(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.


Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to


  1. Connections. The best superhero movies are ones that have something that makes us, the viewers, connect with at least one character in a fairly positive way and without beating the viewer over the head with it. Then they move on to what the viewer normally enjoys about the hero. How was the death of Clarks Dad “positive”? It made us sympathize with Clark and bring him down to Earth (well, closer) for us.

    Each superhero movies attempts this, but most have failed. I think Ang Lee’s Hulk highlights one of the bad attempts of this. You are bludgeoned throughout the whole movie about how bad Bruce’s life was and why he is messed up enough to be the Hulk. What a downer. And that bludgeoning took so much time in the movie that you had very little of the stuff that makes people smile about the Hulk. “HULK SMASH!!!!”

    On the other side, X-men had the alienation that most people felt when they were teens to help connect them to the movie through Rogue, but they moved quickly from that to what makes the X-men fun.

    (Minor spoilers for Green Lantern)

    I saw GL this weekend and enjoyed it quite a bit. Holes out the wahzoo, but I do not go into these movies expecting Shakespeare. I even think the ending works. It just takes one person with the right idea and Hal had it this time. That is one of the things that make the GL Corps so powerful, enough people to increase the odds that one will have the right idea. It worked for me that Hal had it. Why? Because he was so new that he had an easier time thinking of a solution that did not involve the ring solely. I think most GLs would look at the ring as a crutch and rarely think of something that did not have the ring as the focal point. I will be buying the DVD when it comes out.

    The part that did not make this movie “great” for me was connecting to Hal. They tried it with Hal’s father and his issues, but it fell too much into the beating me over the head with it and they started with that hammer in a very poor way. That made it too difficult to really get into the movie.

    • Spiderman worked because of this.

      I think that Nolan’s Batman movies have *FAILED* to achieve this. The Bruce Wayne parts of the movie are excruciatingly bad (thank goodness they’re as short as they are).

      That’s probably worth exploring too…

      • Batman fans will give you a pass on bad Bruce because Bruce, such as he is, is really just a placeholder for Batman. He’s the superhero personae story inverted.

        Because Batman is the actual-real-guy. Everybody else’s secret identity is more or less a truer reflection of themselves than their super identity. Spiderman is just a wiseacre Peter Parker with the social ineptitude banished because of the mask. Superman really *is* Clark Kent with a laundry list of cool extra capabilities.

        Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, is the made-up character. He’s the flip side to Iron Man: Tony Stark (pre-issue 170 or so) really is a womanizing playboy. Bruce actually *IS* Batman, hiding himself so that he can pass among humans.

      • Strangely, I thought the Burton/Keaton Wayne wasn’t too bad. Or maybe I can just relate to the awkwardness…

        • It’s weird. The Keaton Bruce Wayne was the best (non-animated) Bruce I’ve seen. What holds that movie back is about half of Nicholson’s scenes as The Joker. The plot, however, is pretty good and holds up.

          The new Dark Knight movie has a bad Bruce Wayne and more plot holes than The Ring but Ledger’s Joker is the scariest movie bad guy I’ve seen in a superhero movie and I’d easily take TDK over Batman any day of the week despite all that.

          Maybe Batman movies work because of their villains and Batman is just there for the villain to bounce off of.

          • What holds that movie back is about half of Nicholson’s scenes as The Joker.

            Let’s not fail to give due “credit” to Kim Basinger, whose Vicki Vale may be the least appealing comic book girlfriend of all time. (I did, however, think Michelle Pfeiffer made a splendid Catwoman in the sequel.)

          • I had completely forgotten her. Non-villain (or vigilante) significant others for Bruce Wayne are rarely as interesting in the long run as the peers of Batman… Talia or Catwoman, say.

            I mean, how do you compete? “I have fewer father issues” works in the real world, of course, but Batman doesn’t operate there.

          • I think Batman is one of those superheroes who is often more interesting when we are less connected to him. In my mind, some of the best batman stories are those where batman is not the point of view character.

            I think the parts of the Burton movie that were interesting were at the beginning, where we were seeing batman through the eyes of an outsider. Once the dual questions of “who is the man behind batman’s mask” and “who is the man behind bruce wayne’s mask” were answered, the movie started to go south–because at that point it was relying on an incoherent plot and a weak performance by the villian

          • I think the parts of the Burton movie that were interesting were at the beginning, where we were seeing batman through the eyes of an outsider.

            These were the best parts of the Nolan film too.

            When he hoists the bad cop to the rooftop and interrogates him. “I swear to God!” “SWEAR TO ME!!!” and drops him. The scenes with the low-level hoods in the cargo area. When Scarecrow sees what Batman looks like under the influence of the drug.

            Those were *AWESOME* scenes that showed how the Batman worked in the minds of the superstitious and cowardly.

          • Maybe Batman movies work because of their villains and Batman is just there for the villain to bounce off of.

            Oh, absolutely. When I think about the best episodes of the animated series, they were typically villain-centric. They made a really good episode about The Clock King!! Bruce is Abbot to their Costello, except it’s more violent than funny.

        • Sorry, folks. Scanners kicks ass of all above mentioned flix. Not even close!

          Patrick, Just wondering–is there any truth to the statement just put out by the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, that the sun will explode at midnight tonight? Noting that it is not out of the question that humans can survive in temperatures well over 10,000 degrees, surviving in temperatures close to absolute zero will be a challenge of an entirely different sort–not impossible, but attainable with a great deal of sacrifice. Let’s pray. All.

