As much of a shock as it may be, someone who writes way, way too much about video games also often has way, way too many thoughts on other mediums. I want to take a second to deviate from my usual game-related work to talk about a different subject: comics. Be warned, there are several spoilers for the Man of Steel movie and the All-Star Superman comic.
So the Man of Steel movie is… not very good. Terrible, in fact. This isn’t much of a shock, as Superman doesn’t have a terribly good movie track record even before you consider that Snyder is a terrible director. I mean, if you want an astoundingly unsubtle director screaming “I AM SEXUALLY AROUSED BY VIOLENCE AND FASCISM AND ALSO I HAVE DEEP SEATED PSYCHOLOGICAL ISSUES WITH MASCULINITY!” at you for an entire movie, Snyder is probably up your alley. It’s not even subtext, its the flat out text of his oeuvre. I’m not saying Superman can’t be kinky, because lord can old Superman stories be full of kink. But Superman is a character who doesn’t lend himself to fascism or the worship of violence very well. Superman is something more than that, and it is a real shame that marketers and hacks have managed to convince several generations of audiences that Superman is irrelevant and boring.
I didn’t like Superman as a kid. He always seemed bland and boring. The X-Men had flashy, specific powers and tons of angst. Batman was a self-made cool guy. Superman just flew and punched things. On TV he fought normal, boring people and could never lose. What was the fun in that? Kryptonite was corny, Jimmy Olsen looked like a nerd, and Lois would have to be an idiot not to notice that Clark was just Superman in glasses. I didn’t even read any Superman comics until the 90s era-Death of Superman marketing explosion. It wasn’t a very good comic by any means, but it had a few things that caught my attention. Notably was the fact that apparently Metropolis had a secret city directly beneath it full of monsters. As a kid, that was the kind of weird thing I wanted to read about. I followed that trail to Jack Kirby’s 70s Jimmy Olsen comics, an orgy of invention and ideas. There were rocket-powered hippies racing across a secret jungle “Wild Zone” of Metropolis. There was Cadmus Labs, where not only the weird monsters from the later crossover were created, but so were whole armies of Jimmy Olsen clones, a team of mystery-solving clone newspaper boys, and a psychic devil named Dubbilex. Jimmy Olsen himself was cool and capable, and looking over to the other titles I found that Lois at her best was even more so. In the background was the looming threat of Apokalyps and Darkseid, not subtle names by any means but drawn to be imposing and dynamic enough not to care about the names. Superman’s world was WEIRD and I loved it.
Of course, that only scratched the surface. The 50s and 60s Superman featured the most ludicrous stories imaginable, with powers and explanations that defied all logic. The original Superman comics was shockingly anti-authoritarian, with Superman waging war against corrupt landlords, abusive husbands, and warmongering government officials. 80s and 90s Superman tried to reign in some of this and streamline the story in various reboots, but STILL featured Superman wrestling angels, moving planets, and fighting inter-planetary pornographers. Superman was never bland, but was always a whirlwind of crazy. Yet despite that crazy, there was always a surprisingly strong humanist streak. What people forget about Superman is that his powers do not end at flying and laser eyes. Every sense of Superman’s is heightened to a degree we cannot imagine. He sees radio waves and wifi signals, he hears the sounds every spectrum of light makes, he looks at a living thing and can read its entire genetic code, he thinks as fast as he flies and processes all this information in less than a second. What do you think he sees when he looks at us?
Here is a man who looks at you and sees the colored light emitted by each cell of your body and who hears every slight variation in heartbeat or breath to know your true feelings better than a mind-reader. He sees every imperfection be it physical or moral that you think you have magnified to the nth degree and laid bare… and he thinks you are beautiful. When you have your senses heightened to that degree, you cannot help but see the beauty in every living thing. He hears music coming off your body, sees the rainbow emitted from your skin, feels your heartbeat when you think of something you care about, and it is wondrous to him. We assume that someone with all that power would disdain us, look down on us, seek to dominate us, or worse, pity us. We fear all the imperfections and things we wish we could change are what define us, and we can’t stand the thought of someone with that power judging us. I think that is why even when he’s fictional, so many real people REALLY want to see Superman destroyed, brought down, or rendered a hypocrite. If he can corrupted or ruined, then its ok, we don’t have to worry about our misgivings or shortcomings. But the truth is, he sees only the best in us, even loves us. The best part is, he knows that if everyone could see what he does, we’d all love each other too. Because what he sees in us is there, even if we don’t perceive it. People want him destroyed because they believe if they had that power they would be corrupt and vile, yet he believes that he is merely doing what anyone with his powers would do.
