One of the very best Superman comics, Superman: Red Son, explores what might have happened if Superman had landed in Soviet Ukraine instead of the American Bible Belt. Man of Steel follows a similar line of thought: what would happen if Superman had landed on a planet where all the inhabitants had bones growing through their brains?
The film begins on Superman’s home planet of Caucasia just as he is being born. His mother is lying on a table while Javert circles her like a semi-concussed vulture. Caucasian medicine is so extremely advanced that floating robots can create 3D representations of the unborn child in the womb, but not so advanced that they’ve made childbirth a painless experience. But Javert doesn’t have time for all this birthing crap, he has to go to the High Council of Caucasians to deliver some exposition. It turns out that the Caucasians were running out of natural resources to power their lifestyles. Instead of turning off some lights — or any of the thirty billion gizmos that they seem to have inexplicably left on — they decided to mine the core of Caucasia.
Fools! The Grand High Wizards on the Caucasian Chalk Circle didn’t listen to Javert when he explained that this would cause the planet to explode, and now the planet is exploding. Javert has decided that it is impossible to evacuate even a single person from the planet before the planet explodes, but has come to ask for the Codex — a McGuffin over which everybody will fight for the rest of the film. The Codex — claims Javert, Caucasia’s Chief Expositor — is needed in order to let the Caucasian race rise again. Or something.
No time for explanations, General Zod has started attacking the High Council of Caucasians… though nobody is sure why. Something about Zod wanting to enact some kind of eugenics programme? Javert and Zod do not like each other, but they clearly have some kind of shared history together (because they say as much).
After a bunch of bright lights, Javert escapes on the back of one of those flying dragon things from Avatar (h/t James for that reference). Stupid Caucasian flying spaceships (probably powered by the same resources mined from the core of the planet…?) are unable to catch up with Javert, who has sufficient time to steal the Codex from some sort of Matrix-inspired birthing room and make it back to his brightly lit, energy-inefficient citadel of a home. Javert knew all along that Caucasia was dying, so he began making a spaceship that would be large enough to transport his newborn son to a faraway planet but would not be large enough to carry anybody else. The film spends a lot of time trying to convince us that this was somehow for a noble cause.
I’ve been getting into the structure of stories lately, trying to work out why some movies are really gripping and interesting and why others are confused and dull.
It came to a head yesterday when I had a Superman marathon which went from the films to the television series, Smallville.
I think I got up to season five when I used to watch Smallville.
While I’m probably going to be derided for poor taste, I think I prefer Smallville to the films. I think it’s because the television series is better constructed than the films.
The first film, for example, doesn’t get going until about 45 minutes into the film. It opens with Jor-El conducting a trial of Zod. It’s tense and interesting, then Zod is sealed in the Phantom Zone and shot off into space until Superman II.
We can imagine a number of things which might slow Batman down. He is not impervious to, say, bullets shot from a gun. But it’s never a one-shot fatality with Batman. Why? Because Batman is hyper-aware of his vulnerabilities and never allows anybody to come close to them.
Superman, however, has only one vulnerability and it seems that everybody in the DC Universe knows what it is. I was watching The Batman this morning which — coincidentally enough — involved a fight between Batman and Superman. Superman had gone evil, so Batman loaded him up with Kryptonite. After Superman crashed to the ground with the Kryptonite, a few teenagers passing by noticed Superman and the Kryptonite. ‘Kick the Kryptonite away!’ says one kid to the other.
Yup. Even adolescents know all about Superman’s one-shot kill vulnerability.
So unless Superman can somehow take Batman out first shot and completely by surprise (which, as we noted earlier, is impossible), Superman’s stuffed and cannot possibly win.
Indeed, the only time he’s a good character is when he’s starring in one of those ‘What if…?’ tales. For the best example to date, check out Red Son: instead of landing in the Bible Belt, Superman’s infant pod is knocked off course and he lands in Soviet Russia. Instead of protecting America from supervillians, he protects the proletariat from the evils of American capitalism (headed by none other than Lex Luthor).
So when it’s reported that Chris Nolan might be rebooting the Superman movie line, I die a little bit more inside. Superman is inextricably woven into the idea of the Ideal American. For three generations, he’s been the ideation of the white, Protestant, American male: he’s always good, he’s always right, he always wins, and he always brings hope.
While Batman has strong links with the capitalist fantasy of dominating the underprivileged who threaten their power structure (he’s a wealthy industrialist who dresses up in fetish wear to punch up escapees from a psychward — Arkham Asylum — who threaten their power structure), Batman’s become a lot more interesting since the ’80s turned him into an antihero.
You can’t have a canonical antihero Superman. That might not be a bad thing: we’ve become a little bit too absorbed with antiheroes over the past two decades and it gets a bit tiresome. Oh look at you, you edgy outsider who doesn’t care for the rules but is determined to seek justice. P.S. Your featureless mask is terrifying, Rorschach. Continue reading “”