Thursday, June 20, 2013

Superman: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

No, I haven’t started a new series of Amalgams; I’m talking about Man of Steel.  If Warner Brothers wants to copy the successes of Marvel’s films; they really should have watched the first Spider-man before tackling Superman, to let the mantra in the title get drilled into their heads.

Before I get on my comic nerd soapbox, I need to clear something up.  I’m all about seeing superhero movies.  Even though I descend into humorous (hopefully) geekly rants about most of them, I greatly enjoy watching interpretations of the characters I love on the big screen.  Flaws and all, I enjoyed Green Lantern.

 I even enjoyed Daredevil and Ghost Rider. 

Heck, though thinking about them at all made glaring issues obvious, I enjoyed the experiences of watching Superman Returns and Batman and Robin. 

Yes, I complain and gripe about things done “wrong,” but I also gain a great deal of pleasure watching the movies.

I did not enjoy Man of Steel.

 Neither did my wife (who thought it was too dark and violent) or daughter (who asked near the end, “Do we HAVE to buy it when it comes out?”) There were serious problems over and above the stuff I’m going to start ranting about now.  I’ll get back to those later.

The Brothers Warner own the rights to more than a superhero.  He’s the first superhero, the one all others spawned from.  Superman is a seventy-five year old American Myth, and they have a responsibility as custodians of that myth.  I’ve said it before, the Marvel heroes are characters, the DC ones are Icons.

Look at the IPhone cases and other merchandise available for proof.  Marvel ones usually feature pictures of the current incarnation of the heroes; the DC ones usually have the character’s logo, symbol or "icon."

Warner Brothers needs to realize the power they have been given to be entrusted with the “real” Superman.

Yes, I know he's fictional, this will make sense shortly.

This is how I see it. 

The "real" Superman was created in 1938 and since then, through the input of various comic, radio, TV and movie writers reached the modern day.  I'm talking separate from comic book continuity developments here.  What I mean is the development of the character over the past seventy-five years, with inputs from all sources, sort of the "collective unconscious" image of Superman. 

Here’s an example, using my Uncle, who I don’t believe has ever read a comic book in his life.  The currently published version of Superman in DC comics (which some would define as the “real” version) is dating Wonder Woman and has no romantic connection to Lois following the latest reboot.  My Uncle, with no knowledge of ANY comic book arc, or what the word retcon means, saved me an article about it from the Daily News and said, “Superman is cheating on Lois Lane.”

(Don’t ask about the conversations we had concerning Green Lantern last summer.)

I think the real Superman is the concept of who Superman is today, while acknowledging his varied past histories.

Some general examples:  Kryptonite, Metropolis as the Big Apricot, Superman flying instead of jumping were changes that happened in radio, movies, and Fleisher cartoons  which have become part of the "real" Superman.

Even when he was Electric in the comics, the "real" Superman I'm talking about was not.

I know the "real" Superman loves Lois Lane…I'm not sure he's married to her.

As custodians, Warner Brothers failed to use their power to uphold their responsibility to stay true to important portions of the myth.

I was going to try to split the review into spoiler and non-spoiler sections, but since I wish I was warned about some of this to ready myself before going into the film, I’m mashing it together. Considering all three of us wouldn’t advise seeing the picture to begin with, consider yourself warned against spoilers, and the movie in general.

I also need to apologize for this review being more disjointed than usual for me (which is pretty random to begin with).   It took me two days to talk about this film without descending into an incomprehensible series of angry grunts and growls.  Disjointed is as coherent as I’m getting for this one.

I will start off being positive, as there are some merits worth mentioning. 
I fear the positivity will start to slip rapidly.

Hans Zimmer’s score was impressive as always.  He created a musical environment that was separate from previous incarnations, but maintained the triplets of rising fifths to keep the Superman feel. 

The opening scenes were awesome!  If we got a feature length film of Russell Crowe starring in Jor-El’s Krypton Adventures I would have been an immensely happy movie goer. The creation and implementation of the alien world, the action scenes, and the characters' performances were all top notch.

The visual displays of Superman’s, and the other Kryptonians’, powers, plus the other effects were also well done.  In general they showcased the speed, strength and variety that past efforts could only hint at.  They could not however, make me care about what was going on.

As I’m trying to focus on the merits (or lack thereof) of Man of Steel on its own, I’m going to refrain from comparison to the Christopher Reeve films, most importantly because Superman Returns  showed the pitfalls associated with slavish devotion to past incarnations. I will point out one area though.  All the modern digital magic allowed the new film to show Superman flying through the air at more realistic levels than ever before.  His motions, speed and force when flying captured what the comic books have been implying for years.

