How has Marvel taken over the Superman business?
Superman has always been an alien in two ways. He’s literally from the planet Krypton, having been given powers from the energy of Earth’s yellow sun. He was also raised in a small-town in Kansas before moving to New York City, and the mixture of superpowers and those good ol’ American values combined to make him something better than what humanity could offer.
“They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be,” Superman’s father tells him. “They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you ... my only son.”
I’m going to leave aside the literal Christian allegories here — despite Superman’s creation at the hands of two Jewish artists — and just repeat the fact that Superman was supposed to be good. He was supposed to be an example, an inspiration. He would make us better by showing us how to be kind and how to help others.
And that’s a hard character to write, especially in the years leading up to the current political climate. The world is filled with fear of immigrants and refugees, and Warner Bros. filtered that fear through the Superman films.
His parents don’t instill the rural values of helping others and belonging to a community, they say it’s probably OK to let kids die in order to keep his secret. They tell him he doesn’t owe anyone anything.
Of course the modern Superman is a brooding, boring mirror of our current world; he’s never been raised to be anything else. Krypton was destroyed because of ... I dunno. Genetics and a skull or something. Superman’s appearance on the world stage is quickly followed by the appearance of other Kryptonians who are ready to tear the world apart to find him. His existence brought a war to Earth, and humans are right to be fearful. If you let one in, soon others will show up and wreck everything.
What an uplifting thought.
Warner Bros. thought the best way to modernize Superman was to try to make him as conflicted and “dark” as the modern era. If superheroes are meant to mirror our dreams, the modern film Superman is a nightmare of xenophobia and self-reliance. We aren’t inspired to rise to Superman’s level, we’re presented a world in which he sank to ours.
So what is Marvel doing differently?
Marvel solved the problem of Superman being boring and old-fashioned in a very simple way. They made him boring and old-fashioned, and then cast someone who plays that really well.
Captain America is also a fish out of water in two ways. He’s an enhanced soldier with strength, resilience and reflexes far beyond that of a standard human being, and he’s out of his time. Steve Rogers is from the “simpler” pop culture World War 2-era America, when you knew who the bad guys were, you knew what you were fighting for and the racism of the time is glossed over because it would be uncomfortable to think about.
Rogers isn’t a New Yorker who was raised in Kansas, but it’s close enough. The idealized values of rural America were just swapped out for the idealized values of a past America. The idea of being a bit of a nerd and holding the door open for ladies and not kicking puppies comes from a different reason for being displaced, but it absolutely comes from the fact he’s displaced. He’s out of his element, and his value system and basic morality are held up as something to be emulated. He’s an inspiring figure in a world of compromises.
Remind you of anyone else?
Captain America is all the things that Superman’s critics say would keep him from working well in modern cinema. He’s over-powered and “boring.” He’s a boy scout, both figuratively and possibly literally. That doesn’t work in a world where everyone is compromised and there is no clear line between good and evil.
And Marvel knows it. That’s what makes the writing of these films, and Chris Evans’ performance, so good. Warner Bros. created a Superman who reacted to our time by becoming just another dude who can fly and hit people hard, but is otherwise mopey and resorts to killing his enemy in the first film. They didn’t even try to craft a hero who was at odds with the world, they just gave up on the idealism.
The Marvel films kept the simplistic core of Captain America and put him in a time where nothing is simple, and they’ve been mining that tension for all its worth in movies that both focus on Captain America and ensemble casts where he’s just the leader of the team. You can’t just always choose the “right” thing when the world is one big shade of gray, and Marvel’s writers and directors have dealt with that fact by embracing it and implicitly exploring it.
Superman has a had time existing in 2016, especially in film, and Warner Bros. reacted to that by destroying the character. Marvel reacted to the same fact by centering the idea that idealized morality can’t exist anymore, and probably never existed in the way we believed. The results have been wonderful action films, and a “modern” version of an anachronistic character who doesn’t see a way to be the hero he needs to be in every situation.
Marvel has been showing Warner Bros. how to make good Superman movies for years, and it’s time Warner Bros. started paying better attention.