The first of a series looking at Arthurian legend on the small and big screens. First up is the throwtastic family fayre of Merlin. Massive spoilers guaranteed for those who are yet to take the trip to Camelot.
CONCLUDING FIVE TERRIBLY SUCCESSFUL YEARS, MERLIN’S FINAL SEASON COMMENCED A YEAR AGO THIS WEEKEND. As 2013 sees Albion traded for Atlantis on the long Autumn evenings, it feels a good time to look back at a show that proved many wrong, and also that Arthurian legend is still ripe for repossession.
“In a land of myth, and a time of magic… the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young boy. His name… Merlin.”
So began each episode, firmly setting the tone for The Adventures of Young Merlin. In his review of the first episode of Atlantis, The Guardian’s Sam Wollaston wryly commented that the show has the same boy’s public school vibe as Merlin – and it does. Aside from myth, the show cuts into a similar vein as Harry Potter, conjuring up a class obsessed buddy show – although Atlantis could really do with a similar intro spiel. With special effects limited by its television budget, a lot of the series’ appeal had to come from its interplay. That put a focus on a script that received criticism for its modern English when it first started (all but gone by the end of its run) but that proved to be eminently sensible. After all, what language would be historically accurate? Unfortunately however, not many shows have an inbuilt universal translator or telepathic circuit and people take that badly.
Atlantis has taken the opposite approach to Merlin, starting in the modern day that Merlin briefly finished in. The camera could have easily cut from the South West country road that Merlin endlessly walks to the boat from which Jason surveys the ocean depths.
But Atlantis is a different fish to Merlin, despite its surface similarities. The new show has a wealth of myths to draw on, and not necessarily all Greek (Jason is palling up with Hercules rather than Heracles after all). In the first episode the main hero landed in an Atlantis that sounded a lot like Crete, took on the mantle of Theseus and defeated the minotaur. There isn’t a golden fleece in sight, but it will surely come. Atlantis may have significant crossovers with Merlin cast and crew, but it’s come with significant new blood – not least Howard Overman elevated to co-creator.
Following loosely in the boy wizard’s footsteps, Atlantis has immediately eased itself of Merlin’s early constraints. Despite a singular base in one city, presumably in the Mediterranean, that may as well be Camelot in Albion, its setting brings an easier route to adventure and story. The show’s intrepid trio have thousands of tales to draw on. Although Merlin brought in various British and Celtic myths, from its various fantastic creatures to the aes sídhe, it was always set in the stone of Arthurian legend.
‘The Future of Camelot, Albion, and the United Kingdoms’
But as John Hurt’s Great Dragon intonated in the opening of every episode, this Merlin was a young boy, and a servant, for the whole run of the show. No matter how many nods and references there were to the legends of Arthur, the audience knew that this was just laying the groundwork for the famous myths to come…. Well, that was the ruse that remained for a considerable time, in fact, pretty much up to the time that its cancellation was announced. With every nod and appearance of an element of the myth, Merlin wasn’t hinting at what was to come after all – it was interpreting them just as Spenser, White, Malory and countless others had before. In these days of old and bloated knights, it’s refreshing to see Arthur locked as a young king, because when Merlin ended, the whole legend had been told.
Most parts of Arthurian lore were acknowledged from the love triangle of the throne, the lady of the lake, Uther Pendragon, Excalibur, the sword in the stone and round table as well as bringing in the likes of Tristan, Isolde and the Fisher King. By the final season many parts were in place, overshadowed by the road to Camlann. In five years it covered pretty much the whole caboodle, not necessarily in the expected way or order, but it got away with it all rather brilliantly.
There’s a number of reasons why. Perhaps most importantly, Merlin got its casting spot on. The mix of the characters and chemistry more than overcame plots that frequently fell into the old ‘Oh we’re off for a quest because one of us has fallen ill’ mould. While some of the characters remained a little underused, even wasted for long stretches, such as Sir Gwain and Guinevere, others flourished in leisurely story arcs. In the case of Morgana, seldom has a character been allowed such time to develop from light to dark. Katie McGrath had precious little to do for two seasons, but more than made up for it (well, went manically over the top) when the character’s power was realised.
The Great Purge
Merlin’s real strength was using and abusing the myths as it saw fit. With such a successful chemistry and easy reliance on its strict formula, with its deus ex machina dragons, it eeked out parts of the myth throughout the series. It laid simple, never over the top, plot strands with the confident and correct opinion that it really didn’t need to worry about being slavish to any version of the myth. The quest, a medieval-going-on-modern castle set-up and the consistent suppression of magic were kept at the show’s core. With a fixed base, the show could explore its established geography of kingships across Albion, laying down bases to return to and build on without being slavish.
