(Quick warning: This post contains some middlin’ spoilers for Superman but the movie has been out since 1978… that strikes me as well beyond the statute of limitations… surely no one who reads this blog hasn’t seen Superman, right? Well, let me know and I’ll put it behind a cut if need be to protect innocent eyes in the future.)
So I’ve spent the past week thinking about The Dark Knight, and Superman, and X-Men, and Spiderman, as well as The Punisher, and X-Men 3, and Superman Returns, and Batman and Robin, and the movie that kicked the train of thought all off: Green Lantern. Specifically this: many (most?) superhero movies are crud (Sturgeon’s Revelation notwithstanding) but a handful of them aren’t. As a matter of fact, the ones that are very good indeed are very good indeed.
What makes the ones that work, work? It’s easy to talk at length about why a movie was cruddy… it’s really difficult to put your finger on why something makes a connection. Not just a connection here or there but a connection with the majority of folks who see it.
The first superhero movie that really did it right, to my knowledge, was Superman (heck, Ebert gave it 4 stars). What exactly did Superman capture?
Well, it seems to me, the first thing that they did right was establish Jonathan and Martha Kent as his parents. We saw the ideal of the Midwestern Methodist parents established early. In the high school scene, we see Clark’s deference to his father after “showing off”. We see the playfulness of Clark and his dad… and we see Clark’s response to his father’s death. That’s brings us to (what I think is) the best line in any superhero movie ever: “All those things I can do. All those powers. And I couldn’t even save him.”
In that one moment, everybody who has ever lost a loved one knew *EXACTLY* how Clark felt. In that moment, he and we became peers. (There’s even a funny moment in the Superman comic books where Lex Luthor puts together a scheme where he forces Superman to feel all of the emotions that humans feel because Luthor assumes that Superman has been faking it his entire life. As it turns out, the machine just irritates him.) We have a fully human Superman established before we see Superman really do Super things.
When Clark goes off to Metropolis and works for the Daily Planet, he establishes himself as a sweet guy (the scene where he says something to the effect of “that sounds swell” and she expresses surprise that someone still says “swell” makes me smile just thinking about it) to Lois’s world-weary reporter. He’s just a likable guy, all around. By the time Superman shows up and acts Super, you’re already cheering for him on the basis that you know his secret identity.
The next thing they do right is show Superman do a number of Super things… he catches a helicopter and saves a number of folks but also gets a cat out of a tree. He catches a burglar (by standing on the side of a building) and acts as a railroad track. You get a thrill from seeing the nice guy help people, save lives, and use his powers for Good rather than for “getting touchdowns”.
And, finally, you see him at his lowest point. The kryponite and, of course, when he grieves when all his powers still fail him.
All of these things together help us relate to Clark and that grabs us by the emotions even as we’re suspending disbelief at a man in a spandex suit flying around. Our suspended disbelief is facilitated by how relatable Clark is to us and our suspended disbelief is rewarded by having him be someone who does Good that is easily accessible (Lex Luthor, between bites of scenery, does an excellent job being the evil villain).
It almost seems trite: Set up our relationship with the “secret identity”. Show us the Super part of the Superhero. Show us the Superhero sucumbing to his weakness. Show us him overcoming and winning the day.
It’s a very old story, sure. I’ve seen any number of folks complain about how the stories walk on ground that is well-trod… but the superhero stories that abandon this? My goodness, they usually turn out to be bad. (With the notable exception of X-Men and maybe X-Men 2. We’ll probably talk about them in the future and what makes *THEM* work… and how that carries over into First Class) When I watch the trailer for Captain America… I get the feeling that, maybe, it’ll be worth watching for reasons similar to those that made Superman enjoyable. I hope.