Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel, Man of Heart

Full Disclosure

'Man of Steel' premiered this weekend, and the verdicts are in: second-largest opening this year (behind Iron Man 3), largest opening in June. In the eyes of movie executives and people who like to see shit blow up good, it is an unqualified success. For those of us who grew up with the character, however, its approach is...somewhat problematic.

Full disclosure: I grew up with Superman, particularly the Christopher Reeve films. There was a movie-rental place near our home (Video Kingdom, remember when those things existed?) and when my Mom would take me, I'd always want to rent 'Superman: The Movie', to the point where my Mother, probably driven half-mad by hearing Lex Luthor's master scheme for the hundredth time, tried to gently suggest to me I might want to maybe watch a different film. We probably ended up renting 'Superman II'. This did not stop her, however, from sewing me a Superman cape which you better believe I wore to school, damn it. I also, since we're just revealing everything here, wore glasses from a young age. And there weren't any 'Biclops' comics when I was a kid...

True to Life

According to legend or rumor or what-have-you, the word "verisimilitude" was put on a banner above the art department for 1978's 'Superman: The Movie'. This has, to a large degree, informed how comic books are translated to television or film. Only Batman '66 seemed to say "fuck it", though that program approached comic book lunacy with an eye on camp and winking innuendo, but the intrusion of the real has been a constant pull against the four-color weirdness of the best comics. This makes a certain amount of sense, sure. There are things, particularly visually, that simply do not translate from comics to movies. At one end you have game attempts to, say, get Captain America's cowl right and at the other you have Batman and the X-Men done up as leather fetishists and the Man of Steel himself as some kind of cross between a rubber gimp and a giant toy.

What this also does is create an atmosphere where Clark Kent's whole glasses-and-nebbishness shtick is confined to less than thirty seconds of set-up for the sequel and a shot of an utterly unfooled Lois. Look, movie. I get why you're doing this. And it's by far not my biggest complaint about this picture. What it is, however, is endemic to the approach that results in Clark straight-up killing General Zod. But we'll get back to that. For now, let's stick with those glasses.


Asking someone to believe in real life that someone can just muss up his hair a bit, put on a pair of horn-rims, and pass as a totally different dude is patently ludicrous. I know this. Everybody older than about nine knows this. But Superman, a character invented for children and dragged kicking and screaming into the logic and rationalization of a grown-up movie (I typed "adult movie" at first, which: no thanks.) has to contend with the tug-of-war between this childhood dream-logic and the demands of adults who demand realism in their movies about flying space aliens with laser eyes.

Superman doesn't exist in the real world. He exists in the world of symbols. Key to the character's appeal, to my mind, is that transformation. Superman is the only character who wears a mask in his civilian life. Spider-Man, Batman, Captain America, they all put on their masks to go out and derring-do. Superman works on a different level. The point of Superman is that bright, garish, embarrassing part of ourselves we keep under our clothes, that's the part that's going to get us through this, that's the part of us that's going to save everyone. You're born naked, as the man says. And the rest is drag. Superman is in human-drag. He's hiding out in the world, just like the rest of us.

For most of his publication history, Superman and his alter ego have existed in a love-triangle with Lois Lane. It is perhaps his most famous aspect, beyond the whole flight-and-strength gig. Clark loves Lois, Lois loves Superman. OF COURSE in the real world a respected journalist, or anyone who isn't legally blind, really, would put two and two together. This is not the point. The point is what it represents, and Hollywood seems to have a problem with symbols and representation versus a ham-fisted attempt at verisimilitude. We all have our secret aspects, our lurid underselves. Especially growing up, when comic books typically sink their claws in to our psyches. The glasses represent that hiding in the world, and if you can't roll with it with a straight face, then maybe this isn't the film for you.


Superman devotees like myself, we all had a problem with the final fight, the one that culminated in the death of General Zod at the hands of the eponymous Man of Steel. Translated to film, most superheroes have a far more cavalier attitude about dispensing death and judgment, and even Superman hasn't been immune. I don't even have a problem with him exing out Zod, considering the circumstances (dude straight-up tried to genocide the human race and leveled half of Manhattan New Troy. He patently said he was going to keep it up until one of them was dead. So, okay. But we're not idiots out here. We know how plot mechanics work.

