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 manage 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.