The Superman Problem, and my bet with my brother

So there’s a new Superman movie coming out soon, and this has prompted many conversations about “The Superman Problem.” I’ve talked about this on Writing Excuses before, and it sums up as this:

“If your main character will always make the right decision and can always defeat any bad guy, your story is boring because it has no tension.”

Here’s the thing about The Superman Problem: it’s a complete and utter fallacy. No character actually has this problem unless they’re being written poorly. The best writers will always find ways to put their characters into situations where there is no clear “right” choice, and will strive to pit their characters against conflicts and obstacles they can’t easily overcome; this applies to Superman just as much as it applies to anyone else. Yes, Superman can beat up any villain–so what? Is every good story in the world solved by the main character physically dominating everyone else? If we truly believe what our mothers tell us about violence never solving anything, Superman’s ability to punch bad guys is arguably the most useless super ability ever; a good Superman story, like a good anyone story, will test his wits, his judgment, his will, his emotions, and so on. In The Dark Knight, Batman was able to beat up the Joker with no problem, but nobody complained that that made the story bad because the story wasn’t about beating him up, it was about order and chaos and self sacrifice. Just because the Superman movies haven’t really done that before doesn’t mean they never can, it just means we’re still waiting for a movie that treats the character as intelligently as the comics do.

One of my favorite Superman stories is the graphic novel Kingdom Come, about a hypothetical future where super-beings have gotten completely out of hand, becoming more like roving gangs than heroes, and Superman tries to restore order. Sure, he can beat them all up if he wants to, but that’s exactly the point of the story: he doesn’t want to spend his life beating people up. He rounds up all the supers and puts them in a giant prison, and then…what then? Does he just keep them locked up forever? Does he kill them? What if the humans decide to kill them–does Superman beat up or kill the humans in retaliation, or maybe even pre-emptively? Is it even Superman’s place to make these decisions? This is not a story that can be solved by violence and domination, because those are the problem, not the solution; the story isn’t asking if Superman has enough power to stop the bad guys, it’s asking how Superman should use his power in the first place. These are questions the human race has never fully answered for itself (where is the line between safety and freedom? Between punishment and reformation? Between leadership and tyranny?), and just because Superman always tries to do the right thing doesn’t give him any magical answers the rest of us don’t have access to. Most of us always try to do the right thing, and we still ┬ámanage to be flawed, conflicted, fascinating people in spite of that.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that Superman is a deeper character than most people give him credit for, and that the upcoming movie will be walking a tightrope between awesomeness and crappiness. I have high hopes that it will be awesome, but it’s just so easy to get him wrong.

Tangential to this, in a Twitter discussion about the movie, my brother (who considers the Superman Problem to be insurmountable) (because he is foolish) declared that the only way to make Superman interesting is to take away his powers. Obviously I disagree, but he has the weight of movie-based evidence on his side. The previous Superman movies have all relied on kryptonite and other tricks as a way of weakening Supes, trying to solve the Superman Problem from completely the wrong direction–take away his powers and suddenly you can put his life in danger, or stop him from beating up a bad guy, or whatever. The comics don’t rely on this nearly as much, but for the movies it’s pretty much standard procedure. Being eternally optimistic, I bet my brother that this movie wouldn’t do that: that it would solve the Superman Problem the right way, by making the core conflict something that can’t be solved by punches. Sure, there will be fighting, but there will also be more: a cloudy moral quagmire, an impossible choice, or something similarly unsolvable to create the real tension of the story. I don’t know what this will be yet, but based on the trailers I expect it to focus, as Kingdom Come does, on the nature of power. They won’t take away his powers because his sheer overpowering-ness will be at the heart of the conflict.

So: Rob took my bet, and to make it interesting we wagered a cool 20 bucks. Since he actually owes me a couple thousand dollars at the moment, this is less interesting than you might think, but neither of us are really gamblers anyway. The exact terms of the bet are these:

1) The final arbiters will be Rob and I, based on our own viewing of the movie.

2) If the movie has or mentions kryptonite that’s not an automatic loss; it has to actually be used to drain Superman’s power.

3) We’re only counting powers he displays in this movie. Just because he’s not likely to fly around the world backwards and reverse time in a grotesque deus ex machina doesn’t mean I lose the bet :)

4) Only actual, in-story power loss counts. If the writers conveniently ‘forget’ a power during a key scene, fabricating artificial tension by, for example, having him punch something that could much more easily be laser-visioned, that’s different. What we’re looking for is a specific point in the movie where Superman is weakened by the loss of a power he’d already used.

The bet is really a separate issue from the Superman Problem, but I’m curious to hear what you think about both of them. Do you think I’ll win, or my brother? Beyond that, do you think they’ll solve the Superman Problem? And what are your opinions on the movie in general, or the trailers? Personally, I’m delighted they’ve broken away from the “evil real estate agent” nonsense they keep getting into with Lex Luthor, using Zod and Faora instead. Based on the most recent trailer it seems like they’re presenting the movie as less of a superhero story and more of an alien invasion story, which is a really cool direction to take it.

