Monday, June 17, 2013

Let's Talk About Man of Steel

If you haven’t seen Man of Steel, please do know there will be SPOILERS. Like,  a lot of SPOILERS. So if SPOILERS bug you, then you may want to stop reading two sentences ago.

Still with me? Good. Let’s do this thing…

Believe it or not, there are examples of Superman taking a life. It’s rare, but not entirely unheard of.

Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, one of the all time great Superman stories, actually ends with Superman believing he has no choice but to take a life. During a time when Moore was setting the tone for all things grim and gritty, he actually makes a loving tribute to the wonder, grandeur and oddness that was the Silver Age adventures of Superman, all lovingly penciled by Curt Swan.

Anyway, the story ends with nigh omnipotent Mr. Mxyzptlk revealing himself to be a violent force for evil who intends to wreak irreparable havoc on the world. Thus, in an extremely rare moment of desperation, Superman kills Mxyzptlk. In one of the greatest, most well-regarded Superman stories ever published, winds up a murderer in order to save the world.

It was this story that was on my mind as Superman kill General Zod in Man of Steel and a feeling of rage rushed over me.

“Shit, Superman has killed in the comics,” I thought as I watched Superman snap General Zod’s neck in Man of Steel. “Why the hell is this murder bothering me so badly?” That’s what I thought. What I said in the packed theater was “OH WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?”

I was actually conflicted and confused. Then it hit me why I was so offended by what I’d seen. Superman’s murder of Zod was not only not earned, but there was no regret. At least, no Superman level regret.

See, in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Superman faces a no win situation similar to the one in Man of Steel. Mr. Mxyzptlk is more powerful than Superman in every sense of the word, and Superman only has brief seconds to act. This is where the experiences differ. Once Superman kills Mxyzptlk, he is immediately overcome with guilt, remorse and regret. So much in fact that Superman steps into a chamber with Gold Kryptonite which permanently removes his powers. Yes. So filled with sorrow at his failure, Superman decides he’s no longer worthy of his position and name.

In Man of Steel, there’s no regret. Sure, he cries for about thirty seconds onto Lois Lane, but the very next scene he’s talking and cracking jokes with the military. He’s just committed murder, something that should shake this iconic character to his core, but he seems to get over it fairly quickly.

Now combine that lack of regret with the annihilation of both Metropolis and Smallville. Those climactic battles were hard to watch. They looked pretty and they were beautifully choreographed, but as I watched them I kept wondering when Superman was going to try to take the fight away from populated areas. Why? Because that’s what Superman would do.

He’s all about making sure no one gets hurt. So every time he sent a Kryptonian careening through a skyscraper, or punching one into a gas truck, I cringed. Massive amounts of people were dying and Superman was part of the problem. Thousands upon thousands of people die because Superman never, not once, has the foresight to draw his adversaries away from populated areas. In fact, his ultimate victory happens in the ashes of thousands of dead men, women and children, all of whom he never tried to actually save because he was too busy punching things.

And that’s where Man of Steel fails.

The promise of Superman is a simple one. Superman will save us. And if he can’t or isn’t able to, it won’t be because he didn’t try or didn’t think to. It will be because he exhausted every possible (and impossible) means he could. This is why the fight at the end of the movie made me sad, and why the murder of Zod didn’t sit right with me.

I keep seeing the counter argument to people like me not enjoying Man of Steel as breaking down into roughly two arguments. 1) This Superman takes place in the real world, and 2) This Superman is relevant to our times.

1)  This Superman takes place in the real world -No. This movie does not take place in the real world. In the real world, men can’t fly, they can’t shoot lasers from their eyes, and if aliens are out there, they probably don’t look and act EXACTLY like us.

2) This Superman is relevant to our times- If this is what it takes t make Superman relevant, if what we saw in Man of Steel is a reflection of our world today, then that’s more upsetting than anything else perceived wrong about a movie. We’ve decided that we don’t want hope and wonder, but rather ever darkening shades of gray and a hero who, in the end, is only concerned with us in word only. 

That makes me sad.

Superman deserves better. We deserve better.

As to the movie itself…

Before the movie fell apart at the end, I was, for the most part, enjoying it. Like a lot of super hero movies now, it tries to cram way too much into a single movie, but there are worser things than that. The stuff with Krypton was amazing, Russell Crow brought it and Lois Lane was actually portrayed as a capable reporter.

