I was perusing the interwebs for entertainment and stumbled upon a heretofore unknown to me movie critic’s videos. He was arguing eloquently about the merits of the unfortunate Spider-man 3, and one of his arguments caused a revelation. The mental fog cleared, the light shone down upon me, and I finally realized why Man of Steel was such a divisive movie – the misapplication of badassery. I also realized this mistake is behind many of the worst stories, to me, in comic books and their cinematic adaptations.
But first, a discussion of badassery, which may be punctuated with examples as examples may get my point across better than so very many words (which is my way of saying this entry is pretty dang long).
Badass – The quality of badassery in the superhero genre (to me) can be described thusly (not all descriptors will be present in every example) – charismatic, above-average toughness that manifests as being hard to hurt and/or quick to heal and/or high pain tolerance, almost always is direct in speech and often blunt, gruff, or insulting, cool, calm and collected in a crisis (until the potential berserker rage) almost to the point of disbelief, low tolerance for rules, regulations, and sometimes laws, and usually a loner or at least does not like working on teams and as such is often hostile to the team leader. Badasses have a propensity costumes with a muted color palette (if they even wear a costume), leather garments, the color black, alcohol and alcoholism, and usually have some kind of tragic past and a soft spot for certain kinds of people (often children).
Tends to have excellent melee fighting skills and/or effective but unskilled berserker rages (intellectual badasses are rare, unfortunately). Superpowers for both heroes and villains range from none at all to being a Brick and always include sex appeal (no matter how unlikely that would seem on the surface of things, but more on that later). Heroic badasses often face nearly impossible odds and yet come out victorious (although sometimes these are hollow victories), and of course often slide more into the gray area of the hero-to-anti-hero scale.
Sad sack – The opposite of badassery in the superhero genre is being a sad sack (see also “butt monkey“). A sad sack can be described thusly (not all descriptions will be present in every example) – uncharismatic, lack of confidence in any or all abilities, skills, and/or relationships, non-confrontational, desperate for approval from some authority and/or family figure, often disappoints those around him/her, ambition that exceeds the ability to achieve it, longs to belong to a group or be on a team, is often unappreciated in costume and out of costume, either can’t hold down a normal job or is completely entrenched in a normal job, never seems to get ahead in costume or out of costume, generally has no luck or bad luck, and a tendency to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Can actually share many qualities with a badass like a tragic past, a debilitating weakness, excellent fighting skills, and awesome powers, but is more likely to have intelligence-based skills, lousy fighting skills, and lame powers. Villainous sad sacks tend to have worse fighting skills and lamer powers than heroic sad sacks. Heroic sad sacks barely seem able to achieve any sort of victory no matter how much of an advantage they should theoretically have and villainous sad sacks are unfortunately adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. There is also a sense of hopelessness about the sad sack, that either the sad sack feels the situation is hopeless, or the audience knows that despite the sad sack’s best efforts, life is just not going to get any better.
Like good and evil, few characters are total badasses or total sad sacks. Most characters (hero and villain) lie somewhere in between, and often characters have story lines that push them one way or the other. That’s fine; every hero/villain gets down on their luck sometimes or catches a break that pushes them from the minors to the majors. Power creep being the insidious disease that it is usually results in characters sliding more towards total badassery over time. This is a problem because once the extremes are reached (as with good and evil) the character becomes boring. At that point the writers either have to take the character down a notch, or push the stories towards the absurd and market the character as pure indulgence.
1) Paragon physical badass – always Wolverine. He’s been Marvel’s highest-ranking badass since the ’80s and I don’t see any other character coming along to dethrone him. I don’t care if James Howlett is dead, there’s still Daken (his, er, son [I am not getting into that mess]), Wolverine née X-23 (his female clone), Old Man Logan (from an alternate reality) and Age of Apocalypse Wolverine (from a different alternate reality). And although it makes no sense for Original!Wolverine to be attractive (he’s 5’3″, extremely hairy, sweaty, and smells of cigar smoke), his charisma, Bad Boy attitude, and Broken Bird status seem to be hard to resist.
