Man of Steel: Superman the Myth vs. Superman the Character

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I wanted the next piece in this series to be about the women of Man of Steel, but after an afternoon on tumblr, I feel like this one is more pressing.  I don’t think this is the kind of film that can be “spoiled” in the traditional sense, meaning your viewing is somehow ruined by knowing plot details ahead of time, but be aware that this entry is going to have huge spoilers for the movie.

The biggest point of contention for critics and fans alike so far has been the scene where Superman kills Zod.  Plenty of people who identify as comic-book fans are claiming that this is unprecedented, that Superman has never killed anyone in his regular continuity and every time we see Superman kill someone it irreparably destroys the character.  I have it on good authority that’s simply not true.  Honestly, anyone who wants to know doesn’t have to go much further than Google. So why the convenient amnesia?  Why deny the obvious, why buck against Synder’s adherence to a piece of established canon?  Isn’t that what we, as geeks, have been asking for?

I believe it’s because we’re talking about Superman the myth, not Superman the character.  It interests me that everything affects Superman’s image.  Non-canon comic strips, webcomics, fanvideos, fan art, even the fan-fiction to the degree that it is read, not to mention the officially-licensed merchandise, animated and live action movies, video games, and paperbacks.  All of these sources, all of these different visions have the power to directly affect the way the public perceives Superman the myth because Superman belongs to us.  Maybe not globally speaking, but most certainly for Americans because Superman is part of the American myth.  We’re talking about a story that is only really technically copyright DC comics, and the consensus seems to be that if we had our way, we would take even that technicality away from them.  The reason this matters is because we’re having a large argument right now about what this country is and what it isn’t, and Man of Steel is right in the middle of that argument.

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Obviously the webcomic above by David Willis contains a pretty flawed analogy, as Superman the character has been evolving in his sense of morality and grappling with new American problems for over a decade now.  I’ve been told that the post-90s comic book Superman deals with the complexity of moral issues in a global way that reflects the slow and painful growth of the country of which he is a citizen is going though.  But he is a character, and to assume that he doesn’t understand the repercussions of the violence he’s involved in the same way we do while we are watching it is putting a pretty large assumption on the character.  What makes anyone watching the movie believe that occasionally trembling, constantly frowning, grimacing Clark Kent doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation?

Superman the myth on the other hand, is an American metaphor. He’s a metaphor for manifest destiny, for colonialism, for patriarchal dominance.  We have a problem with his collateral damage, with his hard decision, and in part with his helplessness because of what it says about us.  We don’t want Superman to lie to us, obviously, because if we did Superman Returns would have been a box office smash, but we don’t want the truth either.  The Superman myth IS a lie; it’s a classic power fantasy indulged in by the people who have the privilege to indulge in fantasies.  But looking at Superman in a modern context necessitates deconstructing that lie. That’s why in order to make Superman relevant in 2013, we had to start dealing with Superman the character, and that’s going to be messy.  This Superman doesn’t “always find a way,” sometimes there are two choices and both of them are horrible.

I think Goyer’s bravest decision in this movie was one of the most brilliantly handled moments.  Kal-El is a notoriously overpowered character, and going in I knew I would not be satisfied without a moment of helplessness from the man of steel in order to invert that power.  I wasn’t counting on it given that Snyder promised kryptonite wouldn’t be making an appearance.  The film surprises though, by inventing new obstacles for this famously hard to challenge character.  Martha Kent tells a story about Clark as a sickly baby that pays off a few scenes later when the grown man is reduced to helplessness in his home world’s atmosphere, his flashback to being helpless in the face of losing his father was particularly resonant, even if it was a few seconds too long, and his final moment of helplessness is perhaps the most offensive to critics; being forced to kill Zod.  The explanation Synder gives in a podcast with Empire Online makes perfect sense.

“And I wanted to create this scenario where Superman is going to see those people get chopped in half, or he’s got to do what he’s got to do. And I think Zod knows that. It’s almost [suicide in its way] in a way, it is, it’s like death by cop, you know in a way. In my mind if Kal has the ability to kill him, then that’s a noble way for him to die. It’s like that whole “good death is its own reward” concept in the movie.”

After-the-fact explanation aside, I’ve seen a lot of fanboys argue a number of scenarios in which this didn’t have to happen, each more ridiculous than the last, and continuing in the trend of re-writing this movie as a criticism of the movie.  The consensus seems to be, “it’s not the way I would write it, so it’s a terrible movie.”  That has never been a solid basis for criticism, but if we’re going to talk logistics, let’s talk logistics.  Zod matches Clark in strength, and while he’s got him in a head-lock in the moment, he hasn’t been particularly in control of the fight, so it’s clear Zod isn’t going anywhere.  His instinct is to try and turn Zod’s head away, and that’s a good instinct.  His instinct is to try to talk Zod out of this, and that’s a good instinct.  Plenty of people have described Clark’s final appeal to Zod as pleading, and I don’t think that’s off the mark.  In the end, he’s either Superman or he’s not, and Superman is going to make the hard decision.

Then there’s the fallout.  Like most grief, there are people who say he grieves too much for Zod, and those who say that he doesn’t grieve enough.  If this were a lesser movie, we’d be treated to the details of Clark’s emotional reaction in a clumsy voice-over or a long scene with Lois about his feelings.  This movie doesn’t need that, because Henry Cavill’s howl of despair that elegantly draws upon his last great moment of helplessness, the death of his father, is more than we need.  In point of fact, I haven’t seen the toll taking a life takes on a heart expressed in such an immediate and visceral way anywhere else in this medium.  I think you can easily miss a lot of the subtle moves Cavill is making if you don’t care to give him the benefit of the doubt or your whole attention.  Over at the Mary Sue, Zoe Chevat, the one and only journalist assigned by the proclaimed-girl-geek website to the launch of the potential justice league franchise, mischaracterizes a number of his moves as anger.

“The one trait Clark seems able to express is rage. Rage at his loved ones being threatened, but, beyond that, a general outpouring of anger aimed at a villainy that’s conveniently appeared. Whatever Superman’s traditional traits, thoughtless anger, and the actions it provokes, are not compelling in the lead of a superhero movie. If you cared about Superman before, you’re probably appalled by the behavior of his character and the changes made, and if you didn’t, the movie isn’t going to make you like him very much.”

This review was met with some very honest surprise on my part, because I found noteworthy that this particular Superman only loses his cool the once, when his mother is threatened.  Personally I find it hard to blame him on that count, but maybe I’m very forthcoming with the benefit of the doubt.  It’s true that Cavill does a lot of bellowing and grimacing, but most certainly in proportion to the seriousness of the situation.  In fact, the two times in the movie he lets loose and screams are moments of genuine heartbreak.  I don’t think that interferes with Clark’s appeal to audiences, in fact I think it’s part of the charisma of the character.  Typically bulletproof characters are not only difficult to relate to, they are difficult to like. Goyer’s Man of Steel seems to understand that and rises to the challenge.

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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.