I saw the new Superman film the other day.
OK, so it would be very easy to criticise the fact that it had almost as many flashbacks as Rocky V, and that the camera did not stay still for even a single moment even when people were sitting down quietly talking, and the fact that the force of Superman punching Zod in the head was not sufficient to collapse his skull but the force of him twisting his head was enough to break his neck [spoiler alert, y’all!], but I won’t, because what I want to talk about is where on earth the drama comes from when your protagonist is invincible and morally unimpeachable and has no character flaws. Because this is a far more fundamental criticism of the film than simply stomach-turning cinematography and a narrative timeline with ADHD and a frankly cavalier attitude towards physics.
In Man Of Steel, Superman’s unique quality – and his downfall in this film – is that he is all-powerful and essentially perfect in every way. He never hits anyone when they get their shit all up in his grill. He’s always kind and altruistic, never selfish or greedy or jealous or proud or human in any other way (I know, I know, he’s not actually human, but we the audience are human and so we need our protagonists to exhibit human characteristics in order for us to empathise with them). And he can’t be hurt. By anything.
Read that back: you have a protagonist who always does the right thing, never does anything bad and can’t be hurt.
So where’s the drama?
Sure, in most films we understand that the protagonist probably isn’t going to die, and that he or she is probably going to achieve his or her primary goal, but we go along with it because what’s interesting are the challenges that the protagonist faces and overcomes, and the personal growth that he or she undergoes. Even superheroes like Batman and Spiderman, who we expect to win in the end, have to make sacrifices or are damaged by their experiences in some way, either physically or emotionally (if I wanted to sound pretentious then I might call their victories Pyrrhic, but I don’t so I won’t). Until now I have never seen a film in which the protagonist is already perfect (so has nothing to learn and no way in which to grow as a person), in which he has to make no difficult choices and in which there isn’t even a pretence that he is in any danger.
For example, the climactic fight with Zod involved two invincible superbeings taking turns at propelling each other through buildings over and over and over again via the application of knuckle to face, and at no point did either of them appear to be in any danger. In one instance Superman punched Zod so hard in the face that he flew backwards through the air, then Superman flew after him and repeatedly propelled him forward with his fist for mile after mile until Zod simply dodged or blocked the next punch (I honestly can’t remember what happened) and then just carried on fighting as though nothing had happened. The only point at which Superman seemed in any way vulnerable, when his powers were diminished, was when he was trapped beneath the terraforming tripod, and at that point he simply clenched his teeth, deepened his frown and somehow got his powers back.
Where a character is invulnerable there can still be drama, however; it can come from the choices that they make, or are forced to make, and the emotions that they experience. But here, too, I struggle. I don’t see how I can empathise with someone whose moral code is as bullet-proof as his chest and whose most taxing dilemma is “face or groin?” in terms of where on the victim’s body the knuckles should be repeatedly applied.
As a result I didn’t really care about Superman. Why should I? He’s definitely going to win, he’s not going to get hurt, he’s going to be on the moral high ground from the start and remain on it until the end, and he’s not anything like me. The characters that I care about are flawed and vulnerable and make bad decisions and change their minds and sometimes do bad things for good reasons and sometimes do good things for bad reasons. In short, they’re human. Even Zod was more human than Superman – he was confined by an accident of birth into a role in society that meant that he had to do a bad thing (destroy all humans) for a good reason (to save his people), and he didn’t really give any indication that he was particularly happy about it. Right up until he went cardboard (“Now that you’ve foiled my plan I’m going to kill everyone on this planet ha ha ha ha ha ha!”) I think I liked Zod more than I liked Superman.
When I spoke to a friend about this they said to me oh but have you read the comics it’s all in the comics in the comics he’s like really really deep and he’s got like this really really complex moral code that he can’t ever ever break even if he like really really wants to and it makes much more sense if you’ve read the comics and. I don’t care about what’s in the comics, I’m talking about the film. I don’t expect to have to read 200,000 words of context in order to enjoy what is being presented as a stand-alone narrative. That’d be like going to a restaurant and having to eat a million potatoes beforehand in order for their chips to taste good.
So although Superman is exactly the person I’d like to find standing next to me if a leather-and-denim-clad motorbike gang from a 1980s film jumped me under a disused railway bridge on my way to pilates, in Man Of Steel he’s just boring. Give me a bat-obsessed billionaire vigilante clearly suffering the harrowing psychological effects of post-traumatic stress disorder any day.
PS Man Of Steel wasn’t all bad. I liked the part when Superman and Zod were fighting and Zod said “This can only end one way” and then described the two ways that it could end. Also, the surprising girth of Laurence Fishburne is always entertaining. What happened to you, Furious?