The Superman v. Batman comic book debate is stupid because it’s a matter of personal preference. But there’s little denying that Batman is a modern, relevant character for today’s times. Meanwhile, Superman is an arcane fable most emblematic of a post-war boom when America felt invincible. Make a film as gritty and hyper realistic as you like, unless the theme and storyline are plausible it’ll feel like Transformers.
It started a year ago at the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. A teaser trailer aired for Man of Steel, the imminent Superman reboot. Unlike the sublime pleasure of childhoods when a dinosaur or superhero trailer would garner visceral affection from a crowd, here I felt a collective eye roll. There was even chatter about how corny Superman was before a final montage of Superman ascending to the heavens overpowered the theater audience with noise. On the eve of the picture’s release I can’t find one person who wants to see this thing and this includes my mom, who goes to every movie. “The only thing respectable about Superman is the fact that he can turn back time,” she told me the other day.
My personal banal interest in Superman stems from cornball levels the series has gone through in just my lifetime, most recently the sitcom rip off of 7th Heaven that was The WB’s (R.I.P.) Smallvile. The show worked because at his core Superman is the high school student looking for respect in the outside world. A majority of his problems are based around social identity constructs as opposed to blind obligation to the populous like Batman.
Batman was an orphan that saw societal ills at a tender age and learned that the world was unfair. Henceforth, he’d be a vigilante. Superman was raised by a caring family and is a well-adjusted Midwesterner. He sees good early in life and strives to maintain that order and those values.
It’s boring, and at the heart of why Superman, as a character, hasn’t stood the test of time.
In the ‘40s and ‘50s, a handsome man would run into a telephone booth and save people’s lives and then change back quickly without being noticed. That possibility is gone, with PRISM and other surveillance programs. All the mild-mannered reporters were probably already fired from The Daily Planet.
His life seems less grandiose, and that’s why the best Superman interpretations in recent years—Smallville and the soap operatic Lois & Clark—have been better suited for television. Even then, Clark Kent’s romanticized notion of love and loyalty seems naïve by today’s standards.
Batman is dealing with depression and personal demons. The love of his life was blown up by a terrorist. His villains are real, relatable. Superman’s foes tend to be based in a realm of absurdity—somewhere between Star Trek castoffs and lazy screenwriting. He is even less interesting than Thor because at least Thor tries to grapple with the existential angst of being a god in love with a mortal.
In the late 20th Century, even DC Comics saw an end game when a cheesy villain named Doomsday actually killed Superman in the comics. What superhero gets killed in general and then goes out at the hands of a clown named Doomsday? This is not like getting hauled off in a stretcher after Sid Vicious laid you out–this is more like The Honky Tonk Man ending your career.
For that matter, the whole series feels overdone and much ado about nothing with obvious observations about the political climate being brought up through very basic principles that serve no purpose other than escapism.
In the end, Superman is a superhero that is ripped from the realms of a Lifetime original movie lacking the testosterone and internal conflict fans need in order to care about another tall, boring jock. High school’s over.