The Changing Seasons
A quick summary of the five seasons shows the neat and steady unfolding of the myths.
Season one took a while to get swinging, despite introducing Lancelot, Excalibur and finished with a cameo from the Cup of Life.
Season two brought a twist on the Lady of the Lake and ended on the dragon lore with the last Great Dragon released (physical, not metaphorical here), a literal representation of magic that other adaptations have used a little more opaquely.
Season three played a longer game, with excursions to the Fisher King seeding the way for a finale where everything stepped up a gear. With the addition of Sirs Gwain, Percival and Elyan, it sees Morgana seizing Camelot, the quest for the cup of Life, the formation of the Round Table, the return of the Lady of the Lake and the recovery of Excalibur.
Season four doesn’t keep Uther around for long and has soon deepened the myth with Morgana fully rogue and Arthur on the throne. Nathaniel Parker adds a superb touch of class as the dastardly Agravaine de Bois (a character confused throughout myth). Lancelot sacrifices himself, it turns out permanently, and by the finale Arthur is drawing the sword from the stone.
Season five jumps forward three years into an age of prosperity where Guinevere sits on the throne next to Arthur. But the gathering doom of Camlann grows closer as Mordred resurfaces to earn his knighthood.
Despite its leisurely pace and skilful nods, it’s a shame that there wasn’t one more season, perhaps with Merlin taking on the mantle of Camelot physician and hand of the king from Gaius. Many wanted it, but the format of the show would have been utterly broken by Arthur discovering and accepting Merlin had powers for any length of time. The fact they never adapted Gwain and the Green Knight though, that’s almost unforgivable.
Since Doctor Who reclaimed Saturday nights for family drama, many shows have failed. The most notable casualty was Demons, but even Primeval and Robin Hood were limited successes. Merlin managed it with ease, taking support and leads from its far older brother and eventually breaking into a later peak slot that crossing the watershed without sacrificing its family fun. By the series’ end, while Doctor Who struggled with over complications and split seasons, Merlin remained one of the most consistent shows ever seeking to entertain on a Saturday night. No wonder it took a bite out of the X-Factor. Against all odds, Atlantis is surely in good stead.
IT HAD BEEN TWO MONTHS SINCE I’D LAST VISITED THE CORP TOWER WHEN I FOUND MYSELF, LATE ONE NIGHT, RECEIVING A SPECIAL INVITATION. It came in the form of two gigantic, suited, monosyllabic bodyguards. The glimmer of the single letter signet rings they both wore were introduction enough. The rest was force. Within seconds I was in car, just able to grab a camera and notepad from my apartment and balance glasses on the end of my nose. The drive was quiet, but quick; there was I sat firmly between the two beefcakes, staring at a black tinted driver shield. Outside I saw the city fleet past, not a head turning toward the dark limo. Within minutes I was at the Corp Tower, walking around the labyrinthine corridors that spiralled from the ornate reception, past gigantic sculptures and escorted into a glass lift. As the lift rose I thought I saw a familiar face below, looking impassively up at the rising elevator. Was it impassive? I could make out the turned, glossed lips and immaculate make-up. Something switched in my head and I suddenly remembered my lucky pack – surely lying quietly on a shelf at home. I gulped and left my stomach on floor 65 as I sped to the top of the tower. Emerging onto a helipad, all watered down cement, fresh blue markings and chrome bars I was met by a young woman, clasping a raincoat tightly around her. She held an umbrella above my head as she pulled me towards her. The rain was light and I got the impression that the covering was more for the benefit of my destination. There ahead of me sat a purring helicopter. Huge, seemingly levitating on the wet pad. The rotors swooped in slow motion, throwing a soft buzz into the wet breeze. As we walked, I heard the instructions given by the woman close to my ear. Half warning, half order. Her voice slowed with our strides as the chopper neared. The green chassis gleamed. Behind the cockpit glass I saw only black equipment with black gloved hands slowly working. I could feel black eyes stare at me from behind shades. We were nearly at the open door when I dared ask my guide what the rush was. She looked at me just for a moment at the base of the steps. “Didn’t you feel it?” She asked. I didn’t need to try to look perplexed. “You can’t keep him waiting”. Her eyes dropped as I climbed the steps and saw him, the last person I wanted to see. I knew he’d be there of course. I was stuck, suddenly feeling rather lonely, at the top of his bloody tower. As usual, he was sharply attired in a sleek air suit. I was not. His head gleamed, his hands worked. One picked up a safety harness and flak jacket which he threw at me, the other worked a miniscule tablet device. I knew where we were going before I recognised the map on the screen: due south. Something had happened, something had to have happened. But I knew that seed of a thought would only make the trip longer still.
