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.

Surviving Bullies

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Almost a year ago, I created the Iconic Superman Facebook page. I designed it to be a place where fans like myself, who preferred a traditional Superman, could celebrate our hero and call for his return in comics and film. On social media at the time, voicing any displeasure over Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, and to a lesser extent the New 52 in comics, was to invite a barrage of personal insults. So Iconic Superman drew a solid following of like-minded fans looking for a safe place to celebrate their superhero preference. Growth was slow as Facebook limits a page’s visibility in newsfeeds unless one pays for promotional tools. But I didn’t mind the small numbers. I was content to post and converse about my confident, capable, and inspirational Superman.

When the page was around 600 followers, it came to the attention of some fans of a DC Movie group. I had posted a meme, on my own page and for my own followers, stating that in the current films Captain America did a far greater job fulfilling the inspirational role of Superman. The notion enraged the DC Movie fans. They posted a call to arms in their group and spent the better part of a day attacking my page with insults directed at both myself and many of the page’s followers.

I’m not a confrontational person, so I attempted to diffuse the attack by turning it into a discussion over the artistic merit of different film adaptations. The cinema fans wouldn’t have it. Each one I answered called in three more to post over my response with mockery and jeers. I hadn’t seen such tactics since the four square court in middle school gym class. Then I realized why it as so familiar. They weren’t trying to debate the subject of Superman films. They were trying to silence me. They were trying to bully me and others on the page and bullying doesn’t refine itself with age.

I’ve written and spoken before on how various iconic Superman stories teach us to deal with bullies. You don’t engage them on their terms lest their terms start to define you. In fact, the truly strong try instead to help them—yes help the very person trying to bully you. Think about it. The act of bullying comes from an insecure place. It is the desperate need for confirmation about oneself or one’s views from the world around them, even at the threat of assault (physical or emotional). Why would DC cinema fans need to concern themselves with a page that sees Superman differently? Warner Bros moved ahead with Batman v Superman in spite of the enormous controversy and backlash regarding Man of Steel. Do they see my page as a threat to the future of DC’s cinematic universe? Or does the insecurity come from a deeper place that has little to do with me or the films? (In one post a DC cinema fan called for the death of another critical page’s administrator. Hyperbole or not, clearly serious issues reside behind such a post.)

But we’re not Superman, and there are times when we lack the power to save bullies from themselves. Superman himself faces this dilemma now and then. Such stories serve as metaphors for when we must cut those who would attack us out of our lives before the poison takes us down with them. My attempts to speak with the DC cinema fans in a civil manner obviously had no effect, so I had to ban the attackers and delete their comments. No damage was done save a few hours of frustration, but I had one more lesson to learn about the bully experience. Like Superman smiling for the camera before the credits roll, those who endure a bully’s attacks with integrity eventually come out the better for it.

The organic, unpaid growth of the Iconic Superman page recently blasted past 2,000 likes (in less than a year!). Periodically, I’ll look back over what topics or images earned the most attention and when, and in the week following the DC cinema attack, the page soared in views and likes. Facebook increases the visibility of a post when it receives more comments. The algorithm translates this as popularity and makes the post and page accessible to more would-be fans. So in their attempt to silence me, the bullies might as well have paid to advertise my page. Iconic Superman has led to Iconic Wonder Woman and Batman pages, and we’ve recently begun a successful podcast. I’ve now met authors, artists, and filmmakers who appreciate my promotion of traditional Superman values, some who want to work with me in one way or another, and in part I have common internet trolling to thank for it.

We can’t always control the stories of our lives, but we can control how we react to each new plot twist and lay the ground work for positive resolution in the end. Some may be content to fight their enemies to the death and ponder moral ambiguity in the destruction they’ve caused around them. But I and many on my page choose to live like the Iconic Superman–to do the right thing and find a way (and there’s always a way)–then soar off into a happy ending. Don’t forget to smile for the camera!