Feature: How Do You Make The Man of Steel Work?

“Superman is boring”  it’s a common enough refrain that’s it’s almost as much of a cliche to write as it is to read. His powers are too strong, his personality too uninteresting and his weakness to kryptonite laughable (especially in live-action form). All these criticisms have various degrees of accuracy but it’s not hard to imagine them being emboldened by the mixed-reception to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Sure, many angsty comic fans have strung Zack Snyder up for not “getting” the character but in his defence, Superman is a hard character to get right.

However, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that in the right hands, there’s a lot of potential to be mined here.

Disqualifying Man of Steel on account of its own divisive-reception, the last live-action take on Superman that didn’t immediately turn audiences away was CW’s Smallville. Though by no means perfect, Smallville understood that beneath all the powers and alien origins, Superman is still a person – and a fallible one at that.

Unlike the supervillains-in-training of Gotham, the Clark Kent we meet in the first season of Smallville is one with plenty of room to grow before he becomes the hero of Metropolis. He makes mistakes. He goes through his edgy emo phase. He engages in healthy relationships, as well as unhealthy ones. Like a lot of teenagers, the only constant for Clark is doubt about his future. As much about the burdens of superpowers as it is the benefits, Smallville offers up a portrait of Superman that’s unquestionably humanist in nature, even if Clark isn’t.

More oft-than-not, the problem with Superman adaptations is that they copy the character over to live-action but fail to correctly translate him to suit the medium. In the context of a comic, it’s easy to use Superman to explore what it means to be an alien and to have such incredible powers. There’s no special effects budget to worry about and the passage of time becomes more malleable. In those conditions, Superman CAN  be everywhere at once. However, once we’ve made the jump to the big screen, that version of the character becomes a harder sell.

Smallville tackled this head-on by making Clark’s control over his powers a work-in-progress. We see him gradually develop and struggle to control each of his powers and come to terms with the responsibility they bestow. What’s more, we see that – like any good origin story – the hero (and person) that Clark becomes has as much to do with the people around him as it does his own intrinsic abilities.We see his friendships with Chloe and Lois inspire him to follow journalism by day and, later, his partnership with Oliver Queen pushes him to embrace crime fighting by night.

And then there’s Lex.

Lex Luthor is pretty much “the” Superman villain, and Smallville builds on this idea by positioning the unlikely friendship between him and Clark as a pretty major element of the series. The first six-or-so seasons of Smallville are as much about Lex’s path to the dark side as they are Clark’s own journey to become Superman. The show doesn’t just hint at the idea of a future rivalry between the two, it actively leverages it to the benefit of both characters. Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex is a fantastic match to Tom Wellington’s Clark Kent and we see the seeds of the people they will become in every interaction.

Looking back, the confidence of Smallville in the notion of growth is what makes it work. Unlike the last couple of Superman films, it isn’t afraid to let Clark grow. Same goes for the show around him. After three seasons of Buffy-esque high school adventures, the characters graduate to college and then go onto more adult lives. In comparison, Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent isn’t really built on any complex emotional journey – he simply is who he is. He’s the action-figure version of Superman that we’ve collectively trained ourselves to expect, and that’s why we get so quickly and easily bored of him in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Smallville is always looking for the natural next step –  be it introducing Clark to the world of journalism through a job with The Daily Planet or group-based vigilantism through an early incarnation of the Justice League. Like Clark, the show is slowly evolving into the thing it was destined to become.

What’s more, these steps always feel earned. They feel like logical evolutions and transitions in Clark’s greater arc towards becoming the figure we know he will become. The inevitable payoff of watching Clark finally don the iconic red-and-blue costume lands better than any other plot beat presented by Superman’s big screen counterparts precisely because it is so earned. Unlike a film, Smallville has more than enough screentime to line up the dominos and to focus on sticking the landing.

The moment that Clark becomes the hero we all know is the moment usually the moment we lose our human connection to him, it’s the moment he becomes less of a person and more of a symbol. Fortunately, the final episode of Smallville is less about him becoming a hero and more about him realising he already is one. He doesn’t become Superman because he’s supposed to, he becomes Superman because he realises that’s who he already is.

The takeaway for whomever takes up the task of directing Man of Steel 2 is pretty simple. The key to telling good stories about Superman is to find the humanity in him. As tempting as it is to deconstruct the Man of Steel as an allegory of Christ – it’s so much more rewarding to explore and reconcile the idea of him as a person. To the people around him, Superman might have the powers of a god but, from his perspective, he’s just as flawed as the rest of us  – and there’s a lot that DC’s cinematic universe could learn from Smallville when it comes to capturing the dramatic potential in this.


Feature: How to fix The Dark Knight Rises in four easy steps


To me, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises was a major disappointment. Sure, it grossed over one billion dollars at the box office and provided the second biggest action spectacle of 2012 behind Marvel’s first Avengers film. However, it didn’t really live up to the bar set by The Dark Knight – one of the scant few superhero movies that’s ever managed to walk away from awards season with anything other than a nod for special effects.

In fact, it didn’t even come close. Where Batman Begins and The Dark Knight boldly brought Nolan’s vision of the caped crusader to life, Rises failed to end the trilogy on a high note. It abandoned the series’ earlier focus on telling thematically-driven stories grounded in realism for an overly-convoluted superhero movie like any other.

