My hopes for an amazing, uplifting Superman movie have been sucker-punched by “Man of Steel”.
It’s really disappointing to say that too, because I’ve considered myself a Superman fan ever since the 1978 Christopher Reeves movie. I think I was hoping for a kind of mythical, spiritual reboot from this new movie franchise. (Is that too emo of me?)
[Spoiler alert: I give up a few key points from the movie’s plot. STOP READING NOW if you don’t want to be disappointed.]
Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” gives us a heroic, young man with superhuman abilities, trying to use his special abilities to help others while hiding in plain sight. That’s an interesting idea – the young man on the journey to find himself, who has spent all his life as an outsider in the world, secretly wanting to be who he truly is, but having to hide his nature because of what others would think or do. That’s a great theme, but overall, it is completely overshadowed by the level of wanton destruction in this film, portrayed on a massive scale. Overall, I found little in this movie that demonstrates a really elevated being in the character of Clark/Kal-El.
But is it just me? Am I out of touch with today’s image of Superman?
I think that if I were 12 today, seeing this movie for the first time, I’d probably have scrutinized it less, and liked it more. But then, that kid would have been weaned on some of the present-day Superman comic book story-lines, and especially on the Justice League cartoons and semi-violent DC Universe video games.
That kid might have developed a different perspective on morality, or compassion. For that kid, maybe it’s okay that Superman kills the bad guy in the end of the movie. Maybe the end result would justify the means. But I’m not that kid. I was born in 1966, when Superman was starting to become a tired-out and predictable comic book franchise, when he was laughingly called the “World’s Biggest Boy Scout”. When I was younger, I hated the older Superman comics by Curt Swan. The stories seemed tired and uninspiring, and the artwork seemed unexciting compared to some of the ground-breaking things that other titles were doing (John Byrne, Frank Miller, etc.)
But, the 1978 Superman movie changed everything for me. Written in part by Mario Puzo (reworked by Tom Mankiewicz), and lovingly directed by Richard Donner, it revitalized the comic book myth and brought the character up-to-date without introducing darkness or cynicism. Christopher Reeve’s performance was heroic and human, and to me remains a high-water mark in the Superman movie franchise. The flying was believable for the audiences of the time, and Reeve’s performance remains uplifting for me personally.
It left room for the idea that being moral is still important. Even in the midst of a battle with Zod in “Superman II”, Christopher Reeve’s Superman still cared about protecting the innocent, even if it put him at a tactical disadvantage. To me, that’s a conscious value statement about the main character. By that rationale, the values of “Man of Steel” are gladiatorial and all about spectacle. Snyder’s Superman seems to spend a good deal more of his time on the ground, pounding and grinding his way from battle scene to battle scene like a warrior in an arena, instead of up in the air, soaring above all the fists and fury. Why doesn’t this hero take a higher road and find a more advanced, elevated answer? Isn’t he supposed to be a bright guy? How can he be “twice the man” that Zod is, as Jor-El claims in the movie, if he loses against the bad guys, playing them at their own game?
Why I think “Man of Steel” doesn’t work.
For me, beyond its initial plot thread of “young man trying to find out who he is”, the story of “Man of Steel” falters. Emotionally, it humanizes the character of Superman too much – it brings him down to earth too much – showing his descent into rage far too often for my liking. Indeed, Kal-el seems to show little self-restraint. Each super punch causes cracks in the foundation of the local Sears outlet (back off on the obvious product placements, Warners), and each overly-ragey yell probably breaks the eardrums of already-terrified local citizens. He’s no longer a protector of humanity in this film – he’s almost as destructive as the Kryptonian baddies that he’s fighting against.
I have read that director Synder and producer Nolan had the idea that Supes must (to some degree) develop his human values in the same that way we all must, but to me, that concept was not written out or demonstrated in their movie. If I had seen that Superman was morally conflicted by the damage caused as a byproduct of his defense of Earth, I might have been able to accept it, but that never happened. In fact, he seemed to be willfully ignorant of how many innocent bystanders were injured or killed indirectly by his actions.
