In our feature, Taking Sides, two Screen Radar columnists each defend their viewpoints on a particular subject matter. In this entry, Phil Bowman and Jeff Heller take sides with Man of Steel.
I am only allowed so many words to do what I so desperately want to do with this article, which is, quite simply, to set 2013’s Man of Steel (MoS) ablaze, and warm myself by the heat of its flame for the the rest of winter’s duration. I’ll try to keep this a centrally focused piece, despite my inclination to mount against it a full scale prosecution in the Court of Naw. As in, “Naw, that ain’t no Superman.”
MoS was indisputably a box office success – no surprise when you’ve aligned massive talent and hype under a 75 year old brand with built-in loyalty – yet its reception by audiences and critics was tepid, which undermines box office receipts as an argument for the quality of a film. Superman Returns followed a similar trend of mixed success, and it clearly warranted no sequels. Yet the landscape of the industry has changed significantly since then, and it’s become embarrassingly obvious that WB is lagging behind the competition when it comes to the mega-franchise game. Rather than take a knee and re-strategize, they’re growing their shared cinematic universe (the DC Extended Universe, DCEU) from the fruit of MoS‘s poisoned tree, and worst of all, they can do nothing less than continue the pretense that the tree is not poisoned. “Never mind that bad taste in your mouth, just keep eating” seems to be the approach to which the execs at WB have resigned themselves.
The arguments that attempt to shirk critique of MoS often claim it reflects our world weary modern values, or that its “realism” signifies a maturity not present in other comic book movies. It would be more accurate to say that this movie is, as a product of Zach Snyder and David Goyer’s perpetually teenaged minds, adultly postured, and posed with a confidence that belies a fundamental ignorance. It speaks to their utter misapprehension of what comprises maturity that any defense of MoS‘s supposed depth or relevance reads like a child recounting a parent’s professional duties at Bring Your Kid to Work day. There is an understanding of an itinerary, but not even the most muffled, whispery hint of an appreciation of the mechanics of who Superman is,what a Superman movie needs to be, and why.
Okay, screw word count. Let’s make this a bonfire.
Anything that made Superman something audiences wanted to see on screen was boiled out of MoS unto blandness. In fact, it had no right to be so awful, set up as it was by an all-star cast and the producorial blessing of Christopher Nolan. Goyer even warranted some faith after his Batman Begins script, which seemed to at once revere and successfully update the source material. Yet MoS is better discussed in terms of its departures from the character, if for no other reason than there is almost nothing recognizably super about MoS’s Superman other than a big red S. I used to say I could get beyond most of the movie’s flaws were it not for the scene in which Superman, in a move anyone even vaguely familiar with Superman should know is uncharacteristic, decides to solve a problem by snapping someone’s neck. Granted, that someone is a murderous General Zod intent on wiping out humanity (Oh, da Humaniteez…zzzzzzzz…), but this plot point represents such a fundamentally bad grasp of who Superman is, it has shattered the narrative of MoS altogether.
For a character who we have been repeatedly told embodies hope, who will be the ideal and the example that will spur humanity to greatness, we never see any evidence that bears this out. Let’s not forget that in the moviemaking medium, showing is prized over telling. Show me something hopeful in MoS. Show me what it is about Superman that is to be emulated. It goes without saying that we cannot hope to emulate his strength, speed, and super senses, so what is left for us to emulate but his moral fiber? What is it that sets Superman apart as an example to be followed, if not the content of his character? We cannot imitate his power, but how he handles having power. How he uses it mercifully, lawfully, altruistically, and in service to those around him. What we understand about Superman’s value to humanity goes beyond being a cosmic level badass – it is that such power in the hands of anyone less good than a Clark Kent would be a weapon of tyranny rather than an example of personal responsibility and service. Of course I want to see Superman punch villains through buildings. That’s blockbuster fare we’ve all been waiting a very long time to see. But Superman is more than just “the good guy,” he is a good guy, and that’s a differentiation MoS fails to take into account.
It’s precisely this difference that renders MoS’s solution to the problem of General Zod a decidedly mundane one. It isn’t as if killing bad guys is a ‘solution’ humanity hasn’t been able to come up with itself; in killing Zod, Superman offers humanity no answers other than the disappointing and ineffective ones we’ve been employing for as long as we’ve been human. We don’t need a Superman to show us how to kill, we’re already pretty good at that. Moreover, we don’t want Superman to confirm that there are no solutions to explore other than the really inadequate ones we’ve already discovered. In what way can such a superman lead humanity beyond our murderous, self-destructive folly?
You want to put Superman in a real world context? I have no problem with that, but you have to make good on the promise of who Superman is, of what he represents. We don’t want our world to change Superman, we want Superman to change the world. That is why he’s here on earth, after all, according to Snyder and Company, no? The problem with Man of Steel, in the end, is that despite what it tells us to expect from the character, the laziness, lack of imagination, and lack of vision of the experience resignedly foists upon us a Superman who is obviously no match for the overwhelming disappointment of the real world we already live in. So much so that he becomes just another let down, as bleak and washed out as the rest of the onscreen world that is supposed to reflect our modern existence. In doing so, MoS effectively drags the super down to man’s level, which the film implicitly (disdainfully?) defines in terms of its corruption and directionlessness. What is it that we’re supposed to be deriving inspiration from, in that scenario?
Hope must mean something different on Krypton than it does on Earth.
Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is likely the most polarizing of all modern superhero films. Some scoff at the grittiness of film, while others welcome the fresh interpretation of the story. But the line in the sand comes in the form of the death of General Zod. Critics cite this moment as microcosm for the film’s faults as a whole, but I don’t see it that way. To me, this scene is honest and raw, and a better interpretation of a “real life” scenario in which super powered beings exist.
Superman’s battle with Zod is the first time he has needed to truly test his powers, and it is against someone whose powers are equal to his own. Yes, a more experienced Superman would have moved the fight to outside of the city to avoid the destruction they eventually caused to Metropolis, not to mention the potential human casualties. But this is not an experienced Superman. This is a “Year One” Superman, one that we haven’t really seen before (I’m obviously omitting the Pre-Crisis Superboy, as well as TV’s Smallville). Even Donner’s Superman: The Movie, which is an incredibly detailed origin tale, skips over this portion of Superman’s life, and moves right to a man that is confident with his his abilities. Man of Steel gives us a hero who has not needed to be a hero yet, outside of a few good deeds peppered throughout his life. He has accepted his destiny, but has not truly realized the responsibility of it.
These facts are crucial to understanding Superman’s decision to take Zod’s life. I urge you to watch the scene again with these in mind. What we see is a Superman that is scared and desperate. He realizes at this moment that physically, he is unable to beat Zod, who is only seconds from killing innocent people. The split second before he takes Zod down, we see the pain on Superman’s face as he comes to terms with his decision. And in the moments after, we see his immediate regret; not that he actually killed Zod, but that he was forced to. This is a very powerful moment, one that further elevates Superman above all other heroes.
Again, a more experienced Superman would have seen to it that there was no possibility of anyone being put in harm’s way, but that is what makes this a better origin tale than most. Sam Raimi’s first Spider-man showed Peter testing his new found abilities, and in a classic superhero origin moment, he crashes into a billboard as he tests his webbing. That is the type of comedic scenario we’ve come to expect from a hero who is just learning how to harness his abilities. In Man of Steel, we are given a much more realistic, and considerably more tragic, test of the hero’s powers.
I can’t pretend to argue that Man of Steel is a perfect movie by any means. We are presented with a somber and muted story, with nary a laugh to be had (even Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy provided a bit of levity to comic’s most brooding character). And despite the ideals of Superman being a bit outdated, a Superman movie should, at the very least, contain measurably less gloom, but this is an interpretation of the character. Not a reimagining, but a specific vision that borrows from its predecessors, as well as tropes taken from other superhero genres. Changes have been made, but the mythos remains the same.
I am a firm supporter of tweaking a comic or character from it’s origins in its adaption to the big screen, provided we’ve already seen it adapted properly. For instance, contrary to most of the rest of the internet, I am more than OK with Jared Leto’s interpretation of the Joker. Between Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, we’ve gotten a pretty good representation of comic’s Clown Prince on screen, so it’s high time we see someone do something a little different with the role. On the contrary, the changes made in the recent Fantastic Four fiasco did not only not serve the story well, but were greatly unnecessary. Had we seen a proper interpretation of the Fantastic Four already, I would have had no issues with any changes made. But as both previous attempts were sub par to say the least, I would have liked to have rather seen another go at it, rather than a reinterpretation.
That’s why I think any changes made to the Superman story in Man of Steel were more than acceptable. Richard Donner gave us the quintessential Superman film (realistically, Superman: The Movie and Superman II work as a single film, with Part 1 serving as an origin tale, and Superman II providing the first great onscreen villain face off). As previously mentioned, the ideals that the film tries to emulate is a bit dated by 1978 standards, making the character a bit anachronistic, but everything about the Superman story, and the Superman mythos, is intact (Pre-Crisis, anyway). And Christopher Reeve’s Superman is the definitive take on the character, albeit a bit too Boy Scout-ish (I would also argue, as blasphemous as it may be, that Tom Welling, had he suited up for more than the last few minutes of the series finale of Smallville, would have been the best Superman to date. He had the advantage of developing the character for ten years, and really understood the complexities of the character, giving him a considerable advantage over any other actor that has portrayed him).
And while Man of Steel was “darker” than previous incarnations we’ve seen, the squeaky clean version of Donner’s film just wouldn’t fly here (pun intended). It barely worked in 1978. I’m not implying that we should be ushering in a cinematic world of nineties era Punisher/Spawn “grittier” comics, but rather a more real world approach. Superman should be a beacon of hope, but he is also a hero who must first find his way. He will have growing pains, and those growing pains are vastly more interesting to explore than watching him rescue a cat from a tree.
It’s been argued that the morals that Clark was raised with would have never allowed for him to make a decision to kill, bringing to question Jonathan Kent’s parenting skills in Man of Steel (in fact, TV’s Jonathan Kent, John Schneider, said the same thing when I spoke with him). But I’ll argue that the best parenting in the world couldn’t possibly prepare anyone, even Clark, for the dangers that Superman would face (it should be noted, Superman has killed in the comics, and each time was out of necessity, much like we see here). This was clearly not a decision Superman took lightly, but it was a necessary one. And it’s a decision I imagine Superman/Clark will carry with him in coming films. If he does not, then, and only then, will I cry foul. If he does, then it will demonstrate that Superman can learn from his experience, and grow as a character. And hopefully lighten up and tell a joke or two.