MAN OF STEEL and the Invincible Hero Problem

As a non-fan of the Superman, I can honestly say this: MAN OF STEEL is far, far better than expected.

It’s like Zack Snyder took the only good parts of PROMETHEUS (cool spaceships and outfits!), stuffed it into a blender with INDEPENDENCE DAY (aliens are coming to blow up the planet!) and added with a dash of Wolverine (hairy shirtless tough guy wanders planet, doing random good deeds).

Russell Crowe is surprisingly awesome in MAN OF STEEL. Who knew?

Russell Crowe is surprisingly awesome in MAN OF STEEL. Who knew?

I mean all that in a good way.

HOWEVER: The world doesn’t need another review of Soupman’s latest reboot. What the world needs is a real discussion of a real problem that Superman and other heroes can’t seem to shake.

They’re invincible. And that, friends, is crazy boring.

Iconic heroes made of flesh and blood already have a serious problem, since everybody sitting in the seats, munching on $9 popcorn, knows they’re icons. We know the producers of James Bond movies would never wake up one day and say, “I know — let’s kill off Bond and start some other kind of film, maybe with a 200-year-old sparkling vampire who’s into whiny teeangers.”

Hollywood wants franchises, and you don’t kill off the foundation of billion-dollar juggernauts. Ironman will never die. Batman, Sherlock Holmes, Spock, Kirk (new young Kirk, not Shatner, who they did kill off), Wonder Woman — hey, they’re all safe.

But they’re not invincible. They can and do suffer. They can bleed and die. We know that.

Superman is never really in trouble. Stuff happens to him on screen and you shrug, because hey, that’s Superman.

An unknown actress, Antje Traue, stole the show in the villain department. She needs her own movie. Bring her back.

An unknown actress, Antje Traue, stole the show in the villain department. She needs her own movie. Bring her back.

It’s not the same with Batman, who’s been stabbed, knocked out, set on fire and generally abused. One of the great things about the Dark Knight trilogy is how much Batman really does suffer, sacrifice and grow.

MAN OF STEEL does a good job, and it’s a fun movie. The problem is the character of Superman, who’s a lot like Neo after the end of THE MATRIX, when Keanu Reeves can do anything.

Where do you go from there? Turns out you wander around and get lost for two movies that got progressively worse until something perfect turned into something meh. Which is sad. THE MATRIX was brilliant … right up until Neo went all Superman on us.

Here’s an ironclad rule of storytelling that I’m inventing right now: The villain has to be more powerful than the hero. Always.

Not equally powerful. Not less powerful. The villain has to be superior.

Otherwise, we’re sitting in a dark room watching Chuck Norris swivel around on his cowboy boots as he kicks 59 random henchmen in the face. Does it look pretty? Sure. Is it dramatic and exciting and good story? No. We know Chuck — or Jason Statham, or whoever — is better, and that our hero is gonna win.

When your hero is invincible, like Superman and Neo, the villain can’t be more powerful. It’s impossible.

Think about every Boring Action Movie you’ve ever seen: the villain is less powerful and scary than the hero, which is why he needs an army of thugs to protect him from the big bad scary hero, who starts out the story as an amazing tough guy and ends the story … as an amazing tough guy. Most of the bad Bond movies are like this.

Same thing with every Failed Comic Book Movie, like the lame Hulk films. The Angry Green Thing is basically invincible. Bullets bounce off him. Tank rounds go clang off his green skin. How can you worry about the guy getting in trouble, or having a tough time with a bad guy? This is why comic book movies tend to have hordes of villains. That’s compensating for the weakness of each villain, and it doesn’t work.

Two little movies we all remember reverse this beautifully. The villains in ROCKY and THE KARATE KID seem invincible to us, don’t they? Apollo Creed is the heavyweight champion of the world. He’s crazy strong, insanely fast, in incredible shape and everybody with a functioning brain cell in their noggin would bet the farm on him, not the slow, plodding loser they lined up for a publicity stunt of a fight. Johnny also seems like a teenage nightmare, a giant bully who pummels Daniel-san relentlessly.

Here's a villain who's definitely bigger and badder than the hero AND the mentor. Good job, Hollywood.

Here’s a villain who’s bigger and badder than the hero and the mentor combined. Good job, Hollywood — do that again.

Rocky and Daniel-san start out as serious underdogs, and they get their butts kicked in all sorts of ways throughout the movie. It’s only at the very end that they eke out a little moral victory. But we don’t care. That little moral victory is more important to us, the audience, than all the beat-downs administered by the tough guy in your average action movie.

Bigger isn’t better. It’s the distance traveled from the beginning to the end. And when you start out cranking it up all the way to 11, and end at 11, you’re not really taking us anywhere.

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “MAN OF STEEL and the Invincible Hero Problem

  1. Really nice post!
    Hope this infographic about Man of Stell will make you laugh!
    http://www.themaplekind.com/3-things-i-learned-watching-man-of-steel/

  2. The thing that irritated me about the movie was that apparently tens of thousands of people die when Metropolis is attacked. But no one seemed to care.

