Heresy of the Week – Anything Superman can do, Cap can do better


captain america superman

Heresy of the Week is a (mostly) weekly spot in which I entertain some of the unthinkable notions of geek-culture. The arguments I put forward are not always things I personally agree with, but often rhetorical devices designed to force myself (and maybe readers) out of the boxes which fan discussions can get caught in. But that aside, feel free to get yourselves worked up and your knickers in a twist if you really want to.

This week’s heresy:

Marvel’s Captain America and DC’s Superman are very similar in ideals and metaphorical function within their various worlds. But whereas Superman has always been assumed the superior character (and possibly the pinacle of superheroes within the mainstream) Captain America has been lately proving himself superior in almost every way.

So comics are pretty much the flavour of the moment when it comes to mainstream, blockbuster film. And the flavour of the foreseeable future, if Marvel have any say in the matter. And equally indisputable is that Marvel are masters of this particular hobby horse.

Which is strange, if you think about it. In the unreasonably expansive pantheon of comic book superheroes, the best known are almost inarguably Batman and Superman. Which are both DC properties. Who is Thor, after all? Iron who? Hawkeye? The very fact that Marvel are making Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy films feels more than a little like taking the piss…

But let’s look at this in a bit more of a microcosm. Captain America: The Poorly Named Sequel The Winter Soldier came out recently, and blew last year’s Man of Steel clean out of the water. Now you might argue that this is due to the fact that Zack Snyder is the wrong person to make anything but the most superficial of films (I’ve certainly argued similar), but I think it is more than that.

Captain America and Superman are very similar. Both embodiment of  American patriotism. Both are the classic “boy scout” figure of the establishment. Both are outsiders — Superman a “man” out of world, Cap a man out of time. And yet in their film iterations at least, Cap is infinitely more interesting.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Superman. I don’t exclusively dislike his stories, for example I count the radically subversive “Superman: Red Son” amongst my favourite comics, and the old Christopher Reeve Superman films have a certain nostalgia-steeped charm. But in general, Superman is far too overpowered. This means that actual challenges for him have generally have had to involve (in cinema at least) either other Kryptonians — problematic with the whole last of his kind thing — or kryptonite — in all the colours of the rainbow, and probably enough by now to build a new Krypton.

Cap on the other hand is a man. Stronger than your average Joe Bloggs, but still just a man. He can be hurt. He can be killed. This means that he can still be easily seen as the underdog, pitted as he so often is against large organisations — HYDRA and SHIELD to name but two. It also means that the conflict in his stories feels believable.

Cap triumphing over the odds is inspiring. Superman doing the same is par for the course.

There seems to be this idea that bigger is better, that the more powers the more interesting. It’s bollocks, patently, as the meat of a story is weakness and the overcoming (or not) of that weakness. But it’s what sets Man of Steel and both Captain America films apart to my mind. (Okay, one of the things; but I’m starting to feel I’m hating on Zack Snyder a little too much).

This carries to the ensemble films, too. In Avengers Assemble, it felt like Cap was leading a team, where they were all useful and all playing their parts. Even Hawkeye with his bow and arrow, and Black Widow with her…yeah… On the other hand, if DC ever get a Justice League film together (and even if they don’t, this Batman vs Superman film that’s in the works) they’re going to struggle to come up with any disaster which can’t be solved by Supes on his own. And even then it’ll probably involve kryptonite or Zod.*

*N.B. If (and it is a BIG if**) DC make Batman vs Superman into the story of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns”, then I http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Captain_America.

**Not going to happpen.

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