Like many thousands of other people, I went to see the new Superman flick Man of Steel the other day. Whilst I quite liked it, I had my problems with it. Chief of which was the fact it was the same type of joyless, po-faced, sullen comic book adap we’ve been seeing ever since Chris Nolan reinvigorated the Batman series. I know I can’t be the only one getting sick of how ridiculously seriously these films take themselves.
I’m not saying that I would prefer a Superman film that undermines the comic at every turn, pointing out how silly things are. Not at all. I love it when films have confidence in the comics and strive to make what worked on the page work on screen. Films used to take the attitude of looking at comic series and seeing what they could salvage, but now they’re mostly interested in being faithful to the source material. I’m also not against dark and gritty adaptations. The Dark Knight trilogy is fantastic and I love stuff like Sin City, Road to Perdition and Dredd. Thing is, dark and gritty worked for Batman because Batman was all downbeat and moody to begin with. The washed-out palette and realistic approach worked because it suited the character and world that he inhabited.
Comic books are renowned for having a multitude of takes on their characters. Spider-Man alone has had so many different iterations ranging from a futuristic 2099 version to a cartoon pig known as “The Spectacular Spider-Ham” it’s hard to keep track of them all. Practically every time a new artist/writer is hired, the series is technically rebooted and some new blood gets a crack at taking on an established character. Whilst 1997’s Batman & Robin can go drown in a bucket of piss, this is one of the reasons why I don’t mind Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever as much as most people do. As long as the core character traits are kept the same, you can remix the tone, characters and world as much as you want. It’s like Shakespeare- as long as the essence is kept the same, people don’t give a fuck what you do.
What I do have a problem with is when filmmakers artificially grit up a franchise to appeal to the emotionally stunted moody teen demographic out there. It happened with The Amazing Spider-Man and it’s happened again with Man of Steel. Both films were tasked with rebooting a franchise and making the hero relevant and cool again (the necessity of which is debatable). Both films took the “darker” route and I would argue they both sold out their characters to do it.
I’m not the biggest Superman fan ever, but I like the character a lot and have enjoyed my fair share of the comics, films and TV shows. I even played the craptacular Superman 64 back in the day. When I bought my ticket for MoS, I expected a grittier take on the franchise, but for the basic character to remain the same altruistic saviour figure he always has been. What I got was a mopey, brooding bellend in a skintight suit. Superman’s sincerity and earnestness doesn’t have to be cheesy. They could have made it work. But no, they washed out the colours and sucked out the joy. Where’s all the protecting and inspiring good in people? Abandoned in his own selfish quest to get to know just who he really is.
This grittification reminds me of comics in the ’80s when many heroes were like huge steroid-abusing bears, muscling their way around swearing, killing and being “mature”. Looking back on them now, it’s funny how juvenile they are. Comics have thankfully got through that awkward phase and are now more diverse and legitimately adult than ever. The film adaptations need to do this too. At this rate, the much-talked about Justice League film will be Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman et al sitting in a room chain smoking, cutting themselves and looking for “deep” pictures to put on their Tumblrs.
I think the reason that people are supposedly connecting with the Nolanised breed of films is an overall weakening of audiences’ imaginations. People just can’t suspend disbelief like they used to. Nowadays you have to explain the fuck out of everything and meet audiences three-quarters of the way. People like to think they’re too cynical and clever for the older, cheesier superhero flicks, but they really aren’t. They’re too fucking stupid to get caught up in the escapism of it all. The Nolan Bat-films worked because Batman isn’t superpowered. All his tech is plausible and only slightly science-fictiony. When you present a realistic take on Superman who, may I remind you, can fly and has laser vision, you’re forced to really think just how he can achieve flight, rather than just buy the concept. I want to believe a man can fly, not just be told it. Same problem with The Amazing Spider-Man. Using the film’s own logic, explain to me how a teenager with no income can afford to bulk-buy crates of a commercially available web-like fluid and isn’t tracked down by any competent law enforcement agency once they find out there’s an outlaw swinging around using the stuff. Over-explanation is a killer. Think of Toy Story. Did you need an explanation as to how the toys could talk and became self-aware to enjoy the film? Would it have been better if you were told that an accident at a toy factory had caused all the voice chips in the toys to work at 40,000% capacity, granting motor skills and AI? Fuck no. The toys talk when people aren’t around. Boom. Done. Let’s get on with the story.
Some people are grumbling about reaching a saturation point when it comes to superhero films. I tell you what, I’m nowhere near. However, I’m not sure if I can take another dour, shoe-gazing version of a favourite hero of mine. Films need to be confident enough in the unique charms of their chosen properties and not paint over everything with the angsty “mature” brush. Basically, they need to be adult enough to have a little fun and not do something because it worked for Batman.