The comment was:
"I think the only way to make Superman more gritty is to make him less super. If he is indestructible he isn't all that interesting."That's true. And it's it's always been true of Superman. But that's not the last word. Why is Superman a classic story then? Why has it endured for 50 years? Why are people even today excited about a Superman movie even while watching Hollywood screw it up?
Well first off, I reject the idea that the only way to modernize something is to make it more "gritty" or "real". That can certainly be awesome. It's saving the Batman franchise as we speak. But I think that makes sense. Batman was always supposed to be dark. He's always been a tragic figure. The delicious conflict in Batman is that Bruce Wayne could easily have become a psychopath. You could even argue that he is. It's just that he has managed to channel his rage into doing good. And "good" is even a relative term in the Batman universe.
But we're not talking about Batman. We're talking about Superman. Supes is all american. He's clean cut and heroic. He's not conflicted about his mission or his values at all. In fact, I would argue that we like Superman precisely because we know he is going to win. It's about justice. No matter how bad the bad guys get, they will never be as awesome as Superman. So we delight in seeing the bad guys grow to epic proportions and then still get trounced.
And that brings me to my problem with the last Superman movie. A comic book movie is only as good as it's villains. Compare X-Men to the Fantastic Four. Magneto is an epic villain; the dumbed down version of Dr. Doom was not. And as much as I like Kevin Spacey, he is no epic super villain on the Superman scale. What makes a Superman movie enjoyable is watching him be super. They need to ratchet up the awesome in order to convey just how powerful he is. And that creates a much more satisfying experience.
But that's not the only piece of the puzzle. You need more than an epic villain and some super spectacle. You also need to give me a reason to follow the story arc. Remember that we already know what happens at the end. Superman stands over the defeated bad guys without a scratch on him. Everything's back to normal. So you've got your work cut out for you in filling in the middle. The real question is where does the conflict come from in Superman stories? You can't have a film without conflict. That's where Superman Returns fell down.
In most other good guys vs. bad guys story, the primary conflict comes from a simple and primal place. What if the good guy loses? We watch the bad guy's schemes come to fruition. We watch the hero get beat down. And there's a possibility that he won't make it in time to save the world. Sure, you can make the same argument that we know what's going to happen. We know the hero will triumph. But at what cost? Batman limps away at the end of the Dark Knight pursued by authorities. The love of his life and the public symbol of justice are both dead. We care because there is a cost to victory.
So what about Superman? What things can we take away from him? Not many. There's no way they can kill Lois Lane. She's the only real world attachment he has. If he lost her, he'd probably just leave. He only protects the rest of us because of the abstract human value system imparted by his parents. Oh, what about his parents? Well in that same vein, Superman's parents could die at any time. They've fulfilled their purpose in raising him to be Earth's greatest hero. He rarely seeks their advice or suffers because they aren't around. So everyone in Superman's life really only serves as a convenient foil for falling into the villains trap and luring him in. Not so riveting.
Well I have a different idea about what creates conflict for Superman. Loneliness and isolation. And I don't mean just because he's an alien and his home was destroyed. He is alone in everything. He is the mightiest of us, so whenever there is a problem, he alone can save us. But there is only one of him. As fast as he is, he can't be everywhere. And he must always be careful not to hurt anyone. What happens when he can't save everyone? How does he choose who to save? What is the backlash when he makes the wrong choice? What does it do to him every time people die because he didn't come through? What if Superman became paralyzed by the monumental weight on his shoulders? What if he gives up? Even for the briefest of moments.
Perhaps this is a darker way to look at things. But I think it still happens within the black and white world that Superman inhabits. Finding that balance is tough. But I think it could be really compelling.
And it's far better than the only other idea that Hollywood has. "Let's just change his clothes".