The Fun-tastic Four: The Importance of Tone in Superhero Films

 

The Fun-tastic Four

Dark. Gritty. Bleak.

I’m pretty sure if you ask anyone who has ever read, seen or thought about ‘Marvel’s First Family’ The Fantastic Four to describe them, I highly doubt they’d use these terms.  These are, after all, the super heroes who fly around in a vehicle called ‘The Fantasti-car’

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I dream only of death.

And so, it’s rather unfortunate that Jonathan Trank’s now infamous Fantastic Four embraced this aesthetic so completely.  It’s understandable, given the larger trend in superhero films toward the dark, gritty aesthetic (summed up by Christian Bale’s inability to say more than two lines through his rasp in Dark Knight Rises) that the reboot-response to the fun but toothless 200x Fantastic Four films would be something darker and edgier (particularly given Fox’s success with the darker aesthetic for their X-Men franchise).  

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I *cough choke* came *cough choke* to stop *cough choke, deep breath* you. *dies*

The dark and gritty approach is good, which is easy to forget given how dominant it has become, however it cannot be applied successfully across the board: it is vital to analyse the franchise that this aesthetic is being applied to.  In the case of The Fantastic Four, this is a critical misstep based on the tone of the characters: these are adventurer scientists.  They’re more Star Trek than Watchmen. Their abilities all complement each other, their family bond is strong, and together they solve problems and save the day.  In fact, the best Fantastic Four movie today, in my opinion, was Brad Bird’s The Incredibles, which pretty much sums up the kind of dynamic and tone that permiates the Fantastic Four characters and adventures.

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Hey, looks like Disney owns the rights to the Fantastic Four after all…

So, what went wrong?

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Well, pants, for starters.

There are a number of really good resources about the many behind the scenes hijinks that hurt this film here and here but the short answer is: wigs.

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Frank Underwood does like blondes…

The long answer is a complex mix of artistic differences, inexperienced directors, nosey studios, pretty much everything that could go wrong did.

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Again, wigs.

But I’m going to focus on something else: the fundamental mistake of applying the grit filter to The Fantastic Four and how the older films, though rife with their own issues, come closer to feel of the franchise.  With the new, grim-across-the-board flavour of the DC movie universe, this filter is about to be applied to a lot of franchises and in this post I’m going to flag why this could be problematic.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into Trank’s Fantastic Dour.

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You read that correctly.  I’ll see myself out.

Part One: What Trank Got Right

First, a confession: I enjoyed Trank’s Fantastic Four a lot more than I thought I would.

Statler and Waldorf

I went in like this. “Fantastic Four? More like Fantastic One…star!” OH-HO-HO-HO!

When the movie is working, it works pretty well.  The opening which establishes the friendship between Ben Grimm and Reed Richards is really nice.  Whiplash and Billy Elliot have great chemistry together and the nature of their friendship (Reed’s aloof brilliance, Grimm’s practical resourcefulness) make a lot of sense as to why the super nerd and the moody Bronx junk yard kid become best friends. Despite an incredibly bizarre decision to give the origin of Grimm’s signature “It’s clobberin’ time!” catchphrase to his older brother who yells it before beating up Ben…

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“Hey kid! I AM BATMAN! Cool catchphrase, huh?  You can have it.”

“T-t-thanks, mister…”

the opening has a neat, grounded, two kids tinkering with science vibe that would be at home in a Spielberg film.  Think Hey, Arnold, if they eventually became super heroes.

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Football Head Man and Other Guy! (Please note: Helga is given more value and status in this photo than Sue Storm in the entire film.)

It’s when they are enlisted by the Storm family that things start going bad, really, really fast.  I know it isn’t much, but that opening bit is really nice.  According to most reports, that’s mostly what remains of the original script.  So, uh, yeah.  High five.  While it would be nice to imagine the rest of that script was as good as the opening, it’s hard to imagine the team coming together the way these two friends did.  It’s an intimate, grounded set of scenes and that tone can’t quite carry on into a super hero epic…

…and it didn’t.

Part Two: The Rest in a Nutshell (aka The Bad)

Here’s a quick summary to bring up you up to speed before we get to it:

Reed gets into the Storm program to help make a transdimensional teleporter.  Franklin Storm has been working on it with a team including his daughter Zoe Barnes (Sue Storm) and a genius counter-culture hacker named Victor von Doom who is moodily playing pre-release Assassin’s Creed Syndicate with his mind while also being pissed off about THE MAN.

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…the kids like this, right? -Fox exec

Storm re-enlists the help of Doom and his rebel adrenaline junkie son Johnny Storm (who quickly becomes the ‘backstory, what backstory?’ son Johnny Storm) to help Richards.  They quickly build the thing before THE MAN (Kimmy Schmidt’s father, I defy you to view him as anything else once you’ve seen him in that part) shuts down the program, because THE MAN REASONS in a scene that is almost verbatim lifted from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (where THE MAN shuts down his Green Goblin program, leading to Norman ‘Holy Shit it’s Willem Dafoe’ Osborne to inject himself with the Goblin formula) and Batman Forever’s Riddler scene (where Ace Ventura offs Stan Sitwell for shutting him down) and seen -yet again- in Ant Man where THE MAN shuts down Peter Russo (and he…shrink goos him…?) So, following the trend, Reed, Johnny, and Doom get drunk and decide to travel through themselves.  Reed invites Ben, because they’re BFFs, and no one tells Sue, because her nagging lady-ness will impede their bro-venture.

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Above: The Fantastic Three and Doom. Sigh.

So, they take an ill-advised trip to the alternate dimension, Doom touches some evil goo (having clearly seen Prometheus and thinking that this guy was on-point with his ‘taste the evil black goo’ hypothesis)

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Alien 5 is on hold for this. 

