On Man of Steel: About Expectations

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I want to start out by setting myself apart from the majority of reviewers on Man of Steel and admit my bias right away. I love Superman, and I am very new to loving Superman. I grew up watching Batman, the television series from the 60s in reruns, Batman: The Animated Series, and the now-much-criticized 90s Burton films. I loved The Hulk, Spiderman, some of The X-Men (mostly X-Women), I saw the Donner films, very little of Superman: The Animated Series, and even spent a little time on superdickery.com. Up until recently, I was at best apathetic and at worst completely unsettled by the character I perceived Superman to be.

“Classic” Clark Kent is not a character to whom plenty of people can relate. When the character was born, he was born into a social climate that only acknowledged one kind of person. This is a character who in order to stay relevant had to represent everyone, and to comic books in 1938 that meant he was a straight, white, heterosexual, healthy, American patriot of the patriarchy. A direct effect of the patriarchy is that the default traits and positions, the ones to which everyone can relate, are white, male, and straight. Everything else is an aberration, and early comics obviously weren’t trying to reach anyone else, and why not? In 1938, a white head of the household had the ultimate buying power.

This is the Man of Steel I have been familiar with, but I am not a comic book reader. Neither are most of the people writing reviews for this movie. We have expectations of this character, and our expectations have been violated. According to rotten tomatoes, around half of critics think that is a bad thing. I don’t. Lots of people have said that Synder and Goyer’s Man of Steel is not so much a comic book movie and more of a Sci-Fi thriller, and many critics have said that they think this is a bad thing. I don’t.

This is not an anti-geek position. I have been there through the entire comic book movie evolution of the last twenty years, for most of it, live and in person. I remember the summer that Batman was everywhere, I remember how blown away everyone was by the serious undertones in the first leg of the X-Men franchise, how “gloomy” and “dark” everyone said that the Sam Raimi Spiderman movies were, till the Nolan films irreparably raised the bar on everything, and the way Iron Man and the Avengers movies kept on meeting that bar until The Avengers came along and made a billion dollars. I’ve seen all this and I still don’t think that DC or Warner Brothers had any obligation to make a typical superhero movie or to draft a long sloppy kiss to the Donner movies that was Superman Returns. (Interestingly enough, most reviewers don’t actually so much as mention Superman Returns, or if they do, they tend to talk about it like it could actually be called a good example of a superhero movie, even today.)

This Clark Kent is not the one I know. He’s not a jock, he’s not a ladies man, he’s not a paternal figure who shakes his index finger at you when you’ve stepped out of line. He’s an adopted kid from Kansas who can’t even find a way to be who he is. He’s a mama’s boy in the best way, a working man, a drifter, and still authentically Midwestern enough to drink a beer in front of a football game (while he’s doing the dishes.) He’s also by a large margin the most objectified character in the movie. His body is more than once in this movie the object of another character’s sexual desire, while on the flip side he falls for Lois’ personality (but honestly, who doesn’t in this movie?), defends a coworker against sexual harassment, and fights female villain Faora like an equal without even batting an eyelash. He hates violence, and the only time in the entire movie he isn’t trying to stop it is when Zod threatens the only family he has left.

This movie is more violent than the majority of Superhero movies, but upon comparing the fight in Metropolis to the final scene of The Avengers, I think that’s a compliment. (++SPOILERS: Avengers++) In the final scene of Avengers, an alien invasion happens in New York City, an army pours out of a portal in the sky and descends on the city, damaging buildings, endangering bystanders, and causing chaos. The enemies are humanoid but faceless, and we see people fleeing explosions and bystanders narrowly escaping danger but no one is seriously hurt. Not on camera, anyway. Even our heroes on the ground are more or less ignored by the hordes as they invade, making them come off as about as effective as imperial storm troopers and half as smart. Even the “fish in a barrel” scene sees no casualties. Missiles, chunks of building, and alien bodies reign down everywhere, but not one human casualty.

That has less to do with Whedon and more to do with our superhero movies, and it’s reflected in the way we react to the violence in Man of Steel. This violence is, in my opinion, the best possible kind of movie violence. The Boston Marathon bombing wasn’t so horrible because a bomb went off, it was horrible because people were seriously wounded and killed. The men and women who were heroes on that day weren’t heroes because no one there was killed or maimed. Genuine violence is frightening, it’s unrelenting, and it has immediate consequences. Clearly, that’s not the kind of violence that critics want out of a Superman movie, but it’s the responsible kind. Synder puts a realistic number of civilians and officials in harm’s way and they provide a very immediate kind of suspense that battle scenes in these kinds of movies tend to lack. He allows them to be gallant and heroic and frightened in a nearly hopeless situation, and in doing so he gives the human race a quality not often seen in modern movies.