“Hope.” That’s all the hulk said to me as the helicopter rose into the air. “Hope”. Rising from the tallest tower in the City, moonlight still managed to catch the skyline below and strafe his face with shadow. I stared into the reflection, the dark eyes embedded in pits that stayed resolutely black in spite of the strobe. “I know you had hope, of a kind, but it’s gone”. He might be true. My body suddenly felt heavy and sluggish. I blamed it on the helicopter and shook my head slightly. The last time I had confronted this man there had been talk of a doomsday. That had stopped some weeks before, abruptly. Whatever had been coming hadn’t. It had been halted in its tracks. But with that act, the city’s guardian had disappeared. Searches continued in the suburbs of the city, where huge craters pock-marked what once were amusement parks and lakes, fields and reservoirs. It had been weeks, but it was still too early to say that hope had gone. The deep voice continued. “He was more than hope, more than anything any human should ever believe in. He was a distortion of everything human, a forced Messiah” Ah. We were back in that office, as if no time had passed at all since the uncomfortable interview. This time, despite the rush and surprise I was far more prepared. That first meeting had run and run through my mind… I had wanted a rematch and now I had it. “I was surprised” I acknowledged, taking the nape of my nose between my fingers as a the nausea abated. Ahead of me, the eyes didn’t move. They remained trained intently on me…
Following the heavy symbolism of Superman Returns (the son and the father, the fall to Earth, the resurrection), I was amazed that Man of Steel pushed the symbolism even further. The church visit and the spread-arm descent from space are blunt, but the world wandering and name-checked age of 33 are deliberate additions. In support, Warner Bros also accompanied the film’s release with some peculiar specialist Christian marketing… However, the Christ-like qualities of Superman’s myth have been present for many years. It was no coincidence that Returns, a self-styled sequel to Superman II, drew it out. Superman’s is a history full of symbolism, responsibility, sacrifice and often, resurrection – whether that’s the Death of Superman storyline in the comic books or the last third of Superman Returns. He is named as the light, the leader and his central role is that largest of metaphors: the son who becomes the father. The Kryptonian’s resurrection is hardly a unique quality among comic-book heroes. Even so, Superman arrives as an apparent Christian metaphor through a variety of sources. Superman is a fundamentally natural and biological phenomenon. A human-sized, red-caped battery powered by the yellow sun. His is an exaggerated use of the same source that gives us life, one that has also been a symbol of worship for many civilisations – the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Aztecs and others. Man of Steel drew on that bold idea of the god walking among us. The Codex that Superman carries in his DNA draws comparison with not only Noah, but Prometheus – another mythological figure who casts a mighty shadow on comics and science fiction. Perhaps most noteworthy, is the fact that Superman was created by two Jewish teenagers. Undoubtedly, he was not conceived as this Christ-like figure – their first character called Superman was a mad scientist with more in common with Superman’s greatest nemesis. Across the cabin, the lips curled. But just as Superman grew to focus his powers, so that early groundwork built up through the decades to form a Christian allegory that film creatives still find so compelling.
