David Goyer v Comics: Rise of the Anti-Hero

unnamed(1)This is a bit of a correction to my earlier piece about Zack Snyder. Not that I think I was inaccurate in anything I said there, but I do think it was a bit unfair of me to put all the problems with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (pronounced buvvis-doge, I think?) on the shoulders of the director. The auteur theory of film criticism is a deeply flawed one, after all. And in addition to having a director who really doesn’t seem to understand the comic books he professes to love, the film also has David Goyer as its screenwriter.

And David Goyer doesn’t understand superheroes. Which I understand is kind of a bold statement, given that David Goyer is responsible for making the modern era of superhero movies possible.

But bear with me.

Background

As I said above, Goyer is the most prolific screenwriter of the modern era of superhero films. He wrote all three of the Blade movies (and directed the last one) in the late 90s, before the modern superhero boom, and their success allowed projects like Singer‘s X-Men movies and Raimi‘s Spider-Man movies to go forward and prove that the public’s appetite for costumed heroes hadn’t been killed off by Joel Schumacher. And before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born, Goyer was writing Batman Begins and the Dark Knight, which at the time were seen as the future of the genre.

On the other hand, few people think of the scripts as the major virtues of any of these projects. Now a largely forgotten franchise with only one decent entry, almost nothing in the Blade movies made sense and the movies largely thrived on Wesley Snipes‘ presence and a cheerfully gonzo approach to gore. The Nolan Batman films are called Nolan films for a reason, and there’s a whole cottage industry of Youtube videos and articles pointing out the logical problems in the Joker’s plan in Dark Knight or how there’s no way Batman faking his death in Rises would have worked.

But if there’s one thing these films have in common, they all feature dark anti-heroes. But most superheroes aren’t dark anti-heroes, which might explain why, for all that Goyer’s career has been founded on superheroes, he doesn’t particularly understand the characters or like the people who like them very much:

Goyer: I have a theory about She-Hulk. Which was created by a man, right? And at the time in particular I think 95% of comic book readers were men and certainly almost all of the comic book writers were men. So the Hulk was this classic male power fantasy. It’s like, most of the people reading comic books were these people like me who were just these little kids getting the shit kicked out of them every day… And so then they created She-Huk, right? Who was still smart… I think She-Hulk is the chick that you could fuck if you were Hulk, you know what I’m saying? … She-Hulk was the extension of the male power fantasy. So it’s like if I’m going to be this geek who becomes the Hulk then let’s create a giant green porn star that only the Hulk could fuck.

As many people before me have said, this betrays not just a creepy attitude to sexuality, but a fundamental misconception of both the character’s backstory (She-Hulk and the Hulk have never been romantically linked, because they are first cousins) and thematic import. To quote the Mary Sue, “since her introduction, She-Hulk has been a woman of agency and strength, one who quickly took control of her mutation to become a hero and who has never let herself be held back by sexist double-standards and the expectations of others who can’t handle her power, intelligence and sexual confidence.”

But What About Superman?

Thankfully, however, David Goyer hasn’t been approached to write a She-Hulk movie or TV show (seriously, the character would work wonders as a legal/comedy/action show, what are you waiting for Marvel?). The problem is that he doesn’t understand Superman either and he’s the guy that DC and Warner Brothers approached to write Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman:

“And it occurred to me that it’s one thing if you have super powers to say I’m going to be a good Samaritan and help people. But it’s another entirely, and in fact a little presumptuous to just put on a costume and call yourself Superman, and say I’m going to appoint myself the saviour of mankind.” (source)

If you have a problem with someone putting on a costume and trying to save the world, you probably shouldn’t be writing a movie about the character who created an entire genre around doing just that. And the problem is that, in addition to not liking the basic concept of superheroics, Goyer goes on to explain that he doesn’t get Superman’s  character specifically:

“And so this story was why does he become Superman? And we decided early on that’s not a choice he makes, but a choice that’s imposed on him.”

“The movie is about him deciding am I going to be human, or Kryptonian, to pick which lineage to follow. We wanted to give him this Sophie’s Choice of you can be human, or you can have your Kryptonian world back, but you can’t have both. If you have your Kryptonian world, humanity is going to suffer. He has to decide which world he wants to plant his feet in.”

“The whole raison d’etre of the movie is that choice. It’s nature versus nurture. And that’s why he puts on the glasses and becomes officially Clark Kent at the end of the movie.” (source)

There are a huge number of problems with this. First of all, it’s a terrible writing move for your characters to not make choices but have choices happen to them. It’s lazy Campbellian Chosen One handwaving and it makes your protagonist horribly passive when making choices is what makes them interesting.

