We Don’t Want What We Want:

Thoughts on Superman and Movie Trailers

“All right, class.  That’s all I’ve got.  First drafts are due on Monday.  Any other questions?”

The class is ready to go, but I know there is still one more question out there, so I wait.  Someone will ask it.  They always ask.

“Dr. Carpenter?  Could you … I mean … could you tell us … what exactly you want on this paper?”

And there it is.  As a teacher, it’s my least favorite question.  (Okay, technically my least favorite is “When will our papers be graded?” but this one runs a close second.)  It’s not that I blame them for asking; I get it.  It’s only natural to want a clear formula for writing a successful paper.  Unfortunately, besides some basic fundamentals, there is no magic formula.  So when I give my answer, I no longer talk to them as a “teacher.”  Teachers prescribe things.  Instead, I try to answer them as a “reader.”

“Yeah, that’s a good question … I dunno.  I mean, I could tell you, I guess.  I could describe in detail exactly what I think would make for a good paper, but if you then went out and wrote that, the results would be … disappointing.  Because deep down, as a reader, I don’t know what I want. What I want is something I haven’t seen yet.  That’s why what I want isn’t really important now.  Instead, you—the writer—must figure out what your paper needs to be and then write that.  You have to own it.”

Things usually get a little awkward at this point, but that’s just how it has to be.  The truth is I really don’t know what I want when I sit down to read an essay.  And I think that’s a good thing.

Same thing is true with reading a comic or watching a movie.  I may know, generically, what I want to feel, but that’s a lot different from knowing specifically what I want.  And that, too, is a good thing.

I should probably tell you now that this isn’t the column I planned to write this week.  I was working on something about J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One, but on Friday I got distracted.  That’s when the trailer for next year’s Superman/Batman movie “leaked” online.[1] Now don’t worry—I’m not about to review the trailer.  That’s not really my thing.  But the initial reaction I saw from some fans online does bother me because it touches on something much larger than a negative reaction to a single movie.

I’m already on record as an admirer of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.  I know that many of you aren’t, and that’s cool.  I’ve seen a lot of criticism of that film that is valid—the movie’s certainly not perfect—so that’s not what troubles me.  We all have different reactions to creative work, and contradictory reactions are often perfectly valid.  Lots of people dislike Watchmen, Citizen Kane, Abbey Road, and Blood Meridian.  That’s all perfectly fine.  I may love each one of those things, but I’ll be the first to admit that each of them has problems.

But what has always troubled me about the reaction to Man of Steel—and frankly to a lot of comics and comics-related movies—are those who object due to a preconceived ideological stance.  In this case, I’m talking about dismissing the film out of hand because it doesn’t match a narrowly-defined notion of who and what Superman has to be.  Superman doesn’t have to be much of anything.  You know why?

Because there is no Superman.  In a sense, there never has been.  There are only Supermans.

In Siegel and Shuster’s first version—a prose story published in a fanzine—“Super-Man” was a villain.  By the time Action Comics #1 debuted in 1938, the Superman most of us were first introduced to was already in its third incarnation, and over the course of the next 75-plus years, we’ve seen endless variations.  Sometimes he’s a sci-fi alien, sometimes he’s a farm boy, and sometimes he’s a big city reporter.  He’s been a warrior, a pacifist, a patriot, an internationalist, a recluse, and a boyfriend.  Sometimes he’s funny, sometimes he’s depressed; sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses.  We’ve seen him move planetary bodies, but we’ve also seen him struggle to pick up a car.  He’s been young, and he’s been old, and sometimes—as in Alan Moore’s Supreme and Mark Waid’s Irredeemable—he’s not even technically “Superman.”

This versatility isn’t exclusive to comic book characters either.  Think about Hamlet.  That character appears in one play by Shakespeare, but how many “Hamlets” are there, really?  Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet is far different from John Gielgud’s, just as David Tennant’s differs wildly from Kenneth Branagh’s.  Which is valid?  Any of them, so long as they are well executed.

The same is true with a character like Superman.  Personally, my least favorite era of Superman is probably the Silver Age, but my favorite individual story is Morrison and Qutiely’s All Star Superman—a deliberate homage to those Silver Age stories.  It makes me sad to think that at one time in my life I might have wholly rejected the Morrison story on ideological grounds because I was opposed to “Silver Age” Superman.

That’s why it bugs me to see so many fans prescribing what various comic book characters have to be and what the tone of their stories must be.  It’s not that the fans are wrong to do so—everyone is free to like what they want—but I think it’s very limiting and a little sad.

All of which takes me back to that proverbial question my writing students always ask—what do you want?  When I’m pressed, I usually opt to tell them a story.

