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.