What Would Superman Do About Batman v Superman?

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Spurious versions, fundamentally wrongheaded premises, can, and often do, prevail from time to time, but eventually the character, Superman himself, Tulpa Superman, will–somehow, somehow–resist and reverse that meddling, reconstituting himself in the world as he means to be. ~Alvin Schwartz (paraphrased by Tom deHaven)

In my research, I divide superheroes into two archetypes from a mythological perspective. Some are aspirational, and some are cathartic/motivational. The aspirational heroes, the pure ones (think Captain America or the traditional Superman and Wonder Woman), exhibit an unrealistic standard of purity and goodness. They always do the right thing, and in their stories, there always exists a way to do that right thing, no matter what. The example they set is unrealistic, but that’s not the importance of their role in cultures. The aspirational heroes are essential. They cause us to believe in better versions of ourselves and in a better world, so that even if we can never achieve those versions, we’ll still come closer to that standard than if we didn’t have it at all or had only a lower standard to strive for.

We also need the cathartic/motivational characters. These heroes, like Spider-Man and Green Arrow, have some moral failings that show through at times, but they’re not consumed by their faults. They make mistakes, pick themselves up, and eventually do the right thing in the end. We need these characters to encourage us on our way to striving for the aspirational. In fact, the characters themselves really only work when there’s an aspirational one in their universe to inspire them. Spider-Man wants to be like Captain America. Green Arrow often bristles against Superman, the big blue boy scout, showing the archer what he lacks morally.

We need both types of characters, but we need both in context and balance. Some of the defenses I’ve read of Man of Steel or Batman v Superman have been in response to the novelty of placing Superman in moral catch 22s and asking what he would “really” do. They want to treat him as a cathartic/motivational character. The problem, though, is that we already have a plethora of flawed but overcoming, cathartic/motivational superheroes (that exist in better-told stories than Batman v Superman). By making Superman “more realistic,” we decrease the precious few aspirational heroes that don’t need a great moral failing to figure out life. Mythologically, that means we lower the standard our culture strives for.

Defending the iconic Superman drained the emotional energy of many of us this weekend. My impression is that those who try to defend BvS fall into two camps, the nihilists who enjoy moral uncertainty and the fans who found some cathartic/motivational merit in the portrayal but fail to understand the harm that alteration does to our culture. Cast as a cathartic/motivational hero in these films, who does Superman have to show him a better way? Who instills a belief in humanity and our potential in him, like Captain America does for Spider-Man? The answer is no one. The films even rob him of the Kents in that role. As a result, there is no hope in either of these films, no matter how much they throw around the word. And the rare claims of an uplifting experience by watching these films, come from an outside interpretation or knowledge of the character, sloppily overlaying the film’s message of moral uncertainty. It’s disheartening, to say the least, but the real Superman wouldn’t give up or stall out in self-pity.

The very existence of the debate disheartens traditional fans. In the past, the purity of Superman has solved such debates about heroes in general. Titles like Kingdom Come and What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way have corrected such wrongheaded approaches to hero stories. So what would our Superman do when confronted with the current slanderous interpretation of what he stands for? First and foremost, he wouldn’t devolve into the same hate-filled rhetoric thrown around by so many Batman v Superman defenders. The insults and mean-spirited comments directed toward dissent are the most damning evidence of how the film truly inspires people to behave. The real Superman would never devolve into such behavior, and his fans should keep that in mind when tempted to respond to bullying with insults in return.The real Superman wouldn’t give up on humanity, even when it’s showing its darkest side.

With the monumental box-office earnings, due to advanced ticket sales, curiosity, and good marketing, WB is unlikely to turn away from their dark path until the fad runs its course throughout a few more films. But Superman wouldn’t be silent. He would continue to exhibit his aspirational example until the world sees the light. So never tire of pointing out what the real Superman would do and what type of stories should be told about him in place of the current darkness. The rise in bullying and hate we’ve seen is a sign of fear and desperation to silence the truth. Don’t let them do it. Keep trending honest critiques of the films, recommending iconic Superman tales, and sharing the real Superman’s joy and inspiration. He’ll return to us, as Alvin Schwarts prophesied, soon enough in contemporary media, but it’s up to us to pave the way.

Bro, Do You Even Verb?

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Few people stop to consider the verbs they use. Many content themselves just knowing what a verb is, no mean feat in today’s fragment-tweeting climate. But strong, active verbs cause writing to stand out. It causes fiction authors to hook more readers, students to impress more professors (who will be less likely to scrutinize an essay’s content), and so on. The weakest verbs out there express the passive act of existence. To be verbs, as they’re called, include the forms is, are, was, being, been, and be and often hide in the contractions I’m, we’re, and they’re. It’s impossible to avoid these verbs completely (I finally succumbed to one in this sentence). Avoiding them for too long sounds awkward, but the best writing shows moderation. If you remain unconvinced, consider this paragraph with nothing but to be verbs:

It is a fact that few people stop to consider the verbs they use. Many are simply proud to know what a verb is, which is no mean feat in today’s fragment-tweeting climate. But strong, active verbs are what cause writing to stand out. It is what causes fiction authors to hook more readers, students to impress more professors (who will be less likely to scrutinize an essay’s content), and so on. The weakest verbs out there are the ones that express the utterly passive act of existence. To be verbs are is, are, was, being, been, and be and often hide in the contractions I’m, we’re, and they’re. Only the novice uses these verbs all of the time (See what a breath of fresh air that was?). Using them for too long in succession is awkward, but moderation is the key. So now you’re convinced of the importance of strong verbs.