Get blasted by other dimension weirdness (which hits Sue too because she’s nearby.  Not on the adventure, but nearby.  Near the adventure.  As propriety dictates is acceptable for a lady) and make it back, only to wake up in a government facility with powers. Now, THE MAN – having clearly seen X-Men and noting how well the Weapon X program worked out for everyone, decides to militarize the kids.

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Just like Vic Hoskins in Jurassic World with the raptors.  Right? Remember him? No? Yeah, me either.

THE MAN starts his brilliant process with The Thing (who is EXTRA TORTURED in this one…probably because he is lacking pants. We see his butt. A lot.)

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With a tip of the hat to Tina Belcher

THE MAN promises to cure Billy Elliot if he does killin’ work for the military. Reed manages to escape his cell and also promises to help cure The Thing, but needs to escape in order to do so.  Thing doesn’t want him to go and believes this to be a massive betrayal because…reasons? Anyway, Reed fucks off (this program is not his tempo) and so, like Doctor Manhattan or Miller’s Superman in The Dark Knight Returns, The Thing gets deployed to war zones and kills a lot of people (entirely off screen).

The Thing of the comics is a lovable mug with a heart of gold, so this brooding murder spree sits a little oddly.

On the other end of the spectrum, The Human Torch, now magically over his daddy issues (never mentioned again) is SUPER EXCITED about being a murder weapon, but Sue (who can now fly and turn invisible, but still isn’t allowed on science adventures) and her dad are really concerned about THE MAN turning Torch into a monster like Thing (despite Torch being the MOST excited about it).

They manage to track down Reed who is now a master of disguise and inexplicably able to change his skin colour as well as stretch his face into new faces.

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(Not exactly as shown.)

After capturing him (The Thing is SOOOOO pissed) they bring him back just in time for THE MAN’S team to bring Doom back from the other dimension.  His suit is now melted to his face making him look super menacing*

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*And by super menacing…I mean like a crash test dummy.

Doom declares that humanity is the worst and starts bursting heads, kills Daddy Storm, opens a portal between dimensions which (unlike every other portal to date) will destroy Earth for some reason.  Our heroes pursue him, work together and defeat Doom.  Then they decide to name themselves…CUT TO CREDITS!!!

…but actually.

What’s particularly weird about this is the tone shift: we have a film about government overstepping, manipulation, the danger so gaining absolute power without the responsibility right up until Doom returns.  Then the film makes an abrupt about-face, about learning to work together as a team.  While this is closer in tone tone heart of the characters (in that their greatest strength is working together), this was never presented as the problem beyond Reed’s perceived betrayal of Thing by escaping to find help.  The government thing goes away when Doom straight-up murders everyone involved in that plot.

The final line and feeling of ‘look, they’re all pals now!’ doesn’t suit the film that has preceded it. Reed and Sue seem like vaguely cool acquaintances, Thing and Torch seem to genuinely dislike each other, and ultimately they don’t feel like a team let alone Marvel’s First Family at the end of it.

So, now that you have a general overview of this magical dumpster fire of a movie, what about the original?

Part Three: The Fun-tactic Four-gettable First Films

You can be forgiven for not remembering a damn thing about the original Fantastic Four films-

Chris evans

Like the fact that The Human Torch is Captain America…

But in retrospect, the bright and sunny disposition of the original films nails the tone of the characters perfectly. The film accomplishes this by giving all the characters history: Reed and Ben are pals, Ben was Johnny’s commanding officer, Reed and Sue used to date, now she’s with Doom.  It immediately establishes the dynamic that in light of the new film we so desperately need: it also jumps right into the action and hooks our characters up with powers very quickly (as opposed to two-thirds of the way tough the film, like Trank’s). Some of this feels rushed, but it gets us to powers and dynamics in a much more reasonable amount of time.  The film’s major sin is not knowing what to do with itself after gaining the powers.

We get yet ANOTHER ‘we’re shutting you down’/now I revenge kill you all scene with Doom this time around, but at least this Doom echoes his comics counterpart, donning the iconic mask due to a small blemish on his face (one of the most fascinating elements of the Doom mythology is that he wears the metal mask because he was horribly disfigured; the more exciting take on this is that his vanity is such that a small scar on his handsome features is enough to warrant the mask) but falls flat once he is in costume.

And the film just kind of spins its wheels until the inevitable falling out/coming together finale where they defeat Doom.  Where Trank’s is at it’s most plodding when the team is building the dimensional gateway, this one is oddly most boring once they have powers. There’s not really a plot to be found until Doom starts wrecking things, which leads to the film’s entirely forgetable reputation.

But what we do get are generally better characterizations:

Reed Richards and Sue (though Alba remains an odd choice) seem to have a genuine history and (extraordinarily G-rated) love plot of reconciliation; Johnny does very early 2000’s extreme sports, beds lots of ladies, but most importantly teases and pranks The Thing (with whom he shares a genuine begrudging relationship with-thing Gimli and Legolas); and the Thing, though tortured by his appearance, still cares the most about his friends, sacrificing his human form in order to save Reid in the end (a really touching scene-think Samwise to Frodo.)

Fellowship

Maybe I should have just re-watched Fellowship of the Ring

We also get a bunch of fun stuff from the comics, most notably Thing in a trenchcoat: an iconic, if ridiculous disguise. But dammit, it’s a comic book film so it fits.

Thing Trench Coat

Though he somehow looks MORE like a flasher than the other film where he is literally wearing nothing.

