Are you looking forward to the new Superman movie Man of Steel? You are? Good, I’d be worried if you weren’t. After all it’s not every year you get the chance to see a new big screen adaption of one of the best known god origin myths. And that right there is my reason why Superman sequels always suck.
He’s a god.
Okay, I’ll explain a little more. Superman, like most if not all superhero stories, can be viewed as modern mythology. Wolverine is perhaps a modern take on Odysseus, wandering the world in search of home. Wonderwoman, is quite literally an Amazonian princess. Nightcrawler and Angel, are supposedly descendants of races early humans mistook for angels and demons. And Superman, is Heracles, or maybe Perseus, well one of Zeus’ bastard sons anyway (I think probably more Hercules though because the second part of his origin story is usually his having to slay more gods/titans. An act which in Heracles mythology ends with his taking a seat alongside his father in Olympus.).
We’ve always had superheroes in our cultures. In the past though they either represented the very, very best of humanity (a lot of the Fianna, or the Knights of the Round table), of semi-godly origin (half of the classical Greek heroes were demi-gods), or were straight up gods (Prometheus sacrificing his freedom to give mankind fire, etc). But they were, with the addition of tights and some ACDC to the soundtrack, what modern kids would recognise as superheroes. They can simply do things that “normal” people can’t. They’re smarter, or stronger, or have powers, or are immortal, or, or, or.
So back to Superman.
Superman has one of the better origin stories of the very early superheroes. His entire world is destroyed by some cataclysm. His father desperately tries to save his entire race, but his efforts are rebuffed by his own people. So out of absolute desperation he sends his only son to Earth in a small purpose built spacecraft. Then Supermans parents die. Next twenty-ish years of boring stuff about him growing up as a normal mid-western kid on a farm, all the while hiding his true nature. His adopted dad dies (man this kid is bad luck to have around). Moves to the big city, wants to use his powers for good, creates a costume, becomes Superman, has a career saving a REALLY clumsy, and self destructive newspaper reporter. Saves the world a bunch of times like a good solar powered god.
That’s Superman boiled down to a single paragraph. Doesn’t sound so good does it? It actually sounds kind of comical.
But in reality it’s actually a rather engrossing story. You have the ultimate fish out of water, an honest to goodness alien, whose father sends him to a world where he knows his son will become godlike because of his new environment. And a lot of Supermans origin story, when it’s told well, is about his struggle to accept his true nature, and the responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with that nature. Because in Superman, just like in the ancient myths, power/acclaim doesn’t come for free. There is always a price.
Sometimes that price is your bitch of a step-mother trying to kill you as a child, before driving you mad enough to kill your own wife and children, in some versions not once, but twice. Heracles.
Sometimes the price is that you become a king, only to have it all taken from you, and then have the universe add ridicule to insult to injury by dropping the the prow of your own ship on your now homeless head. Jason of the Argonauts.
And in Supermans case, the price is knowing he can never save everyone. No really, that’s the price. No matter how perfectly he pulls off a rescue, someone will still be hurt. He is a god, but one who isn’t all powerful, a god who can’t have a really perfect win. The world is just too damned big for one man, even a superman, to save all of it. So instead he spends his time saving as much of one city as he can, and Lois Lane constantly, because and I cannot state this strongly enough, she is a super-magnet for trouble as well as being incredibly clumsy (and yeah, usually kinda hot so there is that).
His origin story works really well because it’s about a young god who wants to be a normal man, but is forced over time, by circumstance to accept his true nature. Even though it means he will have to pay some enormous personally torturous price. Perseus anyone?
And right there is why the sequels, 1980’s Superman 2 being an exception mostly because it was actually far more the second part of his origin than a true sequel, usually suck. He’s a god. There’s really no suspense, no peril. Superman will not die. Lois Lane will not die. And everyone else is more or less just a nameless face in the crowd who you won’t see more than once, or at the most very often. Superman always wins in the end, because he’s a god. So why bother warming up the edge of your seat?
Peril is important to good storytelling. And it is an element that even one of the worst superhero movies of all time had in spades. X-Men 3 is an abomination of a movie. I honestly think it’s far worse than the 2003 movie Hulk, and that was just a mess of bad CGI, combined with not enough good story. But even with it being such a terrible hash of a movie, X-Men 3 really had one thing going for it. Characters, major ones, could and did die. The good guys won, yes. But they paid a truly huge price, and you were never sure how many of the characters you loved would still be kicking at the end of it all.
Best of all it showed a god-type character, Dark Phoenix, dying from something as mundane as being stabbed. It allowed the unstoppable, to be stopped in a way that was not only easy to relate to, but in a way that tore at your heart strings.
This is something that Superman has never, to my mind, really managed to achieve in the sequels. Simply because Superman is Superman. He always saves the day, so why worry? Even in the comic books the writers have had to continuously ramp up what his opponents can do, to have even the slightest hint of peril. But it still doesn’t work. Why?
That version was from a parallel universe.
That version was another a clone.
It was all a dream.
A vision experienced in the Fortress of Solitude.
…and so on. (Not sure how many of those have actually happened. I stopped reading Superman comics around the same time I discovered breasts. But really what else can you do with that character?)
When your chief character is a god, it really is almost impossible to do much more with him. I mean sure you can knock off his support system. Kill his mother, his father, his girlfriend, his dog. But even then you wind up having to tell a superhero story which has no superheroism. Instead you wind up with a story that you could have told better by just having an all human cast of characters, and setting it in a universe that everyone can fully relate to.
Or you can strip him of his powers…superhero movie with no superpowers that isn’t Kickass. I’ll pass thanks.
What’s the point?
But all that said, he does have probably the best of the early superhero origin stories. And I fully expect Man of Steel to quite simply rock. So I really am strongly suggesting that you go watch it. This won’t be the campy 80’s version, or Lois and Clark. This will be a fully realised gritty version based solidly in the same sort of universe as Nolans Batman Trilogy. Or to put it another way, Superman the way we’ve never seen it on the big screen, or really any screen.
Just…don’t expect a lot from the sequels. And there ARE going to be sequels.
So if all that isn’t enough, as a loyal member of the Angry Army I will leave you with the Angry Joe himself pleading with you to go see Man of Steel. I mean come on, could you say no to that face?
And now I leave you. It’s time to Up, Up, and AWAY!