WARNING: Contains very mild spoilers for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Batman v. Superman. Lots of fans seem to love it, but critics are ripping it apart. Me? I thought it was okay. It had some great things and some problems. But my biggest problem wasn’t with the pacing or the editing or the plot holes or the shoehorned-in Justice League cameos. It wasn’t even with Lex Luthor (who I’m now calling Evil Jimmy in order to truly appreciate the character for what he is).
It’s with Superman.
Despite half the movie devoted to him, I never really connected with Supes as a human being. He always seemed aloof and alien, dealing only with big problems and rarely cracking a smile. All the basics of Superman were there, yet for me, he lacked that spark of relatability that makes a character lovable. So why is that? And what makes a character relatable?
One possibility is to show a character in the middle of a mundane task. This is why so many people relate to Peter Parker; in Spider-Man 2, we saw him taking out the trash, helping his aunt apply for a loan, and dodging his landlord. Even though he can sling webs and crawl on walls, he’s a normal guy under all that Spandex. BvS gave us plenty of Superman being heroic, but we don’t get a moment of Clark Kent taking out the trash or cooking with his mom or doing anything we Average Joes do on a daily basis.
There’s never even a casual conversation with another character. Ever since Christopher Nolan’s films became popular, movies–and especially DC movies–tend to favor big speeches over realistic dialogue. And Nolan usually makes those speeches work; think the Joker talking about order and chaos or Matthew McConaughey talking about the allure of space. But real people don’t talk like that, and the best movies reflect that.
That’s why Indy shares a past discovery with his father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and why Samwise Gamgee takes a break from speeches about stories and hope to chat about the stories they’ll tell about Frodo’s adventures in Lord of the Rings. These are casual conversations people might have in real life–well, if real people dug up ancient knights or destroyed rings of power. Meanwhile, BvS characters spoke mostly in speeches about abstract concepts and philosophy and never really brought it down to a human level of conversation. I’m not saying the movie was missing a Super Café-style scene between Supes and Bats, but it might not have hurt.
You know what else real people have that Superman didn’t? A sense of humor. This is something at which Marvel movies have been excelling. True, sometimes they go overboard, and Age of Ultron could be accused of having too much witty banter, but a film like, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier knew when to break up a tense fight or chase with a joke. Not that DC needs to have the same tone as Marvel, but comedic relief exists for a reason: it gives us a chance to laugh, to catch our breath so the movie doesn’t wear us out. Also, because just about everyone who’s ever lived has cracked a joke at some point. Except, apparently, Superman.
But okay, if you’re going the whole godlike Superman route, that’s fine. Just give us some “in” to his character, some reason to root for him. This is something screenwriter Blake Snyder talked about in his excellent book Save the Cat! In a “Save the Cat” scene, “the hero does something–like saving a cat–that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.” We don’t even have to go outside the movie to find one; Bruce Wayne gets his “Save the Cat” scene right at the beginning, when he comforts a young girl in the destruction of Metropolis. As for Superman? Well, we see him be heroic and save Lois and others, but it’s either buried in jarring political intrigue or delivered in montage form. I’m not saying they didn’t try, but I am saying it didn’t work, at least not for me.
The Superman I love is the Kansas farm boy who genuinely wants to use his power to help others. He’s not perfect, but that’s because, despite his alien biology, he’s human. I think both BvS and to a lesser extent Man of Steel missed that, focusing more on the alien/godlike side of Superman, setting him above us as an ideal, somewhere Supes would never want to be. In the graphic novel Superman: Secret Origin, he takes a moment to tell the adoring crowd that he’s not the savior they’re looking for, and even tells Lex Luthor, “You don’t own us.”
Us. He’s one of us. And that’s the Superman I hope to see again one day.