Several years ago, someone told me that back in the ‘60s the editors at DC used to have imaginary casting sessions for their characters.  The editors’ choice for the Joker was particularly inspired—Peter O’Toole.  From the moment I heard that, I could only see the younger O’Toole from Becket as the Joker.  He was tall, thin, theatrical, and funny, and he had a touch of madness in his eyes. By my time, he was too old for the part, but the idea of O’Toole’s Joker settled in my brain and crowded out everyone else from Jack Nicholson to Mark Hamill.

Then a funny thing happened.  About seven years ago I sat in a dark theater and watched a slump-shouldered Australian with a bad makeup job and a nasally voice, feign a broad American accent while shambling across the screen, purporting to be the Joker.  He was nothing like Peter O’Toole.

And he was brilliant.

Had O’Toole ever played the Joker, I don’t think he would’ve been as good as Heath Ledger.  How could he?  I had already seen O’Toole’s performance in my imagination.  Had it become a reality, O’Toole would’ve either come up short of my prescribed ideal, or he would’ve given me exactly what I wanted.  And that would’ve been disappointing.  Because deep down, I don’t really know what I want.  And I have a hunch that the rest of us don’t either.  If we did, we’d be writing all of our own stories, making all of our own movies.

Can you imagine someone rejecting 2001: A Space Odyssey because it doesn’t have ray guns and everyone knows good science fiction is built on the three “R”s—ray guns, robots, and rocket ships?  Or someone who dismisses all piano-based rock music because “real” rock music is based on the guitar?

Great art never satisfies all our preconceptions, nor does it reinforce what we already know.  Great art startles us.  It takes us places we never knew we wanted to go, makes us feel and think things we never thought we could.

For that reason, if I had a message for the creative community, it would be the same thing I try to instill in my writing students—don’t worry about what I want.  It’s not about what we readers or viewers want.  Instead, it’s about you figuring out what needs to be created and then doing it.

In other words—startle us.

[1] I’m still reluctant to call it Batman v Superman, because unless it involves a lawsuit, that “v” needs an “s.”

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for RogerEbert.com and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. Fine! But then can I judge these movies as I judge anything that aspires to be great art? Because it seems to me that I can’t win. If I say that they don’t give me any aesthetical or emotional pleasure, I’m told that they’re just supposed to be fun and that I should turn off my brain. I want to be startled too, but a 30-minute action scene won’t do it for me.

    And the problem is not that it’s not the “real” Superman we see on screen. Sure, Superman is big enough to be done in many different ways, like Dracula or Frankenstein (it seems to me a better comparison than Hamlet). The problem is that it’s done in a generic way that seems to apply to all those movie heroes. Powers and costumes are the only variant. They’re all a little depressed, they hesitate at first, they’re unsure, they cannot fit, but then, finally they understand what’s important and, through great effort and sacrifice, do the right thing and triumph. That’s what you’ll get in Avengers 2, Fantastic Four and the others. Don’t tell me that they’re trying something different and new; they’re not. Don’t pretend that there’s a lot of creativity in Hollywood.

    Another problem (nothing to with what you wrote, but I’ll throw it in too) is our mutt complex. One lousy movie becomes more important than hundreds of stories, some better, some worse than the movie. It becomes, in the minds of many, including comic book fans, the definitive take on the character. On Sequart’s own Thor week, Brannagh got a lot more mentions than Simonson (Kirby is still king, though).

    • On the other hand, the changes that happen in the comics are seen as temporary and less important. So Superman can have his fun with Diana because we all know that eventually he’ll return to Lois, his one true love.

      The feeling is that every film is special and unique and every comic book is just another one in a long line.

      • Thanks for the comment Mario, and I share some of your frustration. I think I probably have enjoyed most of the superhero movies more than you have, but very few of them have transcended their genre. For me, MOS and the Nolan Trilogy attempted to be … real movies (for lack of a better phrase), just as the Daredevil series attempts to be more than just a genre show. Those, I think, lend themselves to being treated seriously, even though they may come up short–the third Batman movie in particular.

        As for the formulaic plots, that doesn’t bother me so much. The plot you described for the upcoming films also applies to On the Waterfront and High Noon. Most plots are formulaic. There’s a book out–I can’t remember the name–that argues that there are basically only about 4 or 5 plots out there.

        Where I struggle–and what I think you’re complaining about in part–is that most of the movies haven’t really demonstrated much ambition beyond supplementing popcorn sales. That doesn’t mean I haven’t liked most of them. I liked Branagh’s Thor, for example, but it’s ultimately just a very expensive, high-profile B-movie.

        My hunch is that when people criticize you for holding them to too high a standard, it’s because ultimately it doesn’t seem fair to savage a movie for not achieving things it never tries for. It’s like criticizing an Elvis beach movie for not doing as much, visually, with the beauty of sand as David Lean did in Lawrence of Arabia.

        But that raises the question you bring up at the end. Is your frustration with the first Thor movie really with the movie, or is it with the fact that our community seems oddly obsessed with all of these films–often throwing the actual comics under the bus for the sake of a pleasant but lightweight action movie?