With a more substantive and driving plot, this could have been THE Fantastic Four film (though the sequel-which inexplicably has Human Torch becoming Rogue from the X-Men and absorbing people’s powers-reveals the flaws inherent in this lightweight approach. They go from zero to Batman and Robin levels of bonkers bullshit in the blink of an eye).  Nevertheless, for all it’s issues, it’s a much more accurate depiction of the characters.

The Future Foundation: What Comes Next

So, where does that leave us?  Fox insists that it is moving ahead with a soft reboot, possibly with a different cast (looks like we’re in for a revolving door Hulk film situation), there has been some talk of Marvel reclaiming the rights (seems highly unlikely, but then, so did the Spider-Man deal before the Sony hack and flop of Amazing Spider-Man 2).  In the comics, the team has disbanded and the surviving members have joined other teams, but writers like Dan Slott are stoking the flames for an eventual return (he’s read comics before, after all…)

The next film should be tonally somewhere between the X-Men films and Raimi’s Spider-Man 2: playful, big, but with a driving plot. Writers and directors are already chomping at the bit, including Adam McKay (riding high in the wake of his Ant Man rewrite) who seems like he’d be good fit, but I imagine we’ll see Fox focusing on X-Men and Deadpool for a while first (but that’s a story for another night…)

As for Trank’s film, it’s taught us a valuable lesson about the dark and gritty filter: we need to be careful with where we apply it.  As we continue to create new versions of our modern myths, we still need to respect the source material.  There are fundamental truths about these characters that extend beyond their names and their powers (though, credit where it’s due: race need not be one of them, as evidenced by the perfect casting of Michael B. Jordan as The Human Torch) that need to be present or else the film seems like an odd knock-off that just happens to feature characters with the same names.

Anyway, right after watching the Trank film, I was trying to track down the original films. It’s actually damn hard now, as Fox tried to erase them from existence right before the new film’s release (luckily, cable TV still runs it regularly).  What I found was this gif, which if nothing else survives the original film, manages to capture the spirit of the team (for context: the team is going stir-crazy while Reed tries to cure them, so Johnny sets about pranking the Thing in classic ‘shaving cream in one hand, then tickling the face’ fashion):

Torch Thing Prank

It’s simple, it’s classic, and the joy of Chris Evan’s reaction captures the mood and tone of the team. This is the Fantastic Four.  Hopefully next time we see them on screen, they’ll feel more like themselves again.

 

Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement

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EPISODE FOUR: Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement

A heated debate breaks out this week as Tom and Miles dive deep into Genovian politics, Disney Princesses, an evil Gimli/Kirk alliance, and cheap CGI.  Join us as we tear up the horrendous majesty of Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (with surprise musical appearance by Julie Andrews and Raven!)

 

Meet the Fockers

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EPISODE 03: Tom and Miles enter Robert DeNiro’s Circle of Trust, Ben Stiller teaches a baby to swear, and we learn far too much about Dustin Hoffman’s sex life: it’s the sequel no one really asked for, ‘Meet the Fockers’!

Subscribe now on iTunes!

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

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EPISODE 02 He said ‘He’d Be Back’ and man did he deliver! ‘Please Sir’ goes looking for John Connor and admires Robert Patrick’s epic running skills in Terminator 2: Judgement Day!  Come re-experience T2 for the first time with Miles who had never seen either film and Tom, who unfortunately saw T3 and Salvation.

 

 

Please Sir, I Want Some More! A New Podcast from WhaHappen!

People of the internet! Megan Miles and I have launched a brand new podcast where we delve deep into sequels!

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Join us as we explore…
-Continuity: Does the sequel respect the original?
-What Did We Want in a Sequel?
-What Did They Give Us?
-What Did We Love? Hate? Begrudgingly accept?
-Does the Cheese Stand Alone? (Or is it entirely reliant on the previous film?)

And finally, we ask the big question:
Did we actually want more???

A new, weekly podcast! We begin with a return to the pirating antics of Captain Jack Sparrow in…

EPISODE 01: Pirates of the Caribbean-Dead Man’s Chest

Ep 01 – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

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Episode 01 -Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

It’s the adventures of Passive Jack Sparrow as Disney decides that to give every possible thing it’s own plotline!  Learn why Tom hates Cannibal Island and why Miles hates Elizabeth!  The podcast adventure begins!

‘Twas The Night of the Living Dead Before Christmas

Here’s a little festive collaboration between myself and the me of 2011 (who on December 24th ALSO tried to write this and didn’t quite make it all the way through. He also didn’t have a rockin’ cool beard, but he was still a pretty cool dude.) It’s about Santa and some zombies. Apologies for the occasionally wonky rhyming scheme. Best of the season! -Tom

‘Twas The Night of the Living Dead Before Christmas
A Festive Zombie Tale by Tom McGee

’twas the night before Christmas and all through the town,
Not a creature was stirring, neither to smile nor to frown.

As he made his way across the cloudless starry night,
Santa Claus in his sleigh felt ill at ease; something just was not right.

Landing atop the first rooftop with care,
He unsaddled his bag and shook out his hair.

There is a strange scent to the breeze tonight, he thought,
As he checked his list to make sure no child was forgot.

Only two urchins at this place, he nodded and grinned
An easy start to a night he had hardly begin’d.

Down through the chimneys he flew like a flash,
Appearing next to the Christmas tree’s ample gift stash.

Digging into his bag for loot and for cheer,
He didn’t exactly notice the first zombie appear.

As Santa placed a CD dubbed “Nickelback” in bad Timmy’s stocking,
The creature shambled forward, a fat, red-suited meal he was stalking.

But then Santa heard it, the dragging and groans,
He wondered if it was Timmy, here to atone.