I got that Pa Kent was protective of his son and even appreciated it, but, as I feared, he came across as a dick at times rather than the guiding force in a demigod’s life. His death, however, was touching, heartbreaking and almost impossible to watch because of the sorrow it evoked.

Michael Shannon put Terrance Stamp on notice, however this Zod seemed to be written as waaaay too much of a “villain” rather than a zealot who wanted to save his people (seriously, guy is the worst pitchman ever. “I just want to bring our people back and need your help to do, NOW LOOK AT ALL THE SKULLS OF THOSE YOU LOVE! NOW GIVE ME THE MCGUFIN! EVIIIIIIIIL!”)

The action was beautifully choreographed yet became tiresome after a bit. The pacing was just, I don’t know, off?

Oh. And the suit looks weird without the red trunks. And don’t give me that “It looks more realistic/not as silly” crap. It’s a guy in a blue spandex suit with a giant “S” on his chest and a red cape. It already looks silly. Red trunks ain’t gonna make it look any sillier than it already does.


  1. Although my general level of happiness with the movie was greater than yours, you hit on the EXACT thought flashing through my mind during the battle scenes: how many people are dying and why isn't Superman doing something about it. Until the first big fight, I loved the movie. But without Superman's super-ethics (most wonderfully described by Mark Waid in "Superheroes and Philosophy" (2005, Carus Publishing)), the movie -- and the character -- felt incomplete.

  2. And that's my point. You can play fast and loose with the source material of any character, but you can never play fast and loose with this one.

  3. So... guess we'll wait for the dvd release.

  4. Christopher Reeve's Superman kicked Terrance Stamp down an ice shaft and tried to crush Clark Kent'ts windpipe when he turned bad. Just sayin'.

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  5. I gathered that, since this is Superman as a 'rookie' that the more moralistic side of him will develop more in the future movies. I predict the next movie will deal with the fallout from the destruction caused by his recklessness.

    1. I really do hope so. If the next movie plays that up I think a lot could potentially be forgiven.

  6. Chris a great write up buddy. I would not expect any less from you. As a fan of Superman, my feelings on the movie have been hard to settle over the last few days. I enjoyed the movie, but some things did not feel right. I intend to see it again, but for the time being, here a few highlights on my take.

    As a side note, Christopher Reeves will always be my Superman, so forgive me if you find the Richard Donner versions mentioned in this post annoying. When it comes to Superman movies, I will always have those as a benchmark. I sure as hell missed the Williams' score by the way.

    - The overall movie took itself a bit too serious. Whether through some humor or over the top heroics, the movie could have given the audience more breathing space (he didn't do enough saving for my taste- and that is where hope comes into play). A few more truck-sculpture moments would have been nice. Oh, and did you get the feeling the heavyness lifted only at the end when he became Clark at the Daily Planet?
    - I also thought how horrible it was that every punch through a building could have meant the deaths of hundreds/thousands. However, would Zod have stayed away from Metropolis? In his rage, he clearly stated he was going to destroy this world and everything Kal-El loved. I doubt Zod would have stayed long in the desert if he could have had his hands around Metropolis' throat. Revisiting Superman II- Supes did protect Metropolis by leaving, but that was a different Zod...for a different time.
    - The killing part- I see your point of view Chris, and I hated the writers placing him into that predicament. But they did and unfortunately, they did not provide enough time beyond the pain-ridden scream that followed to allow for guilt. I guess in the time that remained, the anguish scene allowed me to suspend disbelief. Of course, I am pretty sure powerless Zod, Non, and Ursa did not exactly appreciate falling into a chasm in Superman II (indirect deaths)
    - Speaking of which- why not just name her Ursa? After all they had a "big brute" with her in Smallville that was Non-ning it up. How much more of a hint could there have been?
    -Further more- ZOD- (this comment actually ties back into my thoughts on Khan from "ST: Into Darkness") There were no "Kneel Before Zod" moments. That's because Terrance Stamp (and Montalban) gave us a classic villian that lent a bit of theatre to the character. Still, though, Shannon's acting was good (although I could have done without the additional "I WILL FIND HIM!").
    - the Suit- I did not like it at first but it has grown on me. It still makes me think, what if baby Kal-El's ship had landed in Lothlorien?
    - Now this is a minor detail, but I would have chosen a different form for phantom zone inmate containment flying up into a massive hole of light.

