So last weekend Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hit theaters and proved to be a box office hit. For those who want my thoughts on the film, you can read about them here and here. As was the case with Man of Steel, it seems very fashionable to snark on BvS and the DC Cinematic Universe in general. My theory is that the Marvel films are shiny new toys by comparison to the DC franchises.
This isn’t to say that DC and parent company Warner Brothers are above critique. They aren’t. Neither is Marvel and parent company Disney. I both enjoy and take both companies to task for different reasons when it comes to their comics and films. However, not all of the major complaints have been as valid and they definitely illustrate a double standard at play when it comes to Superman specifically.
1.) This Superman Destroyed an American City!
Clark isn’t guilty of destroying much of Metropolis. He is guilty of stopping Zod’s forces from destroying the entire planet.
What’s interesting is that these criticisms weren’t made against Dr. Bruce Banner when he “kind of broke Harlem” in New York, or that unidentified African city in Age of Ultron.
2.) This Superman was Reckless!
Inexperienced, no question. But also heroic. With no formal training and little knowledge of his powers and origins, Clark was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice if necessary to protect Earth while being targeted by the U.S. government and Zod alike.
Just as an inexperienced Steve Rogers was heroic when he threw himself on the grenade to protect everyone else in Captain America: The First Avenger.
What is reckless, however, is for a billionaire public figure to go on national television to challenge a terrorist to a fight at his home and provide the address. Because that always ends well as Tony Stark learned in Iron Man 3.
And speaking of Stark, trying to trigger Banner to transform into the Hulk on a S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier and endangering countless lives is also reckless; a point Rogers made to Stark in Marvel’s The Avengers.
3.) They Made This Superman a Murderer!
Superman has red in his ledger.
Regarding Zod’s death, what else was Clark supposed to do? Clark had him in a full nelson while pleading for Zod to stop the bloodshed. All the while, Zod was still trying to use his heat vision to murder innocent people while vowing to make it his mission to destroy Clark and his adopted planet.
Zod had already been imprisoned to be rehabilitated. That didn’t take. Even as Clark begged him to stop, Zod vowed he would keep coming and keep plotting to destroy the Earth.
Additionally, Superman has killed previously in the comics and films. It’s very rare and only as an absolute last resort when every other possible option has been exhausted as was the case in Man of Steel. Murder is usually premeditated and avoidable. Zod’s death is an textbook example of a famous quote from the original X-Man, Brother Malcolm.
“I don’t call it violence when it’s self-defense. I call it intelligence.”
The Last Son of Krypton is by no means the only one with red in his ledger.
Black Widow: Assassin. As Loki referenced in the Avengers film, her ledger includes: Sao Paulo, the hospital fire, and Dreykov’s daughter.
Hawkeye: Master archer. Marksman. Assassin.
Tony Stark: Billionaire, inventor, arms dealer. Other known titles: Iron Man, The Consultant, Merchant of Death. Creator of Ultron and responsible for the all the lives lost in the Avengers sequel.
Wolverine: Black Ops leader, Assassin, Weapon X, and school teacher.
Interestingly enough, the issue of heroes killing enemies is never raised when it comes to them.
4.) This Superman Movie is too Dark!
On this charge, agreed. However, in this case Snyder, DC/Warner, and the other Man of Steel shot callers are not to blame. If anything, they’re guilty of trying to meet public demand.
Usually I’m the first one to take Hollywood to task for poor decisions and problematic storytelling but this is one of those rare times where I’m actually defending them.
For years, the general public and a good portion of fandom alike have complained about Superman being too boring and too much of a boy scout and isn’t “cool” like Batman.
In fact, more edge and more action were the charges against Superman Returns.
Now many of the same critics have attacked Man of Steel for being too dark and this Superman crosses the line. That’s the problem with supermen and messiahs. The world expects them to be all things to all people and when they’re not, they get crucified.
We got the do-gooder in Superman Returns and the masses complained endlessly.
Man of Steel and BvS address this. So to the general public who wanted “an edgier and cooler” Superman film, you got it. Don’t blame Hollywood. This one is on you.
Even Superman isn’t above critique. In fact constructive feedback and deep examinations of the characters, the stories, and its reflection on our society should be encouraged. Constructive critiques keep us honest and makes us better.
To be clear, this isn’t a Marvel vs. DC argument. I enjoy films from both companies. If you do also, great. If you don’t, such is your right. To each their own.