I can understand the Last Son of Krypton being put in this impossible position and choosing between the human race, a member of which he's been raised since birth, and this last remnant of his old home, I can get that. But the mechanics of the story built to that point are faulty and hackneyed. Superman makes very few decisions, weighs no real moral options. Zod is straight up going to build a new Krypton on the ruins of Earth. There isn't a lot of decision making involved in "do I stop Zod or what"? To use a recent filmic example, Zod's death here is the opposite of the boat scene in 'The Dark Knight' where Batman essentially wins not by beating up the Joker (which isn't the point of the Joker anyway) but by proving him wrong. Zod doesn't represent any kind of opposition to Superman's general thesis (which isn't ever really developed in the film to begin with) rather he is a force of nature that simply must be shut down.

This is after the aforementioned forty-minute fight, first in Kansas between Superman, Faora, and Unnamed Guy Who Might As Well Be Non, then between the army and the Kryptonians, then between Superman and Zod. It's a brillaint thing to watch, especially before the twenty-minute mark. After then, apocalypse fatigue sets in. For plot mechanics reasons, in fact, Superman is dispatched to the other side of the world to deal with another alien death machine, while the greatest city on Earth crumbles and people die by the thousands, the preventing of which you'd think would be a job for Superman.

Miracle Monday

Zod and his cronies show up on Earth looking for a supermcguffin in Clark's blood (sigh), which they will use to build New Krypton on the ashes of the human race. Absolutely no reason is given for why their massive post-singularity technology can't just relocate one planet next door to either Mars or Venus and just go to town on that. No, Zod seems almost churlish in his desire to erase the human species. As I said above, this presents Superman with a non-choice, which means those things he is meant to represent (Truth, Justice, All That Stuff) are in no way tested against Zod's philosophy. At their best, cape comic characters are philosophical concepts (justice, revenge, patriotism, utopian feminism, ostracized-teen angst) boiled down and given lurid four-color face-lifts. But if Zod is merely a force of nature, a tornado played by Michael Shannon (who is great, but is in Michael Shannon-as-villain mode, and therefore largely wasted) then there is no challenge to Superman's philosophy. As Chris Sims pointed out over at ComicsAlliance, Zod is proved right. Superman is forced to kill him. Take a look, for contrast, at the Superman story 'Miracle Monday', a tie-in novel written way back in the 1980's, about Superman fighting against, well, the Devil.

He wins that fight. He wins it by simply by saying that the purpose of good is to stand up to evil. He wins it not through force of arms (though being invincible sure helps when mixing it up with the Devil) but because he isn't going to back down against a bully. That's the character who is lost in 'Man of Steel'. I hope next time we get him back.

Faster than Speeding Bullet-Points

In brief, what I did like about the film:

  • The Casting: Cavill largely works as Superman, and Costner and Lane nail the roles of Clark's parents. Amy Adams makes a great Lois Lane. Really, the only casting decision I question is Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, and that's down to him not being irascible enough. Also, I'm not sure I'm ready for a Perry White who wears an earring. 
  • Krypton: Kal-El's birth planet goes through a radical change compared to the Donner movies, becoming an almost primordial place teeming with (somewhat toyetic) life, a believably ancient culture, and a technology seemingly based on those novelty things you'd get with the pins in 'em where you stick your hand in one side and there's an imprint of your hand. What the hell are those called? There's a bit of exposition that is almost entirely animated with this graphic, and it's marvelous, makes the whole speech worth it.
  • The first scene when he flies: Traditionally in Superman narratives, flight is the last ability he gains, and there's an obvious reason for that. X-ray vision, super-hearing, these are properly treated as nerve-wracking and creepy, but flight? That is probably the key aspect of Superman as a fantasy figure, and the joy he takes in it is something we can all identify with. Who wouldn't want that?
Elastic Man

In the end, I think, 'Man of Steel' was not made for me. Much like the new Star Trek films, and most comic book films, in fact, it was made to cash in on a general interest in superhero films by the general public, and the general public is probably going to like this film. Is it worth it to me to see the Big Blue Boy Scout succeed in the cinema, even if he isn't very Boy Scoutly? I'm not sure. What I am sure of, however, is that a mildly shitty disaster-porn movie in which Superman straight-up snaps a dude's neck is not going to undo seventy-five years of the character, who has proven elastic to change. He'll keep going, on past a hundred, because he works. The best parts of 'Man of Steel' understand what works about his character. It's a shame the worst parts so effectively drag down the best, but the great thing about these big budget franchise things is they have another chance to get it right. I live in hope. And I remind myself not to take this shit too seriously.

Keep flying.