          Elias–connection: Breyer, ice cream, survival of the human race. You scream, I scream, we all scream for ice cream.

          What scares me is Ed Begley named as Secretary of Defense–you know him, right? He invented the tin foil hat. Also said he could enrich uranium in his own back yard, and yes, the light bulb test was applied to him and yes, light bulbs placed in his ears, mouth, and, well….let’s just say a place where the moon don’t shine–ALL bulbs lit up!

          Connection: Superman–soundtrack, Scanners–Sound of Music

          • I know it’s the TV version, but Teri Hatcher is the hottest, sultry, most splendid, Lois to ever to play that role.

            God, I love that girl!! I’ve proposed to her at least a thousand times.
            I know, hard to believe–received only one response, and that was to, “bug off, creep”. Probably just a bad day. Damn, did I blow it. A friend of mine was able to get her address so I thought I’d give it one last try. I brought my gorgeous lute with me, set myself all up and went into John Dowland’s “Melencholy Galliard” and followed it up with Dowland’s, “Flow My Tears”. You’ll never guess what happened–she called the police!!! I got arrested, spent the night in jail feverishly awaiting my supernaturally lovely lass to bail me out. Again, hopes dashed. No bail, no kiss, no positive answer to any of my sincere entreaties of eternal love. Zilch. I would have been better off hiring a skywriter to write—Teri, Beethoven loves you enough for you to see this. My love, my all. Come home. Ludwig

      • Batman is a weird one. It is about the only superhero movie that has worked with a “dark” theme. The other successfull ones are more four color and just a “rollicing good time.”

        I seem to connect with Bruce turning something horrible into something helpful to others (though Bruce is a nut job).

        It sounds like you did not like the first in the new Batmans. I like the first and did not like as much the second. The Dark Knight was too dark for my superhero tastes. I liked it, but just not as much.

        • Oh, I loved both of them and consider them among the best Superhero movies.

          Bruce Wayne has nothing to do with any of that, though.

  2. Believe it or not, I’ve never seen Superman. I’ve seen 2-4 (and Returns), but not the original. How odd is that?

    I don’t tend to put X-Men in the upper echelon of movies. It was a movie that had a lot of promise, but ended with a death ray (in concept, if not in function) from the Statue of Liberty. It failed to decide what it was. A better movie on the whole, probably, than GL. But less comfortable in its own skin and honestly, less fun to watch*.

    * – Batman Forever, actually, manages something vaguely similar to GL. As a Batman fan, and as a guy that prefers the darker variations of the character, it was an odious betrayal. But for what it was, it accomplished it ably. Better than what Schumacher would have done if he’d tried to emulate Burton, and failed. Batman & Robin was a miserable failure even on its own terms.

    • Superman is well worth watching. Try to keep in mind that it was made in 1977… and the special effects were, like, *GOLLUM* in scope.

      “You will believe that a man can fly” was the teaser, if I recall correctly.

      Anyway, check it out. It’s better than Superman II (which fell apart there at the end).

        • Yes indeed.

          In thinking about Superman some more, I think that Lex Luthor’s over-the-topness was a weakness more than anything else.

          I’d be interested in seeing a modern version of Luthor in a modern re-telling of the film. (Kevin Spacey wasn’t playing Lex Luthor as much as he was playing Gene Hackman playing Lex Luthor.)

          I mean, a legitimate businessman who is Lawful Evil taking on the Lawful Good that is the Big Blue Boy Scout. Mmmmm.

          • I’m not very good at placing people on the moral taxonomy compass, but would Max Schreck from “Batman Returns” be an example of the kind of villain you’d have in mind?

          • Yes, absolutely. He was the best villain in that movie.

            The Penguin as mutant is an idea that doesn’t make much sense to me (and, in the comic books, they’ve gone a much different and more interesting direction with him. He’s a nightclub owner who is always sitting in the far corner booth with a couple of vacant women and a couple of “associates”… Batman comes to his nightclub from time to time to pump him for information and idly threaten his business interests. Penguin gives information in exchange for the knowledge that he’s more useful to Batman in the booth than in Blackgate.)

            Given Penguin’s nigh-uselessness in the film, and given that Catwoman is closer to a vigilante in her own right than villain, we’re stuck with Max Schreck who, if I recall correctly, doesn’t even interact much with Batman but dies at the hands of Catwoman.

            All that to say: I hated Batman Returns.

            What were we talking about?

            Oh, yes. Superman. Yeah, he’d have made a great Superman villain.

          • As far as those interactions go, keep in mind that Max Schreck was a last minute substitution for Billy Dee William’s Harvey Dent from the first movie, and the plan was for him to be scarred, but not killed, in the finale.

    • “Batman & Robin” was a failure of epic proportions, bad on every possible level and in every possible way. The only good thing that can be said about it is that it gave Tilda Swinton something to mock George Clooney about when she accepted her Oscar.

  3. What really makes the original superman work is the sense of wonder. The tagline “You will believe a man can fly” isn’t just talking about the special effects. It’s talking about how the movie managed to capture that amazing feeling you felt when you read your first comic book.

    The only other series that’s managed to accomplish the same thing is Spiderman. And it’s no coincidence that the superman and spiderman franchises got successively worse, while movies that rely on different aspects of superheroes often get stronger in their immediate sequels.

    • You were in the spam filter for some reason! Sorry it took so long to get you out, wrestling was on and when I got home, Maribou was using the desktop and I’m writing this comment (and my next blogpost) on her laptop.

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