We were sat in a flying lump of metal I could only, lamely, describe as the most futuristic thing I had ever seen. It was sleek and solid, huge and powerful. It was a statement of intent. It was aimed south and I was on it. The rest was unclear. We were careering across the southern suburbs of the great metropolis at an incredible rate, but still the rotors made hardly any noise, the open doorways – there were no doors – were guarded so closely by the design that there was neither the incredible rush of air or the flight of the wind. I looked around as my interviewer examined me closely. My eyes darted. For a second, I was sure that I saw an indentation at the top right hand of the cabin… It looked like a hand. No… But, in the changing light it was impossible to see it properly. I certainly didn’t intend to unbuckle myself and stand in the cabin at that precise moment. The next question seemed to pick up on my thoughts, dwelling as they did on the contemporary and futuristic. I shuddered slightly and raised my chin. “He’s outdated, he has no place in the 21st century” I parried back once more. Superman is not an easy to evolve. If he ever was, he isn’t now. Once the character had developed, he proved too archetypal to play with too much. One factor must have been the massive rise of the superhero during the Silver Age of comics. With the powers that all others are judged by, Superman was forced into a locked and lead-lined template of sorts. Each change since, whether momentary such as the Death, Transformed or power loss storylines or life changing (until reboot) like his marriage to Lois, have created opprobrium in the press and fair-weather fans alike. But that’s not too say that Big Blue hasn’t changed. For all the tropes and stock parts of the myth that stay intact (costume, phone boxes, Lois, Daily Planet) important ones have been lost (Lois’ obliviousness, the Jimmy Olsen watch – for the most part, Luthor the mad criminal scientist…). In fact, Superman has changed greatly since his inception. It’s just not been easy to notice. Fandom is defined by its lobbying for then outrage at change. But despite his many mythical elements, Superman is on a far more sticky wicket than the Dark Knight. While the basics stay intact, Batman is defined by his constant evolution. In fact, his evolution has turned into a real Bat-asset. While the Dark Knight can be identified as 60s camp, 70s dark, 80s gothic, Nolan-real and so on, Superman apparently remains very similar. Henry Cavill’s relationship with Ma Kent isn’t that different from Welling, Cain or Christopher Reeves’. It may be that the Bat-family is more durable. The first Robin grew up to spread his wings as Nightwing while no such enduring success has served Jimmy Olsen, the latter Superboys or Krypto the Superdog. “You talk about the man… A man with a family. If he’s just a man, there are others”. There are others. The DC Universe presented on film has been markedly influenced by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. (Although, that introduction’s an injustice. It is writer David S Goyer who lay not only at the heart of the Dark Knight trilogy, but also Man of Steel and its forthcoming sequel as well as the new Commissioner Gordon television show and the here before you know it Justice League film.) 2012 was a key year for superhero films, pitching Nolan’s ‘realistic’ take against the highly militaristic but jocular Marvel Avengers. It was a battle of the billion dollar film franchises – Marvel’s long-trailed team-up versus the Dark Knight’s ‘satirical’ violence. Both emerged well from the scrap, but it was a battle that established very clear rules for the rematch in 2015 – a year that Spielberg and Lucas might well call the make or break year of the blockbuster. With Man of Steel it’s clear that Warner Bros saw strength in the darker, more serious tones that Nolan and Goyer established as opposed to matching the Marvel universe gag for gag. The Avengers wasn’t a camp affair by any means. But while Marvel may play with killing a character – in DC’s universe anything is possible. Given the 2011 Green Lantern disaster, that’s not a bad decision.
“Some of Gotham’s finest minds gone in an instant, so much trust placed in those alien hands and based on what? How many must he kill?” On the seat next to the figure I saw a short stack of papers pawed over by his large hands. As the paper shifted I thought I saw a logo I hadn’t seen for years. The tip of a yellow triangle, a star..? How deep did this man’s reach go, how far below the streets, past the sewers… I looked from the window, where the sun sat low on the horizon and barns and outhouses cast long dark shadows over fields and vineyards. I knew where we were going, but why?
Anything is possible? Really? The deaths of major characters, the surprising (presumed) demise of Emil Hamilton – it all set a tone for tone for Man of Steel’s new universe. It’snot without comedy and neither was the Dark Knight, but it creates a world of repercussion and consequence. During the course of the Dark Knight trilogy Gotham visibly transformed from Kowloon to Manhattan. It’s not exactly Morten Harket breaking out of his comic world, but it shows an intent to increasingly ground the universe in realism, even within its own narrative. After the Dark Knight, that almost seems a crucial approach to modernising a definitive superhero. Were it not for Joss Whedon that is. There’s more that one way to skin a bat after all. Warner’s is not an easy path, but runs less risk of the comic campery that has wounded them more than most. Superman has appeared as outdated for years and although the mass devastation, or rather the ambiguous human cost, of Man of Steel appears very un-Superman, it acutely makes that modernist argument. Goyer has recently spoken out about the death count and voiced his strong support for Superman’s right to kill, acknowledging the opposition from many other comic writers. In the DC film universe, death really is the catalyst that The Avengers built into its plot. While Batman has lived in this universe of consequence since 2005, it’s a big step for Superman. Why not easy? In essence it’s a finite universe that works contrary to the rules of comic books, one where death is real and consequences eternal. I used to rail at the middle ground comic films took to death before. Taking the original Batman films of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Joker was killed off in part one, the Penguin in part two. There was death rather than incarceration in Arkham Asylum, but there was no consequence to it. These were westerns, where the lone slinger lived to walk away to lick his wounds until the next gang rode into town. That was a Batman who battled super villains one at a time, each one of them meeting a grizzly end after a week or so of conflict. It wasn’t compelling, although the films were immensely enjoyable. This unwritten law of the superhero film fortunately changed in the 2000s – an even more sequel-savvy time – despite Spiderman’s best efforts to keep it going. In The Dark Knight trilogy, every death had a purpose. Whether Batman Begins was intended to establish a trilogy (highly unlikely), by the time The Dark Knight had granted Christopher Nolan a blank sheet for the follow-up, the third part could only provide closure. In 2012, The Avengers expertly established a super team in the Marvel world of comics. In fact, it was more effective than any other Marvel film at putting Marvel on film – mainly thanks to Joss Whedon who evidently breathes the House of Ideas. Man of Steel is a film that reflects the contemporary Superman ‘universe’. It’s darker, it’s a world of ramifications, it’s drawing on the lines of history laid down by 60 years of the comics, just like The Dark Knight trilogy had done for his caped comrade… The helicopter buzzed. It had been a smooth journey so far, the sound of the machine hardly audible, but now I noticed it. Looking from the window, I saw that we had dropped – virtually skimming the thinning trees. We were approaching the suburbs – I’d seen the trees thin like this a thousand times. Soon to be replaced by dark canals, lakes and stacks of rundown warehouses… But this time something was different. There were less trees, or rather less treetops. Giant stems and trunks lay flat on the ground, giant swathes of earth fleeing the root cavities. I realised that both my hands were flat against the windows as I strained to see more. Running through the trees laid furrows and trenches, like fissures, ripping the forests and fields into shards. “Update.” The voice was deep and commanding, it wasn’t a question. I don’t know who it was aimed at but I was sure that whoever it was intended for had heard it. A tinny voice rang through the cabin, clear and crisp as though it came through the walls. “Sir, confirmed as a 7.6 quake with an epicentre on the south west outskirts. Government response teams testing viability of remaining bridges around the island. Seven minutes to the Tower”. The figure was impassive. I turned back to the window, where metres below the mud trenches were clearly revealed as faults. There had been a cataclysm and we were heading right into it.
I was reeling, trying to understand why I was in the transport with perhaps the most important people in the country heading for a disaster zone. Why me? The smallest whimper may have escaped my lips. Fortunately I had some questions to distract me. Unfortunately they were drilled at me by the same person. “But then you’ve got to agree that souped-up boy scout isn’t as interesting as that lying rodent…” – I must have missed the “f” in the rush of air. Small branches snapped against the undercarriage. “I’ve heard that. I’ve heard that many times in the last month.” The sound of flight was much louder now, as if the air was resisting our arrival. Just like this city to reject help I thought. Below me, the broken husks of warehouses had begun to litter the landscape. “I’ve heard Superman described as a difficult character because he just isn’t as interesting as Batman, but really?” There’s two sides to it each equally as interesting, and I laid them out.. On one hand Superman’s lost his home planet and entire species, not just his parents. On the other he’s one of the few superheroes who was able to make a choice of his own free-will. Although Man of Steel saw Zod’s actions force Kal-El’s hands somewhat, the addition of Kryptonian ‘genetic set roles’ adds a new dimension. Batman’s dual identity may appear more compelling, set as it is against a city of madness, but aside from the ‘which persona is the mask?’ debate, is Bruce Wayne so much deeper than Clark Kent? Superman, Kal-El and Clark Kent are three distinct personalities: world saviour, Kryptonian son and Kansas farm boy turned Pulitzer-baiting journalist. Each feeds in to the other and it’s far more than simply donning a suit under a crisp white shirt. Biographically the character was first and foremost raised as Clark. His super powers developed over time, leading to the creation of one persona and discovery of the other. One is the moral question of great responsibility coming with great power, the other the inevitable quest to discover his origin. While Kal-El may have arrived at around the same time as Superman, it’s easily identifiable as an objective route to dealing with his role as Superman. It can be looked at in different ways. Film, TV series and comics have dealt with this differently and if you want to break up the various Supermen from Superboys, it’s far easier to look at their on-screen portrayals. Superman’s different personas are more nuanced than the pre-eminent modern Batman debate of which character is the mask. Superman is far less psychologically tortured, but there is plenty of room for many different interpretations. Smallville, by TV necessity, was all about Clark Kent’s discovery of Kal-El. Taking on the caped mantle was the end result and was only seen in the final episode alongside that typical Superman power, flight. Superman the Movie dealt very much with Clark Kent. Here we saw Superman arrive fully developed. The discovery of Kal-El was touched upon, but revealed by the Clark Kent character as well as external factors – importantly, the loss of his father. He was then nourished in a ice fortress for years until the ready-formed mind-set of Kal-Superman emerged. In Man of Steel Clark’s character undergoes similar loss, but sitting between its two predecessors, it creates a loner Clark Kent who embarks on a long Christ-like period of discovery but also pre-destiny. The film shows that his years of searching eventually trigger a set of events that rapidly answer long hanging questions. Strong with coincidence Man of Steel balances the change against a long Bruce Banner style journey of self-discovery before Zod’s arrival suddenly brings the decision to the fore. Unlike the Movie, Clark does not have years encased in the Fortress of Solitude to understand his situation – those years are instead spent among the best and worst of the people he will chose to adopt. His persona emerges from his battle with his biological people. The effect is a less contrived and more human Superman. He discovered the role of Superman at the age of 33, far later than the Welling or Reeve iterations. Onscreen, the channelling of different facets of the character by each actor has helped create Superman as a successful screen icon – yes, including Dean Cain. It’s possible, that this has served to limit his growth in the comics. Certainly, you are far more likely to imagine an actor as your Clark Kent than with Bruce Wayne. The infamous, but abating Hollywood curse hasn’t helped Superman loosen that distinction. “Curses, fate and destiny. Is that where we’ve arrived? I have always dealt in fact and certainty” Below groups of people had started to form. Even from meters above, they were disorientated, dispossessed. A tragedy was unfolding.
