When it comes to superheroes, who have been in publication for over 75 years, films have a gray area regarding the rules of adaptation. As the times change, these characters do too, but there's also an intangible element that will definitively make Batman, well, Batman. A detectable truthfulness exists in each character adapted to the screen, but the rules for what constitutes that truthfulness change from character to character. There's a fine balance, of course, since straying too far from the source can give us outlandish character representations like Batman & Robin or Spider-Man 3, but staying too close can polarize general audiences and critics as happened with the likes of Watchmen and Sin City.
I bring this up because there's a comic book movie in theaters now, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that is being actively compared with a comic book film from last year: Man of Steel. Type "captain america vs man of steel" into your favorite search engine, and you'll likely come up with multiple op-eds and sites generally saying one thing: that the new Superman we were introduced to in Man of Steel could learn a thing or two from Chris Evans' portrayal of Captain America in the Marvel cinematic universe. That might be true... to a degree. However, it's not as true as you might think.
Superman vs. Captain America in Comic Books
Comparisons between the Star-Spangled Avenger and the Last Son of Krypton are far from new since they inhabit somewhat similar roles in their respective comic book universes. In the DC Universe, Superman is depicted as the archetypal hero that helped inspire practically all that followed, is often seen as the leader of the Justice League, and serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration to every good person that inhabits his world. Even though he hates to admit it, even Batman looks up to Superman to a degree, because beyond his power level, he's a decent, just and fair man who could put humanity under his thumb if he wanted. Thankfully for us, and as Batman once pointed out, he's a great leader because even with all he has, that thought never occurs to him. He would rather die than enslave another being.
Captain America, on the other hand, is seen as the embodiment of the best of what made his generation so proud and successful. Although he's a brilliant tactician and has seen the horrors of war firsthand, he still somehow manages to hold on to a level of wholesome idealism that, coming from anyone else, may seem disingenuous. He's often seen as the leader of the Avengers, and when the heroes themselves need saving, there's no one they'd rather have fight for them than Steve Rogers.
Unlike Superman, Captain America has physical vulnerability, but like Superman his super abilities have never set him apart from his fellow man.
On the few occasions that Cap and Superman have crossed paths in various DC and Marvel crossovers throughout the years, they seem philosophically compatible. When DC and Marvel were going through their "Amalgam" comics phase together, these two characters were combined into one of the standout one-shots of the entire line: Mark Waid (Superman: Birthright) and Dave Gibbons' (Watchmen) Super-Soldier #1. It seems that no matter how you slice it, Superman and Captain America just seem to go well together.
Superman has always been at the top tier of superhero cinema, because for the most part he and Batman have been the only substantive movie stars on DC and Warner Bros.' side of things. Since Captain America has joined the top tier after appearances in The First Avenger, The Avengers and now The Winter Soldier, the comparisons fans and creators have made in the comic book realm are all but inevitable for the two big movie franchises, especially now that Superman has been reintroduced in Man of Steel and it looks like that iteration of the character is here to stay for awhile.
Captain America Movies vs. the New Superman from Man of Steel
All three of Chris Evans' appearances as Steve Rogers constitute much of the comic book character as he's been throughout the 2000s, most notably during writer Ed Brubaker's groundbreaking comic book run that produced stories like The Winter Soldier, 21st Century Blitz and The Death of Captain America. While paying attention to the character's legacy, particularly in The First Avenger, the film version is easily recognizable by comics fans that hold Cap among their favorite superheroes. While there's been some evolution through the eras of his publication, this is easily the same guy we all know and love.
Superman, as he appears in Man of Steel, is kind of a different beast altogether. Unlike Cap, the Superman character has gone through constant evolution, particularly since the 1980s, and it's the post-1986 and 2011-current Superman that the film version most resembles. While certain attention to detail is important when depicting Superman's origin, he's kind of a different guy today than he was when Christopher Reeve embodied him, which Man of Steel largely represents well. There are, of course, differences to note, though.
When Superman Returns came out in 2006, it did damage to the perception of the Superman character. Since it largely depicted the Christopher Reeve iteration with the new face of Brandon Routh, people mistakenly assumed that the character had endured virtually no evolution in the source material since 1978. People also called it boring, complaining that Superman only "lifts things," and that we never see what a real fight with him would look like. Captain America has never had this problem, because his only modern film appearance was in a forgettably cheesy 1991 outing that did nothing to advance the mainstream's knowledge of him.
Man of Steel had a difficult task of remaking the image of Superman to be a character that people could believe in, but also a character that could embody a new, harder breed of heroism that audiences today crave. To do that, it had a sprawling fight scene that ended very controversially. The result was a legion of fans crying foul, saying that's not the Superman they know.
Hence the comparisons. In Winter Soldier, that wholesome idealism of Captain America's is on full display, and people are saying Cap's ability to a) keep a skyward fight from destroying innocent lives and b) not breaking his adversary's neck in the closing moments should send a massive message to the stewards of Superman.
They're only half right.
There's certainly merit in saying Superman wasn't as hopeful, in either inspiration or his own belief, as he perhaps should have been. The "S" is supposed to mean "hope," but that theme, and that feeling, didn't come through as strongly as it probably should have in Man of Steel. Perhaps that's something to remember for part two when he's standing across from a definite cynic in a black mask and a pointy cape.
The conflicts in both films are virtually incomparable though. Superman breaking Zod's neck to Cap's pacifist beating at the hands of Bucky are going for totally different things. If Superman and Zod had grown up as brothers, and Zod wasn't programmed from birth to be an unstoppable killing machine, maybe Superman could've spared him.
In the end, Zod gave Superman no choice but to do what he ultimately did, and if you remember, the Man of Steel wasn't exactly happy with what he'd just done after being on the job for about a day and a half. It's not perfect, but as far as delivering on a promise of what a Kryptonian fight might actually look like and the conclusion an inexperienced Superman might feel forced to bring it to, the crack heard in Metropolis that day creates a lot of interesting implications for the next film: particularly in the resentment a bald guy may have for him, and the concern a Dark Knight might feel.
Can the new Man of Steel learn a thing or two from Captain America? Yes... but not as much as you might think.
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and former retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.com, The Huffington Post, and Batman-On-Film.com. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film every Wednesday right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.
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