5) Beat the Tar Out of Bad Guys
The big blue boy scout doesn’t throw a single punch in Superman Returns. What’s the point of being super if you’re just going to fly around and mope about your baby mama? Get over it. Kick a fool through a mountain.
It’s easy to forget the effect of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman upon that character’s popularity. Until then, Batman was still defined in most minds by the campy Adam West portrayal. But Burton changed things. With his particularly gothic take on the Dark Knight, Burton gave license to adults to openly like superheroes. Much of that had to do with the unadulterated violence. Burton’s Batman bled, and gave as good as he got. Burton’s Batman even killed, and he did so without reservation or remorse. It didn’t shock our delicate sensibilities. Quite the contrary, we loved him for it.
Of course, there is a difference between Batman and Superman. It is like that between cops and firemen. Both are respected protectors, but through different means. As portrayed in film, Superman behaves more or less as a fireman, responding to dangerous emergencies which require his unique skills to mitigate. Batman, on the other hand, is defined by his rogue’s gallery of intractable villains. Got a plane in a nosedive? That looks like a job for Superman. Have a madman terrorizing your city? Signal the Bat.
But these roles need not be mutually exclusive, and it would serve Snyder’s Man of Steel well to place Superman in an arena where he must ruthlessly fight. The villain in Man of Steel is General Zod, a Kryptonian fugitive with all of Superman’s abilities and none of the moral compunction. Defeating Zod should require everything Superman can muster, his god-like power unleashed. That’s what people want to see, and what Snyder must deliver.
4) Impose Limitations
To complement the release of Superman Returns, Bryan Singer teamed up with renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns to produce Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman. Recounting the many media incarnations of the character, the film did not shy away from showing Superman at his most absurd. Among those noted is one comic book story where Superman blows out a star as one might blow out a candle.
Even in the respected Donnor film, Superman’s power serves as a kind of deus ex machina. Unable to accept the death of Lois as a consequence of his choosing to save countless others, Superman cheats her death by flying around the Earth so fast that it somehow reverses the planet’s rotation which somehow turns back time.
Subsequent films were replete with similarly arbitrary powers. Remember the mind-erasing kiss? The finger-emitted tractor beam? The krypto-cellophane-super-rang? Remember when Superman turned a tornado upside down? Or when he created an eclipse by pushing the moon in front of the sun?
Even in the realm of fantasy, suspension of disbelief requires imposing some limitations on both the characters and their world. When there is no narrative reason for something to occur, or no narrative logic to a sequence of events, it pulls the audience out of the experience and blunts any emotional impact.
Superman can fly. He has incredible strength, speed, hearing, sight, and other more remarkable powers. But he must also have limitations. If he can blow out stars and reposition planets and turn back time, it’s tough to imagine him ever being in a position which is truly precarious. That’s probably why so many Superman tales have relied upon Kryptonite or some other power-neutralizing device to bring the hero down to earth. A protagonist that cannot be harmed or stopped is immune to genuine conflict.
There is a danger in taking this advice too far. Superman’s power should remain extraordinarily potent, just not omnipotent. While physical threats to his person are few and far between, his ability to achieve his goals must be credibly challenged if we’re to remain engaged.