Just For Fun: Superheroes Who Should Not Be Dark



The recent release of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice has created a huge amount of controversy, a large amount of it centering on the almost unrelentingly grim imagery of the movie, and most specifically on the depiction of Superman.

Throughout my life, there have been several times in which people dealing with the superheroic have decided – in various media – that a superhero can't be done for a modern audience and retain the four-color brightness of their origins. The arguments vary but tend to boil down to a perceived, strange variation of "it's not realistic" to have a hero with the shining-knight image and persona.

Just the term "realistic" seems… odd, at the least, when it's being applied to a genre in which being from a world under a different-colored sun can grant you godlike power, or being deluged in radiation or odd chemicals can make you superhuman, or where superstrong beings can routinely pick up and throw large vehicles or even buildings without tearing them into pieces in the attempt.

But in many cases what they mean is a form of emotional "realism" justified by a common perception that all people are flawed, and not just flawed but flawed in certain fatal ways. Even a hero must grow jaded, grim, must adjust to the brutality and power of their adversaries by becoming even more darkly badass and terrifying.

This isn't a completely wrong point of view – certainly this is true for some characters, and can make for good drama. Many comic-book heroes have traveled more or less down that path, and some – most notably Batman – have been brilliantly depicted in this fashion. In fact, though I am generally known to be much more on the bright-and-shiny side of the scale in my reading preferences, I tend to much prefer the grim "Dark Knight" style Batman to the lighter "Adam West" Batman. Batman's theme is dark, his origin's pretty grim, and as an ordinary human (ha! HA! I typed that with a straight face!) he doesn't have the luxury that some other superbeings have when facing super-crooks of relying on powers Beyond The Lot of Mortal Men. He has to rely on his inherent badassery and Gadgets Beyond the Budget of Mortal Men.

However, there are some characters who simply should not go down that path because of who they are and what they represent. While that list could be quite long depending on who makes it, from the point of view of a reader of mainstream (DC and Marvel) comics, it is my view that this list must always contain at least three names, and those three names are Superman, Captain America… and Captain Marvel/Shazam.

To current modern audiences, the first two are still familiar, the third somewhat less so; he has had some presence in comics and animated films but nothing like that of the other two in recent years, and his own scheduled live-action film is not due for three years – and given the current turmoil in the industry may never show up. I'll talk a bit more about him later.

All of them, however, share some basic characteristics that in essence demand that they remain – in the words of the classic Superman – avatars of "truth, justice, and the American Way", although the latter is not a matter of "America as it may currently be" but "America as it is in an idealized form".

At first glance they may seem rather different. Captain America is an ordinary human being who, determined to fight the good fight, chose to become the subject of an experiment to make a super-soldier, an experiment which worked perfectly on him and has for various reasons failed to work on anyone else. Superman is of course the (nominally) last son of the planet Krypton, whose superhuman powers come from his Kryptonian heritage and whose moral outlook comes from being raised as a human being. Captain Marvel is a young boy (age varies slightly depending on the retelling) who is chosen to be magically gifted with the powers of ancient gods and heroes whenever he speaks a magical word.

All of them, however, began and continued to be representations of human will fighting against its own worst manifestations. Captain America was literally created to fight the Nazi regime, something which has come to represent the potential evil of mankind perhaps more clearly and completely than anything else in past centuries. Superman was raised to protect his adopted home from anything that might threaten it, in the name of the country in which he was raised, and his greatest enemy has almost always been a human being. Shazam/Captain Marvel was created to be the antithesis of the Seven Deadly Sins of mankind.

All three of them, therefore, represent the purity of the child, the rebirth of people in an almost Christ-like manner. Captain America is transformed in his creation, reborn as the very symbol of the strong and just warrior; Kal-El of Krypton is sent from his dying world in an echo of the legend of Moses and is reborn as Clark Kent and Superman, a godlike being who still thinks of himself as one of us; a child, with a child's idealism and innocence, is given the power and wisdom of the gods to defend the world against who have rejected their own innocence and sense of right and wrong.

Because of this, in my view all three of them must maintain their essential heroic nature into any adaptation.

Marvel Comics appears to basically understand this with respect to Captain America. While Cap certainly encounters, and lives through, dark times indeed, as a person he never falters, never changes his essential nature. He remains the simple, unchanging compass of morality to which other characters can turn to reassure themselves that yes, there's a right and wrong here, and Cap's on the right side. He can stand in a stronghold of the enemy and give a rousing speech… and make people brave enough to fight for the right side even if they're likely to die for it.

DC… does not appear to grasp this in their current adaptations of Superman. Some of this may be a very misguided attempt to define their own movie universe in a sharply different way than Marvel – avoiding the bright notes and straightforward morality characters for a "more realistic" dark and muddy conflict of characters who each have some aspect of "right" about them mixed with other mistaken beliefs and actions.

