28 July 2013

Settling for smaller heroes.

I saw The Man of Steel a while back.  Since then, whenever I have mentioned in conversation that I saw the movie, I am inevitably asked if I liked it, and my answer has been "Yeah, mostly, but..."  I have even asked myself: was it a good movie or not, and I draw a blank. Was it good?  Was he as good as any Superman of yore?

Spoiler alert:  I make no attempt to hide the plot.  I waited until pretty much everyone who planned to see the movie saw it, so here goes.

Bringing a comic book movie to life on the screen is not like making a movie from a novel.  Many comic book characters have been around for decades, with hundreds upon hundreds of issues and stories that could be told.  The writers and directors of a movie adaptation are not bringing to the screen any particular story, but are rather bringing a character to the screen.  So the issue is not whether the movie was true to the story, but whether or not the movie was true to the character.  For superheroes, the character issue is usually twofold: there is the superhero character, but also the character of the human side of the hero- his or her secret identity.

In broadest terms, the two main companies that produce comics in North America- DC and Marvel- have chosen two different paths when it comes to the balance of the super vs the normal.  In DC, generally speaking, it is the heroic identity that is the primary identity.  Those of you who are old enough to remember the old Superman TV shows and serials may remember the old introduction.  It began it "Faster than a speeding bullet!...." but it included "Disguised as mild mannered reporter Clark Kent..."  Clark Kent was Superman's disguise, and not the other way around, because he really was Superman, and really wasn't Clark Kent.  In Marvel, on the other hand, we have characters like the Fantastic Four, who have made no attempt to hide their identity and have blended the super and the mundane.  There is also, far more popularly, Spiderman.  Peter Parker is not Spiderman's disguise- Spiderman is Peter Parker's disguise, because he really is Peter Parker, a boy who is driven by guilt to occasionally put on a suit and stop the bad guys.

Part of this balance, for Marvel, is that the Marvel characters tend to pay a high price for being super.  Peter Parker deeply  wishes that he could stop being Spiderman and go back to being a normal guy.  Bruce Banner's power of turning into a seven foot tall green rage monster has ruined his life completely.  In the classic Superman, or Batman, or pretty much any DC comic I can think of, the heroes do not have to pay that price or suffer the angst that the Marvel characters do.  "Is this the price I must pay for being Spiderman?" is a question Peter Parker often asks himself.  The equivalent question would never cross Superman's mind.

That is, until fairly recently.  Recent television shows- by "recent" I mean within the last twenty or so years- based on the character have tended to focus on Superman's more human persona, rather than the man in the blue tights. "Lois and Clark" was a show mainly about the romance between the two.  In Smallwille, Clark only takes on the suit at the very end of the show, in a brief glance at what he has become.  These shows reverse the usual balance and take a more Marvelesque approach to the character.

Oddly, though, in the movie adaptations Marvel tends to be lighter fare, the comic book roots still readily apparent in the movies.  It is broad cast to the audience at the beginning of every Marvel movie, where we see comic book pages flipping until the Marvel logo appears on the screen.  The character angst that fills Marvel's comics is present in their movies, but it doesn't often darken the movie.  Their finest movie, in my opinion, Spiderman 2, played on this angst greatly, and then ultimately resolved it.  Peter didn't want to be Spiderman and even stopped for a time, but then he took back the mantle of Spiderman to help others, even though he knew it would cost him his dream of a normal life.  And then, his dream reappears in his doorway, for Mary Jane has come, and has decided it was time someone saved him.

DC, on the other hand, has been making far, far darker movies. The directors have sought- successfully, I would say- to create the most unlikely creation of all: plausible superhero movies.   What would happen, these movies seem to ask, if these characters existed in our world?  The Batman saga leaves Batman with the question of whether or not he was actually doing any good.  In the name of law and order he takes down many mob bosses only to find himself damned by his own success, for he has created a power vacuum, into which steps chaos incarnate in the form of the Joker.

The Batman movies, particularly the third, were some of the most frustrating creations I have ever seen on screen.  I still do not, even now, more than a year later, know what I think of the third movie.  There was much that was right, and much that was wrong.  Batman was good, as was Gordon and Alfred.  Bane made a good villain, who worthily defeated the Batman early in the movie, until we learn that Bane was really a nobody, a flunky.  Nothing special.  This weakened the character of Batman immensely, as a hero is only as strong as his enemies.  Jack the Giant Killer is impressive because Giants are impressive.  George the Dragon Slayer is awe inspiring because dragons are awe inspiring.  Tim the Fly Swatter is not worth talking about.  So having Batman defeated by No One Particular was frustrating.  And there was also the character of Catwoman.  I believe Anne Hathaway did a good job with what she had, but what she had was completely wrong.  Catwoman is supposed to be both playful and dangerous.  The movie had her bored and sullen.

So I was curious to see what they would do with Superman.  Would they make the Big Blue Boy Scout a darker character, and would it work?  Or would they betray the character?  How would they make it plausible?

