What it Means to Take Superheroes Seriously

It’s been a few weeks now, and I think that maybe, just maybe, comic book fandom is ready to talk about something else besides Man of Steel. Maybe. As expected, the movie turned out to be massively controversial, dividing fans right down the middle between those who thought it was exemplary of how all superhero films should be done, and those who actually have good taste in movies. Just kidding.

Throughout the several debates I engaged in with my friends pertaining to the film, my main argument was that the film was just too serious for my taste. I maintained that superheroes — and by extension, superhero films —aren’t meant to be taken that seriously. And yet, there I was, up until all hours of the night arguing with people over Facebook about Superman. Here I am now, devoting a huge chunk of my time to writing about this characters and taking him very seriously in order to do so. How can I tell people not to take these characters seriously if that’s all I do?

My problems with the tone of Man of Steel were encapsulated perfectly by writer Charles Soule a few nights ago on the Comic Book Club Live podcast. Soule said that the film’s bombastic third act played out like an issue of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s satirical superhero comic,The Boys, but asked that you take it seriously rather than laugh at how ridiculously violent a real world superhero battle would be. Soule topped it off by essentially saying that Superman doesn’t work in a real-world setting.

This is where I stand on the issue as well. As much as I loved Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and how they were able to tell a Batman story with a film that was essentially a gritty crime drama that had more in common with films like Heat than the other superhero movies of its time, I don’t think that means that what the world really needs is more gritty, up-tight, serious superhero films. The reason it worked well for Batman is because Batman is born of the pulp/noir/detective genre, so to do that, but in a slightly more sophisticated manner, works well for rebooting the Batman franchise and for giving audiences a fresh new take on the character.

But while Batman was created to explore darker themes, Superman has always existed as a symbol of optimism and hope. Granted, that message of hope is still touched upon, however briefly, in the new film, most notably in the hopelessly cheesy moments where the men of the House of El explain that their family sigil actually means “hope” in Kryptonian. The film itself, however, never tries to inspire or uplift or enlighten. And yet these are the main purposes for the Superman character.

Batman is a flawed character. He’s mortal. No matter how hard he trains his body and mind, he’ll never be anything more than a man dressed up like a Bat. His parents were gunned down in front of him on the streets of Gotham City and he deals with that by dressing up in a scary costume and fighting crime. He is immersed in the mean streets of his city. Unlike Superman, he can’t fly, so he can never have us pointing up to the sky with glee, wishing that we could take flight alongside him. Batman is down there, in the muck, in the places we try not to walk through after the sun goes down, and he’ll be there until the day he dies.

That’s pretty serious stuff. And because it’s a normal, earth-bound human man going through it all, it is much easier to tell that kind of story, even though at the end of the day it is still a superhero film. Superman, on the other hand, doesn’t need all that. Who wants a Superman film where the main character isn’t having any fun? Where flying brings him no joy? Where there are no moments of lightness for the audience to laugh at?

The lack of laughter is a huge issue for me. This is a guy wearing bright blue spandex, red boots, a big dumb cape and red underwear. How long are we, as fans, going to embarrass ourselves in front of the rest of the world by insisting that everyone stop laughing at him and take him seriously? What is so wrong with embracing the silliness, acknowledging that his costume is what makes him great and yet simultaneously what makes him an anachronism, and just enjoying Superman again?

If Superman doesn’t work in a real world setting without a heavy overhaul of the character stripping him of all his charm and fun and greatness, then in my opinion the problem is more with what we consider the “real world” than with Superman. Keep Superman the way he is, because that is the Superman that the world needs right now. We don’t need an angsty, darkly colored Superman fist-fighting his way through 9/11-inspired disaster porn and snapping his enemy’s neck in order to learn not that it’s wrong to kill (I mean, I’ve never taken someone’s life with my bare hands in yet, miraculously enough, I’ve always pretty much intuited that to do so would be a bad idea).

What does that do for us? Remind us that the world is a miserable wasteland where no one can be trusted and where cities are just rubble waiting to happen? We don’t need more of that shit. We need Superman. We need the guy who can take our eyes off of the mayhem and have us pointing the sky saying, “there, that’s where I want to be.”