2) Paragon intellectual badass – there are not a lot of these, actually, because the society that creates such superheroes tends to favor physical prowess over intellectual prowess (compare and contrast how much an NFL player [even a third stringer on a bad team] makes with how much a quantum physicist makes). However, there is one stand-out, and it is, of course, Batman. Yes, he’s an excellent physical fighter, but he’s also the Great Detective. It is true the the physical take-downs are perhaps more visually impressive, but his successes are due to the technological marvels he himself has invented and his strategic acumen (which results in him being Crazy Prepared).
3) Paragon subtle badass – not all badasses are so direct as the two above. To be fair, Batman can sneak and disguise himself when necessary, but since his whole schtick is about generating fear in the criminal element, I don’t consider him a paragon of subtlety. My paragon in this category is Black Widow. Covert operations are her specialty. She gets in, she gets the job done, she gets out, and the bad guys are none the wiser (until, of course, whatever plans Black Widow was setting in motion come to fruition). Tough – check. Excellent physical fighter – check. Dark past – check (in the comics she started out an Iron Man villain). Preference for black leather – definitely a check.
Sad Sack Examples:
Aquaman and Tempest née Aqualad are not sad sacks. They are actually extraordinarily powerful and have gone through some pretty dark times. Popular culture just seems to harp on their fish telepathy as though it’s the only power they have (which, yes, would be kind of lame). Okay, that said, here we go…
1) Hans Moleman – yes, I’m straying from the superhero genre for this example, but I can think of no other popular character who so exemplifies the sad sack like this Simpsons side character. He’s a little old man that has bad/crazy things happen to him for no good reason (except dark comic relief, which of course in context he doesn’t know) and he’s just got such a defeatist attitude about it all. He would be an example of a sad sack that seems to understand his lot in life will never improve.
2) The Legion of Superheroes C-listers and rejects – as I understand this organization, they wanted members with unique powers. I’m not sure why, since two powerful telekinetics would be better than one in a fight, but anyway, this condition led to the writers getting very creative and weird with some of the characters. So we’ve got Matter-eater Lad who could, well, eat anything he could get into his mouth and digest it (the Marvel RPG handbook calls this power “digestive adaptation”). He actually made the team, unlike Arm-Fall Off Boy, who could detach his left arm and use it as a club. I am totally not making any of this up.
3) Slip Sliding Away – many of the sad sack heroes and villains were killed off within a few issues, or did a Chuck Cunningham and haven’t been rebooted or reintroduced (pity; Arm Fall-Off Boy could have been the mascot for the New52…). Sometimes writers attempt to save sad sacks by giving them power upgrades and a few victories against their foes. Paste-Pot Pete, for instance, had the power of glue and eventually got upgraded to the Trapster who managed to defeat Spider-man a few times. Cypher from the X-men could speak any language. This wasn’t very good in a fight, so the writers tried to save him from being a sad sack by teaming him up with Warlock (a techno-organic shape-shifting alien prince [comics everyone!]). Cypher was killed at some point, fully merged with Warlock to become Douglock, and then later separated and resurrected with his powers going so far out of control he could read body language.
Somewhere in Between:
Which is where most characters lie. In characters that are not at one extreme or another, that leaning towards sad sack creates pathos in the character. For example, Ben Grimm is one of the nicest guys ever but he’s trapped in an orange, rocky form that makes him think he’s a monster. While objectively he has an awesome power, has done great things, and has a ton of friends and a fantastic family (pun totally intended), he still feels sorry for himself. But that’s what makes the Thing a good character – a balance of badass and sad sack. If the Thing didn’t have that bit of pathos, he’d be nothing but an uninteresting bruiser (like the Rhino tends to be). This is in fact where the mistake I was referring to earlier comes in. Some writers (and indeed some fans) don’t understand the importance of a character’s position on the badass-to-sad sack scale. They fall victim to “wouldn’t it be cool if” thinking.
