Friday, October 10, 2008

The Death of Pa Kent and the Darkness of Superman

In response to my recent Supergirl post, regular Geniusboy Firemelon reader Vanja asked a few questions that I thought deserved a whole post of their own:

WB studios have declared that they will reboot the Superman movie franchise and darken it, bringing it more in line with Nolan's successful Batman movies.

Now, the current issue of Action Comics features the death of a member of the supporting cast, that Morrison has too disposed of in his All Star Superman (to much effect, even though it was a point done in Pre-Crisis continuity too).

I want to ask, do you think that this is the direction the eventual Superman movie will follow? Not exactly spotlighting Brainiac per se, and strengthening his bonds as an arch-villain that crossed the line and went personal with Superman (thought that could well be the case, considering the lack of key Batman villains in the Batman Begins film), but the idea of that particular death.

Does that strike you as "dark" and mature enough, to be mirrored in the movie? Has DC found a way to make Superman grim and gritty and still keep their audience engaged on the big screen?
First, I'd like to address the death of Pa Kent. You're right, Vanja, that Morrison used the scene to great effect in All-Star, as the much younger Clark realizes that he can't save everyone -- a scene which takes place within an issue that features the past, present, and future Superman (and the golden Superman from the future did, kind of, save everyone). And I think Johns handled Pa's death in the newest issue of Action Comics well, using Superman's obsession with the rescued Kryptonian cities to contrast with the death of his all-too human father.

So, even though you're not really asking, I'm going to answer the question about whether or not the death of Pa Kent is a good idea -- does it help tell better Superman stories? I think it does. Since the Byrne reboot, Superman has been the only major superhero to actually have parents who are still alive and still important. I don't know why Byrne decided to keep both Ma and Pa Kent alive in his reboot, but I suspect it was a way to keep Superman a bit emotionally lighter, and to provide a sanctuary he could return to since the Fortress of Solitude was removed from continuity. Having Ma and Pa around could emphasize Superman's Midwestern values, and his simple, humble human origins, at least morally and socially (if not genetically).

But, as I said, no other major superhero has both parents still kicking around, playing such an important role. And there's a probably a reason for that. A deeply-rooted mythical reason having to do with the son replacing the father. Can Superman realize his full potential when the comics are really Superman and his Amazing Parents? Doesn't that diminish the character's scope? I don't know, but maybe it does. Maybe he needs to step up as not just a Super-Son, but as a Super-Man in his own right, and the loss of the father has historically been the most symbolic way to demonstrate the passage into adult responsibility. I'm just throwing these ideas out there, but they seem important.

The death of Pa Kent also adds that kind of tragic undertone that makes Superman realize his tenuous relationship to humanity all the more clearly. If Johns and company use Pa's death just to emphasize the frailty of homo sapiens compared to the Kryptonians who are due to overwhelm the Earth in upcoming DC months, then I think Pa's death would have been an excessive tactic. But if Johns and company build on the emotional cost of Pa's death -- of the loss of that moral beacon in Superman's life -- and actually give Superman the agency to struggle with his own dilemmas without running home for advice all the time (and Ma is still around, of course, but her relationship with Clark is different), then I think that makes Superman a more interesting character.

Basically, Superman can grow up a bit more now, and that's an important step for the character.

Does any of this relate to Warner Brothers' supposed plans for a "darker" Superman movie? I doubt it, and as anyone with a brain knows, a "dark" Superman movie is completely ridiculous. But after The Dark Knight and the inevitable success of Watchmen in theaters next year, I'm sure we'll see a huge push to make all superhero movies "darker" and "grim and gritty." It's like the late 80's, early 90's all over again, but on the big screen.

Yet a Superman movie should have pathos and danger and real emotional stakes. The death of Pa Kent might achieve such an undertone, but without establishing the importance of the character substantially, I don't know that it would translate within a two-hour movie. In Donner's Superman: The Movie, it works, almost, but the emotional stakes and sense of danger is totally shattered by the time-travel ending, which automatically eliminates any meaning to any action within the movie. And, honestly, I thought Singer's Superman Returns was pretty dark already, with the creepy-stalker Superman lurking in the trees, using his x-ray spy-o-vision.

So I hope we don't see a grim The Dark Superman movie anytime soon, but I do think that you can give substance and weight to the character by making things matter. The death of Pa Kent matters, and I know Geoff Johns didn't kill off the character for frivolous reasons.


nadir said...

tim, you take a very cambellian view of the hero's path. and i am not sure it works well with superman.

he already lost his father and became more than jor-el could have ever hoped to be on krypton.

what tragedy could equal the destruction of his home world in the development of the character? pa and ma kent along with lois, lana, etc... were what connected kal to his clark persona.

look at the hero superman is with pa alive. can we really call those acts of a super-son? do we really wish to diminish his accomplishments by letting it be the credit of his father? and will this death make him more of a hero in any way. he is already looked upon as the greatest hero earth has. will he turn greater now?

and while admittedly, the dissolution of one of those ties might help make for some good stories, but it was these connections that really made far different from other heroes.

sure he was the only major hero with both his parental figures still alive, but it made an important distinction in his overall world view. and to kill off such a major character (again) seems to be just a quick emotional bang without measuring out the ramifications. pa is not coming back without a reboot, and that just seems to bring such a lackluster future to the superman mythos.

Timothy Callahan said...

"to kill off such a major character (again) seems to be just a quick emotional bang without measuring out the ramifications."

How do you know?