My first note of astonishment about this movie was that no one turns. Not one human tries to cut a deal with Zod, not one human pushes someone else down while running away. Even Colonel Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni) when asked to turn over Lois, of whom he is clearly not fond, balks. Even the lousy slimy guy from the Daily Planet doesn’t leave the intern behind when he could run away. The soldiers on the ground are happy to embrace Superman with very little cajoling, the minister he encounters who is clearly scared out of his mind still comes up with some good advice for Clark. We see characters make the ultimate sacrifice for the planet, and we see military and government officials acting like we would hope military and government officials would act. This movie loves and believes in the human race, and I believe that is what makes it a genuine Superman movie.

Man of Steel is not Captain America, it’s not a Donner movie, it’s not even a Nolanesque take on Metropolis, though Goyer certainly does take the magic of the universe and turn it into magical realism as was typical of his story-building in the dark knight films. It’s new, and it’s inspired, it’s well-written, sensitive, political, and full of realistic hope in a climate that currently can only find a way to believe in dystopia, and I could not imagine a more fitting vehicle bring The Man of Tomorrow into the present day.

Death, culture, and popular culture

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I’ve always had a keen interest in the subjects of human mortality, death, and grief, but up until recently, I’ve avoided the topic in any sort of social context because I wasn’t sure my particular point of view was one that could be easily understood by others. Death, like religion and sex, are things that people have always seemed very hesitant to discuss in the first place, much less try and imagine a new perspective of. But I’m all about perspectives, which is why I’d like to blow the whole Kubler-Ross model, those common five stages of grief that have become more or less pop-psychology, right out of the water. There are just some commonly accepted ideas that have no respect for the scope and variety of the human experience. Personally, I’ve never bought into the “grief” thing, by which I mean, I’ve never understood the very specific set of social expectations that go hand in hand with the death of a loved one or just anybody for that matter.

George Carlin has some interesting material on the nature of public grief, in fact, if there’s anything you wouldn’t think about bringing up at Christmas dinner, the odds are pretty good that Carlin has a routine for it somewhere. This particular bit came from his show It’s Bad For Ya from 2008, in which he makes reference to things we are prone to say when someone dies;

“This conversation is bound to turn up. Two guys in a street meet each other, and one of them says, “Hey, did you hear? Phil Davis died.” “Phil Davis? I just saw him yesterday.” “Yeah? … Didn’t help. He died anyway. Apparently, the simple act of you seeing him did not slow his cancer down. In fact, it may have made it more aggressive.”

What Carlin doesn’t get into (because this is where it stops being funny) is that this reaction is not so irrational as it sounds. “I just saw him yesterday” doesn’t in fact mean, gee, I could have saved him, so much as it is the person’s reaction to the proximity of death. They are musing on, and in part disbelieving, the inevitability of death, becoming aware again that it exists, and that they by proximity somehow brushed with it. Because the dirty secret here is that grief is not about the person who died. When we talk about death, we are talking about those still living. And if you ask me, that’s completely correct. There’s a Grey’s Anatomy episode in which the main character spends an entire episode dwelling on the fact that one of the near-death patients came in wearing the same pair of shoes. In the episode, the shoes act as a tether between her and the patient, making it difficult for her to distance herself. This woman’s impending death becomes more significant to her because of their coincidental similarities, allowing her to have an encounter with her own fragile mortality.

I had a death in the family a month ago that essentially made one of my parents an orphan. Not shockingly, this made me sad for my parent, but the most awkward and troubling emotion I had to deal with was that is made me think about what it might be like to have no parents left in the world. That thought became the all-consuming drive of the remainder of my month, during which time I discovered and became obsessed with the television show Pushing Daisies. I would turn it on in the morning and watch it constantly until I went to bed at night. Pushing Daisies is a show in which the main character has the inborn ability to literally wake the dead, but only for one minute, at which point the universe balances out the cosmological scales and takes another life, at random. In concept, it sounds like a spooky scifi show, but what stands out about this program is that it is in fact a very successful comedy. Death, to the deceased, becomes a mere event, equal to any other, and at worst is just slightly inconvenient. On this show, death never makes the deceased better people, causes them extended grief, frightens or overwhelms them, though often the briefness of their reaction is necessitated by the fact that they have a mere 60 seconds of dialogue before they are dead again. All things considered, Pushing Daisies has an unprecedented sunny outlook in death.

