Batman, Superman, and the Problem of Superheroes: Part II

(Part II of a series. See Part I here)

Believing in Superman 

With the success of Batman: The Animated Series, the same creative team was given the reins of a new hero in 1995: Superman.

Superman is the superhero game on ‘hard.’ It’s hard to write a good Superman story. But the guy’s compelling. We wouldn’t have had decades of Superman stories if he wasn’t. But in order to write a good Superman story, it should start with this basis if you want your audience to care: he’s a strong, good guy trying to do the right thing. He tries to live up to his code: truth, justice, and the American way. (American way, oddly enough, was only added later, because Communism. It was a weird time for everybody…) Striving to live up to his code, his strength becomes a liability. He tempers himself, because he knows there’s a right and wrong way to do things.

The problem with recent Superman movies, especially Batman v. Superman, is that the people making the movie don’t believe this can be taken seriously. They don’t believe in Superman as a character. They try to make the films ‘gritty,’ and make Superman a gritty anti-hero.

The problem with this is that Superman can’t be a gritty, film noir narrative. His story is primarily a hopeful one, that a powerful person can use their power for good, and be a hero. If Superman, someone with his kind of power, acts like a gritty anti-hero, he’s not a gritty anti-hero; he is a scary asshole, and a scary asshole to whom we can’t relate.

Perfect example: in Batman v. Superman, when Luthor threatens to kill his mom, he screams “WHERE IS SHE?!” like a crazy person, and fires up his heat vision like he’s going to blast Lex into oblivion. Very un-Superman.

Lex, too, is diminished by this lack of belief. He needs to be everything Superman is not: supremely intelligent, suave, cunning, ruthless. He needs to be Superman’s foil, just like the Joker is to Batman. But the foil of a powerful asshole is a good guy, or at least an underdog. When Superman is a gritty anti-hero, Lex can’t be Lex, which is why the character goes haywire.

Now, knowing this, let’s compare introductions in movie and cartoon.

Compare this:

To this:

The first one, the animated one, is pitch perfect. From body language, you get the sense that Superman is actually afraid here. Even though he’s taller than Lex, Lex is all up in his face. He’s unafraid. After all, he knows Superman is strong, but he also knows Superman’s weakness: Superman is at heart a good guy, and wouldn’t kill Lex right there for threatening him. His power comes from who Lex is as a character: always smart, always cool, always in control.

As for Jessie Eisenberg’s Lex, our introduction to him is completely off the wall. Having him mention his father, and the whole East German thing, totally undermines him. He’s not in a power-suit, ruling the city from a modern throne. He’s a startup rich kid, and one that says ‘Ahoy, Ahoy’ when he meets people. Snyder shoehorns in all these complicated plot points – i.e. who the hell needs an import license??? YOU’RE LEX LUTHOR. SHIP THE ROCK ON A PRIVATE PLANE. NOW THE GOVERNMENT KNOWS YOU HAVE IT! WHY DID YOU DO THAT?! AND STOP BABBLING! JESUS! – and you still don’t have clear tension. All this stuff, like Zodd, the Kryptonian ship, the East German father, hell, even him playing basketball – all of this muddles up the character to the point where we really don’t know why we should fear him, or even care about a story he’s in.

Jessie Eisenberg is a good actor, and it’s clear that he really did consider the role and what it meant. But lot of the confusion and weirdness comes from the fact that they really didn’t know what to make of Lex, because they didn’t believe that Superman could just be a good guy with all that power.

It’s going to be even weirder when they start to introduce characters most people don’t even know about…

Continued in Part III

Batman, Superman, and the Problem of Superheroes

(First in a series…)

Batman v. Superman was a hell of a movie.

Not the best way to start a Traditionalistic, but hey, I haven’t had one in awhile.

Usually, these things are about really big stuff. This is going to be about something small. This, I swear, is going to be about how DC will never be able to pull off the Justice League movie.

They won’t, because they’ve already done it.

Back in the day, in the early 90’s, Warner had just come off the success of two awesome Batman movies, specifically Batman and Batman Returns. Compared to the earlier televised adaption with everybody’s favorite silly Batman, Adam West, these were darker, more serious takes on the character. So when Warner decided to created an animated series with Batman, they took this tack.

I don’t think anyone could’ve possibly guessed what they were doing while they were working on this show. It remains, along with the animated movie in the universe, the best representation of Batman put to film.*

They were able to take so many risks, and the payoff was huge. In one episode, Batman saving three police officers is told from three different perspectives. Ra’s al Ghul was a recurring character, getting Batman into Indiana Jones-type pulp adventures. Mr. Freeze was even cool!