“Too late, young man.” He said, not looking up, “You should have been nicer all of the year,
But since coal is so damn expensive now you get this: here!”

And as he thrust out the disk, the zombie did sway,
Poor Santa Claus just couldn’t give those damned Nickelback CDs away.

“Brains!” the beast cried with all of its might,
And only then did Santa realize he was in for a fight.

“Wait a minute!” Santa exclaimed, noticing its slack jaw,
“You’re one of them zombies from that show that I saw!”

But the creature said nothing, not seeming to care,
Wherever zombies come from, they don’t have AMC there.

“Well shit,” muttered Santa, uttering a rare Christmas curse,
(Though horror fans know: only zombies? Santa could have done worse!)

The creature lurched forth, tongue wagging to-and-fro,
Santa straightened himself up and uttered an Ash-like, “Let’s go.”

He began with a jolly old shove of his hand;
Decapitation by terrible, multi-platinum selling album was the plan.

The CD case hit, full of aplomb and of grace,
As Santa stabbed the stupid zombie right in his stupid zombie face.

And with that hit the creature released such a howl,
CD cases sometimes turn out to be as powerful as trowels.

“I hope that’s your brain!” Santa boomed with some glee,
“And that somewhere Bruce Campbell would be proud of me!”

Then Santa pulled back, with one great mittened fist,
But for all of his beginner’s luck, just then the zombie swayed, and Santa missed.

The fist flew wide and the zombie lurched,
Forcing Santa to fall back toward the fireplace…where a fire-poker was perched.

For not the first time, Santa thanked glory and grace,
That some people still had a real, honest-to-goodness fireplace.

As the zombie closed in, Santa grasped at the poker,
Wishing that along he had brought Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker.

Teeth gnashing, head bleeding, the zombie moved in,
If it still had the right tendons, that zombie would grin.

But lo and behold old St. Nick found the poker in his mitt,
And thus the poor zombie’s head Santa began to mercilessly hit.

And he hit it, and hit it, and hit it again…
Until finally Santa’s hundred-year-old-elf arm felt the strain.

Panting and sweating, Santa let the iron fall,
Muttering an action hero-ey “Merry Christmas to y’all.”

But since zombies are like cockroaches, so large in number,
Over to his bulging bag, Santa began to lumber.

For his night was not through, nor Christmas at all saved…
So Santa dragged out his best zombie-killing glaive.

He had meant it for Bruce, or maybe for Romero…
Oh well, Santa thought, there’s always to-marrow!
[…They can’t all be winners, folks.]

Then with a finger to his nose up the chimney he flew,
The halls to deck with the zombies he slew.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his works,
And filled all the stockings with dead zombie jerks.

Up and down the lane-way he went,
And from nave to chaps, the zombies he rent:

The Wilsons’, the Davis’, the Ferguson’s, and more,
He killed each and every zombie; through their corpses he tore.

When finally, blood-soaked, from head down to toe,
He arrived at the house of a fella named Moe.

“Dammit, Santa!” Moe yelled from his porch, “Where ya been?
I’ve already killed fifty-five fucking zombies…what a scene!”

And to this the gore-soaked Santa merely sighed,
“I’m Santa Claus, motherfucker, and I just re-killed everyone who has ever died.”

Moe had not considered this horrible task,
But he still had one thing more of Santa to ask.

“Fair enough, Mr. Claus, and I’m sorry to ask, it’s true,
But you don’t happen to have a zombie cure in that sack, do you?”

And at that very moment, Santa had such a fright,
For it was then that he saw Moe’s infected zombie bite.

“I’m sorry, dear Moe,” Santa said with a frown,
“You’re on my nice list, only forty five names down;

“And whilst my gift this year might seem as though I’ve lost track…
My gift for you, dear Moe, is to make sure you don’t come back.”

And with that, Santa sank his blade deep in Moe’s forehead,
Ensuring that no more zombies would rise before bed.

With a satisfied nod, Santa stowed his weapon away,
Having learned a double meaning of the term ‘to sleigh.’

He’d left a path of destruction both wide and deep,
And now was the hour that he could safely head off to sleep.

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like a festive heat-seeking missile.

It had not been the Silent Night that he’d thought,
Nor did he deliver all the presents (that all the parents had bought),

But dammit, he thought, this was a Christmas for the ages,
A zombie slaying Christmas for the history pages.

He’d fought the good fight and killed all the ghouls-
Would that he could have stopped those Umbrella Corp. fools!

But what was done was done, and indeed so was he,
After placing a decapitated head atop the gore-soaked tree.

And to the twice-dead zombie horde he yelled ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good zombie-free night!”

Bat Affleck: The Controversy that Ignores the Point

So.  Ben Affleck is Batman.

It has been a long time since the casting of a superhero role caused as much of a collective groan and snarl from the legion of both filmic and comic fans (I think the last big one was the casting of Keanu Reeves in Constantine…)

constantineYep, close enough.

Immediately the Internet was alight with nerd rage, amplified by the fans of the Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy, whose only point of comparison for Batman is Christian Bale.  Instead we get Affleck.  Gigli‘s Ben Affleck.  Hero of the Michael Bay-verse for much of the early 2000’s.  Star of the horrendous Daredevil film.  Most recently, guy who directs movies about Boston accents and who forgets Canada had a role in that whole Argo affair (that was, you know, facilitated by the Canadian ambassador…)

“Why the hell is Ben-fucking-Affleck playing Batman?” the Internet demanded.

But to my mind, we’re asking the wrong question: everyone is so fixated on who got cast, that we’re ignoring the greater question (particularly in-light of the Man of Steel film): what kind of Batman are we getting and why?

