In 1934, high schooler Jerry Siegel is tossing and turning in bed. Haunted by the recent death of his father, he dreams of a man who can lift cars. A man who can clear buildings in a single bound. A man who can fly. He wakes up in a cold sweat and immediately calls his friend, Joe Shuster. Joe, without hesitation, agrees to sketch-up some ideas for the character. The two spent the next several years searching for a publisher. Their story was finally accepted by National Allied Publications, now known as DC Comics, and was published as Action Comics #1. On that day in June, 1938, the world was introduced to Superman.
In the near century that has followed the first superhero comic, the landscape of both heroes and comics as a whole looks fundamentally different. The comics of the 1930s and 1940s were, essentially, pro-American, anti-Nazi propaganda. Marvel’s Captain America being the prime example. The creation of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, two Jewish men, Captain America was meant to be the antithesis to not only the Nazis, but to fascism as a whole. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed man who stood up for truth, freedom, democracy, and all things American. The cover of Captain America Comics #1 even went as far as to show Captain America punching Adolf Hitler square in the jaw, something incredibly important as, at the time of the comic’s publication (March 1941), the United States had not yet declared war on Nazi Germany.
These two were the champions of what is referred to as the Golden Age of comics. Stories no different than the old science fiction serials like Flash Gordon: good guy beats up the bad guy to save people. Simple stories about good and right at a time in world history where everything seemed so dark and horrible. Lights of hope in the shadows of despair. Flash forward to present and you’d be lucky to find something so cut and dry.
The modern state of comics owes itself to a handful of genius authors in the 1980s who’s work, essentially, turned comics from “those things that nerds read” into works of literature. Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Art Spiegelman’s non-superhero comic Maus, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. These books, and the vast majority of anything that had their names attached, are widely considered to be literary masterpieces, with Watchmen being placed on TIME magazine’s 2005 list of “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels.” These books turned comics away from the black-and-white morality that they had been previously associated with, and brought adult themes and real-world consequences into the world of comic books. Main characters were no longer relegated to being the “goody-two-shoes” who did everything right and were perfect. Now they were deep, flawed characters that the reader was meant to question the morality of.
People began to ask serious questions about mainstay characters. Is it right for Batman to go out and search homes without a warrant? Is it okay that he doesn’t have any government oversight? Readers were left to think for themselves. This is the era of comics that inspired, above all else, the modern interpretation of Batman. Tim Burton even directly credited the Batman comics of this time as inspiration for Batman ‘89 and Batman Returns.
If you were a fan of the comics in the 80s, you were living in the true golden age. But then something happened. The comic book publishers looked at the success of these books and had to figure out why they were successful. Their answer: darkness, grittiness, and realness. The purpose of comics following the 80s masterpieces was not to provide deep moral questions, or even to give the messages of hope found in the earliest stages of Superhero comics, but to just make everything dark. It was attempting to pass off a kiddie pool as the Marianas Trench.
Instead of sparking moral debates about the possible psychosis of Batman, artists and writers alike just wanted to make something like the next Watchmen. The late 80s and 90s were the birthplace of hundreds of dime-a-dozen superhero meatheads that were created to look and sound cool on paper. This is the time that a mediocre artist could be in charge of multiple books, irreparably damaging entire brands as a whole. This is when comic books shifted back into the stuff that nerds, and only nerds, read. This is when Peter Parker learned that he wasn’t Spider-Man but was actually a clone of Spider-Man. And, most importantly, this is the time that DC decided to kill off Superman.
The image of Superman’s demise is iconic. His cape hanging loosely in the breeze as Lois Lane gingerly holds a bruised and beaten Superman. The iconic image of every single living DC hero attending his funeral, and the intense debate about who, exactly, should get the body of Earth’s Greatest Hero, is a legendary part of comic book history. But, as I’m describing this to you, you already know how this plays out. Superman’s still alive now. I can go out right now and buy a copy of Doomsday Clock #1 and see a living Superman in it’s pages. This was when the idea of death in a comic became laughable. Heroes became a commodity, something that could only be taken off the shelves for a short time, just long enough to build-up demand, but never too long to let the mourning of a character subside all the way. Now-a-days if a comic book character does die, nobody bats an eyelash. They’ll be back, somehow stronger than ever—like a phoenix that’s trying to use its resurrection as a party trick for the hundredth time.
With Superman temporarily out of the picture, however, this became the age of the anti-hero. Characters who were good but with some kind of negative quirk. Deadpool is a foul-mouthed mutant who kills a lot of people. The Punisher stops crime by murdering anyone who commits a crime. The Red Hood is a former Robin, Jason Todd, who comes back to life and acts as Batman but a Batman that kills people. A comic book hero arms race began to see who could create the perfect edgy character that would, statistically, have the greatest appeal to 13-year-olds whose parents just don’t understand them. Their creators thought they were creating characters with deep, thought-provoking backstories, but instead created dime-a-dozen cannibalizations of other, more famous heroes, or, when all else failed, just created a new woman in skimpy clothing to attract more male readers, such as the totally real “Sexdeath the Messiah.”