However, a little more consistency in critiques and a lot less double standards would be swell, stupendous, even, super!
19 thoughts on “Superman: Seeing Double (Standards)”
I think the standard the critics are going by is consistency with characterization that has been built up over decades of shared serial storytelling. There are few complaints about the destruction Hulk causes because he has often been characterized as a rampaging green giant; it’s consistent with his established characterization. Wolverine is well-established as having no problems with killing. Tony Stark has had variations in characterization over the years, but his portrayal as a arrogant but reformed ex-arms manufacturer stays true to the character I recognize from the comics. (I think that’s also why the Thor movies feel weaker than the others — there isn’t as much in the way of defining characterization for Thor in more recent canon.)
But as you alluded to, Superman is often thought of as the Big Blue Boy Scout. Rash decision-making and insufficient regard for the safety of others don’t square against the accumulated weight of stories told with the character since 1938. I don’t personally hold Tony Stark to the same moral standard as Superman, because the characters behave in radically different ways in the comics. Steve Rogers and Superman are much more similar in terms of character, and if Captain America was as cavalier about collateral damage in the Marvel movies as Superman was in Man of Steel, I think the fan backlash would be swift and terrible.
I think what really drives fandom’s embrace of a given adaptation is in how true the portrayal is to their version of the character. There are a lot of ways in which the Marvel movies deviate from their source material, but they manage to capture the essence of their characters. The movie versions of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark are so strikingly like their comics counterparts that we’re willing to overlook changes like Bucky being Steve’s peer or Jarvis being turned into an AI copilot. Conversely, a good part of fan disdain for the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies is due to the whole secret-history-of-Richard-Parker plotline which doesn’t ring true with the core Spider-Man narrative where his powers are gained by a freak accident.
The fandom can change too, in that the version(s) of a character that the majority accept as definitive changes over time. The Nolan Batman movies featured a grounded Batman that is still true to existing characterizations that many fans liked. The 1966 Batman TV show was quite faithful to a certain style of Batman storytelling and has seen its popularity wax and wane as the fandom’s preferences changed. Many people look at that series fondly these days, since they have accepted it a Batman they recognize as authentic, even if in the 80s and 90s they identified more with Miller’s interpretation.
Batman is an incredibly versatile character; you can stretch and pull him quite a bit till he stops looking like Batman. And for whatever reason, Superman is not nearly as elastic. I do think that Man of Steel raised a lot of interesting questions about power, being an outsider, and finding your place in a world where you are unique and exceptional. But Superman doesn’t appear to be a character that lends himself to figuring these things out while fumbling through deadly combat with alien invaders. YMMV of course, clearly that narrative resonated with a lot of people.
It’s interesting to note that the CBS Supergirl TV show is exploring many of these same questions, but does it in a way that feels organic to that character, with real consequences when she makes mistakes. While I credit that in large part to Melissa Benoist’s portrayal, it probably also helps that the comic book characterization of Kara Zor-El has been all over the place for so long, so the TV version is just as legit as any comics version for the last 10-15 years.
In the end, the post feels like a straw man argument — it’s not that critics apply harsher standards to DC that they don’t apply to the shiny new Marvel movies. It’s one standard: Does the character onscreen resemble the version of the character we cherish?
You raise some valid points which I think contributed to the double standards I’m discussing. Which again is still inconsistent considering the guy responsible for Ultron is the one policing everyone else.
Thanks Dennis. And I do agree with that particular observation: Tony Stark is absolutely the last person to be taking up the cause of governmental oversight of powered individuals. The Tony Stark I’m familiar with wouldn’t put up with authorities telling him what to do. When the Civil War comics were coming out, I remember people arguing that Tony was acting out of character by supporting superhuman registration, and that his motivations were contrived. That’s going to be the biggest challenge for the filmmakers to meet: depicting a convincing rationale for Stark’s position.
Martin, Howard Stark and Tony Stark are/were government contractors, so I can easily see how Tony, the billionaire industrialist on the government dole, will support his pro-regulation position. As a modern military contractor, Tony needs the gravy train to stay on track, so he will tow the line for superhero regulation all day long. No Brainer.
It’s like e-Verify on steroids. I still think Tony is wrongheaded in his position, but I can definitely see how he supports his rationale due to his personal business interests. Tony Stark will never vote against his own business interests and a guy like that has few personal interest because it’s all about him.
