Superman – you know him, right? Super-powerful, super-nice guy. He’s so super it’s difficult to find villains who pose any challenge to him. He can’t be wasted on thugs and crooks; Superman stories tend to ratchet up to planet-threatening scale (even though a mugger or a rapist is just as big a threat to Lois as Lex Luthor could be).
In the most recent Superman flick Man Of Steel, the big guy wound up in a destructive world-saving fight before most Earthlings knew he existed. Here’s the trailer:
Not that a Superman movie could be realistic, but on the day when thousands of people die, most people just learning of his existence would need a play book to know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. The most likely reaction is that people would want him off our planet as soon as possible. Out-of-context, he is a terrifying character.
It was a really lousy movie – the fight scenes went on forever while the audience struggled to find some reason to care. But it wasn’t a total loss. Watching Man Of Steel gave me a chance to figure out how to make a Superman movie that would at least be interesting to me: by turning the lens on the people around him.
Look at the problem differently: Young Clark is not twice as strong, not five times as strong as most people, but thousands of times as strong. To him we are as fragile as rotten eggshells. His biggest problem isn’t keeping a secret identity, it’s learning how (and why) not to kill people. He needs a reason to value human life, and a literally inhuman level of self-control. Jonathan and Martha Kent must figure out how to raise this dangerous child. And that’s where you spend your first movie; he isn’t the star, his adoptive parents are.
Scene: Jonathan Kent is in the local hospital with three broken ribs. Toddler Clark (only beginning to gain strength) awakens from a bad dream and lashes out, knocking him into the hallway. To the doctor Jonathan explains that he was kicked by a horse in the barn, though the bruise mark on his chest looks more like the hand of a child. He’s a bit doped up as he and Martha discuss what to do.
You see the problem? The conflict? They can’t turn loose of this found-child, but they are in way, way over their heads. He’s only going to get stronger, and stronger, and stronger. They don’t know yet that he will be able to fly, or cut steel with heat rays from his eyes. As the magnitude of their problem dawns on them, they acquire a new – and probably unwelcome – life mission.
There’s never any respite from raising Clark. It isn’t like they could leave him with a babysitter and go out to the movies. They couldn’t just hand him over to the government, which never saw a new phenomenon that it didn’t try to weaponize. No, they’re stuck with him.
How do you wake a super-child who is having a nightmare, or even a childish tantrum? How do you teach him to stand out? Be a “pretty good athlete”? Have compassion – he must have compassion – without trying to fix the whole world? How to be an honest person while living an enormous lie?
They can’t wait until he’s a teenager to tell him his true origins. Who’s to say (as Man Of Steel suggested) that someone equally powerful, but grown up, won’t come looking for him? He needs to know. They need him to know. They can’t raise him without his help. This is as “bootstraps” as it gets.
Jonathan and Martha are raising perhaps the most difficult child in the universe, while keeping that difficulty an absolute secret. Maybe there’s someone in the community they can confide in, but maybe not. Who can they trust? Joseph and Mary surely had less trouble raising Jesus (and I doubt the initials are accidental either).
In my Superman movie, a childless couple in Kansas pull off the most high-stakes, high-wire-without-a-net child raising in history. Pretending to be Clark Kent most of the time is the most difficult thing that Superman ever does. And the first few times Superman makes the news, it has to be in an unambiguously positive way. There can’t be any cities in ruins before the world knows that Superman is a good guy.
Maybe the second movie should be about The Daily Planet. Let the third movie be a catastrophic, world-threatening crisis. But my bet would be on the first two as worth watching.
- Let’s assume the Kents have seen the Twilight Zone episode, It’s A Good Life.
- I see that movie makers have decided it’s OK to do 9-11 style destruction scenes again. Think of how many movies in the last year have involved destroying big buildings with people in them – Superman, Pacific Rim, Star Trek, Transformers, probably others. A bit overdone, if you ask me.
- Man Of Steel touched for a moment or two on the problem of Clark learning self-control, but it got lost in all the planet-threatening violence.
- The very enjoyable TV series Smallville hinted at the problem of Clark, but really it was more like a teen-spirit version of the grown-up Superman. At least, the episodes I saw; we didn’t get that station very well.
- Lance Mannion wrote an excellent series of reviews on Man Of Steel – all of them targeting deficiencies in the movie. Here’s a re-post of one with a list of all the others: But Superman Would Never Do That.