I was willing to give them some benefit of the doubt with Man of Steel. While – as I said in my review – Superman should never have been put in the Catch-22 situation of that film, given the circumstances of the film, Superman did the best he could to protect the world. Still, I felt the entire setup was wrong, and the characterization of Pa Kent in particular went straight against the grain of all prior versions. The Kents always raised Clark to be a responsible, honest, upright young man who would always do what was right regardless of the personal consequences he might have to undergo. The usual depiction of the Kents would never even suggest to Clark/Superman that he should fail to rescue anyone. Once he chose to use his powers, he was obligated to use them for the good of all that he could manage to save.

But Batman V Superman simply compounds this error. Pitting the Bat versus the Big Blue Boy Scout, as he has often been called, should be a huge study in contrasts, both moral and visual. On the one side the Batman, dark, grim, a man who fights his battles with his mind and his money, who lost the family precious to him and was reborn into darkness; on the other, Superman, the symbol of truth and justice, clad in brilliant colors to stand out as he does what he must, who was raised to be a hero by his family – adoptive, yes, but more his family than anything Kryptonian could ever be, and a family that still stands behind him as a symbol and support.

Instead, Zack Snyder chose to make it a battle between the Batman (fairly close to some of his prior incarnations) and an enigmatic figure whose only public presence has been one of combats beyond human comprehension; perhaps he has been fighting on the right side, but what else do we know about this 'Superman', really? This both robs the film of what could have been its most sharply-contrasting dynamic, and robs Superman of his essential nature.

I confess to being somewhat concerned that Marvel will tread a similar path in the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War. Moral ambiguity is not their friend in this one, but I am afraid they will try to make the conflict morally ambiguous so as to make Tony Stark look less of a jerk than he might be otherwise.

DC does have one other chance to depict such a character without having to do (yet another) reboot of Superman, however. They still have Shazam/Captain Marvel.

For those somewhat less familiar with this character, a capsule summary of his classic origin. Billy Batson was a crippled newsboy in early WWII-era New York who was selected by the ancient wizard Shazam to become Captain Marvel, whose powers derived from gods and heroes symbolized by the word Shazam: Wisdom of SOLOMON, Strength of HERCULES, Stamina of ATLAS, Power of ZEUS, Courage of ACHILLES, and Speed of MERCURY. Whenever Billy spoke the word, he would be struck by a bolt of mystical lightning that would transform him to Captain Marvel, and speaking the word again would change him back to Billy. Later retellings have varied the details a bit (Billy isn't always crippled, for instance) but the essence remains very similar.

Captain Marvel is almost as old as Superman (dating from 1940) and was in fact at least as popular, if not more so, than Superman during the 1940s. However, a lawsuit from DC Comics against his creator, Fawcett, claiming that Marvel was a copy of Superman, caused him to fade out of publication, and then when DC bought Fawcett and tried to have him revived, Marvel Comics had created their own character(s) named Captain Marvel and the name became a matter of dispute for years. In 2012 DC Comics finally decided to make the character's name "Shazam".

Here, DC has a real chance to make a brighter character, simply by the fact that Shazam is a child in an adult man's body. It would take a hell of a lot to argue that a boy of overall optimistic and simple outlook would suddenly become a grim and morally complex individual, and in a storytelling sense, the decision to make a darker version of Superman offers Shazam a brighter part to play in the universe as a whole. It could actually salvage some of the prior choices by providing a brilliantly innocent character to remind Superman of who he should be, and the world of what IT can be.

This isn't without some precedent; in the animated Justice League Unlimited, Captain Marvel delivers a "reason you suck" speech to the Justice League after they fall too far towards the side of expedience (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqfNRrcFNVM ). It also affords a chance to show superheroics from a very different perspective, and Marvel/Shazam has his own stable of unique and dangerous adversaries.

There are, of course, other characters who really, really shouldn't be presented too darkly; Wonder Woman certainly can have an edge, but she, also, is supposed to be an example to the world, and being too dark does not help this. From the bits I've seen, they've recognized in the TV show that Supergirl and the Flash need to be reasonably bright characters.

On Marvel's side, Thor has always been less appealing when he went too grim, although as a former Norse God he has a lot more latitude than many in just how he expresses himself. Spider-Man, too, has a hell of a life, but as a character he should be rarely grim or morose; the grim moments, especially, are reserved for the times when he no longer can jest about things, and a signal that a truly epic beatdown is about to ensue. Hulk and Black Widow and, to an extent, Iron Man, yes, they can be pretty grim; you have an incarnation of rage, a former assassin, and an overachieving man with a lot of insecurity.

But for those characters, and others on the opposite corporate team, to work, they need contrast. They need, really, desperately need, characters who demonstrate what the brightness of the world could be, what the principles and hopes are that they are fighting for, and what, ultimately, everyone wishes they could be.

And while many characters could provide that contrast, there are three in the mainstream modern comics that always have been – and should continue to be – the greatest examples of all: Superman. Captain America. Shazam.

May the companies involved remember this.






Your comments or questions welcomed!