By the time Superman and General Zod were destroying the hundredth skyscraper in the two invincible men’s pointless quest to kill each other, I had to ask myself: does anybody care? Supposedly, Superman is fighting to save the earth, but since he doesn’t seem too broken up over the thousands of people who die every time a skyscraper topples, why should we be? If there’s nothing at stake, then why does the film need to end with an hour and a half of nonstop punching and explosions?
Part of the problem with Man of Steel is the unwritten law of PG-13 movies: namely, that you can show as much violence as you want, as long as you ignore its consequences. Another part of it is that its director, Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), is never happy unless he’s actively insulting his audience. Both of those facts, though, pale in comparison to the problem at Man of Steel‘s core, which is that the film is sitting on top of a pile of infinite money and zero ideas.
The sad truth about Man of Steel, which occurred to me halfway through the whole pointless mess, is that there are only two reasons it exists at all: (1) Warner Bros. only owns three profitable characters, and (2) Batman and Harry Potter both just ran out of movies. In other words, Warner Bros. made Man of Steel because they couldn’t think of another way to make money. I wonder if they realize that they also inadvertently made one of the best arguments I’ve ever seen for copyright law reform.
It’s difficult to think about now, when we take it for granted that each media conglomerate has a stable of characters that they exploit for our entertainment, but characters like Superman used to eventually pass into the public domain. Sherlock Holmes used to be copyrighted. So did the Wizard of Oz. Both passed into the hands of the public once their copyrights expired. That, of course, is the purpose of copyright law: to benefit the public with the creation of new and interesting works of art. Copyright motivates artists to create by allowing them to profit from their work; once they have done so, it benefits the public by allowing those works to pass into the people’s hands (thus allowing other artists to create new derivative works).
Unfortunately, we’ve done nothing for the last century but extend copyrights more-or-less indefinitely. Superman was first created in 1933, and under then-current law, he would have become public domain by 1989 at the latest. The Copyright Act of 1976 (which was heavily lobbied for by media corporations like Time-Warner) extended his copyright till 2008; the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (referred to as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” by those with a sense of humor) extended his slavery to Time-Warner till at least 2033. No doubt that within the next two decades, the great media conglomerates will start lobbying to extend copyright terms yet again, so that we can all enjoy yet another Superman reboot and the newest Mickey Mouse merchandise. Yippee.
The upshot here is that Time-Warner has held the exclusive rights to milk the Superman character dry for 80 years now, but they haven’t thought of anything interesting for him to do since at least the 1950s. He’s fought the same dull villains for decades, he’s been killed off and resurrected countless times, and he’s come into contact with every color of kryptonite there is, each one stupider and more contrived than the last. Even Man of Steel is just a hackneyed mix of Superman: The Movie and Superman II. If this is the best Warner Bros. can do with the character, I can’t help but think maybe it’s time to let someone else give it a try.
The fact is, copyright law as it currently functions does nothing to benefit the public. Are we really any better off with yet another boring, predictable take on Superman? Do we profit somehow from the fact that Mickey Mouse hasn’t done anything funny since the 1940s? Is it really in the public interest to allow corporations like Warner Bros. and Disney to profit endlessly off of the creative work of individuals who are now deceased? (Ironically, Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, barely ever saw a dime for their hard work, having made the mistake of selling the character to DC Comics for a measly $130 back in the 1930s.)
There are, no doubt, those who would claim that characters become watered down or cheapened when just anyone can use them, but the facts would seem to be otherwise. Does it really tarnish Sherlock Holmes’ reputation that we can watch both Elementary and Sherlock? Is the Wizard made any less wonderful by Wicked or Oz the Great and Powerful? Is it really a bad thing that we can enjoy both Disney’s and Sam Raimi’s take on Hercules? Great characters stay great; it’s only the mediocre ones that fade away.
In the case of Superman, we have a character that used to be great (read the old comics from the ’30s if you don’t believe me), but has been endlessly propped up as a financial tentpole by pure corporate welfare. Maybe it’s time to see if he can fly on his own.