The Dark Knight Rises forsakes the series prior concerns with fear, anarchy and justice – reducing the challenge Batman faces as one of primarily physical strength. The first two films in Nolan’s trilogy work as standalone stories but The Dark Knight Rises hinges upon its place as the final one.

Years have come and gone since the film’s release but it’s always fun to playing “devil’s filmmaker” and imagine what a more successful iteration of the film might look like – especially in the wake of Ben Affleck’s debut in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

  • A Tale of Two Batmans

Bloated runtime (all too common to comic-book movies) is one of the more direct criticisms you can aim at The Dark Knight Rises. The film throws half a dozen new characters at audiences from the get-go, most of whom feel forgettable and disposable alongside the returning cast members. The others spin their wheels and fail to really come into their own until past the two-hour-mark.

The solution here is simple – split the film into two parts.

Although Hollywood has often been a little hasty (and greedy) when it comes to splitting franchise films into two installments, The Dark Knight Rises is arguably a film that would have benefited from such a structure. The three-month time skip that precludes the film’s finale would be the ideal spot for the first part to end – creating dramatic tension and allowing the story’s final act to feel less rushed. The film’s thematic scope would also benefit, with each half given more room to properly examine and explore its ideas in the same way that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight did.

  1. Geography!

Gotham has always been the center of Bruce Wayne’s story but The Dark Knight Rises is constantly taking the plot elsewhere. Sure, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight had their own globetrotting asides but the heart and soul of those films is in Gotham, not in some vague Middle-Eastern pit. Same goes for their villains.

With the exception of the Joker, the other villains of Nolan’s trilogy all have a direct link to Gotham. Scarecrow, Two-Face and the criminal underworld are native to Gotham, while R’as Al Ghul’s efforts to destroy the city are pretty central to his own narrative. In comparison, Bane feels like a cheap villain manufactured for action-figure’s sake.

The sewers are introduced early-on as Bane’s base-of-operations but the film abandons them too quickly for the imagery to latch onto Hardy’s performance. The idea that they represent a ‘darkness’ or part of Gotham that doesn’t belong to Batman is a compelling one but it’s one that the film never acts upon aside from that one throwaway line.

I propose removing the prologue in Africa and perhaps replacing it with Gordon’s own misadventure. The emotional stakes of starting the film off here make a lot more sense than they do in Africa. It could also offer Nolan the chance to not reveal his hand too early as to how much of a threat Bain represents to Batman – lending their confrontation more impact.

  1. The Man Himself

Speaking of Tom Hardy, Bane’s role in The Dark Knight Rises is much more vague and less evocative than that of Bruce Wayne’s previous antagonists. I think the key to making him a more interesting villain lies in making him a better rival for Gotham’s affection. The notion of a figure who seeks to supplant Batman as Gotham’s hero is a lot more interesting than (yet another) one who seeks to dominate him.

Though the film’s latter half does concern itself with Bane co-opting this struggle and using the power of the mob to take control of Gotham, it doesn’t really sell Bane as a figure that anyone would actually want to follow – save out of fear. The mask is a nice start but I think there’s a lot of interesting ideas that Nolan could explore by not just making Bane an appendage to the series’ existing mythology but a mysterious persona in his own right. The film touches on ideas like class struggle through the Robin and Selina’s plotlines but could be so much more effective if Bane’s own backstory tied him to the economic plight of Gotham.

There’s a lot to be said for a good mystery. The identity of the man underneath the mask could have been another compelling angle to explore with the character of Bane, not to mention a great reversal of superhero tropes. A key theme of Nolan’s films is escalation and it’d be fascinating to see Bane realised as an extension of this. It’s easy to imagine a version of Rises that paints him as a malignant cancer whose growth below the streets of Gotham is fueled, at least in part, by Batman’s crackdown on crime.

  1.  Lack of thematic spine

The Dark Knight Rises relies too much on being the third chapter of the trilogy, foregoing the powerful themes and ideas expressed in Nolan’s previous films to become just another superhero movie. In an ideal world I’d have loved to see Nolan’s completed series be one that gave three windows into the life of one of the world’s most celebrated characters – less of a trilogy and more of a triptych. In lieu of The Dark Knight Rises’ preoccupation with pain, anger and supposed-critique of socialism and class warfare, I’d like to propose a different set of ideas for Nolan to dissect.

Framing the film around an older Batman worked well in Batman v Superman and it would have been fascinating to see Nolan tackle this angle. Perhaps Bruce’s efforts to support the police department during his post-Rachel depression see him struggle against a more militaristic police force when he again dons the cowl? Batman may be a symbol, but Bruce is a man and can’t live forever.

This is obviously where John Blake / Robin comes in. It would have been fascinating to see a second half of The Dark Knight Rises where Blake takes the lead, and an aging Bruce is forced to let go of the symbol he’s created. We’d get to see a Bruce struggle to let of go a desire for vengeance against Bane and the physical costs that being the Batman has wrought, while also exploring the idea that his legacy will live on through Blake.

What do you think? How would you go about ‘fixing’ The Dark Knight Rises?