15 Responses to “The Superman Problem, and my bet with my brother”

  1. Ben Temko says:

    I find it interesting that both Star Trek and Superman have taken heaping helpings from their cinematic pasts to create “new” stories. Nothing new under the sun, I suppose, even if that sun *does* make you invincible. KNEEL TO ZOD/KHAAAAAN!

    As to your wager, I’ll side with you on this one, specifically because it’s the oh-look-here’s-more-Superpeople problem, and taking away Superman’s powers, while fun, doesn’t exactly sound sporting – and this is, after all, Hollywood.

    As to trailers, I almost came out of my seat when the Ender’s Game trailer started to play. I’ve only been waiting for that one for, like, EVER. Now if we can just get G. G. Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan made…

    Finally, I think I’m going to freaking LOVE the new Superman soundtrack. The music during the trailer had my hair standing on end.

  2. David Hill says:

    I’m with you, Dan. The Superman Problem is hardly insurmountable. There are any number of excellent Superman stories in the comics where the core issues of the story can’t be resolved through punching people in the face. The story is about something else, and so has to be resolved through other means.

    I’m (cautiously) optimistic that Man of Steel will finally give us a good Superman movie. Moving away from using Lex Luthor as the primary villain of the movie is a HUGE good first step, in my opinion. While Lex is the quintessential Superman villain in the comic books, he makes for an exceptionally poor villain in the movies.

    As it is a Superman movie, and given the nature of Superman’s powers, I expect there to be some superpowered punching in the face. I want it. That’s kind of what Superman’s powers are there for. Something huge and powerful and menacing needs to get in Superman’s way so they can punch each other. Repeatedly. In the face.

    But Superman can’t do that with Lex, because Lex would end up as a spot on the wall. Lex, as a character, excels at attaching Superman from other directions (reputation, threatening others, running a criminal underworld, simply escaping justice over…and over…and over), but can never match up in a physical confrontation.

    So, having Zod, Faora, and other Kryptonians as the primary villains would be great. Superman has an abundance of targets to punch in the face, and will (hopefully) be faced with a moral quandary regarding these being his people, fellow Kryptonians, who no longer have a world to call their home. There could be some great grey areas there for storytelling.

    Yes, Kryptonite is heavily overused in the movies, so I’m hoping it won’t show up this time around.

    I am curious on an aspect of the bet. Does it have to be Kryptonite-based depowering for you to lose the bet? Or would you also lose the bet if Superman gets hit with a ‘Red Sun’ beam?

    And Superman is a VERY interesting character. It’s just that the movies have thus far focused too much on the wrong things. Until the recent ‘New 52 reboot’ in the comics, the character was most often presented in a way where he considered Clark Kent to be his real self, while Superman is the ‘mask’ he wears in order to help people without endangering people close to him. (Contrast that with Batman who was often presented as Batman being the real self and Bruce Wayne being merely the ‘mask’ that allows Batman to continue his work largely unhindered.)

    That’s one of the reasons I was so infuriated with Superman Returns. Superman wouldn’t have spent the night with Lois Lane, because he wants her to love the REAL him. He wants Lois to love Clark.

  3. Ken Chandler says:

    Having been a superman fan since I was 5 years old, I am looking forward to the movie.

    Though I must say up front that when, in the trailer, I saw Clark’s (earth) father, played by Costner, say, in effect– ‘maybe you should have let those kids die in order to keep your identity a secret’. I just about gave up on the film. I know, choking on gnats. But would a rolemodel father say something like that to his son? I have a hard time believing that he would. Yes, he wants to keep his powers secret, but letting 20+ kids die horribly in order to preserve it seems like bad moral judgement.

    As for the rest of the trailer I felt that it looked promising. I anticipate it being well put together. And I hope that the story will not include the use of Krytonite to overpower Superman. That particular idea has been abused relentlessly in the Superman movies. My hope is that the villain(s) will be equally powerful to our hero, and he will have to use his brain to defeat them. Seeing Superman use his fists is always a treat, but to see him defeat his enemies while using his intellect is more gratifying.

    Nothing personal Rob but I hope you lose the bet. If Kryptonite makes an appearance in the film (to weaken Superman) I’ll give up on the idea that the films will ever get any better.

  4. Ryan says:

    I’m not sure if you have read it but the new comic series Injustice (a prequel series to the video game) makes Superman interesting by breaking him mentally.

    The Joker tricks Superman into killing Lois and blowing up Metropolis, and Superman decides that he has had enough with all the evil in the world and is putting a stop to it using any means necessary. Watching Superman slowly break down, and seeing how the rest of the Justice League react is very interesting.

  5. patty says:

    Superman films have no problem. Until Iron Man came along, he was the only “hot” superhero. :)

  6. Beth says:

    I am more concerned about something completely different. In the trailer, we see a Superman with a full beard. And then, presumably later, we see him clean-shaven. If Superman’s hair is super strong (as demonstrated in a previous film) and if Superman himself is so indestructible that they can’t even put an IV into the poor guy’s arm, then my question is this: How the frak did he shave? What kind of crazy outer-space device did he have to use to scrape the little tiny hairs off his face?! I eagerly await the answer to this burning question in the film.