If we’re getting the Batman I think we are, Affleck is a pretty damn good choice; but we can argue about that later.  First, let’s take a look at what we know…

50 SHADES OF BATMAN

Batman has been around a long time and a lot of artists have had a hand in crafting the stories that have become the legacy of the bat.  For example…

Kane BatmanCriminals shall fear me…?

This is the original design for Batman, as imagined by the credited creator of the Dark Knight, Bob Kane.  It wasn’t until un-lauded hero Bill Finger suggested a re-design that we got the Batman we now know and love.  As a result, there have been many, many incarnations of Batman across the mediums, from comics, to cartoons, to films (and perhaps most importantly, in the imaginings and play acting of kids…who grow up to be fans…and write blogs…). Consequently, every incarnation chooses which elements to focus on and develop, allowing for a large amount of variation, despite the character being fundamentally the same.  Grant Morrison offers this helpful summation of the eras of Batman in comics:

“[I was researching Batman’s rich history] from the savage, young, pulp-flavored ‘weird figure of the dark’ of his early years, through the smiling, paternal figure of the 1940s and the proto-psychedelic crusader of the ’50s, the superhero detective of the ’60s, the hairy-chested globetrotting adventurer of the ’70s, to the brutally physical vigilante of the ’80s and snarling, paranoid soldier of the ’90s.” (Morrison, Batman Incorporated Special #1)

The 60’s show brought us the wacky antics of the Golden Age comics (Batman meets the Native American Man of Bats!) In the films, we get a vaguely militaristic Batman in the 1989 Tim Burton film, a quirkier, cartoonist Batman in Forever, and buddy cop Batman in Batman and Robin.  The cartoon takes an interesting mix, bringing more of a noir/detective sensibility to the character and also bringing us a more developed and present Bruce Wayne (one of the most singularly interesting facets of which was both Bruce and Batman referring to all his villains by their first names, rather than their super villain names.  It’s a small touch, but an important one as Batman refuses to put up with their super villain non-sense…despite the whole ‘being dressed as a bat’ thing).

Which brings us to the Nolan Batman.  Nolan’s Batman draws its inspiration most heavily from Frank Miller’s seminal Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, both of which are regarded as cornerstones of the mythology.  Year One features a younger, less experienced Batman training in martial arts and beginning to fight the mob corruption of Gotham (sound familiar?).  Dark Knight Returns, on the other hand, explores the opposite end of the spectrum, with a retired Batman returning to seize control of a Gotham in chaos, eventually faking his death in order to continue his work in secret (sound familiar as well?).  In order to create his trilogy, Nolan draws from many of the strongest arcs and villains in the Batman universe: we get Ra’s Al Ghul and Talia Al Ghul, two of the most important (though generally unknown to non-readers) villains in the rogue’s gallery (Talia is the mother of Bruce’s ill-fated son -and most recent Robin- Damian).  The multi-issue arc No Man’s Land saw Gotham cut off from America by an earthquake and becoming its own nation ruled by gangs (one of which was led by Commissioner Gordon) in lieu of an absentee Batman…until people start marking the walls with his logo signalling his return.  With Bane, he brings in the Knightfall arc, which involved Batman’s spine being broken and cataloged the psychological toll recovery took on him (of particular note was his sudden reluctance to leap off buildings.  A nice touch in an otherwise ham-fisted story).  These are many of the fundamental stories about Batman and make for a fairly fascinating survey of the past few decades of stories…so what do you do now?

Scooby and BatmanI smell an Oscar…

My guess is that you explore Detective Batman.  Bale’s Batman was very much a brawler and a thug, like Daniel Craig’s Bond in Casino Royale: Bale’s Batman lets others (namely Lucius Fox) do the thinking for him, rushing headlong into many fights full of piss and vinegar, leading to Rachel’s death in the second film and his back breaking in the third.  There’s very little detection, but plenty of reaction; it’s a passionate, fierce performance, but lacks the intelligence element of Batman.  This is a superhero who can, at times, operate more like Sherlock Holmes than Bruce Lee.  So, when rebooting a character so soon after an iconic take, it would make sense to explore this element of the character -as yet untapped in the live films- particularly when placing him next to a physical powerhouse like Superman.

With as iconic (and complete) a trilogy as Nolan’s Dark Knight series, you cannot simply reboot the character with a focus on the same elements: this is a fundamental issue in the new Spider-Man films; which present a better take on Peter, perhaps, but generally a worse universe and one not dissimilar enough from Raimi’s to warrant the reboot.  They’re telling many of the same stories, but with a few details and players changed. Not good enough.  Many people discussed the potential for a Batman Beyond film, something so different from Nolan’s that it could stand on its own.

Including Batman in the Man of Steel series is a clever workaround: it allows us to examine Batman through a different lens, not as THE hero of the film, but A hero of the film; something that is frequently visible in team books like Justice League and help us re-examine what specifically makes Batman Batman.

Thus, in order to figure out what kind of Batman we’re getting, we need to examine the film we’re getting him in: what kind of Batman lives in the Man of Steel universe?

Well, Zac Snyder has given us a pretty damn good clue:

REMEMBER MY HANDS
“I want you to remember, Clark, in all the years to come, in your most private moments.  I want you to remember my hand at your throat.  I want you to remember the one man who beat you.

In the press conference announcing Superman/Batman, the above line was spoken following the logo reveal.  This immediately set the Internet alight, as the fight that line concludes is one of the most epic ever featured in a comic book: Batman and Superman come to blows in a fight to the death.  Crazy.  (There’s a passable film version, if you’re interested, but please ignore Peter ‘Robocop’ Weller’s horrendous Batman voice). The line is delivered after Batman has defeated Superman, re-emphasizing that using his brain and technology, a human has defeated a god.  This is the grand climax of The Dark Knight Returns and the best example of a Batman and Superman fight ever.