Not that I know any different, but I doubt Johns will just say, "Pa's dead" and move on. I mean, the status quo of Superman is that Pa is dead, anyway. I don't see it as a cheap emotional ploy.

nadir said...

of course i do not know.

i have faith in the current crop of superman creators, but what happens in 4 years when new writers are forbidden from using pa kent?

just seems short sighted and a slight to the mythos to me. one that had been fixed before mind you...

Kris Krause said...

I really liked this Brainiac story, but the death of Pa Kent is old territory. Why does the mythology have to be stuck in this patriarchal mentality you use to try to defend the move to kill off Pa? Why hasn't anyone ever aimed for Ma, as I thought for a panel Johns might actually do? I would have been more interested in that, given the many, many previous deaths of Pa.

I thought the death of a parent was forced right now, especially with the emergence of a whole city of Kryptonians. There's plenty of emotional story for Superman to deal with there, and I can't help but feel that Pa's death is going to be pushed aside or become a simple plot device for the larger Kryptonian story. I don't know, of course, as none of us do, but I found the choice to kill off Pa yet again mechanical, and that may change in the future, but at the time of impact, the time it should matter most, I found very little depth that hasn't already been explored to death (no pun intended) in other Superman stories.

Vanja said...

>what tragedy could equal the destruction of his home world in the development of the character?
Ok, this is just plain not true. Superman was an infant when that happened, so he has little emotional connection to Krypton beyond the notion that it was the home world of his biological parents. He was a helpless infant not aware of the world around him when it exploded, and thus he does not feel it as much as, say, having his father killed during Braniac's attack.

It's comparable to Peter Parker having his parents die in a plane crash, which doesn't really inform the character in the direct way. On the other hand, Uncle Ben's death at the hands of the burglar that has hit him much closer to home.

>pa is not coming back without a reboot
And this is where things feel very strange. Having this be the second (or third, if you count All Star Superman) time this particular thing happened, it's actually something that fans have been through already.

Having re-written the characters history so frequently, DC has started to repeat the same thematic elements in their ongoing series (which is why it was different when Morrison and Quitely did it in All Star Superman).

I understand DC's decision, they want every new generation of fans to re-live the same character arcs, but what will happen if they underwent another Crisis in a few years? Will Batman confront Joe Chill again? Will anyone care?

Anonymous said...

i don't think there's any chance a superman movie could do as nearly as well as the nolan batmans. i'm willing to bet the masses have no idea superman has a Pa, who brainiac is, and i can't see them relating to a clean cut kryptonian in bright red and blue tights. i don't think the dark knight would have been half as successful without the hot topic crowd.

i think DC's best chance (outside gotham) is wally west in a "rogue's revenge" kind of story. i'm not sure if superspeed would work in a movie these days, but i'm pretty positive flying won't.

Vanja said...

>i think DC's best chance (outside gotham) is wally west in a "rogue's revenge" kind of story.
Well, Superman is a much more popular superhero than Flash ever was.

"Iron Man" is an obvious exception to the rule, but it makes sense that DC would try their best with their most recognizable character.

DC always goes for over the top superhero fantasy, with alternate Earths and time travel. Their heroes are much more iconic and colorful, and that means that the studio would have to shell out serious bucks to make anything other than street-wise "Green Arrow" believable.

And I think WB is much more likely to invest heavily into developing the special effects and look of Superman's trappings, than those of Flash, Aquaman or Green Lantern.

Anonymous said...

Tim, you seem to be neglecting the death of Superboy a few years ago. I read comics now, and other than the odd mention here and there in Teen Titans, no one really gives a crap.

Also, vanya--There's a Green Lantern movie in the works already. They're willing to do it if it looks like it can make money, which is probably why Wonder Woman was scrapped. She's impossible to write, and I don't think too many people care about the character.

Vanja said...

Alex, I believe that a Hal Jordan Green Lantern movie is possible. Doing it as a kind of Year one, or Secret Origin thing, could be good for business.

You could have a lot of low-cost pilot-stuff, and also a few dream-like alien sequences on Oa, with Sinestro (perhaps Killowog too?) for the make-up SFX department to largely fixate upon.

jmb418 said...

"i'm willing to bet the masses have no idea superman has a Pa, who brainiac is, and i can't see them relating to a clean cut kryptonian in bright red and blue tights."

Well according to Harlan Ellison there are five modern literary characters that have made the transition to truly iconic status and are universally recognizable by every culture on earth... Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Mickey Mouse, Robin Hood, and Superman.

I'm always amused at how clueless comic readers seem to think "the masses" are.

Andrew Wales said...

I don't know if the Superman movie has to be dark so much as it would be nice if it didn't ape the 70's Superman movie. I don't know why they chose to include many campy approaches. It was in many ways a remake of some scenes.

Make Superman powerful against a powerful foe and it will kick butt!

True Xiong said...

When I first heard that they considered making the Superman movies darker, like what Nolan did for Batman, my first thought was... "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." They're going to screw up Superman, rather than enhance him by trying to make him "darker" in order to appeal to the trendy. Superman ain't DK, nor should he try to be. He is a great character to write for, they just need to use their resources and play on his humanity and the fact that while Clark/Superman has the love and support of his family and friends, (or the whole world for that matter) he is truly ALONE. What I would love to see in a Superman Movie?

A Superman fight with Bizarro or Doomsday and a team up of Lex Luthor and Brainiac.

As for the ramifications of the death of Pa Kent in the Superman Comics, it's too early to decide if it was a good move on their part. I guess a death in the Superman Mythos is to be expected. Pa and Ma Kent are getting up there in age. It would have been more of a blow if they killed off Lois Lane... on a side note, is Krypto still around?