Truly, Superman is supposed to be almost like a demi-god, with physical and mental abilities that are incredibly enhanced. So, I expect his character to be consciously (or at least subconsciously) more intelligent, more ethical and more compassionate than anyone else. That’s the part of him that’s supposed to inspire us to be better than we are. So, his apparent lack of empathy for his impact on others in this movie is an EPIC FAIL in my opinion. It is shocking to me that the producer, director and writers minimized or ignored such an elemental, core aspect of this character.
Overall, what I got from Man of Steel was a cold, visually-stunning spectacle, where images of epic destruction and violence overpowered any humanity or emotional resonance. I think the writers must have been paid according to the number of fight scenes and explosions they could come up with.
The guys who got Superman right.
One of my absolutely favourite Superman-related stories ever is Kingdom Come, written by Mark Waid and Alex Ross, and illustrated in Alex Ross’s beautiful painterly style.
This excellent story (set outside main DC continuity) portrays Superman’s disillusionment with how societal values have shifted to accept corporal punishment of the super-evil. In this world and time, the people of Metropolis began to rally behind a new, more vicious brand of superhero named Magog, after he kills the Joker in the street. Superman opts for self-imposed exile rather than deal with a society which accepts or even favours hyper-violent methods of “justice”. Following his lead, many of Superman’s peers also decide to retire, to step aside or to go underground, leaving a younger generation of metahuman “heroes” to irresponsibly run rampant, warring on each other and in the process causing ongoing collateral damage, instead of protecting the innocent.
Kingdom Come deals with themes of power, morality, and personal responsibility. How do humans manage when their demi-god protectors become more of a threat than a security? It portrays a modern, morally-conflicted world where violence is all too common, but pays respect to the essential nature and fictional legacy of it’s major characters, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and (I was overjoyed to see this) Captain Marvel.
I see a parallel between Snyder’s “Man of Steel” reboot and the story of “Kingdom Come”. As a movie about Superman, “Man of Steel” is the irresponsible, hyper-violent offspring that seems to do more danger to the character’s image than benefiting or advancing it. I think it fragments the audience into different generations, instead of bringing them together. The tone, approach and theme of Man of Steel really embodies a clash of values.
What Mark Waid had to say about “Man of Steel”.
Although the “Man of Steel” script incorporated aspects of Waid’s story, “Superman: Birthright“, Mark Waid was openly critical of the Man of Steel movie. I love the points he makes in his ad-hoc review of Man of Steel:
As Superman’s having his final one-on-one battle with Zod, show me that he’s going out of his way to save people from getting caught in the middle. SHOW ME that trying to simultaneously protect humans and beat Zod is achingly, achingly costing Superman the fight. Build to that moment of the hard choice…show me, without doubt, that Superman has no other out and do a better job of convincing me that it’s a hard decision to make, and maybe I’ll give it to you. But even if I do? It’s not a victory. Not this sad, soul-darkening, utterly sans-catharsis “triumph” that doesn’t even feel like a win so much as a stop-loss. Two and a half hours, and I never once got the sense that Superman really achieved or earned anything.
Folks will disagree, I’m sure, but I want Mr. Waid to have the final say on the “Man of Steel” Superman movie. Aside from the fact that I agree with him, he is eminently qualified on the subject.
Many versions of Superman have developed since the character was first conceived by Jerry Siegel and (Canadian!) Joe Shuster back in the early 30s. A character has to keep changing to stay fresh and relevant, but what does Man of Steel say about what we expect from our heroes? Are we in that new, amoral, violent generation depicted in Kingdom Come?
Undoubtedly, more adaptations and interpretations of Superman will come. I hope Warner Bros and DC Comics take a higher road with “Man of Steel 2”. In my opinion, the main character and his audience deserve much better.
What ever happened to the heroes? (The Blog of Love)