• Longform 

    The Unrelenting Arc Towards Realism in Superhero Films

    By | June 18th, 2013
    Posted in Longform | 13 Comments

    On Sunday night, I took in Man of Steel. I went in with low expectations and, except for a few really troubling scenes, enjoyed it. However, one thing struck me during the film that really bugs me, and I’ve noticed it is endemic of just about every superhero film made in the last two decades.

    I fear that the recent trend of all superhero movies arcing towards realism is ultimately a very, very bad thing for these films. This has been a trend more or less since the mid-80s, when superhero comics went through the most dramatic darkening of their tone with the one-two punch of “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns.” It started, theatrically, with 1989’s Batman and has grown more extreme over the 24 years that has followed. Batman was still pretty ridiculous – the setting looked more realistic, but the actions were still campy and weird (three words: Love That Joker).

    But the past decade has been the most vigilant in terms of removing anything that couldn’t feel absolutely authentic from the superhero genre. Now, this isn’t to say that all of a sudden there are scientific explanations for Green Lantern rings or that Asgard has been located on a map and the powers of the gods verified. No, instead, these characters, who are fantastical in nature, have been dropped into as “real” of a world as possible.

    For some characters, this works well. Batman, as a regular dude with a superhuman motivation, works well when placed in the “real” world. Others wind up losing so much of what made them special in the first place when they are homogenized into a more normal setting. Part of what gave the 1978 Superman charm was that Metropolis was a weird mishmash of the ’40s and the ’70s – men wore hats to work, but people still shouted “Hey Jim, that’s a bad outfit!” at men dressed in tights. Green Lantern tried to make a more movie-friendly Parallax by making it a cloud instead a giant yellow bug. The result was hilariously bad and managed to have neither the realism hoped for nor the lack of goofiness they thought a giant bug would bring.

    The stylized Queens and Manhattan of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man popped off the screen in a way the gritty NYC of The Amazing Spider-Man just didn’t. The arc towards realism means a few different things, but the subtext is clear and confounding: our world needs these heroes, because we have no hope left. The more realistic the films get, the less hopeful they get as well. Call me a Pollyanna, but I don’t think we live in a hopeless world. Realism on film oftentimes equals depressing and bleak, especially in less than gifted hands.

    Even already bleak properties get darker – The Punisher begat Punisher War Journal, Ang Lee’s living comic Hulk was jettisoned for the safer (and darker) The Incredible Hulk. Eventually, the only chance filmmakers were making with their movies were just how dark to push it. For the love of Rao, even Superman Returns – a circle jerk of optimism and nostalgia – had to temper the colors of the Superman suit and make Lex Luthor get all stabby stabby with a Kryptonite shard.

    And yet, The Avengers and its direct predecessors somewhat refused this trope – that world never felt so unbearably bleak. Thor was a little darker in parts than perhaps it should have been, and I don’t think an Iron Man film needs to necessarily have palladium poisoning and drunken dog fights to be effective, but overall, the Marvel Studios films have been a breath of fresh air in this department. Hell, in The Avengers, Tony Stark argues for the goodness of the world by talking about shawarma! You couldn’t see anyone in an X-film have any such joyous exclamations, or anyone in a Bat film either, for that matter.

    Man of Steel features the most egregious version of this in its climax. If you have not seen Man of Steel yet, please skip this part. You’ll know it’s safe when you see a picture of the Fonz giving you the “Spoilers are done, it’s safe” thumb’s up. Scroll now.

    Continued below

    At the end of Man of Steel, Superman is faced with a no-win situation – either kill Zod or let his heat vision kill a family directly in his line of fire. It is a horrible, horrible situation to be placed in: is an indirect killing of innocents any less damning than a direct killing of an evil man? We can see the options running through his mind, and we see him come to the conclusion that is totally logical and what most everyone would do in that situation: he snaps Zod’s neck, killing him instantly.

    Despite this being the realistic outcome, it is not the best one for the character or the film. The best outcome is that Superman uses the strength he put out to kill Zod and jerk his head backwards, saving the family and temporarily stopping Zod. Sure, that would probably mean another 20 minutes of disaster porn until there was another way for him to stop Zod, but that’s ok.

    Superman shouldn’t do what is realistic – he should do what is right. He wasn’t created to be like us; he was created to not be like us. Making Superman more like us is not only poor storytelling, it goes against the mission statement of the entire film, which Jor-El lays out for him: lead them, and mold them in your image. Nothing is a more powerful anecdote of who Superman is than the image of him sparing Zod.