VaderBatmanWell, except that time Darth Vader used the Force to convince Superman to fight Batman, Spider-Man, and Boba Fett…but that’s a story for another night…

That this line is the one used signals a lot of info about what we can expect (particularly given that Frank Miller is said to be consulting on the film). I gave Dark Knight Returns a re-read the other day and was surprised at how much has already been used in the Dark Knight Rises; we’ve seen reclusive, reluctant old-man Batman return to the fight and Nolan even included a verbatim set of lines (when the old cop tells the young cop that they’re in for a show) in the film.  What’s left is the entire political undertone and Superman plot, which are an incredible, incredible resource, particularly given the close relationship Man of Steel has developed with the US military.

In a nutshell: Reagan (who is ancient and uses an avatar to do his PR appearances) has been using Superman -the last, licensed superhero- to help win the Cold War (think Dr. Manhattan in Watchman).  The rest of the heroes were out on trial and generally decided to go their separate ways (Wonder Woman returned to the Amazons, Green Lantern to space), with only Superman still working…justifying the acts of war he is carrying out by the ‘doing the most good for the most people’ argument.  Batman, meanwhile, has been defiant, retiring out of guilt over Jason Todd (the second Robin)’s death (which was determined by fans calling in to vote.  LOL)

SeacrestNow if only we could vote on Seacrest…

Now, his return and large scale vigilante actions (he recruits an army) has forced the government’s hand and Superman is sent in to take him down.

The dynamic at work here is awesome and fairly characteristic of how Batman and Superman differ: Superman, the big blue boyscout, is not concerned with the big picture, failing to grasp the greater politics at work (as Bruce says, “You let them do it.  I always knew you would…I’ll assume Russia has taken the lead in the arms race.  I keep track of these things, Clark.  One of us has to.”)

Batman, on the other hand, has been keeping track of the global situation, but simply doesn’t care, focused instead on his personal crusade in Gotham. Superman works with the authorities, Batman defies them.  Superman is a trusted weapon in the army’s arsenal, Batman ends up spending half his time fighting the police force in Gotham.

This dynamic is a useful basis for what we can reasonably expect from Superman/Batman given the heavy military presence and co-operation in Man of Steel (drone killing excepted): we already have a Superman who could reasonably be expected to co-operate with the military, so we will likely see a Batman who is on bad terms with the law and has perhaps detected something sinister about the motives of those commanding Superman (think Tony Stark’s paranoia about S.H.I.E.L.D. compared to Captain America’s trust and faith in The Avengers).

This is not to suggest that Superman is blindly naive (though he can be) nor that Batman is an infallible genius (though he can be), but to suggest that emphasizing Superman’s faith in people and in doing the right thing against Batman’s paranoia and push to seek the truth yields great dramatic results and ultimately makes them great partners (and friends!)

THE_SUPERFRIENDS_1973_-_1974

But what could bring Batman to Metropolis and who could maneuver Batman against Superman?

Well, there’s this bald guy…

heisenburgREMEMBER MY NAME!

My good friend -and film aficionado- Andrew Kelly presented a useful scenario: both Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne are giants of industry; people who would likely be instrumental in the rebuilding of a city…say one that has just been decimated by General Zod.

Zod…Who everyone forgot to kneel before, in this one…

Also, since the relaunch in the New 52 (and indeed many of the Batman comics leading up to it, notably The Gates of Gotham and The Return of Bruce Wayne) Bruce Wayne has been focusing his non-crime fighting hours on building a better Gotham; like Luthor, he is now a viable business man to compete for or assist in the rebuilding of Metropolis.  This leads me to think we’ll need a more competent Bruce Wayne than Bale’s, who despite some entertaining moments seemed a bit like an afterthought.  In this, Affleck makes a lot of sense; the aging playboy with natural charm, though a bit rough around the edges.  Maybe Gotham is in New England?

As to Luthor and Batman: Luthor makes perfect sense in any mythology as a business man, but he is also is particularly well suited to the ‘alien paranoia’ argument presented throughout Man of Steel.  Luthor is always at his best when his overwhelming frustration at observing a being that is beyond human perfection drives him to commit evil acts: Luthor considers himself close to human perfection, but he cannot be Superman, an alien who is essentially cheating with powers to be the best.  This ‘us-vs-them’ mentality fits the Kryptonians showed up and tried to commit planet-wide genocide events of Man of Steel and thus opens us an interesting angle for Batman as well: Luthor can likely bring the ‘there’s a super powered alien playing judge, jury, and executioner running around Metorpolis…how do you feel about that?’ argument, which is awesome.  In Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ incredible Kingdom Come, Luthor forms a Human Rights League to band together and defeat the meta-humans, even convincing Bruce Wayne to join (albeit, as a feint), which again presents a very Man of Steel friendly scenario.

Also, Luthor is probably going to be Bryan Cranston.  Awesome.  Maybe Batman will come to Metropolis to break up Luthor’s meth operation?

This brings us around to another major point of contention we have now (and really, only in this mythology): Superman is now, very publicly, a killer.  If there’s one thing Batman can’t abide, it’s killing.

153098_v3(Except a brief period early in his career, where it was pretty much ‘kill ’em all for justice!’  …we generally ignore this period.)

In Kingdom Come, there is a beautiful argument between Superman and Batman, with Superman trying to convince Batman to aid him in putting a stop to the out-of-control younger generation of meta humans, who are killing wantonly.