That’s what makes Man of Steel such a disappointment. It’s just another cynical attempt to prove that such a person couldn’t exist. The Superman of this movie isn’t humanist, but is petty, whiny, indulgent, and of course, a killer. In the comics, Superman’s ability to see every spectrum and wave means he actually sees when a soul leaves the body. That is part of what defines his refusal to take any life (and yes, pedantic nerds, I know there are plenty of individual issues where he kills someone with kryptonite or something, you know as well as I do that even when that happens, it is written as an aberration, a moment meant to be shocking BECAUSE it is contrary to his character). But in Snyder’s sad view, Superman’s refusal to kill must have a different origin. The only reason someone would refuse to kill is if they already had, and then suffered a second-long moment of contrition. Of course, most of us have managed not to want to kill anyone despite not ever killing anyone, but Snyder and his ilk truly believe that anyone with that power would start to kill, given the chance. In Snyder and Goyer’s world, we are all one step from fascism (and it is HOT MANLY EROTIC BUT STILL TOTALLY STRAIGHT FASCISM). It is true that power corrupts, but Superman serves to remind us that ultimately, we have the power to choose differently. It is a humanist ideal, that we choose who we are and what we represent. That we have the power to do good and help others. Superman’s power represents truth, and the idea is that if we could only see the world as it actually is, we would be strong enough to choose to embrace that. More to the point, we CAN see that truth even if not at the same level, and we can still choose to embrace life, freedom and compassion.
Think back to the iconic images of Superman. He doesn’t just rush in and punch a criminal into dust. He stands between bullets and their targets, harmlessly deflecting them. He renders guns useless with laser vision, or takes them away faster than you can blink. His “fighting style” is all about ending the fight as quickly as possible, and minimizing any possible harm. Aside from random battles with Darkseid or Doomsday, Superman is primarily a force that ends conflict. In Man of Steel we get a Superman who thinks nothing of killing countless civilians to win a fight. More violence-porn for Snyder and more nihilist all-vs-all porn for Goyer.
At the climax of Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, Lex Luthor takes a chemical cocktail which gives him the same powers as Superman and uses them to take over Metropolis. He is ultimately undone when he finally becomes aware of all his newfound perceptions. In the end even Lex Luthor, the most cynical, nihilist power-hungry abuser imaginable, cannot ignore that the world, and everyone in it, is wonderful and beautiful. Imagine if THAT had been the climax of Man of Steel. An ending where Zod’s senses reach the point of Clark’s and he sees both humanity and his own people as life worthy of beauty, even worthy of loving. When Zod yells “this will only stop when I’m dead!” Clark doesn’t prove him right, but instead shows how shallow that mindset is. Clark’s adopted humanity triumphs over the failure of Kryptonian nihilism.
Which brings me to the other defining feature of Superman. He’s an immigrant. The most iconic, all-American hero of all time is an illegal alien. He challenges American perceptions of authority and power, while at the same time upholding the ideals we like to claim we stand for. He was the dream of two second generation Jewish kids who had heard the stories of horror and oppression their parents had fled, and who were seeing the same attitudes even in the country their families had dreamed of and hoped for. While America tends to wallow in hypocrisy and bigotry, here is a hero who actually embodies truth and justice in a way that is more humanist, more compassionate and more accurate than those who claim the authority to represent it.
Let me retract my original statement and talk about games for a second. If Superman has a bad track record with movies, his track record with games must somehow exist on a spectrum of terrible that cannot be properly defined by modern instruments. Part of this is because many of Superman’s iconic powers and movesets are already better done by many commercial games. We’ve already flown around cities and punched robots, and we’ve done it in way better games than any licensed property is probably going to give us. But again, what if a Superman game focused on the less-actiony iconic powers? What if the game gave us an open Metropolis where every action would be interrupted by new people who need us? A Metropolis that reacts to being destroyed when blindly fighting robots and Lex Luthor? A game where we have the power to choose if we play “normally” or if we make sure we stand between every bullet and every life on the way to our goal? What if instead of a challenge to win or lose, the game was a challenge to do as much good as possible while winning?
Superman is a hero we still need. A hero who embodies not simple power or authority, but the principle that all people matter. That creativity can triumph over raw power. That we are capable of being the best we can possibly be. These ideas are not out of style or irrelevant, they just do not suit the vision of those in power and those who want to excuse their own petty prejudices and weakness. Ironically, the “all-American boyscout” in his most iconic form is perhaps one of the most subversive heroes to the status quo today.