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How Man of Steel Got It Wrong

June 24, 2013

Have you ever been so excited to see a movie that you went to bed early the night before so the next day would come more quickly?  Yeah, me neither.  On an unrelated note, I saw Man of Steel this past week.

My brief thoughts before I delve into specifics (minor spoilers here): It’s huge and has easily the most powerful superhero fights ever put to film.  The main cast is excellent (but the supporting players aren’t given much to do). Henry Cavill is especially good as Clark Kent/Kal El, although his Superman feels a little undercooked (more the writers’ fault than his though). I’ve always liked Amy Adams and she plays Lois as a tough, smart reporter digging for the truth rather than as a female distress signal (credit to the writer and director for this as well).  Michael Shannon as Zod is a villain with a purpose, and even though that purpose doesn’t always make the most sense, villains with a driving force behind them are always the best villains.

The first half to two-thirds of the film are close to outstanding. The opening on Krypton is so gleefully ridiculous and full of comic book glory that it’s fun almost in spite of itself.  Once we get to Earth, I could have easily spent more time with Clark as he wandered, searching for his purpose and saving and protecting as many people as possible along the way.  The flashbacks to his youth were an excellent way to retell the origin without bogging us down in stuff we already know.  At this point in the movie, I was well on my way to loving it.  And then the fighting starts.

Everything below contains massive spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie, leave now. Even if you think my opinions are totally out to lunch, they will still affect your viewing. Also, this may be the nerdiest you ever see me (probably…hopefully).

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Before I get into this, let it be known that I am a Superman purist.  Or at the very least, I have a specific view of who the character of Superman is.  This doesn’t mean that I rage against every little change or think that modernizing certain specifics are a bad idea.  In fact, Man of Steel makes a couple updates to the Superman story that I thought were brilliant.  For one, they make Kal El the first natural Kryptonian birth in hundreds (maybe thousands) of years.  Every other Kryptonian was genetically engineered in an artificial womb to be a soldier, a scientist, a politician, etc.  This is all new, but it is a wonderful addition. I also loved the moment in one of the flashbacks when young Clark is overwhelmed by his super-hearing and x-ray vision.  This idea has been explored before to some degree, but not as specifically, and I think grounding the character in that kind of realism makes him that much more sympathetic.  Anyway, my point is that I’m ok with changes made to the character when they strengthen the fundamental nature of that character.  What I find distressing is changes made for the sake of coolness or grittiness or just to be different (on the very low end of this, I’m not losing any sleep over the Superman costume losing the red undies, but I also don’t understand why the change was made. Was it because people sometimes make jokes about Superman wearing his underwear over his clothes? Who cares? He’s Superman.  Plus, this look wasn’t random but a carefully considered design aesthetic. ***Pushes glasses up nose.  Rolls eyes dismissively***).  Beyond even that, and probably more important, are changes made without any narrative backing.  You can convince me that almost anything is a good change if you make me believe it through the narrative.  Basically, my rules for the creators are to understand the fundamental nature of the character and when they make changes, to use the narrative to back up those choices.  And I think Man of Steel fails on both counts.

I recently wrote another blog post about Superman touching on why he’s been such an enduring character in my life.  One thing I didn’t really get into in that post was the concept of heroism. Superman isn’t a hero because he’s the strongest or because he can fly or because he can see through walls.  Granted, those aspects make heroism quite a bit easier, but what makes him a hero is that in every situation, his first instinct is to protect those in danger. The first point where I felt like the movie didn’t quite understand this is after young Clark saves a busful of kids from a watery grave.  Throughout, Pa Kent has been warning Clark that he can’t reveal himself because people are not ready to handle what that revelation would mean.  After the bus incident, Pa kindly admonishes Clark about this, and Clark asks “What was I supposed to do? Let them die?”  To which, Pa replies, “Maybe.”  What in the hell?! No way, never in a million years, does Pa Kent tell his son to let innocent people die to protect his secret. I realize a big theme in this movie is how the world will react to Superman once he is revealed (which they end up completely glossing over) and that Pa’s “maybe” is meant to reflect the idea of a greater good, but the entire point of Clark’s Kansas upbringing is that the Kents teach him kindness and morality and humility and the importance of every human life.  The Superman who lets people die to protect his identity is a fascist.  In fact, he’s not Superman at all.  It may not seem like a big deal given that Clark saves the busload of children, so clearly he’s not protecting his secret instead of protecting people.  True, but just having Pa Kent say that put a bitter taste in my mouth. It’s just not the lesson that Pa would pass on, even given his desire to protect his adopted son. There’s another scene of a young Clark in which he’s getting bullied and doesn’t fight back.  Pa sees it and when Clark tells him how bad he wanted to strike back, Pa says (paraphrasing) “I know. In some ways, I even wanted you to.  But does that really make you feel any better?”  Those are the kinds of lessons that Pa should be imparting to this all-powerful young man.  Not “Let people die if saving them is too inconvenient.”

This misunderstanding of the character takes full flight when the destruction begins.  And make no mistake, the amount of destruction in this movie is absolutely insane.  The sheer force and speed are at times breathtaking. If it weren’t for what seems to be abject nihilism, I’d even say these are the superhero fights you’ve always wanted to see. But they are grossly nihilistic, as in they are without meaning or intrinsic value, and they treat humanity the same.  During the first (relatively small, but only relatively) battle in Smallville, Superman tells the people on Main Street to get inside before the fighting begins and then proceeds to throw his enemies through and get thrown into every building on the block. In the course of that fight, Smallville gets decimated and I think Superman saves one soldier.  At one point, he gets thrown into an IHOP and continues fighting in there while people are cowering in the booths. At no point does he put himself between danger and the individual residents of Smallville.  At no point does he try to take the fighting outside of Smallville.  All I’m asking is one scene where Zod and his minions throw a train car at some people and Superman catches it or a scene where he scoops up a few people and sets them down someplace safe.  I don’t even care if he fails, but he has to try.

