Man of Steel is a decent film. Some might even say great, if you measured greatness by the sheer amount of things that get punched to pieces. Sometimes I do, because I’m easy to please.
However, it does not exactly have a great Superman in it. People much smarter than I, fans of the character across different generations and well-versed in all forms of Superman media as well as the many different versions of Superman, have written at length on the subject.
I’m actually here to talk tokusatsu and the Amazing Spider-man 2 (or Amazing Spider-Man: Rise of Electro for those of you who live in Britbongland, areas that were previously Britbongland colonies or have trouble keeping track of numbers, reboots or number of villains in each movie). Let me preface this by saying this is going to be long and probably a bit personal, and by no means do I consider myself an expert in the fields of spidermanology, tokusatsuism and superman…ism.
I think everyone misunderstands Superman. Even the people who own his rights. I understand that this is somewhat of an inflammatory statement to make, and considering that I’ve just gone ahead and said I’m not an expert in supermanism that’d probably be enough for most fans to stop reading right about now.
However, I base this on the following complaints that I hear all the time from people who don’t like Superman – most of which don’t apply anymore as interpretations of the character have changed over the years or simply aren’t true.
The most common complaint is that Superman is too powerful, and that it’s difficult for stories around him to have impact or meaning when he’s the most powerful thing on the block. It’s not difficult, it’s not really hard. Some proponents of the other side claims he has a “win everything” power, and that’s why they love him in the first place – the exact same reason the others complain, because someone who wins everything is almost a deus ex machina in every story he appears in, the dangling ‘S’ shield above the stage of the tragicomedy who shows up only after everything has gone to shit.
So of course a lot of media has focused around the idea of Superman – Superman as an idea, as an ideal, rather than a character. Man of Steel basically turns Superman into a symbol of hope, an alien Jesus who is seen as the one thing standing between us and total annihilation. The frequent Christian imagery doesn’t help either. DC’s Final Crisis take on Superman as the personification of everything that was good in the universe kill the personification of darkness and evil with karaoke.
Superman is big, Superman is mythic, these people are saying. But I believe that the bigger and more mythic they get, the more removed it becomes from what Superman means to individual people. Even Christians get this and are careful to sell the image of a personal God watching over us rather than an aloof Old Testament omnipotent force. The people who want Superman to be big and mythic remind me of someone jumping up and down, waving a Superman-shaped sign and screaming about its importance and that it should be important to me too. It’s not important until I see the people it affects, and all I see out of those people is a kind of slavish, almost religious devotion to their supergod.
Preaching wins fewer converts than actually letting people see and demonstrate the influence it’s had in their lives. Anyone who has any faith in anything at all can tell you that.
I believe that’s what superheroes are. They’re super because of the powers, but they’re heroes because they believe we’re worth saving. I believe that’s what makes someone a hero – not an incorruptible sense of right and wrong, not the thirst for justice, not the writers trying to portray them as abstract concepts or even the elements of tragedy in his or her background (sorry, Bruce).
Superman thinks you’re worth saving.
Seriously! Think about that for a second. Just think. Someone who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, fly faster than a speeding bullet, someone with laser eyes and ice breath and super hearing and x-ray vision and the complete ubermensch package, someone who is an alien from another world and has absolutely no reason to care about the measly, wretched naked apes that we are – someone like that believes in us, and believes that we are worth the effort of trying to save.
Doesn’t that make you want to be worth saving?
I realized recently that my bar, the standard I judge all depictions of Superman by, isn’t even American. It’s Japanese. It’s a 90s revival of a sixties Japanese icon. It’s Ultraman Tiga.
Ultraman, for those of you who don’t know, is essentially an energy being from an alien race, a silver and red alien giant that fights giant monsters and protects humanity. Typically in Ultraman series the energy being “bonds” with a human, and the human uses some kind of device to summon the power sleeping inside him, turn into the Ultraman, and fight the monster. The catch is this – Ultraman can only exist in our world or whatever for a set time limit, usually enough to beat up the monster of the week and go away in time to recharge.
Ultraman Tiga was an attempt by Tsuburaya Productions to modernize the classic Ultraman series of the sixties and seventies for a new generation of kids, with a new design, color-change “speed and power” modes for the new Ultraman, some fantastic new story elements and a great supporting cast. It was a smash hit all across Asia.
Ultraman Tiga is Daigo Madoka. No, not that Daigo and not that Madoka. He’s a grunt, a regular guy hired at the protect-the-earth branch who isn’t particularly smart or skilled. He has a unique brand of wide-eyed optimism and hope that makes him a hero. Daigo adapts to his power as Ultraman fairly quickly (and there’s even a wonderful ‘passing of the torch’ moment where he meets the old Ultraman from the sixties, despite the radical reinvention of the universe). In this universe, nobody’s ever seen an Ultraman – they’re supposedly a race of extinct giants who roamed the earth three thousand years ago. Said giants were destroyed or turned to stone by the spawn of Cthulhu, a monster who is prophesied to come again in the modern age along with a wave of monsters, and it’s implied that humanity, as the descendants of this forgotten race, hold some of their DNA.
Even as Ultraman Tiga, Daigo isn’t the most powerful. There’s the flashing energy timer on his chest to worry about, and his speed and power modes usually sacrifice one or the other to give his corresponding mode a boost. He’s powered by light, and grows noticeably weaker in dark conditions.
