Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Superman Code Complex

NOTE: This article contains massive spoilers for Man Of Steel. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and are trying to avoid spoilers, bail out now.

I am a huge Superman fan. My favorite movie of all time is not a Star Trek film, a Star Wars film, or even a Disney film, it’s 1978’s Superman: The Movie. When I wasn’t pretending to be Captain Kirk as a kid, I was zooming around the house in my makeshift Superman costume with John William’s soundtrack blaring in the background.

superdaveI am totally serious about that

I love Superman. And even though I went through a very brief teenage phase where I thought Spider-Man was cooler because he was angsty and Todd McFarlane drew him, the Death of Superman arc in the early 90s pulled me right back into Superman fandom.

These days I’m not a regular reader of the comics, but my favorite stories include most of Grant Morrison’s work (especially All Star Superman) and Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come and Birthright. You could say I prefer the more classic Superman that has fun, science fiction-y adventures and a strict moral code.

And I liked Man Of Steel.

You’re probably wondering if you read that wrong. How could a guy who loves the colorful, funny, lighthearted 1978 film also like the desaturated, grimmer, more somber 2013 edition? How could a guy who loves the version of Superman whose greatest power is his instinctive knowledge of right and wrong and who’s sworn never to use his power to take a life enjoy a film where the Last Son of Krypton snaps a guy’s neck?

Well, let me go ahead and talk about the Zod Neck Snap since it is the most controversial element of the film. I’m a big believer in the Superman Doesn’t Kill rule. If Superman breaking Zod’s neck was presented as one of those moments where the audience is supposed to cheer, if Superman looked at the camera and tossed off a snarky one-liner after he did it, then I would be very angry indeed, and this post would be all about what idiots the filmmakers are. But that’s not what happened, is it?

The point of the scene was to force Superman into an impossible choice: kill Zod, an act he feels is morally repellent and wrong, or allow Zod kill the family he’s threatening with his heat vision, and possibly thousands, millions or even billions more. (And no, the family couldn’t run away. That’s what I though at first, too, but their path was blocked by rubble) He didn’t have time to think about it or to formulate some kind of alternative. The options were: 1. Kill Zod, or 2. Allow Zod to kill a lot more people. Instead of our hero getting to choose between a right and a wrong, he’s forced into a situation where he has to choose between a wrong and a wrong. That’s good drama right there.  And yet, many critics argue that the writers should have sucked the drama out of the scene by giving Superman some kind of technobabble alternative. To those people, I have three words: Star Trek: Voyager.

Remember Voyager? That horrible, late-90s, “lite” version of Star Trek that is pretty much universally reviled, even among Star Trek fans? A big reason why it’s so hated is that it set up a situation where the characters would allegedly be forced to make hard choices: stuck on a small spaceship seventy years from home with limited supplies, limited fuel, no allies, and the crew divided into opposing Starfleet and Maquis factions-and then completely failed to follow through with any of it. Is that what you wanted to have the writers of this film do? And rest assured, if the writers had given Superman the last-second technobabble alternative the critics seem to want, then people would have just criticized that decision instead and accused the writers of taking the cheap and easy way out.

What it comes down to, I think, is that a lot of people (some of whom work for high-traffic sites like io9) decided to dislike Man of Steel before anything at all was known about it. And because, like any film, it has a few plot holes and imperfections, as well as some genuinely controversial story points, these things are being used as “evidence” of how bad it is by people who already decided to hate it ahead of time.

The fact is that Superman’s killing of Zod was not glorified. It was not presented as a happy, triumphant moment. It was an agonizing decision that obviously cost Superman dearly. The people who are saying things like “Man of Steel gives us a Superman who won’t hesitate to kill when he thinks it’s necessary” either haven’t seen the movie or are deliberately misinterpreting it to bolster the decision they made to dislike it in advance.

However, all of that being said there is one criticism I have of the scene, and it’s that little kids were subjected to it. The showing I went to had lots of parents with their kids, many of them 10 or under, and it’s a shame they had to see that. If for no other reason than that, I really wish the filmmakers had found another way out. Even though it would have robbed the film of some drama, even if it would have given Superman an “easy out” and allowed him to sidestep having to make a tough dramatic choice, I think that might have been preferable to subjecting kids to a scene where a man’s neck gets broken.