And then the “action” moves to Metropolis. The level of devastation in this sequence is monstrous (using both the “huge” and “horrible” definitions of the word).  Look, I’m definitely not a person who thinks movies are too violent. Violence happens in the world and therefore it should be represented in our art.  I will never buy the argument that movie violence is responsible for real-world violence.  However, that doesn’t mean every movie does violence correctly, and in this case, I can’t say I was too thrilled watching  hundreds of thousands of people die (off-screen, but still) and the center of city laid to waste just so I could see super-powered beings punch each other through buildings.  And again, if during this battle, Superman had also been doing his best to save and protect people (and again, even if he was failing), I would have thought the filmmakers understood the character.  But what we actually get is a Superman who seems to want to fight Zod only to get the satisfaction of “striking back,” which is the exact opposite of Pa Kent’s lesson (one that Clark has shown that he’s long understood).  On a purely narrative level, there is no weight to this fight.  I know that seems contradictory to my point about all the death and destruction, but now we’re talking about the difference between my gut reaction and my desire for strong storytelling. The filmmakers give us no reason to care about anyone that lives in Metropolis.  In fact, other than the Daily Planet and a couple of small crowd scenes, it’s almost like an empty city.  So, on the one hand, you’ve got a battle that would kill hundreds of thousands of people, which is horrible, and on the other hand, you’ve got no real reason to care, which makes you feel horrible, or at the very least completely disconnected.

Finally, we come exhausted to the final standoff between Superman and Zod.  They have literally brought down entire buildings with the power of their punches, but this last moment is much smaller (smartly). Superman has Zod in a headlock as Zod is using his heat vision to attempt to murder a family.  Superman pleads with him not to do this, but right before the heat vision burns the people to dust…MAJOR SPOILER…

Superman snaps Zod’s neck.  Now, I could go off on how Superman doesn’t kill.  Superman has killed in the comics a couple times and he does drop Zod into a bottomless pit in the old Superman 2, but I’d say, for the most part, Superman is not a killer.  That’s just not how he does things.  I could also say that there were other ways to resolve that situation (hand over Zod’s eyes, fly him into space, the old kidney punch, etc. Hell, this isn’t a real-world situation, so the writers could have even had Zod break down and give up. Maybe not the most satisfying ending, but character should always prevail over plot).  However, I’m going to set those aside as personal feelings and nitpicks.  Let’s actually talk about the use of narrative to justify a choice.  As I said above, you can make me believe that Superman finds himself in this no-win situation, that he finds killing abhorrent (of course, his two dads never seemed to teach him this), but that he sees no other way to end this threat.  As horrible as it is, he has to kill this man to save countless others.  In his first time out as hero, he has to make this awful decision. Although I may prefer a Superman that doesn’t kill, that is an interesting take on the character.  But the movie doesn’t build to that in any way.  We’ve just seen a fight in which there is absolutely no concern paid to the thousands of innocents that are dying.  This would’ve been a perfect opportunity for Zod to use Superman’s concern for humanity against him. In fact, this is one of the most popular tropes in comic book history precisely because it is so affecting.  Heroes who let people die to stop the villain aren’t really much more than villains themselves. Give me something in this fight that makes me understand how much it is putting Superman to the test, how much he’s already sacrificing just by fighting back.  And/or set up his moral code earlier in the movie.  Show me an instance in which he doesn’t kill when he could or talks about how a man with his power should never resort to killing.  Anything to let the audience know that this is a huge and horrible moment. Instead, we just get an anguished scream (which Cavill sells really well) after he does it and then the movie jumps ahead to the epilogue where everything is hunky-dory.  Not one moment is spent grieving for the wholesale destruction of a major city. Not one moment is spent with Clark as he attempts to deal with what he’s done.

I understand that this is supposed to be a young Superman finding his way and that he will make some mistakes.  I don’t mind the mistakes. I just want a Superman that I can cheer for, not one who I’d be terrified of showing up in my city.  The argument that this is his first day on the job so he doesn’t know how to be a hero yet just don’t hold water.  We’ve already seen that he has spent years wandering and saving people.  And even if he hadn’t, this isn’t about Superman being perfect at his job.  It’s about what Superman believes in and the reasons that people believe in him (in the fictional world and in the real world).

My one hope is that in the inevitable sequel, all of this gets brought into the story.  We understand how humanity has reacted.  We see how Metropolis has to rebuild.  We learn how Clark has dealt with his decision.  I think all of that could make for an excellent movie, but if the filmmakers continue to misunderstand why Superman is the most recognizable superhero in the world and one of the most loved characters of the past century, I’m not optimistic that they will use those dilemmas to their best effect.  Anyway, we shouldn’t give the current movie a pass because of what might happen in a future film.

Isn’t it interesting how someone that is completely fake can take on such concrete attributes in our minds (or at least in this huge nerd’s mind)?  I’m sure there are bigger fans of Superman than me out there, but that doesn’t really matter, as I have or believe I have my own personal ownership of the character, and in this case, no amount of arguing will change my mind.  I think that’s one reason why storytelling is so important to us.  It allows us to live in worlds and with characters that become second homes and second families, and it teaches us how to deal with and understand situations that we would never encounter.  And in the end, whatever our interpretation, it’s hard to argue that it’s the wrong one, and yet, those arguments are some of the most fun that can come out stories.

 

***UPDATE***

This is one of the best articles I’ve read on Man of Steel’s strengths and weaknesses.  The Importance of Dramatizing Character by the Film Crit Hulk.  I highly recommend all of Hulk’s other stuff.  Just be aware that the ALL CAPS thing is his thing.

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