    There were MORE villains in this story than Superman that were EQUAL TO SUPERMAN, which means they WERE MORE POWERFUL simply by sheer numbers, yet they did little with it. So the movie SHOULD have worked the way you are describing it. Yet it didn’t

    Again, tens of thousands of people should have been declared dead in that movie. This should have been a sad, depressing, somber ending.

    And if I remember correctly it was THE HUMANS who came up with the silly notion for creating the black hole that sent all the bad guys away. They pull that silly stunt off. (Correct me if I’m wrong there.)

    So to recap. Tens of thousands dead. Humans figure way to bend space to send bad guys away.

    Yet somehow this is a victory for Superman.

  3. Also, you’re SO RIGHT about the villain being more powerful, which is why I did not love ‘Man of Steel.’ In Smallville (a far better depiction) and of course, the comics, Superman uses his BRAINS more than his superpowers which is how he defeats most of the more powerful villains in many of the stories.

  4. Superman is not invincible. He can be killed with Kryptonite, but Snyder wasn’t having that in ‘Man of Steel.’ That’s how we were able to see Superman suffer in the comics. The TV series ‘Smallville’ did an excellent job writing Superman’s origins growing up as Clark Kent & documenting all of the ways in which he suffered before becoming Superman. It was a great show that ran for 10 years. The show really made millions of people care about Superman again and completely set the stage for Man of Steel. The movie should’ve picked from Smallville, consulted with the writers, and taken crucial notes from the origins because they’re there for a reason. If you start changing and omitting stuff from the core story, then that makes other little details not make sense anymore – like getting rid of Kryptonite.

  5. Frankly, I think they misused Zod in Man of Steel. Zod had every chance to be the kind of villain that you’d want for someone as powerful as Superman, but they blew it.

    With regards to the “superheroes are boring” thing: I agree, to some extent. But I also contend that there are ways to make this not-so-boring. Take leahzero’s comment for example. The big challenge/conflict doesn’t HAVE to be a villain per se. Man vs. Man isn’t the only way to go. There’s Man vs. Himself. There’s Man vs. Nature. Either can really make Superman interesting IF HANDLED WELL.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I think the real issue with superheroes is that we always shoehorn them into the action genre (which relies heavily on the Man vs. Man thing), when that’s not all they can be part of. ^^;

  6. For me, MAN OF STEEL turned out to be a hunk of junk. It really lost whatever story telling it was doing and then devolved into a “let’s blow everything up… a LOT” to make up for the lack of plot. Lots of one-note performances didn’t help, since there wasn’t much to care about. Huge budget wasted.

  7. You make an excellent point. Several, actually. In order for the audience to really CARE about the story, the stakes have to be high enough. If we already know good will win out, we’re less likely to want to keep watching, reading, etc. That’s why underdog stories are so gripping. I actually really liked the most recent film, but I think this is a problem that every incarnations of Superman will always have to grapple with. Great post!

  8. juliabarrett

    My husband’s philosophy is similar to yours – an invincible super hero is boring. My son says super heroes are innately boring because they are reactive. Their only role is to react to evil super villain. Super villains look ahead. They plan. They are proactive. Superman has nothing to do until the super villain shows up.

    • Your son is wise. A reactive hero isn’t making me care. A reactive hero is like watching a really bad soccer (or futbol, if you’re not an American) match – where one team does nothing but chase the ball. The reason Die Hard worked so beautifully as a movie is because John was absolutely out-gunned and out-classed by Hans, but more than that, it worked because both Hans and John were planning and trying to outmaneuver each other through the movie. That’s true of all the best action movies – when you pit the hero against a bad guy that is really, really bad, and let him outmaneuver and outplan the bad guy – who is also working to outmaneuver and outplan the good guy- that works. It’s why Predator (the original worked). It’s why Home Alone worked. The movie is no fun if the hero isn’t really working to overcome a gap between the hero and the villain.

      • Your comment is packed chock full of Truthiness and glorious brains.

      • juliabarrett

        Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to your wonderful reply. Yes, that’s exactly whey Die Hard works for me and why Predator (1) works for me and, yes, even Home Alone – we’re talking less superhero, more anti-hero. An anti-hero can be very very effective in the hero role.

  9. This is my general problem with (Western) comics: invincibility and/or endless reincarnation suck all the tension out of injury, death, and loss. I can’t get emotionally invested in it because I know nothing is permanent.

    I’m also a non-fan of Superman, but my boyfriend pointed out that the comics actually go into this far better than Snyder did: supposedly Superman realizes that because he’s essentially invincible on Earth, he cannot show true courage–because he can’t be hurt. Only human beings, with their short lives and easily destroyed bodies, are capable of showing courage and making meaningful sacrifices. Supposedly Superman greatly admires humanity for this, and downplays his own idealized image because he knows there is no true courage or heroism without true risk.

    I can’t comment on how accurate this is, but a Superman movie about ordinary people making sacrifices and the Man of Steel being in awe of them sounds way more interesting than this loud, dumb SFX bonanza.

  10. Rob Po

    Who would you consider as the meanest movie villain of all time?

  11. Great post, Guy. You used some great examples to help cement a point we writers should never forget.

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