Moving on, although my opinions of the film differ greatly from the conventional Internet opinion of it, there’s one other criticism of the movie that I do agree with: the huge amount of destruction and the ignoring of the huge amount of civilian casualties that must have occurred. However, the problem as I see it is not that Superman fails to show concern for civilians caught in the crossfire of his superhero fight, it’s that the movie kind of forgets that these civilians even exist. Aside from a few shots of people running away from the destruction, civilians are only present when the film needs them to create peril or drama, like when Perry and Steve are trying to rescue Jenny, or when Superman is forced to kill Zod to save the family he’s threatening. In the scenes where Superman and Zod are punching each other through buildings, those buildings appear to be empty. I don’t think that was a writing decision, I think the production just didn’t want to go to the trouble to animate people diving out of the way in those shots. Overall, it goes a long way toward making Metropolis feel less like a real place and more like the final level of a Superman video game.

I’ve read some very thoughtful criticism saying it would have been nice if more drama in the Zod fight could have come from Superman desperately trying to save civilians and fight Zod at the same time, and I totally agree with it. I really believe that Warner Bros. was stung by the complaints that Superman Returns didn’t have any fighting in it and made this film a Superhero Punching Fest to compensate.

I also believe lazy writing is responsible for how life in Metropolis seems to have gone back to normal when Clark Kent comes to work at the Daily Planet, even though it seems that only few weeks or maybe months have passed. After 9/11, a sort of pall hung over New York for weeks, if not months. The disaster in Metropolis was a lot bigger; how can life have gone back to normal there when there’s a 10-mile-wide crater in the middle if the city? Obviously, having spent over two hours telling this origin story, the movie wants to wrap everything up in a nice pretty bow in the last five minutes. It’s a lot like the end of J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek film, where Kirk is directly promoted from Cadet to Captain at the end of the movie just so it can end with him in command of the Enterprise, since that’s the familiar status quo. Since the people behind Man of Steel made a big deal about how realistic it was going to be, it would have been nice if that realism could have extended to how a city would realistically react to being half-leveled by superpowered aliens and their Evil Death Machine. But the way I see it, this isn’t a problem just with this film but with these kinds of “origin story” movies in general.

So, now that I’ve defended Man of Steel against some of the criticisms leveled against it we arrive back at the question I asked several paragraphs ago: how can a guy who loves the Christopher Reeve films and the more idealistic portrayals of Superman in the comics also like Man of Steel? Well, just because I love some of the more fantastical takes on Superman doesn’t mean I can’t also appreciate a more “realistic” interpretation of the character.

I like to see Superman’s powers visualized with modern special effects. I also appreciate how they’re consistently portrayed and don’t vary according to the needs of the plot. For example, in the 1978 film he can fly fast enough to reverse time, but not stop two missiles. And in Superman Returns, he flies right into Luthor’s Kryptonite island trap without using his vision powers to check the place out first and discover that it’s made of Kryptonite and maybe he shouldn’t land on it. If there’s any of that in Man of Steel I didn’t see it.

The acting in the film is top-notch. Henry Cavill is great. Amy Adams is the best Lois Lane we’ve ever had. Michael Shannon is an excellent Zod, with a more logical reason for his actions beyond the “cartoon villain” motivations Terence Stamp had to work with in the Donner films. I love the little story arc Christopher Meloni’s character has, and I thought Laurence Fishburne made a fantastic Perry White. I couldn’t believe the some of the negative reactions I saw when he was first cast in the role, all based around the fact that he’s African-American, and not white like all previous versions of the character. Who cares? You should get the best actors you can, and if an actor of Fishburne’s caliber is available you had darned well better cast him!

Most of all, I appreciated the film’s trying to realistically portray how people would react to the presence of someone like Superman. In the previous films  and TV shows, we’ve never seen that. Especially in the 1978 film, everyone seems just pleased as punch about the flying bulletproof space alien, and not the least bit freaked out. In some of the more recent comic book reboots of Superman’s origin, he’s been distrusted by the military at first, but as soon as he does a few good deeds that distrust is quickly forgotten (I’m thinking of Birthright and Geoff Johns’ Secret Origin here. The New 52 handles it a little better). Staying on the realism theme, I also appreciate how Lois Lane is in on Clark’s secret from the beginning, ensuring that we won’t be asked to believe than an award-winning investigative reporter can be fooled by a pair of glasses. Still, in the brief scene we saw with Clark in the glasses it didn’t look like he was putting forth any effort to try to act like a different person. It reminded me of Dean Cain’s Clark, and not in a good way. Hopefully the dual identity thing will get a believability injection in the sequel.

The fact that I enjoyed Man of Steel doesn’t mean I think everyone who didn’t is somehow wrong or not entitled to their opinion. There are several people whose opinions I respect (Mark Waid, for example) who didn’t like the movie and gave very thoughtful reasons why. And that’s fine. My only problem is with the common Internet tendency to try to appear smarter than everyone else by preemptively declaring that a piece of popular entertainment is not any good.

So those are my thoughts on Man of Steel. If you’ve read this far, then you probably deserve some kind of medal. Or maybe you just have too much spare time.