February 15, 2018
Video Essay

Watch: What Superman Teaches Us About Character and Storytelling

This video looks at the characterization of an iconic figure and the complications involved in crafting a superhero.

Opening this Friday, Ryan Coogler's Black Panther has received rapturous reviews and a huge ticket presale. Inspired by the upcoming release, Jack's Movie Reviews has returned to examine a different superhero (this one from the DC Comics canon), exploring how Superman/Clark Kent's struggles illuminate the difficulties apparent in creating a superhero. 

As Jack notes, "something that is found within every well-written character is the overarching conflict that they must face." This is both an external conflict (like defeating Lex Luther) and an internal one. When it comes to Superman, internal conflicts are more difficult to find, as he almost never experiences self-doubt or introspection. "He's a savior of the people who always does his best to do as much good as possible [and] there is no moral ambiguity, nothing to question."

The way most writers of the character have gotten around this obstacle is to have Superman unable to save everything, despite his nearly unlimited powers. However, as Jack notes, this is an unsatisfying resolution. The character is in strong contrast to heroes like the tortured Batman (or T'Chaka in The Black Panther) who throughout the film is continuously faced with doubts about his kingdom, as well as those closest to him. 

"Something that is found within every well-written character is the overarching conflict that they must face."

Because his morals and motives are pure, and his being more powerful than any human on planet Earth, it's difficult to place Superman in most situations; he is, for all intents and purposes, immortal (there's Kryptonite, but...). This leads to another central difficulty with the character, namely, the change every successful character must undergo as a story progresses. With Superman, however, the place where he starts off is, by film's conclusion, the same place where he ends up.

Possessing immortality, unlimited powers, and perfect morals—he is such a good guy!—it would be unimaginable for Superman to undergo any sort of change. This leads to not only stasis, but a lack of satisfying antagonists. As Jack notes, "the people he faces need to find a way to put him in a position where he can't save everyone...meanwhile the writers need to find a way for him to be able to do just that."

The video is a fascinating look at the difficulties inherent in creating a character (not just a super one) and has something to say to every storyteller.

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