I suppose if you don’t think about grief critically at all, all that really occurs to you is that you are sad, and I think for some people, being sad and not knowing exactly why really is enough. But those of us who have an obsession with emotion, who study the minute details of each new emotional experience, have to go deeper into the hows and whys, and I think sometimes that makes those of us who consider death often seem cold or insensitive. I’ve found this is a very large risk when it comes to fictional characters in any medium. If grief doesn’t present in an easily interpretable way, often an audience can turn on a character. The depth of emotion that character had for the deceased, or their depth of emotion in general, comes into question. It’s easy to let a character get villainised by a tear not shed in the right moment. I’m always especially impressed when a writer risks an a-typical reaction and it pays off. Prime examples that come to mind are Vada’s reaction to the death of Thomas J. in My Girl, and pretty much all the reactions in the critically acclaimed Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Body,” in which Emma Caulfield delivers the performance of a lifetime as Anya, a newly human character, coming to grips, child-like, with the concept of human death.

“But I don’t understand! I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I knew her, and then she’s—there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead… anymore! It’s stupid! It’s mortal and stupid! And…and Xander’s crying and not talking, and…and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn, or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why!”

What’s most honest about this particular portrayal to me is how unacceptable Anya’s lack of knowledge about “how we do this” is to the other characters. Because she is operating outside the acceptable social norms when it comes to her grief, she is made an outsider while the other characters cluster together and perform the more social aspects of grieving.

But Anya’s reaction is a very natural one, because the limited capacity we have for seeing outside ourselves makes it all the more challenging to imagine an end to our existence, especially when that end is placed in the context of our isolated culture. The individualism that permeates American culture is addressed as a problem or at least a hurdle in much of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in which life and death are not only intertwined, they become synonyms. Whitman makes pushing our boundaries between each other a part of pushing our boundaries when it comes to death.

“The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,

And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait

at the end to arrest it,

And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

luckier.”

What Whitman seems to be suggesting is that if we are all a part of each other, and all a part of the earth, if we’re all the same matter, then we cannot truly die, at least not in the traditional definition. I think it would have been even more profitable to take this to another extreme and refute the connotations of the word itself. Whitman suggests to us that our own culture of isolation is what keeps us from coming to grips with topics like sexuality and death.

We cannot definitively say that the dead are any worse off for being dead, in fact there are a number of schools of thought that consider that if the dead no longer have a human existence that they are beyond caring about whether or not they continue to exist or hold sway on the living. The entirety of the series Angel is about an immortal character seeking to fulfill an ancient prophecy that says his reward will be to “Shanshu,” interpreted as death, and then mortality, because the language in which the prophecy was written made no distinctions between life and death. To Shanshu in the Angel universe means to live until you die, interpreted as a more than adequate reward for the main character’s good deeds done. The Cylons of Battlestar Galactica are another set of death-seeking individuals, going as far as to theorize that to be human is to die, or be mortal.

It seems very likely that the ideas of grieving for the sake of the deceased, or that the deceased might be particularly concerned with how we grieve, are all designed around our own self-importance or to offer a strange sense of comfort, but isn’t it infinitely more comforting to give ourselves permission to admit that this is something we the bereaved are going through, that it is after all, about us? We experience our loss of the person, our grip with mortality, our need for the comfort or support that person provided not being met, and to be very honest about there not being a single thing wrong with feeling that way. A number of arts forms are taking up the topic of death, even art that would be considered mainstream like television, music, and movies are opening up the topic and challenging the given perspectives on how the see the end of life and the beginning of the unknown. I hope that we continue to expand our perceptions and refuse to close the conversation on what makes this event something we don’t talk about.

My half-boiled thoughts on MFA programs in Creative Writing

I’ve recently read Madison Smartt Bell’s thoughts on the essential flaws in the design of the modern MFA program in Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form, and it’s made me evaluate a lot of my negative emotions associated with my pursuit of post-graduate education. Bell has some very sharp criticism for the workshop model, which at this level is more relevant than I think it is at an undergraduate level, but still it’s likely that it’s overly harsh. I love the workshop. It’s one of my favorite places, and one of the few places I feel like I’m really able to consistently communicate effectively with other human beings. The workshops at my undergrad differ essentially from what I have come to understand as the MFA workshop model, though. My undergraduate workshop was more like a tight-nit fan community than anything else. We loved each other’s work and rooted for each other and wanted every poem or story to succeed in earnest. Maybe in sifting to the top of that pile, I was blind to any sort of jealousy that might have been happening around the fringes, but my experience in the undergraduate workshop was always miraculously and encouragingly positive.

