It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Shambling Zombie Propped Up by Decadent Copyright Law

man-of-steel-posterBy 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.

Antje-Traue-in-Man-of-SteelIt’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 OzBoth 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.

man-of-steel-amy-adams2The 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.)

man-of-steel-zod-michael-shannonThere 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.

14 thoughts on “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Shambling Zombie Propped Up by Decadent Copyright Law

  1. “Copyright motivates artists to create by allowing them to profit from their work;”

    Sounds like someone’s becoming a capitalist.

    But in all seriousness, I think I had a very similar reaction to you. I even had the exact same thought about the countless people dying off camera in the skyscrapers. To me, the film, though directed by Snyder, clearly had Nolan’s fingerprints all over it. Constant, in-your-face-action with dumb-looking visuals and oppressive sound that was still complete ineffective and allegedly emotional scenes that only made me tear up from yawning repeatedly. Lame.

    I have nothing to add to your thoughts on copyright law. I realize that’s the focus of this review, but that’s not really my strong suit. Whining about movies is. Hurray!

  2. I don’t know if I’d be quite as hard on Nolan as you would. I didn’t like the Dark Knight trilogy, but they at least had a consistent visual aesthetic. Man of Steel is nothing but two and a half hours of ugly, generic CGI. I would have mistaken it for The Green Lantern if it hadn’t been so boring and serious.

  3. Have you read the silly Superman comics from the 60s? Have you seen “red” kryptonite?

    But I do agree that the extension of copyright law is only benefiting the entertainment corporations. Not the artists.

  4. Copyright is one of the most confusing and inconsistently interpreted and executed laws out there. In large part, I find it a lot like land ownership: what makes you think that rock is yours? It pretty much comes down to who can back up their claim with the most resources (even if that means government enforcement of U.S. laws). My understanding of it is that unless you pursue the infringement every time the holder becomes aware of someone using a copyrighted element, you lose your copyright (i.e. if Garth Brooks doesn’t defend the lower case “g” as his trademark every time, which he has, he loses his “ownership” of the lower case “g” as a copyrighted element.)

    It was a very informative case study on a relatively new phenomena of a character reaching an iconic level (requiring no real explanation.) I do take issue with the outright editorial-like opinion of the example. You don’t like “Man of Steel?” Cool, that’s preference. Beauty in the eye and all that. To say that no one has done anything interesting with the character since the 50’s, is both completely subjective and flat out wrong. New writers, illustrators, directors, musicians, actors, you name it, have had the opportunity to interpret these characters in new and engaging ways, and most of our appreciation of the characters (assuming you actually liked Superman, etc. to begin with) comes from some rendition of the character other than its original incarnation. (I’m going out on a limb to say you weren’t around in the ’30’s.) Without new “creators” or “artists” continuing applying their talents towards pre-existing, strong characters, most people wouldn’t be able to enjoy them. They can’t make enough of these movies as far as I’m concerned!

    Copyright in large part has to do with profit, no doubt about it. Part of the perpetuation of the current environment of copyright for marketable characters like Superman or Mickey Mouse, is the nature of public demand. If Legendary Pictures (Nolan) and Warner Brothers (and all the other links in-between) can’t make a substantial profit off of these films, these films can’t get made. Yes they make a substantial personal profit from them, but making them certainly isn’t cheap, nor do the profits from a movie like “Man of Steel” go only toward existing character properties. Without a movie like “Man of Steel,” we have a lot fewer new idea (which is what I’m inferring you are calling for) properties (like “Independence Day”) that would require a large pre-existing budget to produce. New ideas are a risky investment, and most creators in comics, characters, movies work for these companies to gain recognition for their personal projects. Christopher Nolan would never have gotten to make “Inception” without the success of “The Dark Knight” and most comic writers have other projects of their own that DC or Marvel allow them the notoriety to gain an audience for the independent work.

    I appreciated the article. Just expounding the argument.

    • I’m gonna have to argue with you a little bit, Mason, in part because you seem to have confused copyrights with trademarks. The claim that Garth Brooks has on the small “g,” for instance, is a trademark, not a copyright. Superman, on the other hand, is a copyrighted character.

      Trademarks apply to logos (like the “g”) or brand names (like, say, “DC Comics”), and are effective in perpetuity as long as their owners defend them (as Brooks has done). Copyrights, on the other hand, apply to creative works like books, movies, and comics, and are only in effect for a limited time (currently 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation, whichever comes sooner, for corporate works like Supes), and are effective regardless of whether the owner defends them or not. If I made a bootleg Superman movie and DC decided not to take me to court over it (though they would have every right to do so), it would in no way compromise their claim on Superman’s copyright, and they would still be able to defend it if someone else tried to infringe on it. (J.K. Rowling, for instance, chooses not to go after people who write Harry Potter fanfic for non-commercial purposes, but she still legally holds all the rights to the Harry Potter universe.)

      I also have to say I find it strange that you feel the need to point out that I wasn’t around in the 1930s, as if that somehow invalidates my opinion that earliest Superman comics were the best. No, I wasn’t around when they were published, but they still exist, and I’m still fully capable of reading them. Take a glance at the sidebar, and you’ll see that of the four books I’m currently reading, three were published well before I was born (including Summa Theologica, which is almost a thousand years old). People read old books sometimes. It happens. I appreciate the old comics because Superman was clever and fun back then, the writers were smartly political without being overbearing, and they didn’t beat you over the head with the sci-fi elements. These days, Superman is neither clever nor fun-loving; he just punches his problems until they go away.

      You’re right, of course, that characters like Superman act as financial tentpoles for riskier works like Inception. However, this is because the character is *established*, not because he’s *copyrighted*. (For instance, a lot of people went to see Oz the Great and Powerful because they knew and loved the character. Whether he was copyrighted or not had nothing to do with it.) If Superman were allowed to enter the public domain, Warner Bros. would still be free to make Supes movies; they would just have to compete against other people doing so. In other words, they would have to actually make good Superman movies. The only reason people are going to Man of Steel right now is that (1) people like Superman, and (2) Man of Steel is the only Superman movie in theaters. With a little competition, there would be an incentive to make Superman movies that are actually good.

      I have to admit, though, I have no idea how something can be “both completely subjective and flat out wrong.” Yeah, it’s just my opinion — that’s what I do. I’m a blogger. I share opinions on the Internet, and it’s all in good fun. You’re welcome to disagree, but don’t tell me that my subjective opinions are objectively wrong; that’s silly. I’d be interested to hear, though, which recent Superman adventures you’ve found compelling. I don’t pretend to be a huge comic book nerd (they’re pretty low on my list of media), but I still have yet to find a recent Superman work that I thought was worth the time it took me to read it.

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