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3 Reasons Why It’s Better to be Spider-Man than Super-Man

June 28, 2013

So I finally got around to watching Superman: Man of Steel the other day. My first thought at the end of the movie was that Superman should have kept his beard. My second thought was that I was disappointed. It paled in comparison to many of the other superhero movies that I have seen. But, I wondered, why did I feel this way? What is it that separates a good superhero movie from a bad one? I decided that I would compare it with the other superhero movies that I have watched and see what I could find.

There were a few things that Man of Steel did quite well. Russell Crowe as Ka-El was great, mainly because Russell Crowe is great (though I couldn’t help but thinking that he was re-enacting a sci-fi version of Gladiator). Krypton looked beautiful, and I found myself wishing that the movie was just about Krypton instead of Superman. And the fight scene in Main Street, Smallville had some excellent moments. But on the whole, the movie was not that memorable. I found that there were a few ways that Marvel Comics movies, in particular both the Amazing Spider-Man and the Not-So Amazing Spiderman, excelled this movie. Here is what they did right, and Man of Steel did wrong.

1.   Have a flawed, dynamic hero. My perennial problem with Superman is that he’s too good. He’s the obnoxious kid in high school who is rich, handsome, athletic, smart, musical, and socially adept. He’s the standard that all the other superheroes hold to, a figure of generic goodness, a hero greater than which cannot be conceived. This does not work well for origin stories. In fact, it does not work well for any stories. For a hero to be effective, he must be a dynamic rather than static character. He needs to have a lesson to learn, and this means he needs to have a flaw.

“I’m not perfect…I’m Batman!”

In both the Spider-Man films, Peter Parker is a socially awkward, shy, weak fellow. He overcomes this flaw by gaining his powers. This leads to a new problem for Peter Parker–he is tempted to use his powers for personal gain. He has to learn Uncle Ben’s lesson “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Peter Parker’s failures also enable the audience to relate to him. Because we are able to see the “human” side of Peter Parker, we can connect to him and understand how he relates to his superpowers. In Man of Steel, Clark Kent had no obvious flaw or lesson to learn. In fact, his only personality trait seemed to be a vague angst about….something. This made him hard to relate to, or care about. The erasure of Superman’s human side made him not larger than life, but smaller than life. Which leads to…

2. Make Your Characters Humans, Not Stereotypes. Spider-Man had its flaws, but it really cared about its characters. Norman Osborne, Harry Osborne, Mary-Jane, Aunt May–you could conceive of these people within their own stories, stories that had nothing to do with Spider-Man. They had quirks, habits, tics, funny lines that created an impression on the audience. Even the crooked wrestling promoter who rips off Peter Parker feels like a flesh-and-blood person.

Peter Parker was intensely fascinated by the fact that he had five fingers on each hand.

In Man of Steel, every character feels like a stereotype. The Wise Father. The Tough-Guy Soldier. The Warrior Chick. The Power Hungry Villain. The Angst-Ridden Hero. The Intrepid Reporter. The Wise Father Who Comes Back From The Dead, Mufasa-Style. The Scientist Who Is An Expert In Every Field Of Science And Can Solve Any Scientific Problem Within Seconds. No character seems like a real person. There’s no individuality to any of them, no personality, no quirks. They’re simply placeholders.

And while we’re on this subject, let me take a moment to blast the way this film dealt with its female characters. In the comic books, Lois Lane is likely to be overshadowed by Superman, because she doesn’t have any superpowers. To make up for this, a good comic writer will use her to play up the dramatic element of the story. A good Lois Lane, therefore, needs lots of personality. Man of Steel‘s Lois Lane had almost no personality, and what little there was was remarkably inconsistent. One moment the filmmakers make her out to be this tough, quasi-feminist, hard-boiled journalist, the next moment she’s a simpering damsel in distress. She spends most of the movie as Superman’s arm candy, thus setting back cinematic feminism another twenty years. Even worse is the Kryptonian warrior lady, who incarnates the evil woman warrior stereotype. Why must she be this androgynous, emotionally blank killing machine? Why can’t she be a warrior and still be feminine? Why have her there at all, if she’s not adding anything to the plot. Just throwing in a token female character carrying a gun isn’t doing anything for feminism, and its probably hurting it.

3. Use Action Judiciously: A well-crafted action scene can be a memorable set-piece for a movie. One example that comes to mind is the fight with the Cave Troll in Fellowship of the Ring. However, action scenes and special effects must always serve the story and the characters, not vice versa. If you watch the Marvel movies, you will often be struck by how little action they contain. The Iron Man series is successful because it’s not really about Iron Man. It’s about Tony Stark. Spider-Man didn’t begin with an action montage, but with Peter Parker running after the bus. The majority of the film is spent developing the characters. Only after the characters have been developed should the major action take place. Otherwise, the audience won’t care about the characters, and will be concerned only about the explosions. And explosions are a dime-a-dozen these days. The action also shouldn’t be over-the-top, either. Man Of Steel had about three or four key fight scenes, each of which tried to be bigger than the last. By the final fight scene, I had already seen my share of crumbling buildings and exploding things, and I was bored. It stretched the credibility of the story, and I found the wanton destruction that the filmmakers inflicted on Metropolis slightly nauseating.

“Hey guys, let’s make a movie about this giant thing that can blow up planets. And this weapon has only one weakness, and there can be this gang of misfits that has to destroy it! We could call it, ‘Space Wars!'”

There were plenty of other reasons to dislike Man Of Steel, from Clark Kent’s mom’s sublimely stupid speech to him when he’s in the school closet, to Kevin Costner’s Dad (who was a walking, talking Hallmark Card), to the fact that the Daily Planet is running just fine right after half of Metropolis has been vaporized. But these three differences that I have mentioned are what make Marvel movies soar, and what kept Man of Steel firmly on the ground.

     Current Listening: Soft Will by Smith Westerns (impressed), Vs. by Pearl Jam (not impressed) 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Joey permalink
    June 28, 2013 2:05 am

    I disagree with some stuff in here, but too much to type out right now since I am tired. Let’s chat this fall!

    • June 29, 2013 2:28 am

      Yes, let’s. I need to enlighten you to my idiosyncratic movie tastes. Also, we need to watch “The Room.”

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