Steve Rogers on the other hand is right that there is no need to form a system of accountability and a governing body to determine when to call in the team. BLAST BIG GOVERNMENT and stooge bureaucrats. Zero government interference is needed rein in superheroes.
I know this debate is all about The Winter Soldier a/k/a Bucky Barnes and what he’s been alleged to have done, but Bucky is basically a cyborg and he was programmed to do what he did. Again–Bucky, is technically not a superhero but a weaponized cybernetic organism under the control of his master. He could even be hacked. I am not even sure what rights Buck has now due to his status and no he is running loose. He was born human, but is now something more than human and LESS than human all at the same time. (Do cyborgs dream of electric sheep, too?)
I also disagree that superheroes need to register and adhere to regulation because that would mean that their loved ones would be at risk of harm if superhero files were ever hacked. So, Superman (what an oxymoron) has made errors in the DC Universe and yes there was collateral damage, but what he did was for the greater good.
As to the MCU, these bureaucrats better chill because what if these creatures decided to rebel and just take over or destroy the world—period? They still could, even with this so-called regulation. Makes no sense. If they agree not to act unless greenlit by the government, what if perchance they don;t get permission and save someone and collateral damage results or not, like what are they gonna do, put ’em in prison?
Hail! I wholeheartedly agree as to what Martin posted: “Steve Rogers and Superman are much more similar in terms of character, and if Captain America was as cavalier about collateral damage in the Marvel movies as Superman was in Man of Steel, I think the fan backlash would be swift and terrible.” –Martin
I love CAPTAIN AMERICA/Steve Rogers (So looking forward to CA:Civil War. Iron Man/Tony Stark and his crew are abysmally on the wrong side of the argument). Captain America is clean cut, wholesome, patriotic, stands for what’s GOOD and right and honest and he THINKS before he acts. He is virtually flawless in thought, deed/action. A Total STAND UP and OUTSTANDING SUPER HERO.
Superman in contrast is flawed but cool. Aren’t many of us–and we’re but humans? I do think Batman’s public condemnation of Superman is a rather silly premise in B v. S, considering, but Martin makes a great point about CAPTAIN AMERICA’s brand of social responsibility and maybe it’s because the Super Soldier is human.
Kal-El is an alien. If Superman wanted to truly be responsible in his fight to death with General Zod, then he should have hurtled Zod out into Space and fought there, thus sparing Earth and humanity from all of the collateral damaged caused by the devastatingly brutal brawl of the century.
Did Kal-El learn nothing from Jor-El? I mean, universe almighty, Kal-El and Zod are/were superior in every way to mere Earthlings. As if the terra forming wasn’t enough. Sometimes Superman is a little dense.
School him, Lois Lane.
Well, I had a comment all teed up in response to the OP, but it got accidentally deleted (arrghh!). Turns out you said everything I felt.
I think it’s fair to say that if you think movie critics judge a film’s merit merely by what happens in a movie and not:
1) how it is done
2) what it means contextually to the specific story
3) what it means contextually to the specific character
then you might not understand movie criticism? Merely saying “the bad thing that happened in THIS movie also happened in THAT movie” fails to flesh out why people were okay with it in one instance and found it pointless/problematic in the other. If you go to two restaurants and order the lobster and one lobster is delicious and the other is disgusting, you don’t blame the person eating the lobster. You blame the cook.
True, Superman has changed radically over the years, but at the same time, it’s not all linear. Batman’s changes have been more extreme, but Superman has been there. I was kind of shocked at the violence in MoS at first, but really, that was one of the problems with Superman II. Things were too mild. What’s going to happen when Superman fights people with his powers? On Supergirl, I think they’re aware of the same problem. I think MoS Superman is a still too brooding, but I think the strain of having all those powers weighs on him more than other versions, which you sometimes get in the comics.
Movie Captain America is a bit more cavalier about killing/maiming people, whether shooting them, throwing them 30 feet through the air, knifing them, knocking them off ships, dragging them behind moving vehicles than the comics. Part of that might be being a soldier, and that is the difference between Cap and Superman. Cap has an internal criteria for killing people. Superman, at least as he’s in the comics now, sees it as an abuse of his powers.
I do believe there is a double standard when it comes to Superman. Whether it’s fair or not, it certainly does make it hard to make a Superman movie.
