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Friday, June 21, 2013

Stop Picking on Clark: Why Man of Steel isn't a Betrayal of Superman

Posted by Bobby Roberts on Fri, Jun 21, 2013 at 3:45 PM

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Man of Steel is by no means a perfect film. It’s written by David Goyer and directed by Zack Snyder, for example. There are going to be problems built-in:

Goyer: Exposition heavy. Bad dialog. A sense of fun that is almost entirely mean-spirited in nature.

Snyder: Bad Pacing. Overindulgent. Emotionally stunted.

There are examples of the above littered all over their filmographies. Man of Steel is no different. The film’s forward progression is wobbly; it lurches forward like a newborn fawn wearing jackhammer boots. Almost none of the people actually sound like people. Combine that with its overtly sci-fi feel, and hopefully you’ll understand why I refer to the film as “Easily the best of all the Star Wars prequels.”

I don’t mean that as a negative, however. The spectacle is fucking spectacular. The characters may not sound like people, but there is humanity in them. The emotions evoked are, more often than not, legitimately earned by the actors, and Snyder does manage to tease out some honest feelings in and around the film’s city-spanning pummelings.

But the narrative that’s unfolded in the week since its release focuses on one feeling in particular: Betrayal. It comes in different shades and flavors, but the two main tastes are these: Superman betrayed humanity, Goyer and Snyder betrayed Superman.

There are multiple articles that intelligently give voice to those viewpoints, and while I mostly disagree with them, I understand where they’re coming from; well, except for the end of Mark Waid’s review, where he describes going into a fugue state in the theater and falling out like a Southern belle who caught the Vapors. But I figure that’s just dramatic license on the part of the man who wrote the definitive origin of the 75-year old superhero. He’s more than allowed.

But I’m increasingly feeling like Mugatu when I read these articles as they come pouring out of blogs and entertainment news sites.

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Specifically, the betrayal seems to be pinpointed to the climax of the film, where two things happen (and from this point forward, I will be dealing with plot spoilers, fair warning):

General Zod successfully manages to flatten about 8-10 square blocks of Metropolis with an intergalactic dubstep death machine.

Superman snaps General Zod’s neck.

The latter makes sense as a wellspring from which tears of betrayal can flow. Previous incarnations of the character have put a high premium on protecting Earth and its inhabitants. The world has adopted him, and he will do whatever he can to return that favor. That’s a vein many of Superman’s hundreds of writers have tapped in one form or another. So seeing a new incarnation of him basically commit Kryptonian genocide by killing Zod is pretty jarring in that context, there’s no denying that.

But the former is sort of maddening, to me. The focus on collateral damage above almost everything else has become the critical crowbar of choice to swing at the kneecaps of Goyer, Snyder, and their Clark Kent/Kal-El. And it seems unfair, to me.

For example, there’s this much shared article from Buzzfeed, an exclusive breakdown of the fictional damage incurred by imaginary aliens on a make-believe city that doesn’t exist. The article boasts some pretty huge numbers when it comes to casualties and property costs: two trillion total butcher’s bill, and about 1 million people dead or wounded. The report has been written as if LexCorp commissioned it, which is pretty clever, doubly so once you see it being used as a source of vindication for those who feel betrayed. Leave it to Zack Snyder to turn a decent chunk of the film critic sewing circle into grassroots supporters of Lex Luthor.

Could these criticisms have been quelled had Snyder simply inserted a line or two of ADR’d dialog from military officials or police, stressing that most of the city had been successfully evacuated? Should there have been a line or two from Clark overtly stating his intentions to get Zod off the ground and into the sky so he can’t keep wreaking havoc on Metropolis? To both questions, the answer is "most definitely."

But this is a sci-fi film about an alien invasion, and it seems weird to me that we’re only now, decades after such imagery has become somewhat commonplace, suddenly giving a shit about the imaginary people in the computer generated buildings that are being destroyed by the bad guys. Weirder still are the suggestions that Clark should be taking into account a rough dollar estimate as he’s being thrown through buildings and having satellites kicked into his face, as if he’s one of the faceless police from THX 1138, breaking off their pursuit after a set dollar amount has been hit. Even weirder, the destruction caused by the bad guys is being hung almost entirely on Clark’s shoulders. Even when that LexCorp report assigns almost 90% of the damage in Smallville to the US Military’s efforts, some writers are choosing to not only inflate the level of collateral damage even further than the film shows it to be, but frame it as all Clark’s fault, as if he’s complicit in the actions of the villain as opposed to openly fighting them.

There is no credit given to Clark Kent for having successfully saved the world in this movie. Which he actually did. Yes, he effectively destroyed one, too. Or the potential for one. But when given the choice between saving his adopted people or allowing for a successful genocidal alien invasion, he chose us.

Seems pretty heroic, to me. A darker shade of heroism, yes, but still heroism. Arguing against that by pointing to the fact he got thrown through a building or punched someone into a train feels like missing the forest for the crumbling, flame-engulfed parking structure trees.

People are upset that Clark was given that choice to make. Or more accurately, they’re upset that Goyer and Snyder didn’t write him a way out of making it. And once they found out that Christopher Nolan was initially not on board with that ending, they became really upset.