Secondly, choosing between his human and Kryptonian nature is antithetical to what it means to be Superman. Our hero is an immigrant refugee who rather than be turned away (Action Comics #1 came out only 14 years after the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924) is welcomed into America’s heartland and is raised to be a good person by the Kents – which is why he chooses to become Superman and save people. But at the same time, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, adapting the Moses story (not the Christ story, Goyer!) have Superman discover and embrace his alien heritage – hence the Kryptonian baby blanket turning into his iconic cape – without rejecting his adopted culture either. Rather than bowing to the dictates of nativism or assimilation, Superman combines both cultures together: the Last Son of Krypton standing for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

And finally, let’s talk about the neck-snapping, because man is Goyer defensive about the neck-snapping:

“The way I work, the way Chris works, is you do what’s right for the story. That exists entirely separately from what fans should or shouldn’t think of that character. You have to do what’s right for the story. In that instance, this was a Superman who had only been Superman for like, a week. He wasn’t Superman as we think of him in the DC Comics…or even in a world that conceived of Superman existing,” Goyer said. “He’d only flown for the first time a few days before that. He’d never fought anyone that had super powers before. And so he’s going up against a guy who’s not only super-powered, but has been training since birth to use those super powers, who exists as a superhuman killing machine, who has stated, ‘I will never stop until I destroy all of humanity.”

“If you take Superman out of it, what’s the right way to tell that story?” he continued. “I think the right way to tell that story is if you take this powered alien who says, ‘You can have your race back, but you have to kill your adopted race,’ the moral, horrible situation to be in is to actually be forced to kill, not wanting to, the only other person from your race. Take Superman aside, I think that’s the right way to tell that story.” (source)

To start with a seemingly minor point: Zod isn’t someone “training since birth to use those super powers,” because in Goyer’s own screenplay, Zod only got those powers when he came to Earth. (And then for some reason decided to terraform the planet so that the Kryptonians he’s genetically driven to protect would become weaker, but that’s beside the point.) Superman is the one who’s been training his whole life to use them because he’s the only Kryptonian who grew up on Earth. Which means he should be the one controlling the fight through his better understanding of his superpowers, which would hopefully avoid both the neck-snapping and the destruction of Metropolis (which is what people had more of a problem with).

But I want to circle around to something Goyer said, about Zod posing the choice of “you have to kill your adopted race” or let humanity die. The only reason that killing Zod equates to killing all of Krypton is because Goyer has Superman use his heat-vision to obliterate the “Genesis” ship that was carrying thousands of Kryptonian embryos, making Zod the last. And he doesn’t do it accidentally – Zod tells him what the ship is carrying and Superman says “Krypton had its chance.” And this is is the action of the supposed hero, of whom Goyer said:

“I think the movie is going to be the right movie for the times. I’m happy that movie is coming out in the summer, because I think it’s the kind of movie that the world needs right now.” (source)

unnamedNow He’s Gone Too Far

So imagine my surprise when it turns out that, back in 1986, David Goyer turned out to not understand Captain America. As this is my patch, allow me to preach for a moment:

“While reading Captain America, I find myself more interested in the villain and their exploits than in Cap himself. The basic problem stems from the fact that Cap isn’t a very interesting character. He’s a living symbol and aside from the problems of character development in a symbol, the fact that he is a symbol of the American dream creates a number of story problems.”

I’m beginning to see the underlying reason why David Goyer has a problem writing about Superman –  first, he gets distracted by surface issues (like red capes and blue tights) and misses the important character details. Here, the important detail is that it’s Steve Rogers who is the character, and his historical grounding makes him interesting. Second and more importantly, he fundamentally doesn’t grok ideological superheroes, and as a result sees story hooks as story problems:

“First of all, the America that created Cap in the ’40s no longer exists. To make matters worse, Cap was in suspended animation for the better part of two decades. What kind of effect does this have on a man? His “world” is gone. To the children of the 60s, the concept of a living symbol of democracy to boost war morale must have seemed totally outdated.”

Captain America being a Man Out of Time isn’t a story problem, it’s a great source of dramatic tension that Marvel has been using to fuel the comic ever since Lee and Kirby hauled Rogers out of the ice in 1964. And it works in two ways – first, it gives Cap a personal flaw that transforms him from the flawless Golden Age archetype into a properly angsty, interior Marvel-style character. Second, because Cap is an ideological hero, the contrast between his past and the new era automatically acts as a mirror with which we can examine the vices and virtues of both periods:

“Secondly, the Captain probably only appeals to part of the nation today. Most likely, he’s more popular with the conservative side, so his popularity is on the upswing now. but what about the people who resent what he represents? There must be people out there who are even insulted by his uniform. Some people see our country as an atrophied giant whose secretive diplomacy is thinly veiled behind a smile and a handshake. Our government isn’t nearly as upfront or virtuous as our elected officials would have us believe. What exactly does Cap represent? Everything that’s good in America? Does the Captain endorse every president that’s elected? Would he ever speak out against a candidate? Does the Captain acknowledge that there is corruption in the government?”