Both Superman and Batman are figures of tragedy and the paternal legacy that leads from that. It’s intensely personal, but also about the personnel. While Bruce Wayne famously lost his parents as a young boy, he replaced them with a framework of characters, among them his faithful ‘batman’ of conscience Alfred, figure of justice Commissioner Gordon and figure of (business) moral Lucius Fox. The Dark Knight trilogy took this to its extreme, supplementing and layering those paternal analogies throughout the trilogy.
In contrast, Superman lost his parents and his race as an infant and has been a product of two parental sets ever since. True there are others, but they are not strong. Daily Planet editor Perry White could take on such a role easily, but he also serves it for Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and his other employees. Man of Steel purposefully delivered its disaster movie plot through individuals. It wasn’t just the central message that was bottled down to a personal level. It was seeded and foreshadowed through the characters caught up in the third act’s destruction of Metropolis. Instead of seeing the large military presence that’s seen elsewhere carry out the evacuation, it was followed through Perry White and the Daily Planet staff. This was a big film played out through the archetype characters of Superman lore. Zack Snyder has recently defended the mass destruction of comparing it to the Japanese monster films of the 1950s and beyond. When he first appeared, Godzilla was a clear analogy for the horror of nuclear weapons, a close response to a very real and recent tragedy. Godzilla’s relocation to America over the years hasn’t had quite the same effect, but in Man of Steel, Snyder adopted the idea. It’s not a new idea that Superman forms part of a modern America’s pantheon akin to the Greek gods of Olympus or Nordic gods of Asgard. Man of Steel saw Snyder rope in stronger beats, more reflective of modern America. Just as the first Godzilla film was repurposed for American audiences (Raymond Burr intercut into destruction for added resonance), Snyder used the film’s individuals to counter-balance this. At the start, Godzilla had little perception of the people in the mass disaster he dealt, just as the Kryptonians had little perception of the humans in their metropolis. Batman is a more immediately personal crime-fighter. Partly it’s because he’s human and he loves a gadget, just like many husbands. Partly he’s defined by his fights against individual villains or even against the highly anthropomorphic Gotham City. His fight is a dark and self-destructive one. But people love the dark vigilante and Batman has become a definitively brilliant example of that. That said, Superman may be the exception to the rule that the good guys are less interesting in comparison. While Batman’s origin has become mythic, but Superman’s is biblical. The son of two worlds idea is a deep and powerful one – albeit more opaque than Batman’s son of two sides of a city. It’s B-movie versus film noir, and you only have to look at critical reception to see how that unfolds. I noticed that across the cabin a hand lay against the glass window. Impassively, the thick neck and strong dome were studying the devastation below. The thick knuckles were white against the pane. As the inevitable dark clouds fell around us as we neared the city districts, the reflection of his face was lost in shadow. I was speaking louder and more confidently now as if to keep his attention, I had to finish before we arrived. Who knew what would happen then… “It’s that Superman’s perceived as outdated, clean-cut and too powerful to be opposed that a lot of emphasis falls on the darker and so ‘more interesting’ Batman.” I paused as I remembered my lucky pack. I thought of the King of Clubs and King of Hearts vying for the top deck.