And if all this talk isn’t taking superheroes seriously, then I don’t know what is. And I don’t mind that. It’s my job. I take these characters very seriously. But not in the same way that David Goyer and Zack Snyder do with Superman. I take the integrity of these characters very seriously. I want what’s important about these characters, what makes them special, to be preserved. And I want those qualities to be talked about and appreciated by their fans.

I do not, however, want these characters to become more serious. I don’t want them to lose their innocence so that I, as a cynical old man living in the shitty-ass “real world,” can make better sense of them. These are superheroes. Goofy dudes running around in tights. The more serious you try to make that, the worse the material becomes. The farthest you could go with it is an Ennis-ian or Millar-esque satire, but anything more than that and I begin to wonder if you’ve missed the joke. Listen, it’s ok for superhoes to be fun. Or even goofy at times. It’s ok to admit that these movies aren’t actually amazing works of cinema, and they usually just exist to sell toys. Whatever. Stop begging for legitimacy and just like the stuff that you like.

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Mike Greear is a journalism graduate from the University of West Florida currently living in New York City. During his time as an undergraduate, he reported on everything from Presidential campaign stops to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, eventually working his way up to being the editor-in-chief of the University of West Florida’s student newspaper, The Voyager. Since graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire, reporting on crime and municipal stories in the city of Rochester as well as interviewing Republican primary candidates, before returning to Florida and freelancing for the Pensacola News Journal. He now resides in Long Island City, writing weekly columns for Sequart.org and hoping to break into the comics scene.

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  1. I agree with you, with qualifications (as usual).

    I had a 2 hour conversation with Julian about this at SDCC, with us coming to a mutual understanding that because we live in a post 9/11 world, the way we view our standing in the universe has dramatically changed. So asking us as hypocritical post-moderns to embrace such a blatantly modern symbol without contemplating the repercussions is dumbfounding. It’s ironic that we as a people who would thrust grandmothers in front of us to dodge bullets to say, “Superman killed someone? Fuck that!” and then go into this whole diatribe on the purity of a character and ignore the deafening laughter of Sarte from beyond the grave.

    But as I was saying with Julian…

    The DC writing staff must really leave their lives home when they go to work because I can’t begin to imagine how they miss all the opportunities to make a realistic, enduring superman. This one is for free, DC: Superman comes to work one day and finds Jimmy Olsen crying. His mother was killed in an auto accident and Superman was no where to be found. Jimmy feels betrayed that Superman could let that person slip through his fingers. How about another one? Superman realizes that his alien physiology makes him age differently. It’s possible that Lois will die of cancer or pneumonia or old age and there is nothing that he can do about it, and now he racks his brain all night wondering why he will watch all those he loves die because of his strength and endurance.

    Where are those stories? Superman can still be “superman” but Jesus still walked over the hill and looked at Jerusalem and wept because of the confusion of the people. You can still take a near god like character and juxtapose the gravity of mortality, of time, of change on top of them and challenge them to rise above it. It’s just so mind boggling. The Justice League animated show, a children’s show, gave Superman a real conflict and predicament in showing him confront Luthor in season 4. Why is it that a show for kids provides us with better, more thought provoking material than the guy that wrote the Nolan Batman movies? I’ll never begin to understand that…

  2. Nick Ford says:

    I am by no means the biggest Superman fan (please hold your tomatoes) and I haven’t seen Man of Steel but I do think a realistic Superman could be done.

    Should everything be realistic Of course not. And I even agree with you that in several important ways Batman is way more sensible than Superman to do what Nolan did. But that still doesn’t mean it can’t be done or shouldn’t be tried.

    I also don’t think being serious means to be cynical or to have no bright colors. I think plenty of opportunities for synthesis are possible.

    And look, these characters may be men in tights but men in tights are still men and still creatures that could very well have serious conflicts and realistic moments. Make Superman confront his night immortality, make him question his god-like powers, make him deliberate over then efficacy of killing someone like Luthor and so on.

    I think this stuff can be done but at least in this case I’ll agree that it may not always be the best idea.

    …But Red Son still kicked ass. :P

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