And so much from that era is just… boring. I don’t feel compelled by any of these people. And the worst part? This is, for the most part, exactly how one could describe the current state of the DC Cinematic Universe.
Suicide Squad is atrocious. It combines the worst parts of everything I just talked about and somehow crams it into one two-and-a-half-hour experience. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice attempts to get as many iconic shots as possible without even bothering to consider why they were iconic in the first place. The fact that it ends with the funeral of Superman (in the second movie of this franchise) is insulting to anyone who likes the character. Man of Steel, is very obviously trying to be Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight but with Superman. And the recent Justice League, while it is my second favorite out of the Universe, is still far off from reaching the mark. And why doesn’t it hit? Well, let’s look at Wonder Woman, easily the best DC movie, period.
Throughout Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman is a paragon. She saves people because she wants to save people. She stops wars because she doesn’t want people to get hurt. She rushes into battle because if she doesn’t, people will get hurt. Her actions directly inspire people to do heroic things they wouldn’t normally do. She doesn’t rule by fear as Batman does, nor is she just an overpowered lump of muscle like the DC Cinematic Universe’s version of Superman. She’s just a hero.
And even if you don’t agree with me, you can’t argue with how well Wonder Woman did. It was critically lauded, ranking higher than a large number of Marvel Movies. It was the highest grossing movie of the summer—the same summer that saw both a Transformers movie and a highly-anticipated Marvel movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. In one foul-swoop, this movie alone seemed to save the DC Cinematic Universe and give people hope.
If you still don’t agree with me, then look at one of Marvel’s most beloved films. Ask someone what their favorite Marvel movie is, and I will guarantee you they will give one of five answers: The Avengers, Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or Captain America: Civil War. But, more often than not, they’ll go with one of those two Captain America films. Why? Well, let’s look at the character of Captain America himself.
Captain America is an anti-fascist icon who fought in World War II. He willingly risked his life to save hundreds of POWs armed with nothing but a shield. He’s stood up against the overreach of governments in order to protect the freedoms of every American. In The Winter Soldier, he stands his ground against the overreach of SHIELD and openly describes the acts of the organization to be terroristic and threatening. In Civil War, he willingly breaks the law in order to not only save his friend, but because he understands that government bureaucracy will impede his ability to help everyday people. Even as a sickly man, he volunteers for the army just so he can help people. Do you see what I’m getting at?
There’s no real reason for Captain America to do any of the great things he does. He just helps people because you should help people. And his actions inspire others. Had Captain America not been on the anti-legislation side of Civil War, do you think for a second that Ant-Man or Hawkeye, who are, by all accounts, just average guys, would risk jail-time and injury by fighting Iron Man, Black Panther, and The Vision, some of the MCU’s strongest and most influential characters?
Now, look at the DC Cinematic Universe’s Superman. A man whose life has been troubled. A man who watched his father figure die. A man who’s been raised to be a messiah. And realize just how boring a person he is. He’s always serious. In Justice League he cracks jokes and smiles, but that’s one movie out of, at this point, three that he’s starred in. He doesn’t save people because he wants to, he does so because he feels obligated to. Like the world needs him, rather than he needs the world. And that’s just bland. You never feel inspired to be a hero because of him, you just want to crawl under a rock and die. Why? Because the Superman finds you to be an inconvenience. And, by God, isn’t that just so much more exciting than a Superman who wants to save people because he can?
When Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel came out in 2013, a common theme in several reviews was something along the lines of, “We get it, Superman can’t be the perfect boy scout that Christopher Reeves played him as.” But nobody seems to explain exactly why he can’t be this paragon figure of “truth, justice, and the American way.” They just say he can’t. That because of the current, rather dreary state of the world, we need a Superman who reflects the contemporary. But Superman, and heroes in general, were not meant to reflect the contemporary, but to look towards the future. Superman is the “man of tomorrow” because he is who we should all aspire to be. We need the perfect paragon boy scout of Christopher Reeves, because he’s someone to aspire to.
Paragon heroes, whose actions just inspire others to act, are becoming rarer. However, in the modern day, in a world so divided, they are exactly the kind of role models we need. We don’t need a Jesus-metaphor Superman, we need a Superman who just acts as Jesus would. We love Captain America and Wonder Woman because they are the closest things we have to that perfect, kind Superman. They inspire others to be great. Just as the original Action Comics #1 inspired others to create just as great heroes.
The world needs paragons, even if we don’t admit we want them.
– Nicholas Drabant