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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Time to Talk about Man of Steel




Spoilers in pretty much everything below.


Man of Steel is the first movie I've seen on opening weekend in nearly seven years. It is one of maybe half a dozen I've seen in a theater during that time frame. I went in expecting something mediocre, based on my opinion of the talents of the creative team putting this film together. What I got was not mediocre, but something else entirely.

At first, I kind of liked it. I was bothered by the camera work (I abhor the shaking camera when it's used to film mundane activity, such as somebody walking around). But other than that I left feeling like it was a decent film, better than Superman Returns at least. The only thing that really struck me was that it didn't feel like a Superman movie. It was a pretty typical superhero movie smashed together with something resembling science fiction in cinema, but that was about it. All in all, an ok movie, but not for me.

Then I had to figure out why it wasn't for me. And the answer has to do with the end of the film, when Superman kills Zod.

This act points to an evolution of Superman over the course of the film and its prospective sequels: he will eventually realize that he made the wrong choice, and when he's confronted with a similar situation, he'll finally make the right one. It makes the story about The Hero's Journey. And I just don't care about the hero's journey, except in an academic way. And I already wrote my book on Superman. I don't want to have to do more research at this point.

You see, one thing I love about Superman's early years in publication is that the origin was precisely one page long and then pretty much forgotten for a while. You had the slight expansion in the first Superman ongoing series, and in the comic strips, but that's to be expected. Sure, they added a few pages worth of material, but that was it. In the Fleischer animated shorts, in the serials, in Adventures of Superman on radio and TV, the origin takes a few minutes of screen time and then it becomes completely irrelevant to the story. The storytellers are saying, "OK, now you know how he got his powers. Let's move on."

The comics in recent years, and the Smallville tv show and now in Man of Steel, there's an obsession with Krypton and Superman's origin that does not resonate with me. It has everything to do with where I am in life, the fact that I'm not searching for some essence of my identity, that I am comfortable with myself. In other words, I'm not engaged in my own personal hero's journey, so I can't muster a lot of interest in watching somebody else's over and over again--this may also be related to the fact that I have read, watched, and listened to every single one of the retellings of Superman's origin during the past two years. Man of Steel goes out of his way to tell us that Superman is 33 when he dons the cape, and then he still doesn't really know who he is enough to know that it's bad to kill, and there's always a better way. (Don't give me that junk about Zod presenting him with a situation in which there's no other possible solution. He's Superman--there's always another solution.)

In other words, the Superman I want to read about and watch isn't somebody who's groping for his role in the world, trying to reach maturity. This is why Smallville just didn't work for me, and why Man of Steel doesn't. I'd much rather read about a character who is already confident, comfortable in his suit, and ready to face the challenges of his chosen role.

When I was digging deep into the body of stories that comprise Superman, I discovered "The Challenge of Superman." I thought of this as the set of oddities presented by the early years of Action Comics, Superman, and Adventures of Superman that any writers of a new version, starting from scratch, have to reconcile. I thought of the challenge of Superman as the union of his secret identity, his fascination with Lois Lane, his choice to be a reporter, and his unwavering moral code. We might also toss in the source of his powers (were all Kryptonians originally 'super'? or is it the yellow sun or the low gravity or something else), but that seems to be fairly well-set these days and not much of a challenge anymore

I like to think that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster left The Challenge of Superman to all those who came after them. They were saying, "Here, deal with these apparently nonsensical parts of the story. Make them make sense and you'll achieve greatness. It's a puzzle with many possible solutions." Ok, they didn't say anything of the kind, but the Challenge of Superman has been taken up by pretty much everybody in the ensuing years. And in solving the challenge of Superman, writers are forced to make statements about career, romance, the relationship of the individual to the group, and what makes us the complex, multifaceted people we are. It's an excellent way to approach storytelling.

There are lots of different ways that writers and editors have solved The Challenge of Superman. I think that I might explore some of these solutions in future blog posts, in large part because I have all these thoughts floating around in my head and they had no place in my book. Today, what I will say is that the creative team who produced Man of Steel didn't seem to give a lot of thought to his interest in Lois Lane or to his choice to be a reporter. They really focused on his secret identity, and seem to have set up a way to explore this moral code in another movie.

