Monday, August 15, 2011

The Clothes Make the Man

Famine, war, economic collapse and some genuinely scary human beings angling to become President of the United States, and this is what I fill my time with blogging about.

I hate the new Superman costume.

Few days ago, Warner Brothers released a promo image of Henry Cavill as Superman, busting out of--or in to--a bank vault. And while the shot itself is nicely staged, and Cavill certainly looks the part, the costume here ruins what was for me already a lukewarm sense of anticipation, considering my favorite superhero is going to star in a film directed by one of my least favorite directors.

In fact, with the exception of casting, which is almost uniformly great (I have no opinion on Cavill, having seen him in precisely nothing), every news item coming from the production of this movie has made me wince. Coming 2013: Superman fights General Zod! Again! Directed by Zack Snyder! So there's a pretty good chance Kal El, last son of Krypton, will punch someone's organs out of their chest before stumbling into YET ANOTHER belabored Christ allegory. Cack sandwich.

Here's the thing: Warner has been immensely successful with the Batman films, mostly on the back of Christopher Nolan, who has directed a complex, psychological take on the Caped Crusader, one that eschews robot penguins and a hammy Jack Nicholson for a down-to-earth tale of a billionaire ninja and a clown with the world's widest smile. These movies are fantastic. And I have no doubt that next summer's capper on the Nolan trilogy will be just as good as the two which preceded it.

The problem, however, with a studio making heaps and heaps of money off one guy who wears long underwear and beats up clowns, is that they automatically think that the same formula ("let's make him darker, grittier, edgier") will translate to a guy who flies and wears long underwear and beats up on bald people. It won't. It doesn't. And it can't.

Simply put, what works for Batman does not work for Superman. It can't, and I don't understand why anyone would think that it would. Similarly, 2006's Superman Returns is a case study in how what works for the X-Men (namely, pouting and brooding) does not work for Superman. Bryan Singer, fresh off two excellent X-Men films, leapt at the chance to direct a Superman film, and what we got was two hours of the Metropolis Marvel feeling sorry for himself and breaking up the family of the woman roofied, apparently?

Coincidentally, Brandon Routh's threads bore more than a passing resemblance to Henry Cavill's.

This costume is apologetic. It is the Barack Obama of superhero costumes. It tries to strike a balance between what works on film and what works on the page and as a result comes out looking muddied and palatable to no one. And it's not the darkness of the hues I have a problem with. Dean Cain's Superman costume from the 1990's TV show had a pretty dark blue, but it was a bolder color, and so was the red.


He dresses up like the flag because he symbolizes that American spirit, that optimism. There are cars brighter than Henry Cavill's costume here, and some of those cars are actually gray. As usual, there are folks out there who've articulated these points much better than I on their own blogs, and I'd like to refer to one of them now:

Superman isn’t Superman because of some tragedy which informed his growth. Pa Kent does not die because of a failure on Clark’s part – indeed in most versions of the story, Pa dies when Clark isalready Superman. Clark’s knowledge of Krypton doesn’t make him a superhero either; again, this is something he finds out later, too late to traumatize him. Clark is Superman because he decides to be Superman without being prompted. That’s more complex and nuanced a story than “somebody did something to me.” Superman’s story, which informs his entire character, is one of someone who chooses to be good of his own free will and agency, with no influence other than moral upbringing. That’s both more compelling than the “somebody did something to me” origin most superheroes have and more difficult to work with.

This is from the excellent blog Mighty God King, and I really could just post the entire thing over here, except that'd be cheating, but I recommend reading the whole article because it has really the best counterpoint to the "Superman-as-Jesus" trope which was one more lead weight Brandon Routh had to fly around with hanging from his neck in Returns.

Superman isn't Jesus. And Superman isn't Batman. You don't have to ground him with muted grays and yet another fight with other dudes from his own home planet because you figure, hey, General Zod is the only one who can put the hurt on the Man of Steel.

What Superman should be about, more than any other comic book character translated to the big screen, is that sense of pure comics, of insane wonderment, of operatic bad guys and heroic daring-do. As a character, he is a reflection of everything that is best and brightest in America. Truth and Justice. He needs to be a flag.

And he deserves a better director than Zack Snyder.

PS: Tim Gunn!