The next film has been announced as Superman versus Batman – even if the name changes in the interim, the long mooted struggle is at last reaches the big screen. That opposition, purposefully, sounds a little more drastic than it is. In reality, they are just ideologically opposed. It’s a concept that’s nicely murky for our times, and their first meeting will make for interesting viewing. Notes that swiftly accompanied the casting of Ben Affleck in the Dark Knight’s role confirmed that this would be a grizzled, older Batman. Not Dark night Returns perhaps, but no Batman beginning. Of course, Bats and Supes have historically come to blows in the comics, and most aficionados will opt for the mortal side of the coin. Usually that opposition comes in some form of corruption to what Superman is or does. Superman isn’t a vigilante after all, with a public persona and allegiances sworn at various times to US and world bodies. Batman is all about vigilantism. In any dystopian shift, a government, just like any villain, would seek to corrupt the more powerful Superman first (remember, Batman’s only a mortal). In that role, Batman always rises to the surface as the champion of right. There are levels of irony in their pairing, but over the years it’s forged a close bond. “The most dangerous mortal on Earth. Perhaps he still is…” We were over the city outskirts. Below I could see the stately parks and manor houses of the city’s founding fathers. Those that were still intact had the ground ripped from underneath them. One sat among chasms, a dark pit spreading from its base. It looked like foundations were exposed in the cave below. The figure in front of me craned his neck. There is no defence against Superman. He gets all the attention from governments, cartels or rival injustice leagues because he’s the one to take down. Swearing allegiance to the President of the USA in a far more – perhaps necessarily – open way than Batman, he is the first to succumb. At the first sign of a metahuman registration act, in the first wave of hypnosis or brainwashing into, he’s a prime target – whether villain, governments or both are behind it. As he a natural the symbol of the American Dream it oozes dramatic potential. As opposition to the ultimate symbol of vigilantism, it’s even better. When it comes to kryptonite knuckle-dusters, the rule of the underdog gives the Dark Knight of Gotham a distinct advantage.
We were nearing the end of our journey I assumed. There must be a stopping point. Surely he wasn’t here just to circle… There were rumours he had far more property in the city below us than anyone knew of course. Rumours that a duplicate of his Scottish manor to the north had been constructed here as well. I was curious to see if would head there before or after The Tower. I turned back to my interviewer. Inevitably, the challenge for the next film was set. “Invincible.” It sounded chilling above the devastation. “He’s invincible”. “He’s a storytelling challenge who’s been underserved…” The head twisted slightly on the thick neck too face me. In the comics, when they have clashed, it’s Batman who’s invariably the victor, but there are inherent problems with bringing Superman to the big screen. The same issues that make him the one to take down, also ensure that he’s perceived as dull. That Batman has the greater and better known gallery of rogues is good indicator of the difficulty with the Superman. The Caped Crusader has almost inarguably the best roster of nemeses, perhaps only rivalled by Spiderman. The fact that Gotham City’s guardian is mortal helps immensely of course, as does that fact that they are generally mentally unstable and reside for the most part in an asylum. But with Superman you can’t just ramp up the gothic. Superman’s foes may have been around as long or longer than Batman’s, but they haven’t achieved the same cultural familiarity. Braniac is no Joker, Metallo is no Riddler. Some of the earliest have all but disappeared as solo Superman rogues, such as the Ultrahumanite. Others like Luthor have changed immeasurably. However, much of the problem is that for the most part, they can’t be realised on screen. Even with the arrival of CGI Superman Returns illustrated the resistance perfectly. Now, with reboot fresh in the minds and a sequel announced, we still aren’t being introduced to universal foes such as Darkseid, Mogul or Brainiac. All the emphasis in the next film, sensibly, has to fall to the modern day corporate Lex Luthor. Man of Steel chose to favour the General Zod, last seen in cinemas in Superman II (1980), which made great origin sense. Still, the General’s earlier appearance had played it’s part Superman’s difficulty. Despite a broad range of foes and storylines crossing nearly eight decades, the failure to draw on them in the past has just served to diminish the Man of Steel. That he’s just too powerful has been a constant challenge in the books and films, although the rise of CGI should helped combat this. So far, the common attempt to combat it has been a sharp divergence between the Superman comics and onscreen representations. At last, it appears that the Kryptonian has allies on celluloid. Previously, the blame has lain with the film creators themselves. While Superman the Movie is wonderful in its scope, as is the sequel that unleashed General Zod onto the world, Superman III, IV and Returns suffered from poor decisions. The latter two continued the outdated and limiting misreading of Superman’s biggest foe – as enjoyable as Gene Hackman’s portrayal was. While Lex Luthor had started off as a mad scientist in the comics, the current corporate Luthor is a far more interesting creation than the one seen in the Reeve films or their belated