However, using only his movement and acting abilities, blue screen and wires, Christopher Reeve gave the impression of being more physically in control of his flight path.

Comparisons aside, however, the choices of actors were stellar, and I already admitted to no qualms with the quality of (other than its short length) the Krypton scenes and cast. It was the execution of the characters on Earth that caused the problems.  Superman’s supporting crew is as big a part of his myth as he is.

I was excited to hear Lawrence Fishburne was cast as Perry White. I knew he could play a hard as nails seeker of truth who demands the best out of his people, but also show the compassion to act as a father figure to them.  Seeing him tell Lois to dump a story and bury a truth that the world isn’t ready for diminished him greatly.

All the Lexcorp, Wayne Enterprises, Steve Lombard, Dan Turpin, Otto Binder name droppings stuck in for the comic book fans can’t make up for fundamental flaws in characterization.

I expected to be producing a full on rant, just for the fun of it, based on internet rumors of “Jenny Olson” replacing Jimmy. Jenny didn’t have a last name in the credits (its Jurwich), and the Daily Planet scenes were too minimal to notice Jimmy’s absence at this point.  As a young co-worker at the paper who gets into trouble and is watched over by the rest, she was fine.

Amy Adams as Lois Lane, what a great idea!

An experienced, beautiful and talented actress, who is no stranger to fantastic settings, YAY!

She marked her introduction scene as the “First Lady of Superheroes” with a profane reference to the men in the room making size comparisons to each other.  This was shortly before a scene where a young Pete Ross used the same word in a string of insults when taunting Clark.

Hey Kids, Comics!

I am not a prude.  I thought both Dredd and Watchmen were fantastic.  But shouldn’t someone making this film have considered that maybe children would be attracted to a story about FREAKING SUPERMAN?! 

Although with masses of innocents slaughtered throughout the story on screen, “like ants” as my wife put it, having the occasional one swear while being vaporized was a minor issue.

Sorry, I was talking about characters; we’ll get back to Lois in a bit.

How about the Kents?  Kevin Costner and Diane Lane would have been perfect as the upstanding and moral, salt of the earth parents that instilled Clark’s sense of right and wrong, and the need in him to use his powers for the greater good.

Unfortunately, that isn’t who they played in Man of Steel.  I figured I had perhaps misheard when Jonathan told young Clark keeping himself secret was of such importance that he should have let a busload of children drown.

I found out shortly thereafter that it was exactly what I heard when Clark stood there and WATCHED HIS FATHER DIE IN A TORNADO INSTEAD OF SAVING HIM.  His choice was based on his Dad waving him off to protect that secret.

Let’s review some basic Supermanology.

Having one or both of his parent’s die due to circumstances beyond Clark’s control serves as a valuable character building lesson to give Kal-El the maturity to understand that even with all of his powers, he can’t always save everyone.

Having his father die while Clark stands there with his Kryptonian finger up his nose because his secret is more important than saving the life of an innocent serves as a means to show the “symbol of hope” as paranoid, and selfish.

As for Superman himself, they found an excellent specimen in Henry Cavill, both physically and in the quiet confidence he eventually exudes.  If this was one of those goofy rants, I’d find places to gripe about his lack of spit curl and underwear on the outside.  Those were the least of the problems.  (Although my daughter suggested maybe it is the underwear that makes him REALLY be Superman, leading to the problems in this movie. My wife wasn’t too happy with his scaly looking costume either, because, Superman “shouldn’t look like a fish…that’s Aquaman.”)

That said, he did rock the long, flowing cape most impressively.

One thing that was missing:  The dramatic “S” reveal.  Even though the “glasses and suit” disguise didn’t show up till the end, the iconic ripping open of a shirt to reveal the symbol is an important visual in the mythology.  Here they had a guy with a chest they could rent out advertising space on, and they chose to ignore the opportunity for awesomeness.

And a general note to Hollywood and other creative types working on Superman:  Stop making Christ metaphors.  OK, yes, he’s Jor-El’s only son, sent down among us, but he was created by two Jewish kids from Cleveland. 
It’s the Moses story (with a bit of the Golem thrown in).  He’s the baby in the basket, sent to be saved from certain death, who grows up to protect people and fight their oppressors with special powers.  I don’t remember the part of the Gospel where Jesus beat up all the Roman soldiers who came after him and tied them up with Peter’s fishing nets to be found the next morning.