This really makes me wonder if Goyer ever actually read these comics, because literally every point here was answered in the pages of Captain America. Captain America isn’t a conservative, and in fact sides with the same youth who questioned America’s government in the 1960s. What makes Captain America a radical figure is that he represents America’s ideals and not its government.

As for speaking out against a candidate and acknowledging corruption in government, take the case of Richard Nixon, who in the Marvel Universe ran a smear campaign against Captain America and when the Watergate scandal threatened to unseat him from power tried to overthrow the government of the United States via giant Kirby flying saucer. Captain America stopped his coup and pursued him into the Oval Office to deliver him to justice, where Nixon took his own life rather than answer for his crimes. (For more on this, you’ll have to wait for an upcoming People’s History of the Marvel Universe…)

But as with Superman, David Goyer seems to have a problem with characters who think they’re better than he is, even if that’s not the case:

“On another level, one has to wonder what type of man would have the audacity to proclaim himself a living symbol of America. Was he elected by the common people? Is he a tool of propaganda, invested by the government to promote democracy? Does the Captain unquestioningly accept whatever the current American policy is or does he formulate opinions on his own? What would happen if someone convinced Captain America that socialism was a better way of life? Now, granted, as an Avenger, he’s been sanctioned by the government and given official status as a protector of the peace. Do you honestly expect us to believe that the government would enlist a masked crusader without even knowing his true identity?”

Again, this is basic origin-story stuff. Steve Rogers didn’t proclaim himself anything – he signed up for a dangerous super-science experiment because it was the only way for him to fight fascism. (Which answers the question about his “true identity” – Rogers’ military service is a matter of public record!) and when the experiment worked, the U.S government gave him his costume, his shield, and his rank so that he could be a symbol to boost civilian morale during WWII:

Inline image 2And yes, Captain America makes his own judgement about public policy – which is why he brought down three SHIELD helicarriers in the Potomac River rather than let HYDRA destroy our constitutional rights to due process, and why he’s going to go mano-a-mano with Iron Man in the upcoming movie.

And as for socialism…well, you already know my opinion about that.

Conclusion

So why go on this long rant? Because I love comic books and comic book movies, and I think they can be more than mindless popcorn-fodder and certainly more than the depressing and immoral mess that Goyer has given us.

And because David Goyer is Hollywood’s go-to man for most of these movies, his influence can harm an entire genre. Hence why it was problematic that David Goyer was the man who got the call to adapt Constantine for TV despite not wanting to have Constantine be bi. And why I am deeply depressed that, of all writers working today, David Goyer is the one adapting Sandman

2 comments

  • To be totally fair to David Goyer, I actually kind of agree with a lot of his arguments about Captain America and about the difficulties involved in addressing American ideals and what they mean today. My riposte is that if he felt that way, he should never have adaptated these superhero movies and certainly not characters he’s not suited for. I mean Alan Moore is more to the Left than David Goyer, or any other major comic writer, and Superman is his favorite hero, evidenced by the fact that he wrote maybe the greatest superman stories

    Speaking of socialism, it’s actually interesting that Captain America missed out on the 50s. He died in 1947 and reappeared in 1964. That’s the most controversial era after all, and it’s curious that Cap didn’t have to take a stand on it. In real-life some US Veterans who were party members were persecuted in this time (mostly because of their involvement in other fields after the war, and before the McCarthy’s attempt to investigate the Army) after all. In the 30s and 40s, during the Popular Front, the Communist Party USA said “Socialism is 20th Century Americanism” which is the 30s-early 40s, now that is a party line but some people really did believe that in this era. So I wonder if Steve Rogers in the comics ever clashed that relatively benign image of pre-WW2 communism. Like say serving alongside some American soldiers who were Communists or finding out later that some of his old squadmates was blacklisted during the Red Scare. It could have balanced the Red Scarehysteria, that I have to say, afflicts everything in Marvel – as is Black Widow’s backstory in the MCU, HYDRA associated with the Soviet Union and Winter Soldier being a brainwashed Soviet Agent, the kind of hysteria Samuel Fuller mocked in Shock Corridor, which has nothing to do with reality.

  • You know there was an interesting essay by Lance Parkin about DC’s Superhero Movies. Part 2 of the essay talks about the problems DC have with adapting and updating Superman.

    http://sequart.org/magazine/41028/superhero-accessories-part-two-truth-justice-all-that-stuff/

    I recommend the whole essay, (especially Part 3).