Good analysis, DMuranaka. I especially like the point that Captain America is a soldier; he never left the payroll. Soldiers are professional killers in the context of war. War, as we know it, has altered. War is not necessarily “state-” connected as to our enemies and thus, collateral damage will always exist in Captain America’s or any soldier’s realm.
Superman is an alien, frankly, and he will always be held to a higher standard due to his superior physicality and also because he could quash us all like bugs.
(Note: BTW, it doesn’t make sense to me that Superman, in B v. S, didn’t use his X-ray vision and other extraordinary sensory powers to detect the domestic terrorist wheelchair bomber at the senate hearings. I mean, WTF. No wonder he was held in such contemptuous suspicion. He gets himself out alive and leaves everyone else to be blown to bits. WTF)
Superman must always act under the guise of protecting non-coms.
Great article! The problem that most people fail to see when they say “They got Superman wrong in Man of Steel and BvS” is that they’re comparing that version of Superman to their own personal view and/or opinion of Superman, regardless of the vast wealth of varying interpretations that exist in the comics alone, not to mention the extra-comical (heh) versions. This usually means essentially that Cavill’s Superman isn’t Superman because he isn’t Reeve’s Superman, simply because they grew up with Reeve. He will always be “their Superman”. But that’s subjective, isn’t it? Reeve isn’t the definitive Superman simply because he was the one we grew up with or are most familiar with, or the one that was the most popular.
Reeve’s Supes could reverse time (or travel through it depending on how you interpret that ending) but that’s not an ability shared by too many versions of even the comic book Superman. In the Golden Age, he couldn’t even fly. In the Silver Age, he could push planets around. In the Justice League cartoons, a laser to the chest could bring him to his knees. In Superman: Earth One he is indeed all broody. In Kingdom Come he is indeed far from a beacon of hope, having given up on hope himself. If you were to ask me, I’d tell you that All-Star Superman is the definitive version of the character, but even that isn’t canon, with him dying at the end or transforming into energy (sorry, spoilers). The Man of Steel/BvS version is being founded as one that is inexperienced, unsure of himself, and far from omnipotent. He can be distracted, as any sentient being would be when brought before his condemners (which is clearly why he didn’t see the bomb in the wheelchair; are we to expect he would sweep every room he enters with x-ray vision? He doesn’t have spider-sense!).
All this to say I agree with you. Superman catches a lot of flak because people expect him to be a certain way when he has in fact been reinterpreted so many times as it is. A character doesn’t survive for over three quarters of a century without doing so. And yes, there are indeed a lot of double standards between reactions for Marvel and DC films. A film is a masterpiece if it has some jokes to cover a shaky plot-hole plot but if it’s humorless the same is unacceptable? So many Marvel films got a free pass. Age of Ultron. Case in point. Maybe it’s because Marvel films have only recently started enjoying their success within the past set of years: nobody knew or cared about Iron Man more than a decade ago and so what kind of assertions could you make that he’s being portrayed out of character? Iron Man’s first movie was the first time general audiences got to see him in action, and so that’s the version that is “definitive”. Whereas, DC’s iconic characters are already set in stone in people’s minds. But this’s not an argument I’m interested in defending any more. I fought that fight!
Thanks for defending the greatest superhero there is. I cannot trust Zack Snyder to redeem the character and bring him to his fullest rendition as a beacon of hope, but I know the potential is there. Absolutely Superman represents a higher standard than a genitalia like Iron Man, or a monster like the Hulk. They may just need a better storyteller. Superman is worth it. As far as BvS goes, it’s got several more problems than just a supposed mischaracterization of Supes!
I was cool with Superman in Man of Steel but he got totally botched in B v. S and I guess that’s why the ending resulted as it did. LE FIN
They castrated the poor guy. He just needed more to do, more to be, y’know? And they should have saved that ending for when it could have been the most powerful emotionally. Not everyone is on the Cavill bandwagon.
I just don’t think a British actor can adequately embody Superman as we know him. Cavill has the look but he is like an empty suit in that he can fill the costume but the rest is just A BLANK SLATE. Not too fond of Amy Adams as Lois Lane, either. Affleck and Gadot are just as bad if not worse. At least Affleck is American. Gadot is Israeli.
Let’s not kid ourselves, these Superheroes are American superheroes, who are supposed to project American values like Captain America does. If they had cast Captain America with a Brit I would refuse to see it—period.
