But a lot of today’s franchises-slash-blockbusters miss the mark. The thing is you can now compare many of them to their predecessors. It’s actually a good study where they go wrong – well, at least as far as I’m concerned.
Do I know anything? Well, probably not. But this is where I get to shout at clouds.
To begin with, I thought I’d compare elements of Man of Steel (2013) with Superman (1978) – both origin stories that explore Clark coming to terms with how he fits on Earth, and the role he’ll play.
Man of Steel
Clark has to clean up the sports equipment at school. The jocks mock him, and his sweetheart, Lana Lang, reluctantly drives home with them and her friends. Clark runs and beats them home, where they’re shocked to see him there. When they ask him how he got back, he says he ran. They think he’s being a goof and drive off.
Clark’s father, Jonathan Kent, comes out and says he sees Clark’s been showing off. Wistful, Clark talks about finding his place in the world. Jonathan tells Clark he was put here for a reason. Clark challenges him to a race back up to the house and runs off. Jonathan is about to try to catch him, but feels pain he immediately knows is going to be fatal. ‘Oh no,’ he says, and then collapses. Clark runs back but can’t do anything. At the funeral, he laments that for all his powers, he couldn’t save his father.
Clark, Jonathan, Martha* and the dog are driving, Clark and Jonathan arguing about Clark’s place in the world. Frustrated, Clark snaps he shouldn’t be listening as they’re not his real parents. Martha reproaches him, but Jonathan says it’s okay, and tells Clark that they did the best they could. Remorseful, it looks like Clark is about to apologise, but Jonathan interrupts as he stops the car.
There’s a long line of cars that have come to a halt as a cyclone approaches. They get out of the car. Jonathan urges everybody away but goes back for the dog. Jonathan’s foot gets caught in the car, and by the time he wrenches himself free he’s injured and it’s too late. He looks at Clark, who wants to save him. Jonathan holds up his hand to stop him – Clark’s not to give away his identity. The cyclone hits and Jonathan is killed.
Both scenes here are doing the same thing – showing Clark that he has limits, getting him to question his purpose, and being the trigger for him to move out into the world and find that purpose.
Superman does it beautifully. Clark can do nothing to stop the heart attack that kills his father. It’s probably the first time he understands he has boundaries. It would be more frustrating for somebody like Superman than it would for Wonder Woman, Aquaman, or Batman, because they have limits. Superman isn’t meant to have any – this is a reality check. It also motivates him to do as much as he can in terms of helping. (And, it foreshadows his helplessness when Lois dies.)
In Man of Steel, it’s about protecting Clark’s identity (although the story implies that everybody in Smallville knew there was something about Clark anyway). When a teenage Clark saves a school bus filled with children from drowning, Jonathan implies that perhaps Clark should’ve let them drown to protect his identity. Here with the cyclone, Jonathan stops Clark from helping, so he doesn’t reveal himself in front of people (although, arguably, Clark could’ve run in at super-speed to save Jonathan, with nobody the wiser – in the excellent TV series Smallville, Clark often made super-speed saves that nobody was aware were occurring because they were too quick for the human eye to detect).
One scene is about limitations, the other is about … keeping who you are a secret? You could argue the Man of Steel scene is trying to do the same thing – that it shows Clark he has limits. But these limits are self-imposed. He could’ve easily saved Jonathan. He could’ve done it just as the cyclone hit and everything was obscured. He could’ve done it and it wouldn’t have mattered – nobody knows who he is here; nobody knows the Kents. He’s not giving away anything – there’s no Superman yet, so there’s no secret identity that he’s revealing. (Retrospectively, given that Clark exists in a world with Batman, Wonder Woman, etc., who cares if he has powers?) But he chooses not to. This is about choice. Not about limitations. I guess what they’re trying to say is Clark shouldn’t be ashamed of who he is, and he should become Superman or something or other.
On the logistical side of this scene, Jonathan, Clark, Martha and the dog are driving down a perfectly straight road and having a conversation for about thirty seconds. Surely, you would already be able to see the long, long, long line of stopped cars and the cyclone approaching. How did they not see it earlier? It’s impossible to miss! Their view is unencumbered, and the line of cars and storm are HUGE. But they behave as if the first they come across it is when they stop. This should be physically impossible for three people sitting in a car looking down a long, straight road. It’s an extremely poorly built scene that’s simply designed to construct that shitty lesson.
I know this might seem pedantic as far as comparisons go, but as far as I’m concerned they speak about each story’s understanding of the character, and what Superman is meant to be about.
When your foundation for Superman is ill-conceived, it’s unlikely you’re going to build anything worthwhile on it.