First thing to think about is the balance of character- is he Superman, who sometimes cunningly disguises himself with glasses, or is he Clark Kent in a circus strongman's outfit?  The answer is neither.  They haven't really dealt with that issue.  He is basically both in this movie.  He is both Clark and the guy in the suit, and there is little difference between the two.  The end of the movie sets up the idea that he will play at being a mild mannered reporter, but by then one of the basic elements of the canonical Superman story has already been removed: the love triangle  The Clark Loves Lois Who Loves Superman Who Is Really Clark But Can't Say So is missing from this movie.  In fact, Lois, being the crack reporter she is, figures out who Superman is in a five minute montage.  So that's gone and it won't be present in the next movie either.  At least we won't have a repeat of Christopher Reeve erasing her memory, and then giving it back, then erasing it again... I hope.

Zod is a suitably impressive villain, and one of the best things in this movie.  He makes a worthy adversary for Superman- sort of.  Zod is supposed to be a bred and trained warrior, with every fibre of his being deidcated to the art of battle, yet on Krypton he is soundly beaten by the born and bred scientist, Jor El, Clark's father, and onlyt manages to beat Jor El when Jor El is distracted.  So one wonders how good and worthwhile all that training was.  It certainly doesn not keep him from being defeated and killed at the hands of Superman, who, the movie points out, had neither the breeding nor the training.

Many of the commentators have already stated their opinion that the climax of the movie betrayed the character.  Superman does not kill, and killing Zod went against everything the character believes in.  Having him scream in frustration after doing the deed doesn't really help.  In my opinion, however, the character was betrayed earlier in the movie, by the character that was the most wrong in the movie: Johnathan Kent, Clark's human father.

That something was wrong was apparent immediately when Johnathan confronts Clark after Clark saves his schoolmates from drowning. He is furious Clark may have revealed himself and what he is.   "Should I have just let them die?" demands Clark.  "Maybe," mumbles Johnathan.  Let's translate and expand on that: "Yes Clark, your secret is so important that you should have let your friends die a horrible death, thus giving you years of guilt and self hatred. And probably years of therapy a farmer like me can't afford as you have to dealt with PTSD."

In the old movies, there is exactly one scene where Clark speaks to his father.  Clark is frustrated that he has to try and act normal and not stand out, and sit on the sidelines while his schoolmates play, when he could be a star.  "I could score a touchdown every time I got the ball," he said.

"I don' know why you have this gift, son," says Johnathan. "But I am pretty sure it isn't so you can score some touchdowns."  That single line of homespun wisdom tells you everything and every value that Johnathan instilled on his boy.  No wonder he grew up to be the hero he was.

That lesson was carried through to the end moments later in that movie, when Johnathan keels over and dis from a heart attack.  Clark fights back tears at the funeral.  "All my power, and I couldn't save him."  Clark has learnt that even with power as great as his, there are limits to what he can do, and he understands that life is precious, and not his to give.  Therefore, it is also not his to take.

Not so in this movie.  In what had to be the dumbest scene in the movie, Johnathan Kent rushes to save the family dog from a car in the path of a tornado.  Clark, standing with a crowd of people watching, sees that his father will not have time to escape the tornadoes path.  He moves to go to his father, but his father holds up his hand to tell him to stop, his face calm and peaceful.  "It's okay son," he seems to say.  "I don't mind dying to keep your secret.  Remember to keep your secret always."  So Clark does not learn that there are limits to his power.  He can make life and death decisions.   

The sacrifice of Johnathan is pointless, and laughably so, because it seems everyone knows who Superman is before long.  He hugs his mother in full suit and cape as a town cop arrives.  He is recognised by a schoolmate from the bus he saved who now works at the local Ihop.  If the guy at the local Ihop knows who you are, your cover is blown.  Johnathan died in vain, teaching his son the wrong lesson which he ignores before long.

You see it in some little things.  Yes, Clark does go out and save people, but there is also the scene where he steals some clothes because his were mostly destroyed in one of his rescues.  Understandable, perhaps, but I can't help but think that most other incarnations of Superman would have shown him flying back one day to drop off some money for the clothes he took.

And then there is the fight scene.  Of all the scenes, this is both the most awesome- sorry, I mean AWESOME!!!!!- and the most troubling, and it was made doubly so by the hyperreality of the special effects.  The clash between Zod and Superman levels whole buildings around Metropolis, as such a clash of titans must.  And here the plausibility distrubs and terrifies even as we watch the most awesome superfight ever put to screen.  There were people in those buildings.  There had to be.  The death toll must have been in the thousands.  In most versions of such a fight, Superman tries to get the fight to a place where fewer people will be killed.  Here. the fight carries Superman and Zod into space at one point, yet Superman drags it back down to Metropolis.  And where other incarnations of the character show him rushing out of battle to save people- "you'll be safe here, ma'am"- only to get blindsided by the bad guy, this Superman makes no effort to save anyone.  In a lull in the battle, when there must be hundreds trapped in the rubble, whom only Superman can see, hear or save in time, he stops to have a kiss with Lois.  Snapping Zod's neck is almost incidental in comparison.  He has already taken upon himself to decide who lives, who dies, and collateral damage is a regrettable fact of life.  Actively taking a life is merely the final step on curve.

This Superman is a Superman for our age, regrettably.  He is in someways like, and someways unlike the hero of old.  This Superman is strong enough to kill.  The old Superman was strong enough not to.  And that is why that Superman was immeasurably greater than this one.

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