You see what they did there? They took a simple comment in Superman #1, in which his adoptive father (not yet Jonathan Kent by name) tells Clark he's got to keep his powers a secret, and they made it the focus of the father-son relationship. Sure, Kevin Costner tells Clark that he's been sent here for some reason, but he doesn't follow it up with anything about how Clark should use his powers to help people.

The core of Superman's morality, since Superman #1, has come from his adoptive parents. That's part of why he has such an appeal in the United States: "Baseball, apple pie, and Superman, that's America," John Hambrick told me. He owns the SuperMuseum in Metropolis, Il. It's a good point. The Kents' agrarian midwestern worldview forms half the argument in Gary Engle's foundational essay, "What's So Darned American about Superman?" from the excellent collection Superman at 50 (the other half is that he's an immigrant, according to Engle). So the only lesson Man of Steel allows the Kents to impart is that Clark has to hide his extraordinary abilities, which leads to a number of secret identities before he settles on Clark Kent again and becomes a reporter.

The thing was, I thought they'd already gotten there. There's that moment when Superman turns himself over the the American military, letting them decide whether or not he should be given to Zod. To me, this was a plain rebuke to J. Michael Straczynski and Superman: Earth 1, which had virtually the same situation with a completely different decision on Superman's part. In Earth 1, when an alien (named Tyrell, not a Kryptonian) shows up looking for the last son of Krypton and demands he be handed over, Superman does absolutely nothing for a long time, while Tyrell wreaks havoc and kills lots of people. Eventually, after an agonizing amount of time and long after Tyrell's grace period has elapsed, he puts on his suit and flies out to fight all by himself.

In Man of Steel, Clark Kent has a moments of indecision, during which he goes to a church to ask a random priest what he should do, then doesn't wait around to get advice and chooses to turn himself over to the military. He's asking them to make the decision for him, but he's really already made a decision. He has rejected Zod by giving himself over to the US. He's really making the choice to trust, which the movie tells us, which is Superman saying that he's not wise enough to make the choice himself. It's a noble thing to do, leading to dialogue; even though Superman distrusts Zod, he's willing to work for a nonviolent solution. So while Straczynski's Superman allows countless deaths through his inaction, the Man of Steel doesn't do so--at least not until the fighting begins. Then he doesn't try to save anybody in particular for a while so he can focus on punching and whatnot.

I hope I'm making my point clear. Man of Steel shows us a moral code produced by experience. Nothing explicitly wrong with that, unless you're writing Superman, who's supposed to don the suit with a firmly embodied sense of altruism that values life in all its manifestations above all else. Because with life comes possibility, the true value of the story of Superman. Death robs us of possibility, whether it be the death of a planet or the death of a villain. With death there can be no rehabilitation. Sure, Zod wanted to die, but then again so did the girl on this page:


All-Star Superman 10, by Morrison, Quitely, and Grant.





Superman's job is to give us strength, to remind us of the strength we already have, to inspire us. He can't do that by killing people. The greatest crime Man of Steel committed was that it did not even attempt to inspire anybody. The one scene where it approached this, when Superman learns to fly (honestly, I hadn't even noticed that he couldn't fly at this point in the movie) tonally clashes with every other scene. It attempted to show his joy in flight. There's no joy in any other shot in this film, except maybe at the end, when we get the flash back showing us Jonathan and Martha watching a young Clark run around in the back yard with a towel clothespinned to his t-shirt. I was trying to think of movies that had inspired me, had included real joy. I recalled the  scene in Metropolis of Superman '78, when Superman is just flying around town, rescuing cats and foiling crooks. That was joy in being Superman.

You know what else: The Incredibles. When Dash is running as fast as he can for the first time, fleeing the bad guys, and discovers that he can run on water (which is basically the same as flying, but that's a discussion for another day). Dash lets out this gleeful laugh, the music kicks it up a notch, and we see him weaving through rock formations, dodging his enemies, and enjoying himself fully for the first time in his life. It makes me want to do that.

I didn't want to do anything that Superman does in Man of Steel. He didn't enjoy having his powers--Jonathan Kent made sure of that.


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