If a man had to pick a “winner” from the whole billion-dollar-success thing surrounding The Avengers, he could skip down the list right past “Disney,” “Kevin Fiege’s realtor,” and “people who like fun movies,” and stop confidently at “The Hulk.” The green guy is undoubtedly the character whose stock rocketed up most strongly the day Whedon’s film hit screens. Hell, even just the glimpses of him in the previews measurably improved his reputation with the public (at least those buying lunchboxes and stickers).
Just what Whedon and Marvel did correctly to create this effect has been the subject of some excellent podcasts, at least a paragraph in virtually every review of the film yet written, and even a sophisticated examination by my pal FilmCritHulk in the New Yorker, of all places. In considering the points made by those folks and some thoughts of my own, it’s occurred to me that while these ideas and lessons are quite specific to The Hulk, a majority of them apply to another classic hero in need of a cinematic tune-up… Superman.
Obviously Warner Brothers and Zach Snyder — with some degree of influence from Christopher Nolan — are already deep into their own attempt to rejigger the filmically confused icon, rendering this conversation a day late and a gamma ray short. However, we can at least break this shit down and cross our fingers that those folks had some of this stuff figured out before Marvel’s billion-dollar example made it all obvious. With rumors and logic both suggesting The Dark Knight Rises will bring us our first look at Man Of Steel, we’ll soon get an idea if that’s the case. Until then, let’s chew on the similarities between these characters, how they sit with the movie-going public, and what they need to finally conquer the silver screen.
Before we get started it’s important to note that any conversation of this nature is going to have to focus on the meat and potatoes mythoi of the respective characters, and simply can’t account for the dozens of variations and twists that have been added by decades of monthly storytelling in the comics. We’ve got to work with what people know, nah’mean? Secondly, we must note the obvious fact that Superman and The Hulk are not characters who share a 1:1 relationship in their respective universes, and that every characteristic doesn’t translate back and forth between them. Even more important than all of this is noting that all of Marvel’s achievement with The Hulk in The Avengers occurred in an ensemble setting, while Superman will have to carry an entire film- a much tougher nut to crack.
All that said, the two definitely have many overlapping characteristics; the “bifurcated,” two-sided characters, their sheer power level, their (reductive) reputations for over-simplicity, the challenges of structuring drama around them, the on-screen baggage with which both of them entered 2012, and a few more things we’ll run through. I think you’ll find that the two make decent mirrors for each other, and that similar principles applied to the characters on the screen should lead to a better chance of cinematic success- proven in one case, the jury still being out on the other.
[Note: None of these ideas are in any way rooted in consideration of box office. The operative terms here are “good” and “satisfying” rather than “more profitable.” We’re looking solely at some ideas behind successfully implementing these characters, not financially exploiting them, even if we should hope that one would follow the other.]
The most obvious characteristic shared by these two is that they are both the most iconic “bifurcated heroes,” with each defined by the relationship between and the juxtaposition of their two inseparable halves. For both, the juicy friction comes from pairing the meek with the mighty: in Hulk’s case it’s a simple Jekyll V. Hyde scenario, while Superman is a pioneer of the ole loved-one-insulating secret identity. They differ in that the Man of Steel is attempting to exist in and balance two separate lives that often complicate one another, while Bruce Banner is ultimately just trying to forge the one life for himself while balancing atop an unpredictable manifestation of pure destruction that lives inside of him. So while Clark Kent may become Superman and maintain himself as a fully conscientious being, and while the Hulk isn’t so much a hero as an unleashed, animistic force that can (at best) be usefully targeted, the point remains that any story about them has to deal with these two-sided coins.
