Gritty. Hard-boiled. Tortured and flawed. Ah, the elements of the new prototypical superhero.
Audiences no longer crave truth, justice and the American way. They want an icy-cold, psychologically jacked hero that shoots heroin in the women’s restroom after ripping out the spine of a baddie while bemoaning Corporate America. Superman, the embodiment of all that is good and right, is now merely looked upon with nostalgia — not as a viable Hollywood product.
Superman is dead, and we killed him.
In an interview just after the release of the megahit Christopher Nolan film “The Dark Knight,” Michael Caine, who plays Bruce Wayne’s faithful manservant Alfred, said, "Superman is the way America sees itself. Batman is the way the rest of the world sees America."
Mr. Caine may be on to something. The rest of the world sees the United States as a midnight vigilante. One that is so deep in morose emotional anguish that it takes action against evildoers using shadowy, sometimes heinous, methods. (Let’s be honest, that stuff happens. It’s real life.) Methods that split onlookers into two camps: those that support the Batman and his fight against crime — laws be damned — and those that look upon him as a rogue who believes he’s above the law.
But the U.S. today is a land that is suffering from different varieties of kryptonite. Some started by us and some that have been delivered to us via crashing airplanes. Two wars with no clear-cut winner, an economy in the dumps with lay-off announcements every single day and a media that is apparently more concerned about Miss California and "Jon & Kate" than battles between Nancy Pelosi and the CIA.
If only we did look at America like Superman. Right now I’d say it’s more Jimmy Olsen .. .or worse; Mr. Mxyzptlk.
So let’s break this down into superheroes and its current trend in film. “Superman Returns,” the 2006 Bryan Singer dirge, didn’t fail because audiences no longer resonate with a super being that can fly, shoot heat from his eyes and is immune to bullets. It failed because Superman is the epitome of good morals and justice, which today’s audience find boring and childish.
It’s hard to give that kind of guy an edge unless he’s under some sort of spell. Perhaps if Clark picked up a crack whore and painted her with feces, then he’d be approaching "cool" again. "The Big Blue Boy Scout" as he is called by cynical fanboys and Guy Gardener, only works in a patriotic America. Changing him through some sort of rebranding effort or Warner reboot won’t make things different.
It worked with Batman because in his post-Tim Burton movie existence, he became the campy parody he was in the 1960s (i.e. Bat-Shark Repellent and the Bat-tusi). Returning him to his dark roots and terrifying mental state isn’t a reboot. It’s getting to the heart of the matter.
Bruce Wayne is a jerk. Clark Kent isn’t, even if audiences want him to be. So making the man from Krypton some brooding mental case that has Punisher-esque tendencies will not work because it doesn’t match the Super-mythos. A legend that espouses a belief in a greater good and that good, no matter the hardships, will ultimately prevail.
How lame. This outdated school of thought hasn’t done much for Americans since Watergate. It didn’t start with Iraq; it was only magnified by it.
If the movie scene reflects the times, it most certainly reflects its audience too. I’m not immune. I don’t care to watch Superman pining for Lois Lane for 90 minutes in some “Lois and Clark” retread. I want to see him bust some heads and kick some ass — but the problem writers run into is how to make a guy that can’t die … seem human. We can’t identify with something like that and if ’00s audiences can’t identify with the protagonist then the movie "sucks.”
That’s life at the box office. We demand vulnerability and candor, not blind idealism and unchecked power. Which begs the question, why was the ’80s Christopher Reeve “Superman” series so appealing? Oddly enough, it was Ronald Reagan.
In a downtrodden period with all things glum, the dismal Carter years plummeted patriotism to an all-time low while Marvel comics was at an all-time high, much like at the box office today. Marvel captured anti-government themes and the racial tensions perfectly, starting in the 1960s. Contrast it with DC, which had heroes usually fighting alongside Allied forces in World War II, sold junk bonds, and even acted on behalf of the U.S. president.
These were not super times. These were X-Men times. Along came Ronald Reagan and the country was transformed into a flag-waving nation again simply by image alone. Does Superman only work when we have a conservative Republican president?
No, though I think Superman is a conservative. Hell, he was raised on a farm in Kansas by Methodist parents. What do you think? (I don’t think he’d be in favor of gay marriage, but I bet he’d let you keep your assault weapons. Yeeee…HAW!)
We are in similar times right now. The "malaise" of the Bush Administration is over, and our new president changed American attitudes just by showing up. Instantly we feel like waving a flag again — for the most part.
It’s still too early to say how things will go down with President Obama, but the early signs are there and optimism is on the rise. We’ll see if it remains. If it does, it may be the ripe environment for Superman to fly once again.