Wonder Woman is from the Mediterranean as a Grecian in canon, no? Cavill is wooden. I dislike Amy Adams as Lois, also. I enjoyed Affleck and Gadot, and general consensus seems to be that they were great.
I loved Cap when I was a kid, but stopped caring after his first movie failed to cast anyone with an actual German accent as Nazis, and I fell asleep in that bore-fest Winter Soldier, and then they made him cuss in Age of Ultron. Haha, not that big a deal. It just made me shrug my shoulders. Had enough.
The WW canon has been changed so many times it’s hard to keep track. Originally she was from Paradise Island (The floating Island) and her character is a warrior princess of the Amazons (which are based on the Amazons of Greek mythology) and is known in her homeland as Princess Diana of Themyscira—the new name for Paradise Island. Another canon has Paradise Island being destroyed and the Amazons scattered across the globe with Diana ending up as an orphan in New York. Then there was this bit about the island being destroyed and the Amazon sistren going to another “dimension” and Diana being left behind.
Wow, so you didn’t like The First Avenger or Winter Soldier, aye? I loved them both and can watch over and over gain. Age of Ultron was ok—bit that wasn’t a Captain America movie. As to the faux German accents if Tom Cruise can play a German in Valkyrie and talk like an American bro anything goes! LOL I overlooked the accents in the movies because Hayley Atwell did ok with her upper crust British accent and my focus was on Steve Rogers, anyway, who I absolutely worship!
To me, Winter Soldier was GREAT! The Winter Soldier (James Buchanon “Bucky” Barnes as played by Seb Stan was awesome and SEERINGLY EERIE and EDGY. The music when he came on for to a T and the fight scenes and SFX were cool and badass!) BTW, Sebastian Stan has a 9-picture deal to do MCU movies, so bro ain’t goin’ anywhere. LOL
He might even inherit Cap’s awesome Vibranium shield. After all, he has already wielded that shield to max effect and looks like from the CA:CI trailer he and Cap are gonna bring down all holy hell on Tony Stark/Iron man who appears to get a major beat down. [good. Tony is a sell out.]
The rationale behind the registration act is that it will help people with superpowers when in reality it will be used to exploit them.
Onto the whole Superman debate, what I liked about the movie is the notion of beings from other worlds how would we react if or when we encounter another sapient species? The race debate will be turned on its head it will shift big time and it will the single biggest event in the history of humanity. I always get annoyed when less advanced humans stand victorious over the more advanced aliens using rather primitive means like a computer virus or a nuclear bomb I’m thinking a spacecraft able to traverse vast distances in short time will be nothing that we’ve EVER seen before. A movie yes but human beings are so arrogantly to believe the universe revolves around the sun we see in the sky every morning.
My complaint is less this than the fact that he didn’t seem to care for the lives lost in his battle with Zod. Superman is supposed to be a compassionate character who’s first concern has been with helping and protecting humanity-even in the midst of battle.
I don’t really have an issue with Superman on a learning curve.
Superman could have thrown Zod into space to put off killing. He could have broken his back, instead of killing him. But really, I’m not necessarily against Superman killing, but it has to be earned. Superman needs to be shown to be concerned for the welfare of humanity far more than he was shown in MoS. The Superman I have been reading about in comics for most of my 40 years is not someone who would sit by and not help out anyone trapped in a car during a tornado. He’s not someone who would sit by and let his father die when he had the power to help it. He’s not someone who would wage pitched battle in a metropolitan city with little concern for civilians. He needed to be presented as a caring, compassionate guy desperate to save humanity for that final scene to work.
There’s one more thing the movie lacked-making Superman long to have a connection to Krypton, so that when he was presented with the possibility of having to kill Zod, he’s really and truly torn: kill his last living tie to Krypton or let these people die. Nothing about that scene was earned, and at no point in MoS did I feel like I was watching a character remotely like Superman.
Also, comparing him to other heroes isn’t the way to go. For the vast majority of Superman’s existence, he has been opposed to killing anyone. The consistent portrayal of his character has been someone for whom killing is anathema. Other characters, such as the various Avengers you mentioned don’t have Superman’s long history of opposition to killing. For him, that opposition is *part* of his characterization.
Way too dark. Too dreary and ponderous too. It’s fine to have everything around Superman be dark though, so long as the optimism, hope, and compassion of the character stand in contrast to the darkness. That’s not what we got. We got an oppressively bleak film.
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