A particular challenge that faces anyone writing for the Hulk or Superman is the idea of rooting dramatic storytelling around a character that the audience is constantly wanting to see shoved aside for their more spectacular half. The difficulty comes in trying to write and shoot a film that tells a story in which both halves are interesting, and one is not simply padding out time and building up anticipation for the other. Pushing build-up for as long as patience will allow before finally exploding with spectacle works for orgasms and dubstep (and, granted, many horror films), but it’s tough to make great adventure movies in this mode. While you can certainly structure a TV episode around the wait until the shirt gets pulled back to reveal the “S” or until the purple pants start stretching, it’s much tougher to make a great film relying solely on anticipation of the character shift and the start of the action.
The most basic and obvious imperative facing Man Of Steel is to not only balance the scale of Man and Superman in its story, but to make sure it’s balanced with equally high-grade material. Essentially the movie must make it clear from Frame 1 that this is a new, more interesting Clark Kent, and that this is a more badass Superman movie than ever before. Fortunately Whedon’s Hulk has largely blazed a trail that Superman can follow both in and out of the blue tights.
Purging The Baggage
First things first: clean up the messes. For Hulk this meant taking some leaps with the character, and playing off of the little bit of development hinted at in the last film. For Superman this will be accomplished with a fully clean slate that endeavors to show audiences that Superman isn’t dull, or enslaved to the tone of an outdated, dodgy franchise started many decades ago.
As lazy as the reboot trend has become, Superman is definitely a case where we’re all going to benefit by starting again from scratch. Consider that Supes was last left stuck in a soap-opera-worthy family dynamic with a remarried Louis and superkid, a penchant for stalking, and a generally mopey disposition that misinterpreted “boy scout” as “fucking boring scout.” The same was essentially true with big greenie, as he entered The Avengers with a long history of overwrought, failed romance, a melancholic dude-side, and a frowny, uninteresting Hulk-side. Now we have a Hulk that’s visibly excited to smash (as well as throw a well timed, humorous sucker punch), and a Banner beleaguered by his condition, but not left without a self-effacing charm and wry sense of humor. Hopefully soon we can have a Superman that isn’t — to put it frankly — a mopey bitch, and a Clark Kent that can provide a contrast with Superman’s strength without being little more than a boring uber-nerd. We need humor and charm and likeability balancing the God-like power, not outdated slapstick and romantic pining.
The Hulk as written and visualized by Joss Whedon is a great role model for the Kent/Superman relationship. It’s one that managed to progress the character by leaps and bounds, with that success largely rooted in what FilmCritHulk identifies in the above-linked piece as an embracing of contradictions. These characters are both contradictions in a very large sense, so it’s important to understand that their personalities by nature possess the bandwidth to be more nuanced than simply “troubled” or “noble” or whatever. Bruce Banner can be worn out and funny, and Clark Kent can be unexceptionally human without being an eye roll-inspiring doofus. Beyond simply writing the characters with more nuance, casting is clearly a huge deciding factor as well- Ruffalo was an inspired choice for Banner, and the entertaining results makes you wonder how it wasn’t perfectly obvious what the Hulk needed from the very first attempt to bring him to screen. It remains to be seen if Henry Cavill can manage something similar with Kent/Superman, but breaking out of the Reeve mold will surely be a start.
The “Punching Shit” Dilemma
A common sentiment expressed after Superman Returns mostly failed to do justice by the Man of Steel’s potential for great action was, “he needs to punch some shit!” This is not so different than what followed Ang Lee’s Hulk, and what The Incredible Hulk seemed to be largely responding to with its Harlem-breaking climax. Unfortunately, an overly-dark, redundant smash-fest between two mirrored CGI beasts was not exactly what people meant by “Hulk just needs to smash,” and that left us with yet another disappointing turn for the green guy. The same will be true for Superman if Man of Steel simply pits the hero against a similarly powerful humanoid and they trade harder and harder blows for twenty minutes in the last act. So what can Snyder’s Superman learn from Whedon’s Hulk?
In this case it really boils down to the simplest of ideas: stage better action! This is something that should be obvious, but eluded both of the most recent films for each character. “Punching shit” is not enough. What Superman needs to learn here is to punch all kinds of different shit, and to punch that shit in more interesting ways.
