What Superman Can Teach Today's Ultraviolent Superhero Movies


There is a scene in 1978's Superman where a young girl's cat gets stuck in a tree. The cat's name is Frisky, which seems to be a common cat name, though I have never met a cat named Frisky. (For that matter, I have never met a dog named Fido, either.) Luckily, Superman happens to fly by. He retrieves Frisky and returns her to the girl.

All's well that ends well -- for Frisky, at least. We watch the young girl and Frisky disappear back into her Metropolis townhouse. The camera doesn't follow her inside, but we hear her voice as she excitedly tells her mother what just happened: a flying man saved Frisky! Then we hear the girl's mother sternly reprimanding her daughter for lying, followed by the sound of a very loud smack.

I laughed at this scene when I was a little kid. And when I re-watched Superman this week, I caught myself laughing again, for very different reasons.

As a kid, I laughed because I related to the girl. Something similar would have happened to me if I'd been "caught in a lie." As an adult, I laughed in disbelief, because this scene would never appear in a movie today -- unless the subject of the movie were child abuse. In today's superhero movie, you will see untold destruction and staggering casualties, but you will never see (or hear) a parent physically strike her child without suffering grave consequences.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that the original Superman is seriously dated -- for better and for worse. (Put it this way: Larry Hagman's Superman scene will not appear in any "in memoriam" montages this year.) It's certainly time for a fully rebooted version of Superman (2006's Superman Returns wasn't technically a reboot), but it's also true that Superman could teach the modern superhero movie a thing or two.

It had been a few years since I'd last watched the original Superman -- not nearly as long as it had been since I'd seen Superman III but long enough that the whole Marvel Phase 1/Avengers revolution that started with 2008's Iron Man hadn't begun yet.

Somewhere along the line, it was decided that every superhero movie had to end with a big blowout battle scene. Perhaps this was a response to criticism that 2006's Superman Returns was boring. There's no real battle; it's just Superman lifting a giant island of Kryptonite into space. Since then, filmmakers have opted for more and more destruction. The ante keeps being raised, to the point where apocalyptic, Earth-in-the-balance violence now seems normal. In the same way that we don't notice how tall little Johnny has gotten until he stands next to that pencil mark from last year, it's startling to compare any recent movie to the original Superman.

One scene in particular stands out, even if it is from Superman II, a movie that was mostly filmed at the same time as Superman. It's the battle scene where Zod, Ursa and Non realize that Superman cares about the lives of us Earth people. The battle takes place in the middle of Metropolis, and while there is comparatively little damage, it still feels more dangerous. Even today, watching chunks of building fall into the crowd, my reaction is, "I hope no one gets hit!" And in the first movie when a missile causes the San Andreas Fault to break apart, Superman is so distraught that he literally turns back time to prevent it from happening.

In today's movies, my reaction to seeing entire cities destroyed while superheroes fight is to shrug. That doesn't seem right. I feel that I should be offended, or at least disturbed -- but I've seen it so many times now that I just don't care. We've raised the stakes so high, they've effectively lost their meaning. How much more destruction can the next villain cause that this last one didn't? As an audience member trying to relate to what's happening onscreen, there's a point where I think, "Dead is dead. How much more dead can I be?"

Don't get me wrong: I liked Man of Steel a lot. Having watched the original Superman again, I wish Man of Steel had resisted the urge to blow everything up, but I also think the new franchise has great potential.

If you ask me, Superman is still the most important superhero movie ever made. Without it, I'm not sure we'd be in the midst of this golden age of superhero movies. Now that it's had its Avengers moment, I hope the next installment in the Man of Steel franchise can explore how we got from 1978 to here.

Because I'm glad that we no longer live in a world where little girls don't get slapped for comedic effect -- but I'm sorry we've forgotten that, sometimes, it's the little things that mean the most.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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