    I’ve seen plenty of well reasoned discussions of how this is a young Superman, and not yet the fully formed man (of steel) that he’ll grow up to be, and so we must forgive him this temporary lapse of character. But that argument only works if you buy into the idea that Superman is like us. I understand that people love seeing themselves on screen, and so there needs to be normal folks and everymen in movies so that people can see themselves in their media. But that is who Lois Lane is supposed to be. Lois is our surrogate onscreen; it is through her eyes that we see Superman for who is – we are not supposed to be identifying with Superman. He is beyond identification. He is a veritable god.


    Fonzie says its cool to come back.

    Because of the quasi-realistic take on Superman, the character becomes whitewashed, and appears less than, well, super. I know DC is trying to build a film universe, and so can’t have the films feel all that dissimilar to what has come before, even if those films (The Nolan Batman Trilogy, Green Lantern) don’t wind up being part of the new shared universe. Man of Steel doesn’t get it all wrong; there are some nice moments of people believing in Superman, and acting heroic and inspired by him, and that is great.

    Part of what makes comics a great medium is the ability to lose ourselves in them, and be transported to a world that is different than our own. I don’t think anyone was complaining that The Hobbit felt unrealistic – instead it was transformative. We are doing ourselves a disservice by allowing our comics, many full of hope and optimism, to come onscreen feeling like an emo band covering the Jackson 5. We can still see the joy within, but it is obscured by this false pretense that realistic is better.

    And the worst part of all of this? I don’t see a shift the other way happening. Even with Marvel Studios having a more lighthearted approach, those films are going to exist in their own little world for a little while, until one of them (probably Guardians of the Galaxy, sadly) tanks, and a “more down to Earth” approach will be needed. I fear that the Marvel films are the last gasp of fun superheroics at the cinema.

    Again, I liked Man of Steel, and I’m super excited for Justice League, Man of Steel 2: Steelier, whatever they want to do, I’m in, opening weekend, with my Sno-Caps and Coke, getting chills and wanting desperately to feel the way I did when I first saw Superman as a little kid on TV with my dad, or seeing Spider-Man as a high schooler with my non-comics reading friends who loved it. Those movies reminded me of why I loved comics, and gave me a brighter outlook walking out of the theatre than I had going in. While I marveled at the Nolan Batman trilogy, I left those films thinking “those were some really great movies,” which is an awesome thing to say. But, personally, when leaving a film starring a comics character, I’d rather leave exclaiming “that was a ton of fun.” Because if superheroes aren’t fun, then what the fuck are we doing here?

    //TAGS | Multiversity 101 | Multiversity Rewind

    Brian Salvatore

    Brian Salvatore is an editor, podcaster, reviewer, writer at large, and general task master at Multiversity. When not writing, he can be found playing music, hanging out with his kids, or playing music with his kids. He also has a dog named Lola, a rowboat, and once met Jimmy Carter. Feel free to email him about good beer, the New York Mets, or the best way to make Chicken Parmagiana (add a thin slice of prosciutto under the cheese).


    • Thrackazogg

      I disagree…I sense that some fans are feeling a lot of betrayal more than anything over this version of the character. But then, it is just one version of the character. What you really saying is that the character needs to remain pretty much the same: He needs to embody the Christ analogy. He needs to be a God among men, not of men. And yet, when you look at the movie scorecard: There have been 5 Superman movies that pretty much went down along the lines you describe.

      You may hate Superman 3, 4 and Returns (i’m going to make an assumption that you do, most adults do, myself included)…my kids love them.

      I won’t be showing Man of Steel to my kids until they’re older, but I don’t feel a great loss over this. This is the season for the realistic approach, and that season will likely pass, and eventually I’ll have no problem showing this movie to my kids as they get older. This was a sci-fi version of the character, more in touch with his human side and feelings than his Kryptonian/god-like responsibilities. He felt anguish over his actions, and if that means he’s not as high on the pedestal…well, that’s endearing to me. That’s more accessible, and ultimately something we can learn from as well. I think you’ll likely see the character change from what he did in this movie. That may be cold comfort, but yeah, it’s not your ideal of Superman, or the ideal of a lot of hardcore fans and even creators (Mark Waid, Bendis)…but it’s the Superman I like to see, and many others too.

