Man of Steel: How We Got What We Want And Lost What We Need.
It’s hard not to feel inspired when you hear the first few bars of John Williams’ legendary Superman theme. Like the hero itself, it seems to ask you to be better than yourself.
Better than you think you can be.
This tone, embodied by Superman since his inception during the Great Depression, is perhaps why there is so much controversy surrounding Man of Steel’s depiction of Superman. When the Batman films were rebooted with Nolan’s Batman Begins, the series shed the light, playful tone that had permeated the franchise since Batman Forever and thus regained some of the character’s credibility; we’ve always been okay with silly Batman (as emphasized by the truly spectacular digital comic Batman ’66) but we were ready for a more serious, more violent Dark Knight. This is, after all, a vigilante prone to brooding, leaving without saying goodbye, and beating enemies to within an inch of their life to avenge his dead parents.
But then there’s his counterpoint: Superman. The Man of Tomorrow. The Man of Steel. An alien raised by honest, salt-of-the-earth parents to inspire and lead. Instead of lurking in the shadows, he wears the brightest colours he can find. He actively presents himself as a hero of the people and is often found helping out ordinary people.
Superman’s film history has been lighthearted and extremely unpredictable…for every “Kneel before Zod!” we have a Superman IV. Woof. Through it all, we get an inspiring, heroic Superman, ready to save the world and save us from ourselves.
But then something went wrong…both on film and in comics. After spawning an entire industry of imitators and counterpoints, we grew tired of the original. The smiling, posturing, happy-go-lucky (though lonely) Man of Steel began to frustrate us. Fuck this guy, right?
Part of the problem was that our morality started to shift: we tired of black and white, good/evil stories, as our own access to information allowed us greater and greater insight into things we thought we could believe in (NSA, anyone?) We dig anti-heroes (hi, Batman!) and increasingly thirst for vigilante justice (in fiction…the Zimmerman trial result speaks to our disgust with vigilante actions in real life).
But then there’s Mr. America, Superman. Asking us to believe. In ourselves, in something greater.
Which brings us to Man of Steel. It’s an interesting movie, though problematic. First and foremost, this is the ‘Superman vs…’ movie we’ve been waiting for (that is, until the forthcoming Superman VS Batman movie…which will be the best AROUND!). Super-powered heroes are often hard to pair up, since a regular punch from Superman should kill a mortal. The fights are incredible. Fast, varied, and all kinds of awesome. There are also some perfect moments (generally whenever Cavill actually gets to BE Superman) or the truly heart-breaking moment where Pa Kent sees Clark as a kid with a cape on.
In moments like these, the film manages to capture the very essence of Superman, summed up wonderfully in the striking image of the Man of Steel in handcuffs that can’t possibly hold him, but showing the humility and grace that mark our hero.
There’s a bunch of awesome stuff here.
But then there are the problems.
How deep these problems run has somewhat yet to be seen; much like the gradual build of James Bond over the rebooted films, the implication seems to be that this film is about the shaping of Clark Kent/Superman into the character we know (and indeed, in the scenes where he is Superman and the scene where Clark Kent is actually reporter Clark Kent we see how this could go). However, to get there, we basically have to endure a selfish, inconsiderate Clark…which I found particularly troubling during all of his “Hey Mom, guess what? I found my real parents!” scenes –which feels like most of them- as he completely ignores his adoptive parents’ feelings and contributions to his life. Yes, yes, youthful ignorance (I heard the same defence of Harry’s constant whining in Order of the Phoenix), but the strange scatter-shot of flashbacks generally only gives us this version of Clark. I found myself desperately missing the farmboy hero lurking beneath the surface…a lot of characters tell us that he’s like that (and we see heroic actions), but rarely do we catch even a glimpse of what motivates them other than ‘I have superpowers. Canz use?’
To a large extent, the first half of this film feels like a Wolverine movie without the claws.
This angrier, broodier Superman seems to be more in-line with our aforementioned shift away from black/white morality and yet sits ill-at-ease. We wanted a darker tone (Metropolis gets destroyed, thousands die), we wanted a more vicious hero (whose very existence is toted as world ending and who snaps the villain’s neck), and yet we find this Superman lacking.
The answer, I think, lies in the now famous line from The Dark Knight: optimistic Superman isn’t the hero we want, but he is the hero we need.
Angry broody Batman feels right. It fits his backstory, his motivation, and his actions just fine…but we want our Superman to be better. We want to be generally frustrated with his ‘always looking forward for humanity’ attitude, because he can hold it when we cannot. Much like Gene Roddenbury’s hopeful science fiction future in Star Trek (also lost in the new films, which are much broodier…as were the later shows), we look to Superman not to reflect our own attitudes about humanity or heroes, but to give us something to aspire toward. It is often easy to forget this, behind the shiny blue and red veneer (and godlike powers which, admittedly, made him my least favorite superhero growing up), but the reason Superman is an enduring hero isn’t because he is faster than a speeding bullet, or can leap tall buildings in a single bound (which later became flight because…comics); it’s because the Big Blue Boyscout is actually damn inspiring.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to say ‘fuck that guy.’
Perhaps we kind of need him right now.
Now go blare the John Williams theme at top volume…it might just make you want to save the world.
Or at least do the laundry.