Evil Will Always Triumph Because Good is…Lame:
In almost every circumstance of the misapplication of badassery, a writer/fan wants to see a sad sack character be more of a badass. Very seldom does anyone want a badass to be less so. Why force a character to be more badass? Badasses are cool, and who doesn’t want their favorite character to be cool? I believe this is the driver for many a face-heel turn because suddenly becoming evil allows a typically good character to really let loose and use their superpowers without regard to that pesky alignment scale (evil characters do have more fun). It’s pure indulgence, as I’ve said. Sometimes fans want to see their favorite characters as badasses (which tends to mean more gray/anti-heroic or downright villainous) and that has led to some interesting stories.
1) Broken Batman – I have a theory that this story was directly in response to fans who loved Batman but couldn’t understand why he just didn’t kill bad guys. I.e., Batman is a badass, but still kind of lame because he would never let loose. These fans, I theorize, misunderstood a vital part of the character. So Bane breaks Batman’s back, and a crazy person named Azrael takes up the cape and cowel because Gotham needs a Batman. And because he’s crazy, he goes farther in his pursuit of justice than Bruce Wayne ever did. Eventually Bruce has to take down Azrael and become Batman again before things really get bad. And so the writers proved their point – a complete badass Batman is an unlikable psycho killer. For an example of complete badass Batman by a writer who thinks that’s absolutely how Batman should be, see Crazy Steve in “All-star Batman and Robin.”
2) Superior Spider-man – Peter Parker is a sad sack. His power should be lame (bitten by a radioactive spider) and every effort he makes to get his life together fails utterly. And yet he still tries his best. But as in the case above, I believe fans got tired of seeing Spider-man so hopelessly lame and so Peter Parker’s body ended up possessed by his long-time foe Doctor Octopus (himself somewhat of a sad sack). And it turned out Doc Ock made a great Spider-man (superhero-wise), so much so I was afraid that this would actually be the new status quo (it was like I forgot everything I knew about comics). Eventually, Doc Ock started to go way too far, and Peter Parker got his body back and everyone lived happily ever after except Peter Parker.
My theory is that the creative teams behind these two stories decided to give the fans crying for more badassery what they wanted. And it turns out fans didn’t want Azrael as Batman and they didn’t want Doc Ock as Spider-man. A heroic badass with no leanings towards sad sack becomes a villain.
The Big Disconnect:
So how does all this tie in with Man of Steel? Aside from the fact the movie is just not very good (it lacks focus and depth), many fans were split over the portrayal of Superman himself. Some rejoiced for this new direction of Superman lore. Others lamented the severe departure from the amalgam of the character. How did this happen in this same movie? The misapplication of badassery.
Superman is super-strong, super-tough, has laser eyes, ice breath, super-speed, and one crippling weakness to a certain type of rock. Superman, for all the powers he possesses, is just not a badass. He’s not. He’s fundamentally a nice guy raised with idealized good old-fashioned Midwest farm values. He holds down a job, he courted and got married (and then rebooted god damn it) to Lois Lane, and in many aspects is very mundane. He wears a bright costume that for 70+ years had underwear on the outside. Lex Luthor’s greatest fear is that Superman will use all that power and conquer the world. And yet he hasn’t, and that’s because he is the exception to the “power corrupts” adage.
What this comes down to is a character with the power to bench press mountains using that power to get cats out of trees and rescue his recklessly self-endangered significant other. There are fans who I am sure love the character who read such stories and wish that once, just once, Superman would cut loose. There are very few villains who can match him physically and those that can tend to be full-on JLA foes (like Darkseid). There were stories in the comics that gave those fans their wish (I believe the reason for red kryptonite is just for this purpose). Evil Superman (or Bad Future Superman) gets to cut loose with all that power and then returns to his senses (or mainstream reality) and all returns to the status quo (comics everyone!).
It should surprise no one that turning a hero evil or a bad future/bad alternate universe are two of my least favorite plots for a story.