“We aren’t killers, that’s why…” Etc etc

In fact, in the comics, Wonder Woman is the part of the DC ‘Trinity’ who crossed the line in the Infinite Crisis, killing a villain to huge debate from the League (this is a key point in Kingdom Come as well).  As an Amazonian warrior, the ‘war’ with super villains takes a different tone that both Batman and Superman actively oppose.  But now Superman is the killer, in a war scenario, but a killer nonetheless.  This above statement (one that sums up many fans’ frustrations with Man of Steel), is not valid in this new mythology: how our new Batman reacts to this will be instructive.

BatpunchHere’s my guess.

In a recent statement, a DC exec said we’ll be seeing a ‘QUOTE’, which seems to support the arguments above.  It dodges the pitfall of having to rehash an origin we’ve all seen one too many times (how awesome would more ‘super hero in progress’ movies be?  Here’s a hint: unless it has Nazi-hunter Magneto, pretty damn awesome) and allows us to explore a jaded, but established Batman in opposition to the newly minted Superman of Man of Steel.  Affleck’s role in The Town, which was well played though ultimately forgettable (partially because I liked the movie more when it was called Heat), was quite similar to this and he was great in it.  He’s an actor who has seen a lot, hit the bottom careerwise, and earned his way back with great roles, great direction, and greater humility.  We will not be seeing Daredevil era Affleck; we’re getting an actor we know has charm and presence, but has also seen some rough times.  He’s at a perfect place in his career (now out of the woods) to be able to use those hard times to inform a long-fighting Batman who is already kind of tired when a super powered being arrives on the scene.  I suspect we’ll be seeing a greater emphasis on Bruce Wayne and Affleck seems like a good fit; his slightly weary bearing is a great counterpoint for the steely optimism of Henry Cavill’s Superman.  It is also instructive that Josh Brolin was also up for the role-he would make a great world-weary Bruce Wayne, but I have a harder time thinking of him in the cowl.  From Daredevil, we already know Affleck can carry that (and to be fair, the cast -aside from Colin Farrell- was not the problem with Daredevil…the script and pacing were horrendous, but Affleck and Clark Michael Duncan were solid).

Ultimately, I don’t envy the casting directors who have to pick a new Batman.  It’s a delicate balancing act, let alone all the concerns of a new script and reboot, and you’re casting for a decade, not a film (don’t be surprised if Wonder Woman shows up at the end of the film…maybe played by Samuel L Jackson).  Superman/Batman is the next step toward Justice League (which was kicked further down the field by the absolute failure of Green Lantern, which was trying pretty hard to be a Marvel movie and was meant to be the start of the shared DC universe).  Affleck obviously has big boots to fill, but he’s filling them as part of a team and ensemble, not alone.  A lot of the pressure will be mitigated by having the focus shared between Superman and Batman hopefully offering him a chance to make a Batman all his own.

There is, of course, a chance that he will be terrible.  Or merely okay, which could be worse, but there was a time when the world was pretty upset that that kid from A Knight’s Tale was going to be playing the Joker.

Whether Affleck succeeds or fails remains to be seen, but it’s a mistake to assume he’ll be playing the same character as Christian Bale: we’re getting a new Batman.

And I’m pretty damn sure it’ll be better than Constantine.

Wonder L JackWomanAnd now this.

***

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN…

There’s also a neat script floating around the Internet about the failed Superman/Batman film from a few years ago, which involves Bruce Wayne’s wife dying, Lex Luthor unleashing a clone Joker, and ends with Batman suggesting they get a beer and Superman asking to go for soda instead.  It’s a really strange buddy cop film with superheroes.  Read all about it over at Geek Tyrant.

I Went to a Science Centre and an Arcade Broke Out: Game On 2.0 at the Science Centre

The Ontario Science Centre has always been an important part of my life: My earliest field trip memories involve walking the (seemingly infinite) concrete entrance walkway always seemed like the start of an adventure. Like I was heading into a secret lair of a mad scientist or Bond villain.

blofeld1His scheme? Trick you into learning with an awesome IMAX movie!

I remember thinking I could run forever down that hallway, which now feels about two metres long. It was also the location of my first date with the fiancé, when we realized we’d been dating for a month and never actually been ON a date. It was charming and strangely romantic, though I lost some points for picking an unfortunately boring IMAX film about the Hubble Telescope.

Amidst this sea of warm, nostalgic feelings, the last thing I ever expected I’d do at the Ontario Science Centre is beat the Satellite level on GoldenEye 64.

photoI went to a science centre and an arcade broke out.

Game On 2.0 is a strange beast of an exhibit, characteristic of the new age of mainstream nerd-dom, the likes of which would have been impossible to imagine even 10 years ago. The exhibit is essentially a curated arcade of gaming consoles throughout the ages, from Plinko through Pong, through Japan’s MSX and the great NES vs Sega Master System war, from the Dreamcast to the WiiU. There are even some concept pieces, from the incredible motion based Joust (more on that in a minute) to the Virtusphere, which allows you to operate as a mouse in virtual space. (and it kinda looked like the Death Star. Which is awesome.) Here’s a video of my buddy Dustin Freeman exploring it.

Throughout, there are plaques with information about the various games, genres, systems, and trends; and its here where the flaws of this unique experience become apparent. The info is rather haphazardly set, following no real flow or system and thus being generally inaccessible. They also spelled PlayStation wrong throughout (‘Playstation.’ Woof.) which is just plain sloppy; but also speaks to the greater strangeness of the exhibit itself.