But to me, this is all part of the point of rebooting the character. They wrote Clark into a Kobayashi Maru. A lot of his previous writers have done this, they just come up with a reason to for Superman to ace it somehow, like James T. Kirk did. Except Kirk only grew as a character, only really acquired a third dimension, when Nicholas Meyer didn’t let him cheat his way out of it.

And it’s hard to deny that—whether you come down on that choice positively or negatively—it has a palpable effect on audiences. It had a palpable effect on Clark, too. Many have speculated that the end of the film sees us, as the audience, witnessing exactly why his “no-killing” rule is established in this cinematic universe, because when he makes the choice to kill, it hurts this bad. He drops to his knees, lets out an anguished scream, and clutches at Lois Lane like the wounded, damaged person he is.

At that point, it's been a trying couple of hours for Clark, really: He meets his dad for the first time, and loses him shortly thereafter. Then he almost instantly gets in the first fight of his entire life, against two genetically-bred–for-war superhumans, and about five fully-loaded warplanes and a couple of helicopters. And less than a couple hours after that, he gets in his second fight ever, the stakes of which are the survival of all humanity. We’ve not seen this version of Clark Kent before. So I understand people being jarred by the decision not to adhere to Clark’s “true character.”

But Clark Kent isn’t a real person, of course, so appeals to his “real nature” or his “true character” don’t make much sense to me. Superman is a brand, and his character is whatever his current writer says it is. It’s why people are, in making their points/counterpoints, pulling up panels from John Byrne’s run, or screencaps from Bruce Timm’s animated movies, or clips from Richard Donner’s version of the superhero, the one that has, more solidly than any other cemented itself (thanks to John Williams’ theme and Christopher Reeve’s performance) as the uber-incarnation of the Superman.

I do agree with critics on this aspect: This Superman isn’t really Superman. Much in the same way the Batman we saw in Batman Begins wasn’t really Batman, either. Looking at that Nolan/Goyer collaboration, you can see how those two essentially used Begins as a template for Man of Steel. Some elements and concepts are remixed, but the endings are pretty much one to one:

Batman essentially lets a city go to hell before crashing a train into a building, killing his enemy, and then we cut to about a month later, when he’s showing up on a roof, ready to do his job.

Superman arrives after a decent chunk of the city has been wrecked, saves it only after getting thrown through some buildings and killing his enemy, then we cut to about a month later, and look at a Clark Kent ready to do his job.

And a lot of the arguments people are having now, were arguments people got caught up in back around 2005: Batman doesn’t kill. The action is too frenetic. The score isn’t as cool. There’s not a lot of fun. Somehow, people got used to it, and eventually, they allowed for that to be a legitimate version of Batman, just like people allowed for the crazy, fireplace poker-wielding, gleefully murdering version Michael Keaton played.

Begins’ sequel, The Dark Knight, helped sell that legitimacy a whole hell of a lot. Maybe Man of Tomorrow, or whatever it might be called, will do the same thing. Granted, it’s unfair for the filmmakers to answer legitimate questions about this movie with “Wait ‘til the next one, we got you,” but I really do wonder how much of this pointing at fictional property damage comes from being shaken from the idea that the guy wearing that big red S should automatically behave like the Superman we’ve got stored in our heads somewhere, whether he’s Mark Waid’s, Kurt Busiek’s, Grant Morrison’s, Richard Donner’s, Mark Millar’s, or any combination thereof. But there's no montage of Superman figuring it out. No evidence that he's got it locked in. He's a Clark Kent who's been wearing intergalactic under-armor for about four hours tops. It's not that easy. It probably shouldn't be.

The movie’s got problems, and it’s not as well executed as Batman Begins, since I’ve drawn that direct comparison. But I don’t see it as a betrayal of the character at all. Definitely not a betrayal of the Clark Kent we’re shown in this movie. It’s yet another recontextualization and reinterpretation of a polyglot character that we’ve been sold and re-sold over and over again for the better part of a century now. It doesn't break its own rules, nor does it kneecap Clark's characterization as the movie progresses. This Clark still has hope. Still wants to do good. It's just not the same simple sort of four-color hope that we're used to from Clark Kent. It's a hard fought hope, a bruised optimism that he carries around with him. That this Clark has his hope constantly tested doesn't mean it's not there.

Do I wish the movie was a little more classically hopeful, considering the symbol stuck to Clark’s chest? Of course. Do I wish that children who piled in on opening weekend had something a little more geared towards their sensibilities? Yes indeed. I’m a firm believer that adapting superhero stories to live action is a surefire way to handicap their potential. The Incredibles is the best superhero movie ever made, and neither DC nor Marvel seem at all inclined to follow that particular leader, which is disappointing.

But looking at the movie I did get, as someone who is familiar with Superman’s history, I’m willing to let this interpretation play out, because what’s being done is interesting to me in ways Smallville wasn’t, in ways the New52 can’t be, in ways the Animated Series couldn’t get at. Maybe it ends up being embraced after time, like Bale’s Batman. Maybe time erodes what initial goodwill there is, like with Routh’s Superman.

It’s not as if the character won’t endure. He survived Superman IV. He survived Superman: At Earth’s End. For some reason people celebrate the Death & Rebirth of Superman arc as if it wasn’t a cynical, mean-spirited, confused mess. There’s enough good in this version of Clark Kent that I’m willing to ride out whatever bumps there are in this introduction to him. Basically, the fact he got thrown through a building or two isn’t enough to throw me.

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