      We can lament the loss of the cartoony comics. I loved many of them for what they were: stuff like Superman (’78), The Shadow, Batman (1966), even Flash Gordon. I think one day this will return in vogue because, as with the idea of the reboot, these characters are timeless but they cannot be done the same time and time again. We’ll go back to a more Christopher Reeve time, eventually. Batman will eventually be more about the craziness of the villains rather than their depravity. Until that time, stick with the comics, stick with the animated series, and stick with the original movies. Your time and version of Supes will come around again.

    • EmilyEsse

      I could not agree more with this. Well said.
      (my own thoughts here:

    • Jason Heath

      How many more people would have died had Clark prolonged the fight? Zod was a trained killer, with powers growing by the minute (he learned to fly in hours, compared to Clark’s years).

      Clark had no tactical training, hell, he had never even been in a real fight before. He made the best decision he could. To save the human race, Zod had to die. Remember, he wasn’t even called Superman yet.

      • Well, Zod knew he could fly because Kal-El could. Had Clark had a similar guide to the extent of his powers he might have been a flying toddler.

    • My favorite part of any of the Marvel movies is the scene in Spider-Man (2 I think) where he decides to give up being Spider-Man and does this silly macho dance down the street. Fun is not bad, as soon as Warner/DC realize this their movies (and comics for that matter) will improve by leaps and bounds.

      • Matthew Garcia

        I don’t know if I agree, because I think that Dark Knight Rises is a lot of fun, especially after Batman returns to Gotham. The sheer energy of the Bat-copter/truck/Bat-pod chase; Batman throwing his symbol up on the bridge; Jim Gordon getting tossed around in the truck, Catwoman, and the visual ambitions Nolan used….

    • clockstomper

      Apparently people never read a single John Byrne Superman issue if all the bitching about the movie’s take on Krypton and Superman’s actions against Zod are any indication. In the Byrne run, Superman killed Zod and his cohorts with Kryptonite in cold blood after they had been robbed of their powers.

      This Superman, who’s only experience with his powers was flying and lifting heavy things, did what he did when he had no options available. You might have a legitimate complaint if MoS 2 comes out and he hasn’t learned anything from the incident. But to me it seems like a springboard for Superman to learn more about his powers and adopt the Morrison “there’s always another way” attitude. All Star was originally conceived in 1999 to be within the continuity where Superman killed the Phantom Zone criminals anyhow.

      And I don’t really understand how demanding all superhero films have the same tone somehow would make them better. The light and jokey tone worked for The Avengers this outing. An Infinity Gauntlet based sequel might not even keep that same tonality and I fail to see how that would be a bad thing. Doing what’s right for the story at hand seems better than trying to make everything all sunshine and puppy dogs every outing.

      Worse still, your “everything is SOOOOO bleak” argument does not old water. Green Lantern was just generally ashamed of it’s own lore and lacked coherent editing. Replacing clouds with bugs could do little to fix. Amazing Spider-Man, while going for less camp, was hardly what I’d call dark. It had teen romance, giant lizard creatures and a cheese-tastic love of crane worker unions. It seems like they actually chopped away much of the “dark secret of Peter Parker’s parents” plot line the film was heavily advertised with. And coming up the pike, we have an Edgar Wright caper about a guy who shrinks and a movie featuring a sentient tree and a talking raccoon. Not very bleak.

      I guess people are welcome to hold burnings of Vertigo comics if they like. I’ll keep hoping creators don’t get hamstrung from their ideas in the name of keeping it light. Now that would be bleak.

      • Why does everyone who defends Man of Steel think that John Byrne’s run on Superman is so much more important than the other 73 years of Superman comics?

        • Thrackazogg

          Byrne’s run wasn’t the only time that Superman had killed someone. Back in the 30’s/early 40’s, many of the comic superheroes killed villains, including Superman. Call it a sign of the hard boiled times, but eventually this was toned down for the same reasons being largely cited here.

          But it shows that this isn’t just a John Byrne thing. It was a Shuster and Siegel thing too. Superman is as open to variations as any character. For me, what’s important is the reaction, and I think the reaction was spot on. The recent interviews I read with Goyer and Snyder also indicate that this was intentional…the plan being that this is reason that Superman will not kill going forward.

          • I’m aware of his history. The point was that for the vast majority of his existence killing was something Superman would not do. I don’t think anyone would have argued differently before this movie was released.

            • Thrackazogg

              Yes, and maybe that’ll be the way it is going forward.

    • POW!

      Wow. So you want more one liners and goofball antics instead of realism and consequence of actions. Comics have come a long way since 1950 but if that’s what you prefer…

      • Thrackazogg

        You don’t think there’s any happy medium?