        I think we’re too obsessed with the film industry’s use of these films–but I keep hoping that it’s just the newness. You’ve got characters that have existed for decades who are only now being presented adequately on film. That has an excitement to it. And because it stamps those characters in the mind of the world, the movies have a stature that they perhaps don’t deserve. It’s the reality of the fact that everyone knows Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, and Anthony Hopkins, but 99% of the world, sadly, doesn’t know who Walt Simonson is. (Or Jack Kirby for that matter.)

        So what am I saying? I dunno. I got lost. But I think you’re making some good points. Sorry for the lame ending here, but I’m in the midst of grading exams so the ol’ brain ain’t working too smoothly. :)

      • Sorry, Greg. I’m too late and too long.

        I agree with a lot of you say. But it does annoy me that you’re defending the people who are most obsessed by what the audience might think. And if they’re criticized by the info that they chose to make public (and I admit fanboys can be a pain) hey, they can still surprise us and give us great art. And when they don’t give us great art, it’s okay, because they didn’t try. And anyway great art has flaws too. It seems there are thousands of ways to protect these huge companies who are giving us inferior product. We must remain hopeful, no matter what. Well, I lost hope. I can’t make a top ten list at the end of a year. It can be hard to make a top three.

        I feel about cinema today the way many readers feel about Marvel and DC. It’s the same old thing, I saw it all before, I’m not interested anymore. It makes sense to me to stop collecting superhero comics, but it makes no sense to give up on a whole art form. And yet, that’s what happening to me. Hell, I’m completely broke, I pay a lot on cable, and I’ll have to import the one movie I’m really interested in (Nakasima’s latest) from UK!

        And you know, the whole “there are only four plots” thing become an excuse. People don’t try to do something new, because hey, everything has been done already. Producers and audience expect so little. I can’t conceive a world in which The Social Network is a great movie. When did people start believing that HBO was the best we could aspire to?

        Anyway, I wasn’t talking about plots, I was talking about characters. They’re related, of course, and I guess I ended up describing plots, or character arcs, at least. But it seems that there is a very limited range for who a protagonist can be nowadays. It always did, actually. But if you have strong characters or strong stars, they can give you the illusion of difference. You know, Fred Astaire inherited a Gene Kelly role, and it became one of his best vehicles, and now we cannot imagine Kelly in it. We may never agree on who Superman is, but most of us agree that he should very be different than Spider-Man, Wolverine or Star-Lord. Downey and Ledger brought a little of that.

        And the point is not that everything is flawed. What makes art great is not the flaws, but the qualities. Vertigo has one damn embarrassing dream sequence, but it doesn’t matter because everything else is so brilliant. I roll my eyes when I read Kirby. But then his genius strikes me at the next page.

        That’s what we want, to be startled. It can happen in genre, it doesn’t need to transcend it. It just needs genius, sometimes just a little bit. The difference between Thor and On the Waterfront is that Loki could not have been a contender. You take five Spider-Man movies, and what are the memorable scenes? Upside-down kiss and that panel from ASM #50?

        I’m more impressed watching old exploitation movies. I’m technically dead. Completely out of touch with the rest of the audience.

        So, to answer your question about my frustration with Thor… Yeah, it’s a horrible, amateurish movie. I was embarrassed by it. And the sequel seemed even worse, but I only gave it ten minutes. I can’t understand how people can be excited by it, especially since there are better Thor stories out there.

        If we take comics seriously (and we all do here), we must understand that it is the best medium for some stories. Not all. Sorry, Alan Moore, but comics is not the best medium for musicals. Different art forms can do different things. Those superheroes grew out of comics and stayed the same for so long and reached such a wide audience because monthly comic books allowed them to. They were naturally shaped by their medium. (And now there are those who want them to lose that.)

        What the hell can be gained by a Sandman movie? To do it justice, it must be one exceptional film. Like Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. It will probably be like Vidor’s. And the audience, including fans, won’t mind that one of the towering achievements in comics history will become a so-so, forgettable, kind-of-interesting movie.

        And comics are better than movies right now. Look, I don’t regularly read Marvel and DC for 20 years, but Moore and Morrison are true giants of their medium, in a way that Scorsese and Almodovar are not. And I love Marty and Pedro, nothing against them. But Alan Moore may be seriously regarded as the “best” comics author ever (stupid honor, of course). He’s our Mozart, our Picasso, our Billie Holiday.

        Look, I’m not calling anyone “emotionally subnormal” here, but… I find it depressing that adult comic fans are more excited by Avengers 2 than, let’s say, Bá/ Moon’s Two Brothers. Of course everybody can feel whatever they want about anything. I just wish there were more people on my side. I know I’ll buy the book. I may see the movie on TV.

        Sorry about the rant.

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