movie would resort to one too many fanboy gimmicks. However, this is a dynamic that needs to change somewhat if the man of steel is to be taken seriously in today's world.

Let's look at Superman like this, the way he really is, and see what happens:

1 comment:

  1. Its weird to say, but Smallville is really the only place where every aspect of Superman's dense complexity has been somewhat tapped. The show once was fantastic but fell from grace. Now I hear its better but they have taken way too many liberties with his origins that bother such a fan as myself. lol