In the case of The Avengers, the Hulk action boils down to two sequences (that are of course inter-cut with the rest of the team’s scenes): Banner’s uncontrolled Hulk-out on the Helicarrier and Banner’s deliberate transformation during the invasion. While I wouldn’t posit that the former is anything resembling a classic action sequence, it does do right by the Hulk by having him plow through several sections of the ship, fight a man-sized demigod, interact with Mjolnir, leap onto a jet, and all the other small interesting bits blocked into those scenes. These choices are what makes that a much more memorable sequence than The Hulk throwing a fifth Izuza at the other big smear of pixels that just kicked over a Chevy. As for Hulk’s part in the Chitauri assault on New York City, he’s got that great character-revealing line paired with an instant hero-moment, an awesome lateral attack on a building-face, more than one moment played for or punctuated by outright humor, a great square-off with the main villain and probably half a dozen other sharply captured scenes of interesting smashing. So essentially we had greater attention paid to the idea of content-within-action that started in the script and endured all the way through blocking, shooting, and effects.
Hopefully we can look forward to seeing Superman applying his abilities of flight, laser vision, and super-strength to more than just catching, picking, and/or throwing very large objects this time around. Superman provides a unique challenge in that the escalated scale of his powers makes it difficult to match him against spectacle worthy of his abilities- though only one film has really attempted to do so in an age where special effects make anything possible. But what is key is that no matter how much punching of shit Man of Steel provides (and the hiring of director Zach Snyder suggests there will be plenty), it has to be staged well, set in interesting places, and be built around a variety of ideas and approaches to spectacle. I can’t wait to see a break from the idea that Superman is a hero that only functions as a tribute to a more simple time and can only do old-timey action like catch things that fall, be they people or planes. Perhaps this makes Snyder a wise choice as — even though the director doesn’t always have a command on profound subtext — he might be just the man to inject the little bit of rock’n’roll that Superman needs.
Big Heroes Need Bigger Stakes
It’s no accident that Hulk blossoms when his ultimate goal as a man is to apply his brilliant mind to saving the world proper, and as a hero is to smash the shit out hostile alien forces that threaten all of mankind. Hulk is a big hero, and he invites big stakes that take him out of himself. Doing science to try and reverse his own condition and fighting only the military or a single big boring bad guy is not worthy of the Hulk’s incredible abilities. With near-infinite strength that the comics have exploited to put the character in the position of shifting tectonic plates and forcing together matter and anti-matter, The Hulk demands planetary stakes. The Avengers comes much closer to providing that than ever before.
All of this is true for Superman too, who so far has mostly been reduced to throwing punches at mirrors of himself or been dragged down by Kryptonite to a more human scale. This is all bullshit, and why the cries of “punch something” resonate. Superman needs a villain that is big, cosmic… hulking even! Superman’s villain roster is not deep with iconic foes, but there are some like Doomsday, Darkseid, and Metallo that could provide the Man of Steel with a kind of challenge he’s not yet seen before**. As great as I’m sure Michael Shannon will be as Zod, I must admit that I hope he’s not all the film’s got loaded up to throw at the boy in blue. Even if that’s the case, it’s almost a sure thing that Snyder-visualized fight between two Kryptonians will be more interesting than Superman saving three people from Lex Luthor’s evil real-estate doomsday device on a dull, far-away island.
At the end of the day it’s all quite simple for Superman: give Clark Kent a charis-enema, make sure he punches some interesting things interestingly, and save the goddamn planet from total destruction.
Thanks for reading!
Here’s me on twitter.
** The first comic storyline I bought with my own dough climaxed with Superman punching Darkseid into space, beating the shit out of him on the surface of the son, dragging him to the edge of the universe, and leaving him attached to the wall that encircles the entirety of existence… let’s figure something out for him to do in a movie besides throw a big rock guys, know what I’m saying?