The ‘giant of light’ is initially viewed with suspicion and even hostility by the people of planet earth. But over the events of the series, Tiga’s dedication to mankind and the countless people he saves inspires many. And this is clear from his actions alone. Tiga, as an Ultraman, never speaks, beyond the echo chamber kiai noises he makes when firing energy beams or punching monsters. He becomes an ally of humanity not through words or moralizing, but deeds.
His devotion to protecting humankind eventually leads to reciprocation on humanity’s behalf. They aid him in conflict, and in one incredibly heartwarming sequence a bunch of local civilians desperately bring the defeated, weakened giant every light source they have in order to revive him. Cue car headlights on full blast and small children carrying lights and torches.
This eventually culminates in the appearance of the series big bad; Gatanozoa, the actual fucking firstborn of Cthulhu, a nightmarish monster so evil it corrupts the environment around it and spreads a plague of death and darkness across the globe. The anti-kaiju defense force is in a shambles. Humanity cowers in crisis shelters and waits to die. All is lost.
And Tiga goes out and fights it anyway.
We know going in that as powerful as he is, Tiga is going to lose. Everyone knows it. Hell, the people in the anti-Kaiju defense force who know about Daigo’s double life – notably his hotshot fighter pilot girlfriend – plead with him not to go. He’s going to die if he goes up against that thing. It looks like a goddamn nightmare nautilus and it’s three times the size of Tiga, possibly more when you account for total tentacle mass.
But he goes anyway. He goes anyway and fights for the continued survival of the human race – our right to exist – because he believes we’re worth saving, and he will die fighting before letting that monstrous thing harm a single human being.
The battle that follows is, while admittedly completely cheesy, something that affected me very deeply when I saw it as a kid and still affects me now.
Tiga shows up, and the heroic music cues start up. He lands a few good hits and whacks the monster with some of his classic finishers. Then the music dies off and Ghatanothoa gives absolutely no fucks, mercilessly beating Tiga with tentacles. All of this is intercut with scenes of children all over the world, cheering for their hero (horrific child acting notwithstanding) as he makes his final stand. And then, just as we’ve known going into this, Tiga falls, sinking down into the brackish, corrupted water as the light is snuffed out, becoming a lifeless stone giant once again.
But then, inspired by his final stand, the wishes and belief of the children all across the globe coalesce into light and streak across the sky as shining golden meteors. “I am Tiga.” We are all Spartacus. They awaken the lifeless giant in a shining form, and help him blow the Cthulhu-spawn to pieces, even acting out some of his moves and finishers.
This was almost a full freaking decade before I saw almost the exact same shit happen near the end of Gurren Lagann.
In THE FINAL ODYSSEY movie that happens years after the series you find out that the race of giants that Tiga was from wasn’t exactly friendly either. Tiga was part of a group of evil giants that championed a war of conquest and domination across the globe. That’s right: his reawakening was meant to serve as the first wave of their new reign over humanit-oh whatever this is getting too long
That’s enough about Ultraman, but this is my bar. This is my bar for Superman, and superheroes in general. It’s not the powers that make them inspiring. Their heroism is simply heroism – that somewhere along the line, they decided to do the right thing, for whatever reason, and dedicate their lives to trying to save us. It’s a conscious choice, even though as it is in real life, it’s the harder, tougher, and infinitely more painful path. And through that choice, they inspire others to take up the torch and carry it forward.
There’s a wonderful moment in Captain America: The Winter Soldier where Cap breaks into SHIELD’s PA and publicly outs some elements of SHIELD as remnants of a clandestine Nazi secret science division. He says one line of dialogue that defines his character, and stands as one of the shining paragon of these heroes’ ability to inspire and lead by example. As Falcon says, Captain America needs your help. There’s no better reason to join in the fight. If Cap has to stand alone, he will. His role is to be the last man standing. But unless you’re dead inside, you’re not going to let him be alone out there. Cap believes he won’t be alone. Will you answer that call?
There’s an equally wonderful moment at the end of Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electric Boogaloo that almost moved me to tears. Despite large gaps in that movie’s logic and the hokey-Saturday-morning-cartoon-ness of the movie, it made the entire flick worth it. It is the moment when Paul Giamatti does some cartoon villain bullshit with a Rhino battlesuit that’s got fucking guns in it. Spider-Man has essentially been missing because Peter is still moping around as a result of Significant Plot Events That Exist in the name of Making Peter’s Life Worse and stuff.
And this kid – this kid with glasses, who can’t be older than twelve, a kid who Spidey saved from bullies earlier in the movie – he runs through the bystanders, sneaks past the police barricade, and faces down the Rhino wearing a cheap Spidey costume from a toy store or something that barely fits him.
His mom is screaming. Police are trying to keep people back while simultaneously trying to not get caught in the Rhino’s gunfire. There is no doubt on the kid’s face. He looks scared, but he’s not going to run away any time soon. Because he’s Spider-Man. Spider-Man is gone, or taking a break, or crying about a girlfriend somewhere. So it’s his turn to be Spider-Man, and he’s going to be Spider-Man and try and do his best to beat the bad guy and save people.
Because that’s what Spider-Man is.
He puts on the mask over his glasses. It looks awful. Paul Giamatti laughs at him. And for one awful, awful second, you believe that this kid is seriously going to attempt to fight this half-ton of CG and get stomped into paste. But he’s going to try anyway.
That’s what Superman should be, in my mind. Someone who inspires regular folks like you and me to be better. Because he thinks we’re worth saving.
It’s a hell of a lot more positive than the Lex Luthor approach to Superman – a space asshole that is so much better than us we hate him for it. In all honesty, the Lex Luthor approach is totally fucking justified given Man of Steel.
Batman VS Superman is going to be nucking futs.