My first workshop in the MFA program at my first (or rather former) program was a stressful experience. I wanted very badly to impress, to show everyone in the room my poetic muscle, and to place myself with a group of my peers that I could learn from and mutually help grow. We had a very experienced and accomplished workshop leader, and let me preface all this by saying that I believe she is the sole reason that these shenanigans didn’t ever get out of hand, like they did at another workshop in the same program that I only heard about. In this workshop, and in this program, there existed a literary elite. That is to say there was one impenetrable clique of students that had already decided on their aesthetic and decided theirs was superior to every other in the classroom. This group would habitually flock together and tear to pieces any poem that crossed the desk that was outside their narrow definition of art. Partway through the semester I even wondered now and then if they weren’t intentionally sabotaging the works of certain other students. It sounds paranoid, but there was a sort of general toxic energy around this small group of students that was really undeniable. What was most frightening to me about this wasn’t the toxic energy itself, but that the workshop tended to follow what seemed to me a very immature and narrow-minded approach to the work of others. In this respect, I completely understand Bell’s criticism of the workshop, now that I have experienced this kind of mob-mentality, I can picture it happening in the best of programs.

I do think however, that all of this can be reigned in and controlled by the tone of the workshop leader. I think it’s essential to contextualize this experience for any students, let them know how they are expected to read as well as what they are expected to read. Working in the writing center on campus and with the book Sharing and Responding by Peter Elbow and Patricia Belanoff helped me to understand how I might approach leading my own workshops in the future. The book helps above all to keep egos in check; the response techniques you learn remind you that approaching any book you are simply a reader, and remind you to respect the author.   I’ve not seen it done with creative work yet, but I think it could go a long way to keep the nastiness and cultish behavior out of the academic workshop.

I have wondered though, if the problem with a number of MFA programs (I’m sure there are exceptions, I wish I could find them somehow) doesn’t lie in the perceived hierarchy of educational or professional achievement. This first occurred to me while having a conversation before class. We were being asked to write weekly two page responses to the reading material, and a group of us were advising each other on how exactly we went about generating the content, whether we explicated poems, whether we responded to the text and the poetry, ect. I interjected that I often hoped to disagree with the professor’s perspective on a poet because I felt like that gave me more to write about, and a male student responded simply, “you know he has a PhD, right?” I was so confused about what that might have to do with what I said that I just nodded and let the conversation continue.

I was reflecting on it later and realized this student had more or less demonstrated to me what I had often felt but never realized was awry about the system under which I was learning. I concluded that it was very possible that the real basic problem with the program was the vision of the grad student as a beginner or intermediate in her field. Everyone I was working with had a four-year degree in the subject and at least one publication under their belt, and yet felt unqualified to disagree with the professor on a subject that a high school student could speak on. Achieving a PhD somehow put the professor in the position of lofty expert instead of colleague. Given four more years of experience and education, it is likely that a professor might have a more well-formed opinion that a graduate student might, but assuming that this is a certainty completely kills the academic conversation before it can even start. I wondered if my classmates simply didn’t participate in class discussion because they felt that had nothing worthwhile to contribute. I should hope after four years of studying literature, they might have something to say.

It seems to me that this is equally damaging on the level of creative work, perhaps especially destructive when it comes to creativity because succeeding in this business takes such self-confidence and occasionally a hardy ego. The dynamic causes the ambitious student (me) endless frustration in practicing her opinion (if she’s so lucky as to have them) and causes the under-confident poet (a number of my classmates) to have no ability to build her own protective ego. Thus, her originality of craft is ground out of her by way of always deferring to her mentors as authority figures instead of guides. It thereby stops the creative process cold. It occurs to me that this perhaps another issue that is causing MFA programs to produce such uninspired uniform work on the whole.

If I could go back and do my initial applications one more time, I would use the whole preceding year searching for the program that is the exception to the rule. Perhaps there is no exception to the rule. Maybe it’s my responsibility as a student and an artist to resist the pressures of these programs and come through the experience unscathed. I do know that my disillusionment with the entire process is part of my choice to apply to a number of low-residency schools. I suppose my hope in that arena is that if the program becomes too crushing a force on my own creativity, I have my own life to retreat back into for strength. It continually amazes me how much of life is about resistance.