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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Revisiting Man of Steel And What Superman Is Really About

The recently-released film Batman vs. Superman, Dawn of Justice has been the subject of much criticism, some of it that has led to remarks about how the film's director, Zack Snyder, doesn't like Superman. Those who liked the film counter by saying that isn't true, that Snyder has crafted a story that stays true to Superman's roots and that critics are essentially too worried about having a particular vision in place.

I haven't seen BvS yet but I have seen Man of Steel. When I watched MoS for the first time, I thought it was fine but I didn't feel compelled to watch it again. That is, until I ran across it available on DVD for $7.50 and figured it was worth adding to my collection at that price.

I have read spoilers of BvS and won't get into them, but I did watch Man of Steel again to refresh my memory about the film and see whether or not the critics of that film or the strong supporters were right about it. As it turns out, both sides have valid points, but I believe the strong supporters are getting too caught up in the criticism that "Zack Snyder hates Superman" that they aren't willing to acknowledge the flaws for themselves.

I don't believe Zack Snyder "hates" Superman. I do believe that Zack Snyder doesn't understand Superman enough to make his own vision for the character work. I'll touch upon a few things regarding why I believe that to be the case. First, though, I want to look at some things that worked well in Man of Steel.

* I liked the concept of Superman learning about his powers and how to control and harness them. This actually leads to a fun scene in the film in which Superman learns to fly for the first time, eventually figures out how to do it, and you can sit back and share his joy of flying around the world.

* I liked how Zod was portrayed. Zod isn't a generic "I want to take over the world" type; he's more complex than that. But that's how most dictators are: They do have a few valid points, but their weakness is that they have a grander agenda on their minds and are willing to resort to any depths to fulfill it. They use the valid points to drum up support for their agendas, then use that support to defend why those agendas are justified. This is what Zod is at his heart: He wants Krypton to survive (a noble idea) but his methods to go about it are what most people find unacceptable.

* I liked that they put Lois Lane into the loop from the start, in learning about Clark Kent first, rather than Superman first. A long time criticism of the Superman comic books was that Lois couldn't figure out Superman and Clark Kent were the same person, so why bother dragging that point along in the relaunch of the film franchise?

* The action scenes are certainly intense, some of the best done in a Superman film. Those who had been waiting for Superman to have an epic confrontation with the villain got their wishes.

Now, to what I find are the weaknesses of the film, the ones I think the ardent supporters overlook in their attempts to defend the film.

* First, there aren't enough lighthearted moments in the film, the type that remind you that Superman is a comic book character and that there will be some jokes dropped from time to time. There are a couple of moments that make you think "that's so cool" (the first time he learns to fly) or give you a chuckle, but the tone can be too serious for its own good.

* Superman, at his heart, is supposed to be trying to represent what is best about Kryptonians and best about humanity. He gets this from what he learns about Krypton from Jor-El and what he learns about Earth from Jonathan and Martha Kent.

Snyder is effective in illustrating how Jor-El, while a flawed individual, can discuss what was good about Krypton while recognizing the mistakes Kryptonians made, and believing that his son Kal-El can represent what was good about Krypton while giving an example for humans to follow. But he's not as effective at doing this with the Kents. You see it at times, but not enough.

The Kents are portrayed more as people who are afraid of what will happen to Clark Kent if more people find out what he can do, than they are about trying to instill what is good about humanity while cautioning Clark that not everyone he meets will immediately think of his powers as something cool or a benefit to mankind. It's fine for them to mention some would rather control Clark because they think he's dangerous, and certainly to mention some would want to use his powers in a way that doesn't benefit mankind.

No better example comes after a young Clark saves a busload of his fellow students from drowning in a river. I can understand that Snyder might want to get the point across that it would be tough for parents who see their child doing superhuman feats about what he should or shouldn't do, but rather than having Jonathan imply that "maybe" Clark shouldn't have saved those kids, he could say to a young Clark, "I know you want to help, I don't want you to just let somebody die, but you need to be careful how often this happens because you don't want the wrong person to learn about you and treat you as somebody to control or exploit."