  7. I am worried that Rob will win and I want you to win. I’ve been craving a Superman movie that explores not how to weaken Superman but the reason for the choices Superman makes in how to use his nearly limitless power. This has always been the appeal Superman has for me: A being with incredible, extraordinary power who has to not let that power be his motivating influence, but instead has to let finding the right way be his motivating influence.

  8. Matt says:

    While I agree with you that it’s not technically impossible to make a good Superman movie, I’ve never seen one (I’m using my current adult judgment on this. I loved Superman as a kid, but that doesn’t count.), and I don’t expect to ever see one.

    There’s just not much to work with. He’s WAY too powerful, and his personality is boring. Plus, it’s lame that no one ever really figures out that it’s Clark. Glasses, a suit, and a goofy smile is not enough to make a halfway intelligent person not see that it’s him.

    I allowed myself to get my hopes up for Superman Returns. I went to the theater to see it, and I left wanting my money back. I’m not planning to watch the new one. I’ve avoided the trailers because they can make almost any movie look good.

    There are three characters in Marvel’s Avengers who have something about them which reminds me of Superman.

    First is Thor. He’s powerful in similar ways to Superman, but he’s far from perfect. He doesn’t always try to do what’s right. He learns humility and sacrifice in the first movie, but he’s still not perfect. He tries, but he’s still emotional and prone to anger and vengeance. Far more interesting than Superman. And since they ditched his stupid hat in the movies, he looks cool too.

    Second is Captain America. Personality wise he’s very similar to Superman, also his powers are reminiscent of Superman’s though on a much smaller scale. I never liked Captain America as a kid, but I thought they did a decent job with the movie. Since it’s been on Netflix I’ve watched it a couple times, and every time I’ve seen it I’ve liked it better than the last. While his personality is kinda bland, it’s still more interesting than Superman’s. Also he’s not so powerful, so he has to try to outsmart the bad guy instead of simply overpowering him.

    Third is the Hulk. The Hulk is invincible like Superman. Invincibility is a big part of what makes Superman so boring, but the Hulk’s invincibility comes with a huge price, and that makes him automatically more interesting than Superman. I’d rather see another Hulk movie than another Superman movie.

    So, sorry Superman, but um… you’re lame. I think I’d rather watch angsty teen vampires than watch you.

  9. alan says:

    The superman problem isn’t really a problem. If a hero is too powerful, just make the villain even more powerful. Granted, that’s not as interesting a solution as making the conflict internal, emotional, intellectual, etc. But it would work in a pinch.

    What would Superman do if he met someone who was as far above him as Superman is above normal Earth people? That’s a question I would like to see explored in future Superman movies.

  10. Brad says:

    I read in an interview somewhere that since kryptonite is so overused in Superman movies, the only way to make this movie feel fresh is to not use kryptonite at all. So assuming I didn’t hallucinate that article/interview, I’d say you have a pretty good chance of winning.

    I have always found the Clark Kent side of the story more interesting and relatable, personally, since the Superman side is so often done so poorly, so I am really liking the trailers that show more of bearded fisherman Clark. I have high hopes for this one!

  11. David Hill says:

    If you haven’t already, pick up the Superman: Earth One graphic novel (volumne 1), by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis, you really should. It’s what I think would make for just about the perfect Superman movie.

    Volume 2 was…less impressive, for a variety of reasons. But the first one was great.

  12. Andi says:

    I loved the trailer. The previous Superman movues, where about him beating up the bad guys.
    The new one seems to be about the character of the man of steel. Like with “The Dark Knight”, I guess the focus will be on inner conflict instead of external conflict, and therefore the power taking won’t be neccessary. At least I hope so.

  13. 1 L Loyd says:

    Your post made me think of something that David Gerrold (Trouble with Tribbles writer) said — that the interesting stories are the ‘Captain makes a decision’ ones. He can’t just blow something up and solve it, he has to choose something to lose to save the other thing. This is a way to make a Superman story interesting.

    The closest movie to this was the original Christopher Reeves one, where he chooses to violate the rules he has been given to go back in time to save Lois. But there was no consequence when he did that, so it doesn’t fit. Except he now makes his own rules. Hmm.

  14. Sean Duggan says:

    @Beth:
    Canonically speaking, he uses heat-vision and a mirror. I want to say that there was also a time when they indicated that he used his fingernails to literally scrape away the hair. Lastly, fragments of his spaceship have come into play before, either as the source of the above mirror or in the form of a shard which he uses as a razor.

    Batman: No Man’s Land also had an interesting exploration of the “Superman Problem” when Superman tried to fix some of Gotham’s problems by helping repair a power plant only to be foiled by the sheer venality and tendency to feudalism that Gothamites demonstrate.

  15. Sam Sulat says:

    Looks like you win, Dan. Not even a mention of the “K” word in the movie.

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