Video game scholarship is still in its infancy and here we see the beginnings of how museum exhibits of the future will treat games. Sure, the info (and the flow of the exhibit itself) are a bit of a mess, but the fact that these games are on display in the first place is a marvel. These things, once viewed merely as distractions and wastes of time, are being treated instead as a cultural force and in many cases legitimate works of art (which is still a hotly contested view, as evidenced by this great clash of the late, great Roger Ebert and the entire body of the Internet)

What the exhibit gets right (and oh so right) is creating a massive arcade feeling, with hundreds of people playing a variety of games in full view of passerbys. The atmosphere of public gaming has shifted considerably over the years, going from the public showmanship of proper arcade games, to trading controllers back and forth and watching each other play single player games in a living room, to Dance Dance Revolution, to the private gaming of the early console era, to the now greatly public web videos of Twitch.tv, Let’s Play, and even Killcam replays in Call of Duty (showing you the viewpoint of the player who just killed you. Often fascinating, always frustrating), and finally the televised eSports of Korea, where StarCraft is the second national sport after baseball.

I was shocked by how stressful and exhilarating it was playing Super Mario World in full view of random passerbys, who commented, “Oh, I remember that enemy. I hated that guy.” (In reference to those damn helmeted Koopas who throw baseballs). I was aware of the scrutiny of my audience and it made the stakes much higher on the game. I think this was generally true throughout the exhibit, where the players became part of the installation during their playthroughs. It was a fascinating shift of the private sphere into the public and was generally awesome.

photo-1As The Fiancé found out, right after me.

I also got the rare joy of an adult generation of gamers, now parents, expressing supreme frustration at their kids’ lack of ability at Sonic 3 on Genesis. The same way my Dad could school me proper at Pong or Space Invaders, the new generation of parents are watching in horror as the games they mastered as kids straight up own their kids.

N00BS.

There were constant utterances (many of them mine) of “I remember that game!” I realized that I spent a bunch of time playing Monkeyball on GameCube at university that I completely forgot about until I saw it in action. I introduced the fiancé to Bubble Bobble (or Bust-A-Move) which I had spent many, many fond hours playing with my friend Sarah in high school when our 3 Hour Unlimited cards at Playdium continued to work only on that machine.

Recognizing and playing games from all corners of my past was a rare joy; I learned a lot about my history as a gamer that we often miss, now that all games are available in some form on something. By curating the game list, I was confronted with these games, rather than having to seek them out and that was both pleasant and surprising. It was the perfect blend of nostalgia and history (in particular, a series of five Street Fighter games, from the first on up to the most recent was a fascinating look at how a franchise evolved.)

I also got to try something I’ve been hankering for since I saw it demoed at PAX last year: a game called Joust, where players each hold a PlayStation Move and try to keep it as steady as possible while attempting to shake other players’.

photo-6War of the Wands

It’s a full contact game of tag and is a tonne of fun (particularly with greater numbers; PAX had something ridiculous like 50 players in each game. We had five). The Fiancé reigned triumpant for the most part, owning both me and fellow blogger Alex Kerr, though the intrepid random kid who joined us took the final game.

photo-5Full contact video games with a random kid.  Yay, science!

In addition to being the best use of the PlayStation Move to date, it was a fascinating application of gaming technology to the greater idea of play. There is a lot of great indie work like this happening with the Move and the Microsoft Kinect (some of which is being done by the talented and endlessly interesting Dustin Freeman. Check out his site for more info!) I was very pleasantly surprised to see this at the exhibit as it spoke specifically to the indie gap that was fairly prominent throughout. Where was Minecraft?

Speaking of gaps, notably missing were such genre changers as Wolfenstein 3D, StarCraft, Halo, ICO/Shadow of the Colossus, and Call of Duty. Granted, these are very mature games (though there was one Halo station, speaking to multiplayer, but it lacked the kind of critical analysis that such a game warrants.) but even a visual display of the games would have been useful. It was a noticeable gap, particularly given the outrageous popularity of online shooters.

There was also a strange lack of mobile games (aside from an awesome handheld console display); which is particularly odd given that mobile gaming has completely infiltrated modern Western life (many top paid CEOs take gaming breaks to help re-energize them when they hit a mid-day slump. Awesome.)

Which leads me to my favorite moment of the exhibit. While walking past a seated racing game, I noticed that the girl at the console wasn’t playing the racing game. Instead, she was playing Candy Crush.

photo-2Yep.  Amazing.

This pretty much sums up what’s so great about gaming: at the end of the day, no matter how many magical and historically important games there are, ultimately, we want to play what we enjoy. It was a pretty trippy moment and I was glad to capture it.

So. A mixed bag, work in progress, but certainly an interesting and worthwhile one. While the exhibit has closed, you can soon read an alternate account over at Socially Scientific, by professional exhibit designer and science-y guy extrodinare, Alex Kerr (not sure when, he’s a busy guy.  But in the meantime, check out some of the other awesome stuff on his site!)

And so I find myself playing GoldenEye at the Ontario Science Centre: adding the experience of playing a game that has meant so much to me to a place that has meant so much throughout my life.

The level is oddly reminicent of the Science Centre itself; long hallways, lots of stairs, mostly grey concrete, though there were admittedly fewer Soviet soldiers, which is probably for the best.

I’m grabbing the familiar body armour, detonating the C4 for fun, and as the elevator doors close as fire consumes the non-chalant, blocky Bond I realize something that would have delighted the bowl-cut sporting, chubby blonde kid that used to think he could run forever through that mysterious concrete entrance hallway: I found my secret Bond villain lair after all.

*With special thanks to The Fiance, Alex Kerr, Dustin Freeman, and that Random Kid for being a part of the adventure.

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.

Toronto BatmanOr, to eat Beef Jerky. HIS PARENTS ARE DEAD!!!

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.

superman waiting As I said, fuck that guy. Right?

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.