* While I understand the point about Superman having to learn how to control his powers, there are some inconsistencies with how he handles himself in his first battle with Zod and his followers. At times, you see him trying to get innocent bystanders to get away from the scene or even attempt to help them, but the next thing you know, he takes an action that could actually put those bystanders into harm's way. It's this inconsistency that I believe bothers a lot of the critics. There could be an argument that Superman is learning as he goes, but it's not conveyed well enough. And if you are too focused on wanting a great action scene and not enough on how the character approaches the action, you will find it harder for viewers to understand or accept what you want to convey.

* The point about how Superman does not kill: There is a key word to add to that statement, so here's how it is: Superman does not kill indiscriminately. The times that he has killed are rare and it has been made clear that it's a last resort. (For those who bring up his actions in the New 52 comics, that's been a major reason why many comic book fans have complained about his New 52 portrayal.) But in order for his decision to kill to be accepted, you need to do a careful job building up to it.

The comic book writers did this when Superman first fought Doomsday in the comics, spending multiple issues establishing that Doomsday was a heartless, soulless monster whose only instinct was to kill. It's made clear through writing that Doomsday has killed multiple people and can match power with Superman, so it becomes clear that Superman doesn't have a choice but to deliver a deadly blow to Doomsday. In Man of Steel, we get the idea that Zod has no qualms with wiping out the human race so he and his followers can re-establish themselves on Earth, but we don't actually establish that Zod has actually killed a human, and the build to when he is about to do so isn't built to well enough. Why not just have Zod charge the first human he sees and have Superman make multiple attempts to fend him off if you want to accomplish that?

Honestly, the whole point of the final battle between Superman and Zod seems to be Snyder's wishes to have the two engage in a one-on-one throwdown, but it's not really necessary. I don't believe there was a need for that final battle and I would have been fine with Superman yanking Zod out of the scout ship after he zaps it with his heat vision and engaging in a battle in the skies, before the singularity is formed and starts pulling Zod in. Heck, if you want, you can still have Superman saving Lois and have Zod try to pull them along with him into the singularity, only for Superman to pull away at the last second.

But back to the point: The thing about Superman and the majority of superheroes out there is that they always try to find a way to avoid killing their adversary. They don't always succeed, but just because there are times when they don't succeed, doesn't mean they jump right to that line of defense the next time they confront the villain. And when there is a death at the superhero's hands, context is established so the reader or viewer understands why it happened that way. And if you don't do a good enough job of establishing context, you're going to lose some people (that goes back to the New 52 interpretation I mentioned earlier).

I believe that the overwhelming majority of Superman fans like him because he represents who they really want to be and who they want their leaders to be: Somebody who isn't perfect, but tries to be optimistic as much as possible. Superman does struggle with this ideal at times, but that's what keeps him relatable. But it's that optimism he retains that is what draws many people to him, and while exploring the complexities of the character is fine, it doesn't mean you have to lose the heart of Superman.

One final point: I know that we live in times in which many in the United States are skeptical, pessimistic or cynical about the future of the nation, but it's not the first time this has happened and it won't be the last. The Superman comic book first hit the scene in the Great Depression, the comic books got revamped to generic characters during the times of McCarthyism, the 1978 film hit theaters just a few years after Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War and in a time of economic uncertainty, and during all these eras, there were plenty of Americans who were suspicious, even hostile, toward cultures that Americans knew little about. And while Batman may have jumped ahead of Superman during years in which there was arguably more optimism than skepticism in the United States, it didn't stop people from raising a fuss when the DC Comics writers rolled out The Death of Superman.

The challenges the United States faces today may be different in some aspects than what it faced in the past, but most of the roots remain the same. And just as importantly, U.S. citizens -- and people throughout the world, for that matter -- view Superman as the character who represents what they really want humanity to become, difficult as that may be. Looking at different intepretations of Superman is fine, but that doesn't mean what became the heart of the character in his earlier years has to be lost in our current times.

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