    Things I liked:

    - The Kents- I enjoyed those moments. The scene where Clark ask Jonathan "Can I just keep pretending I'm your son? and Jonathan's voice cracks with "You are my son" leaves me verklempt every time. Not to mention the tornado scene. The Kent family will always be an important part of the Superman canon for me. They are the source of his human morality.
    - The learning to fly scene. I like how they decided it wasn't just instantaneous floating. Superman had to, in effect, punch the sky to force flight.
    -The following flight sequence. This was where I got the chills and then things went all dark and serious again.

    Ok that is enough of me chatting up your blog. For now, this Superman fan will be contented with "Man of Steel" as an interesting Elseworlds story. After all, I have survived the retelling of his origin several times over the years. I just think the movie gods he is not electric blue Superman being played by Nick Cage with polar bears (I think there may have been a nod to Kevin Smith with the polar bear in MoS).

    1. Man, I really wish we could have seen this movie together. It seems like we may well have been up all night and well into the next day discussing it. The things you liked (and made you verklempt) had the exact saem effect on me.

  7. Yep. For once, I agree with Chris a hundred percent.

  8. I'm a superman fan and I loved the movie. I understand your argument but you're going way too dogmatic this movie exposed at least to me a very complex set of moralistic issues for Clark that I honestly never thought about. LIke his faith, I mean starters he's a Kanas City Royals fan! WOW talk about faith without reward. Second the Death of Zod was not a Zero Sum loss. It wasn't Zod's death or the four idiots who ran into a corner but rather how far will you go to protect them. No Chris this Superman isn't the Superman of three DCU reboots ago (Crisis, Zero Hour, New 52 hell, I think I might have even missed one or 2 but you get my point) NO he's a movie Superman that works in 2013 and I think this one works better in many ways to The most recent comics.

    1. So it doesn't bother you that the better part of popculture has decided that the Superman that we need, that we want to aspire to, is dark and reckless?

      And I don't think I'm dogmatic by wanting a Superman that's faithful to the character. Reboot, recast, reposition, fine. But to really have him be Superman, as I've said before, certain, nonnegotiable things have to be set in stone.

  9. Ok. Finally saw it. I think I have to compartmentalize this Superman into his own world, so I have "Snyder's Superman" the same way I have "Nolan's Batman." For example, real Batman wouldn't take 8 years off just because Harvey died, but Nolan's Batman does. And that's ok.

    So Snyder's Superman - I think I was more positive than you, since it felt like he was still finding himself. I have a bit of faith that he will explore the guilt over having to kill Zod in the future movies. Totally agree that I was wondering how many people died as they were smashing through all the skyscrapers....

    I think I was shocked more at his "Krypton had its chance" moment. This guy who more than anything wanted to know where he came from, not be alone in the world, then he destroys the one thing that might be able to bring back his people one day? That didn't seem right. And I hated that sending the ship back to the Phantom Zone involved losing his key, which held Jor-El. I think Russell Crowe's Jor-El was one of my favorite parts.

    Still didn't love Pa Kent, with his hard line on never using powers, even when he is getting killed by a tornado saving the dog. Again - Pa Kent was killed saving the dog. Really. The Pa Kent I want would have said "Clark, sneak off while everyone is running in a panic to the overpass and see what you can do to help without being seen."

    Another thing that struck me is that this is a very different Superman, since in most stories, he is so good because he had such an idyllic, midwestern childhood. In this, he was bullied relentlessly, was made an outsider, and only had his parents as a support system. What does that do to his character?

    And the government can't figure out where Superman's from - even though Lois figured it out in about a day, plus the only place the aliens touched down was the Kent farm.....hmmm.

    I could go on and on.......

  10. The pacing felt rushed, especially in the beginning. When he jumped on a flying creature, i thought i was watching another star wars movie.
    I assumed they were trying to fit a lot in.
    I highly prefer the old calm zod, over the screaming like an angry child version.
    This is the only Lois I've seen that I wouldn't consider tough or manish, which feels different.
    Bad advice Pa Kent was as bad as the trailer made him seem. Costner seemed like a perfect fit, but the moments with him usually rushed by. Except the death, which is tough to believe clark would just stand by doing nothing. What kid listens to his adopted parents anyway.

    And, We never got to watch him shave!

    1. That's a lot of the problem with the scenes about his upbringing. Pa Kent talks out of both sides of his mouth. One moment he's telling Clark that he's going to change the world the next he's all like, "You better keep that shit on lock-down." Huh? The beauty of Superman's upbringing is that because of the influence of those two people is why he doesn't just take over the world.


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