You’ll notice that the sentence structure had to be changed in places to accommodate the to-be verbs. Since the use of these verbs requires extra work, people naturally opt for more active ones, right? Sadly, as a writing professor, I’m sad to say the opposite is true. For whatever reason, first drafts come in riddled with long, awkward to be structures. A forced sense of formality causes students to write differently than they speak or think. Don’t worry, though; the problem is easily remedied. After bringing verb choice to a student’s attention, the second draft shows vast improvement. So if you read this and think you’ll never get the hang of strong verbs, don’t despair! Start slow. Take time to read over what you write a second or third time. Whether it’s a story, a blog post, or even a tweet, you’ll notice a big difference in how your writing is received.

Icons Matter

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I’ve wanted to write about this for a while now, but I didn’t want to be reactionary. Recently Zack Snyder made some comments in an interview regarding his treatment of Superman in the upcoming Batman v Superman film.  He describes the universe of his films as a place where “There’s no winning anymore for Superman,” because of the public’s perception of the hero. Believe it or not, Snyder isn’t even trying to be ironic. Yet he’s inadvertently making a commentary on himself and the people who like his approach to these characters. Because they’re unwilling to believe in a Superman who sees the best in people, inspires hope in all but villains, and always does the right thing, they’re stripping the icon’s ability to be that pan-inspirational character in our culture at large. Arguments for the logic and integrity of such a story are irrelevant. It’s the wrong approach to take to the character of Superman and many other beloved, cultural icons in the DC universe. Unfortunately, there’s no discussing this issue anymore without stoking up passion over reason and enflaming old war wounds. So let me use a hypothetical example to illustrate my point.

But first, a disclaimer: I’m an avid fan of Disney entertainment and their company in general, and Mickey Mouse is one of my favorite folkloric characters. That said, imagine that Disney announced they were working on a new feature-length Mickey Mouse film. This one, though, was going to be rated PG13 and would explore the more realistic struggles of such an American icon. The director speaks out about how he wants to show the psychological strain of being a star for so many years. Mickey’s relationship with Minnie is tense from working together so long. Donald Duck is in negotiations for a film with Bugs Bunny to outshine Mickey at last. And at Micky’s public appearances, children now flock past him to Sponge Bob and the Minions. The director wants to explore the reality of a Mickey Mouse who isn’t sure what he wants to stand for anymore in a world that is jealous, jaded, and unreceptive.

Now, unless you see where I’m going and you’re busy digging your opposing trench even deeper, you should be rolling your eyes at this concept, or at least raising an eyebrow. “That’s not who Mickey Mouse is!” you might think. “Children should be overjoyed and learn from a movie about the world’s favorite mouse!” Now imagine that you encounter a group of fans looking forward to the new approach. They tell you at first that you’re not allowed to have or voice a negative opinion about the film since you haven’t seen it yet. They stand by this claim, even as trailers are released that show poor Mickey staring at an empty whiskey bottle and wondering about his place in the world. They even defend such scenes. After the film comes out, with Mickey confronting Donald in anger and Minnie starting an affair with Goofy, fans of the movie point out how much sense each and every scene makes to the plot of the film. They call you bitter and shout you down. They claim the film didn’t change the character of Mickey Mouse. It’s just a realistic and contemporary exploration of the character.

If you’ve been a fan of Mickey and the Disney’s “fab five” universe (sensational six, once Daisy comes along), you’re scratching your head at how anyone can be so blind to the tragedy this is for the character. And you wonder if anyone is bothering to listen to your critique before launching into their diatribes. You said “that’s not who Mickey Mouse is” and that his movies should be made for children, to bring them joy and inspire them to good behavior. How could the new movie not change the character of Mickey Mouse when it shows him throwing temper tantrums and unable to get along with his closest friends? That is not the type of story that should ever be told about Mickey Mouse. That’s not what his character is for. It’s not his genre, not his purpose, and not his role in our culture. If filmmakers want to tell a story about the realistic struggles of popular stars, then they should choose an appropriate character or create one for their purposes. Folklore, our culture’s mythology, is a reflection of the values and principles of our culture. It’s not malleable on a storyteller’s whim. If you take a beloved, safe, and moral character and corrupt his universe until he’s broken and morally ambiguous, you’ve not only corrupted the character, you’ve corrupted our culture and, through eventual repercussions, you’ve corrupted our future. You’ve taken away one of the few characters that made us reach higher just so you and audiences could feel better about not wanting to stretch.

Whether we’re talking about Mickey Mouse or Superman, these are not just fictional characters marketed to make money. They are cultural icons. They are characters from our mythology. And mythology reflects and affects culture. Whichever is the case regarding the budding DC cinematic universe, Superman fans and our culture in general is lessened by the existence of such a “reimagining” of mythic landmark characters.