MAN OF STEEL and the Invincible Hero Problem

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

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.

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.

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.