Back to Lois Lane and Clark’s secret identity:

His secret is so important that he watched his father die, when there was about thirty-seven ways he could have saved him and denied involvement based on the chaos of the situation.

Yet he failed to cover his tracks performing his minor and hidden good deeds to a level that Lois Lane showed up at his house following a five minute montage after meeting him for the first time.

This was obviously done to address complaints that Lois must be at best a poor reporter and at worst and idiot for not figuring out the secret “only covered by a pair of glasses.”  I don’t have a problem with her knowing, some of my favorite comics are when they were married, but it shouldn’t have been that easy. 

They had her figuring it out immediately because who he is must be obvious instead of, y’know, hiring someone like Christopher Reeve who could pull off the disguise and transformation between roles.  (Sorry, I’m comparing again.)

All it really accomplished was to make Clark look stupid on top of being paranoid.

Add to that Lois yelling, “Clark!” at the top of her lungs at Superman with the entire military and others standing around her and there wasn’t much secret identity left.  Considering the evil bad guy alien army also showed up at his house in Smallville, the scene at the end where he arrives at the Daily Planet in full Clark Kent glasses mode was pointless.  Except for the one clueless army guy in the gag missile scene, there can’t be anyone left who doesn’t know who he is. 

I know secret identities are passé in movies today, but this is Superman…the Ur-Superhero. He’s part of that Pimpernel chain I yammered on endlessly about the Lone Ranger not being a part of.  The secret identity is the way to show the two sides of the character, and detail the importance of both the Kryptonian and human heritage.  One of the main reasons the disguise works is that no one understands why Superman would need to be someone else, except himself and those closest to him.  It is the act of his revealing the secret himself that is symbolic of the trust he places in his most important allies, who again, should not be shouting, “CLARK!” when he’s in his cape.  In some versions Kent is the disguise, some versions Superman is, but they still need to be separate for the myth to work. 

Honestly, once he stood idly by while his father was sucked away to Oz, I said I would stop thinking about it as a Superman movie, and try to enjoy it as an alien invasion action film. 

Actually, first I said, “We can go home now!” out loud, but quickly reconsidered my more recent, “different isn’t always wrong,” mentality and decided to try and salvage the experience.

I still couldn’t though, as it was not a very compelling or engaging alien invasion movie.

Early on in the story, as the Kryptonian Codex was introduced, my mind was hoping that it was some kind of prelude to Braniac or Kandor.  Its use as the basis for the Kryptonian guild caste system was a decent continuity nod.

However, it then went on to become one of the many plot elements that caused…issues.

My daughter has been raised with fantasy, science fiction and superheroes since birth.
She was in an immersive theater surrounding in the middle of a story about an invulnerable flying dude from outer space who shoots laser beams out of his eyeballs.

When they identified the Codex had been somehow infused into all the cells of Kal-El’s body, she turned to me and said:

And she’s NINE!

I’m a big fan of mostly pointless mayhem and carnage in movies. I loved the Transformers films.  Again, I’m not really a tough audience and not looking for deep insightful meaning in the cinema.

The multiple tiered and hellaciously destructive  final battle went on forever, and I felt totally bored by most of it.  It had impressive effects of super speed and super power but was overly repetitive and lacked enough of the little character moments that made the action meaningful in the final battle in the Avengers. Those moments also served to highlight that one of the Avengers' main goals was controlling and containing the collateral damage, something that Superman should show more interest in.

By the time the rest of the gang got sucked back to the Phantom Zone and Superman faced Zod one on one, I had total fight fatigue and wanted it to end. This is from a guy who upgraded his copy of They Live to digital media.

As none of us were enjoying the invasion film, I was forced to look at the ending as a Superman movie again.  Jonathan Kent was willing to give up his life because he felt there was a purpose to Clark’s secret, and when the time was right it would be revealed.

Apparently, contrary to pretty much everything Superman has stood for in the past seventy-five years; that purpose was to slay enemy leaders in the heat of battle.

This would be when my daughter forlornly said, “I thought this would be a good movie.”
Directly after my wife asked, “Can we go now?”
which followed my shorter and louder, “NO!”

Yes, I know I liked the Avengers, and they killed bad guys, but this is Superman. He isn't a soldier, a secret agent, a weapons designer or a Norse battle god.  He's the superhero others use as an example and look up to.