Superman Returns was meant to reboot the Superman franchise. It didn’t, and because movie studios tend to reduce any failure (or success) to the basest components, the reason for the movie’s failure was determined to be a lack of badassery. Superman didn’t get into a fight, so the next attempt to reboot the franchise was to remedy that perceived failure and so in Man of Steel Superman got into a lot of fights. Those fights were glittery, gray-filtered, and choreographed to show off just how powerful Superman is. He was up against fellow Kryptonians which helped maximize the show. He’s punched through cars and through buildings and through all of it he doesn’t so much as ruffle his perfect, perfect hair. Zod is a badass too. He learns how to control his powers in about 33 seconds whereas it took Clark/Kal-el 33 years to figure it out. There’s so much destruction porn and then as the climax (ha!), Superman kills Zod because we all know heroes that don’t kill aren’t badasses (except Batman, and it seems certain film making teams just don’t get that either).
And that, I think, is the reason some fans seemed to genuinely like the movie and why it appealed to non-fans – Superman met most of the checkboxes for badassery. True, he wasn’t dressed in black leather, but the suit was skintight and the gray filter dampened down the traditional bright colors. He was brooding, conflicted, and had a tragic past that alienated him (ha!) from the rest of humanity. Man of Steel culminated in a spectacle of badassery. Was it true to the character? I don’t think so. Does that matter to fans? It depends. The ones who don’t mind that Superman just isn’t a badass were horrified by this movie (I count myself in this, and all of my friends). But the ones who always longed for Superman to just punch the hell out of everything (and largely without consequence, it seems) and for non-fans who don’t know what Superman is supposed to be about or thought he was boring, would enjoy the portrayal in Man of Steel (I wonder how they like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).
Are they right, or are they wrong? In my opinion, the view of Superman as a badass is wrong. That’s not what he’s about. He’s about truth, justice, and the American way. He probably smells like Mom’s apple pie and knows all the rules to baseball by virtue of being so wholesome and quintessentially American. The conflict with Superman is for a man with so much power, there’s still too much for him to do. He can’t help everyone, he can’t solve every problem, he can’t save every life. And when he fails, no one is harder on him than he is on himself. He’s a lesson of how power can be a burden, not how power is totally awesome. He’s a hammer, and not every problem is a nail. Lex Luthor challenges him because Lex knows Superman can punch his way through anything so the key to defeat is present a problem that is un-punchable. Unfortunately, it seems the box office favors a badass Superman, which is a real pity.
This is an interesting contrast to what Sony tried to do with the “Amazing Spider-man” reboot. If there is a paragon sad sack in the Marvel Universe, it is Peter Parker as Spider-man. The only good luck he’s ever had in his life was marrying Mary Jane, and they both knew she was way too good for him (and even that was undone by a higher power). In the original Sony trilogy, he was absolutely that sad sack. Hell, the bus driver wouldn’t stop for him and that’s the bus driver’s whole job!. In the much-maligned Spider-man 3, the Venom symbiote infects Peter Parker and brings out the darker side of his personality. Venom allows Peter Parker to cut loose and the result is, well, painful for the audience to watch and painful for Harry Osborn to endure.
But here’s the thing – Peter Parker doesn’t know what a badass is. He knows Flash Thompson, his high school bully, was a [Denis Leary] celebrated for his physical prowess and arrogance, so that’s what Peter tries to mimic. The upshot is that he’s not good at being a badass because he doesn’t understand there is more to it than wearing black, being a loner, having a tragic past, and beating people up. Fans shouldn’t want Peter Parker to remain evil even if he does cut loose with his powers. So when we get to Amazing Spider-man, Peter Parker is no longer portrayed as a sad sack. He’s actually a cool kid. And it turns out audiences prefer Spider-man, at least, to be a sad sack.
But there it is – not every character should be a badass. In the case of a character turning evil to become a badass, fans should want the character to become good again. A face-heel turn should be painful to watch/read so that the return to good (and the slide away from badass) reminds the fans why they love the character just as the character is, sad sack and all.
That's what I do: I save the day - Superman (from HISHE's "Super Cafe")