And that wasn’t a pun! Amazing!

Batman: The Animated Series blossomed into a really incredible animated Superman. Both were then combined into the Superman/Batman Adventures, which then flowed into a run of Justice League, then into Justice League Unlimited, which told tales about the wider universe of heroes.

This is what’s known as the Timmverse, the animated DC universe helmed by Bruce Timm and a stable of awesome writers. The were animating and writing for over a decade, and created awesome representations of the whole Justice League on TV.

This begs the question: why was the first ‘episode’ of the movie universe, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, such a terrible mess? After all, they already did it.

For this, you really need to go back to the history of the series.

Understanding Batman

Mark Hamill was cast as the Joker way back in the salad days of 1992. He was the character through the entire run of the series. In a more recent interview, he said, quote:

“I had never seen anything like this, not just in children’s television — in any television.”

On the Batman: Animated Series commentary tracks, you get the idea that people really didn’t know what they were making when they were doing this series.

They were able to make such an awesome series because, on a high level, they understood what makes Batman tick.

When you consider Batman, he’s many things. He’s a boy avenging the death of his parents. He’s a costumed crime fighter. He’s Bruce Wayne, a secret identity. But he’s also a detective. There’s a reason that Batman’s first comic book was called ‘Detective Comics.’ There’s also a reason Batman’s a popular character. Detective stories, consistently, are some of the most popular literature.

Batman does this as a character constantly in the comics. Some of the greatest Batman stories ‘The Long Halloween,’ ‘Hush,’ etc. are straight-up detective stories.

In movies, Batman is almost never a real detective; that is to say, a problem of detection is not the central point of the plot. In the cartoon, Batman is consistently the detective; even when Superman plays Batman in ‘Superman/Batman: World’s Finest’ (seriously, go watch it, it’s awesome) Superman has to sneak around and play the detective, just like Batman would.

That’s why the best superhero movie, in my mind, is a movie you probably never heard of: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. In my mind, it’s the only Batman movie that pulls off the Batman-as-Detective thing really well.

The story focuses on The Phantasm, a hooded figure going around Gotham killing criminals. Everyone thinks it’s Batman, and he goes on the run from the police. Framing this is Batman’s origin story, where he falls in love and starts to doubt his mission as the Caped Crusader.

On top of that, Mark Hamill’s Joker is incredible. He’s neither a total psychotic murderer, like in Dark Knight, or a silly Silver Age version. They tried, as Timm put it to strike “a good line between the clown and the killer,” and it works really well. There’s even some moments of levity where the two Jokers mix, like this:

At the end of the clip, it looks like Joker’s going to snap. He goes “DON’T TOUCH ME!” like he’s really angry, and then immediately flips and goes “I don’t know where you’ve been!” It’s funny, but in such a way that we’re off balance. We don’t know which Joker is the real one. We don’t know what to expect.

Further, everybody talks about Joker as Batman’s foil, and here it’s done in an awesome way: both the Joker and Batman are trying to solve the same mystery of who the Phantasm is, each in their own, uh, way. (You’ll have to watch to find out how the Joker goes about it.)

All these moments and plot points from a very deep understanding of the characters, characters they had been working with for years.

They took this knowledge to the next phase of the universe, one of the most iconic characters in American history…

(Continued in Part II)

The Blood Runs Cold (Contains Spoilers)

It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that a man should be killed for so little…

– Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

In Cold Blood is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

I got the audio book from my library yesterday. I am just beginning, but I am already hooked. It’s one of those books you can’t put down.

The story, as you might already know, is about a murder. Specifically, the murder of four people, the four brutal members of the Clutter family in unassuming Holcomb, Kansas.

That is not a spoiler. They tell you right on the cover.

Nobody would ever think of In Cold Blood as a mystery, but that’s really what Capote has crafted here. In a traditional mystery, a reader doesn’t really know if the mystery will be solved, who is going to die, that sort of thing. But In Cold Blood is not that, and never claimed to be that. Instead, Capote is relying on something else.

The suspense that the book created in a single word: why? Continue reading

Understanding Highs

Pop music these days is, well, poppy.

Most of the music that makes it to the charts is fun, and little else. That’s fine, right? Surely nobody’s looking for insight, guidance, or commentary from a pop star with whipped cream cans coming out of her bra.

But in the midst of all of this mindlessness, there’s something that’s a little off. The songs that we’re hearing, even the ones in the pop charts, are picking up on it.
Continue reading