First of all, don’t tell me there was no other way he could have stopped Zod from frying that set of bystanders with his heat vision.
(Read this issue for Superman himself addressing this problem.)
He’s Superman:

The never-ending battle,
Truth justice and the American way,
The Big Blue Boy Scout.

Superman finds a way to incapacitate him in the short term

Freeze breath
Spinning them both into the Earth
Kryptonian Neck Pinch…

Then depower, or seal him away in the long term.

Second, don’t tell me there are precedents for him killing Zod.

One of them is Superman II. (If one ignores the fact that a deleted scene clearly shows they survived; in the final product they didn't.) As much as I approve of Christopher Reeve’s interpretation: I refuse to take a movie featuring Superman having the power of “Super Giant Saran Wrap Symbol,”
(which is part of a franchise where he developed, ”Build the Great Wall of China” vision) as a definitive example of the character.

The other precedent happened in the comics: John Byrne’s Superman 22, October 1998. 
I was there.
I bought the issue in the Denville Stationary Store.

This Zod was from an alternate reality and had just completed destroying everyone in that pocket universe.  Superman did not kill him in the passion of battle and then need a hug. Kal-El acted as the one remaining authority, being not only the Last Kryptonian, but also the only one left alive in that dimension. As that authority, he tried and executed the unremorseful criminals to protect other universes. Afterwards he had a major crisis of conscience and exiled himself off Earth into outer space for a while.

It was used as a demonstration of a convoluted situation forcing him into a GIANT out of character moment to highlight the seriousness of the crimes.  This was followed by multiple story arcs showing how he dealt with the effects of that GIANT out of character moment.

Comic books come out much more frequently and in greater volume than movies, allowing exploration of the ramifications of out of character moments.

More importantly, if Superman twists the head off of his first supervillain, it no longer exists as an out of character moment…it becomes a character DEFINING moment.  That is his response to the no-win-scenario.

I was afraid this would happen.  The success of the Nolan Batman films should have taught Warner Brothers what Marvel already figured out:  if they make well-constructed movies that respect the source material, they will have a success.  Instead they decided, “Dark superhero movies make money.”

Superman isn’t dark.  There was a great deal of talk in the film about the iconic “S” shield being a symbol of hope. However, that was something that was talked about and not shown.  Instead they showed his secretive choices, and overly destructive battle causing him to be viewed with fear and mistrust…which is not Superman.

I don’t know what I’m hoping happens now.

If Man of Steel tapers off and underperforms, they’ll decide people only like Batman movies and we’ll never see a Justice League film.

If Man of Steel is a success, it’ll lead the way for a host of dark, violent superheroes who slay their enemies.  Warner Brothers will then have achieved copying the Marvel films, because their Justice League will really be the Squadron Supreme.

We now pause to wait for the six comic book fans who are laughing.

Remember- choosing an overly realistic interpretation of Superman is inherently flawed, because at the core, the Superman myth represents ideals.

All I know is that this film caused a severe disturbance in Supermanness. 

When I arrived home the night after seeing Man of Steel:
 I swear to Rao, this is what my Justice League shelf looked like, though it was fine the night before.


Anonymous said...

You are absolutely correct on all counts in this rant. "Man of Steel" is a Superman story for a cynical audience more satisfied with seeing Superman punch villains through buildings (and killing hundreds of innocent people who are still in those buildings) than seeing a well-told story that explains how and why the most powerful being on Earth uses his god-like abilities to help those less powerful than he is.

And, honestly? I didn't recognize a single character of the Superman mythos that I know. Not one.

Thanks for posting your thoughts. I share them.


Jeff McGinley said...

Many thanx.

That's the word...cynical, which has no place in a Superman story. To go back, yet again, to the Avengers: Even though they were set up as more a special forces/secret agent group, the Battle of New York was still filled with multiple scenes of the heroes, including the Hulk, going out of their way to protect bystanders and contain the damage.

Superman deserved better. Thanx again for making me feel like the rants were valid.

Having Mark Waid himself admit to also standing up and yelling at the screen as well helped too

longbow said...

This analysis says 129K dead and 1M injured.

Jeff McGinley said...

I've heard that referenced, thanx for the link.

The volume of damage was bad enough, what made it worse was Superman's lack of attempts to control it more actively.

thanx again

Monad said...

Amen! Superman is and always should be the embodiment of the ideals to which all of us should strive.

Jeff McGinley said...

Many thanx for reading, posting, and most importantly understanding.

It's all about ideals. It amazes me how many fans try to go against this argument by pointing out the realism of a no win situation.

Superman isn't about realism, he's about idealism.