sequels. It was only in the 1980s that the current nuanced and interesting take on the character came to the fore in the comics. Various storylines and creative teams have established Luthor as the greatest human who has ever lived, knocking off cancer cures at a whim (and of course charging tons to patients in the process), providing innate genius to a multi-billion business that Bruce Wayne can barely touch. Effectively he’s the greatest human Earth has ever produced but then… An alien just happens to land in America and steals all the glory. Luthor will always be number two, and every despicable plan has its root in that jealousy inspired by an unnatural twist of fate. Even in the 1960s (Adventure Comics 271), it was posited that Luthor and Clark Kent knew each other as children, an idea recently brought back to the fore in the tremendously successful Smallville. So in all, it’s curiosity that lead to jealousy at the root of Luthor’s evil. Another in a long line of fantastic and jealous villains. It’s an emotion that has powered brilliant plots and inspired great writers for centuries, including, it must be said, those who’ve breathed life into Superman. In the comics anything is fair game, from Lois to morals, from Metropolis to the Earth. I resisted the urge to push Mark Millar’s Red Son once again… I pulled the collar around my neck as the cold glare chilled the air around me. Under the intense scrutiny I contemplated making a leap for it. If there was one man who didn’t need a look to kill…
Saved. Red lights blinked and confirmation came to the cabin that we were near our destination. The chopper smoothly dipped through the cloud that had built up at the centre. There were less buildings than there used to be, I noted unemotionally. The sky was strangely quiet, but below the clouds the streets were chaos. Swathes of concrete and tarmac had been overturned, gigantic trenches dotted every block wriggling in and out of the buildings. Blue and red lights flashed in between, main a sea of white light. I couldn’t even gauge the devastation. I couldn’t consider the loss… The city as everyone knew it was gone. It wasn’t a tourist trap, it wasn’t visited by people other than those who had a reason. Those who knew what had gone were select, many of them in the streets now… Somehow through all of it we landed. There was a mist, a haze… Like the disorientation couldn’t rest in the streets and was reaching up to escape. The cabin release lights flicked on and I earned a scowl from the figure that flashed past to leave the cabin as I grappled with my safety belt. In the minute it took me to put a foot to the concrete and find my land legs, he was already standing 20 metres in front of me surveying the scene as if he’d been there a thousand years. I realised we were on the top of a skyscraper, perched in the middle of the city. His skyscraper? I couldn’t remember him having one before… It was eerie… What would happen next I thought… Man of Steel left vast swathes of the Superman mythos waiting while it redefined the story and set many other cogs in motion. Using the sequel of this successful Superman as a springboard for the rebooted Batman is a clever one, and not just financially. Batman can survive very well on his own of course, but he needs to be cajoled into the DC universe just as his Justice League peers occasionally need to convince him to be a team player. While Arrow promises to introduce the Flash to the small screen, within a few short years a functional Justice League could be ready to go, showing up Marvel’s not-so-secret-invasion as slow. Many things need to align for that to happen, but the establishment of the two male cornerstones of the DC universe in that one film will help greatly in bringing that vision to the big screen. That battle, though mostly inferred will be far larger than the sum of its parts. While Superman sits awkwardly in the Man of Steel Universe, those flip-side ideologies promise to be scintillating. There is still the third icon of DC’s trinity to come of course, and she really is a goddess. Rumours are circulating that Wonder Woman’s being cast in the film, potentially shifting it into the Trinity core of the Justice League. But what else could be in store? Luthor must be a shoe in for the next instalment – not just as the enemy of Superman in Metropolis, but a major competitor of Bruce Wayne across the trading floor. Although Professor Hamilton’s presumably gone, Luthor’s surely the link to Kryptonite but crucially, that’s the one element that Batman needs to make a fight of it. Add in the Amazonian princess, and the cards are being stacked for a multi-textured struggle. Exactly what you’d expect from this burgeoning universe. I thought of my playing cards again and looked at my host. He sat above his tower overlooking the devastation. I could see it there again. Opportunity, that’s what he saw in ever displaced person, every broken street, every upturned house. In the distance a cloud grew in the air from a controlled explosion. It looked like the river. Perhaps the island and was being separated from the mainland. We were being sealed in, I knew it almost instinctively… Next to me, the focussed eyes gleamed. One of the country’s major cities in ruins, one man to save it. I thought the lights might reflect in his eyes and reached into my bag for a notepad. I didn’t want to miss the moment those reflected lights turned into the facsimile of the Oval Office reflected in his eyes. As I floundered, he turned to look at me. The steely gaze refreshed with zeal and confidence. He spoke slowly and deliberately, his words reminding me of the last time I was in this city, joining that select group. “Some time ago a friend asked me a question…”