Wednesday, March 30, 2016

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Man of Steel

Okay so the title of this post is a bit misleading. I don't love Man of Steel (the 2013 film)...but I have come to like it and to appreciate what it for what it is. I did love Batman v Superman however and the two films are as inextricably linked to one another as say, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. I think about 50% of the backlash towards BvS, at least in the fan press, is flashback from Man of Steel.

What I intend to do is to take three points of the film that I had major problems with the first time I tried to watch it and explain why they are no longer hurdles to my enjoyment of the DCEU. You are more then welcome to disagree with me. I don't want to use the historical development of the character, or cite issue numbers to point out that your reason for having issues with the movie are wrong because I know Superman better than you (I might actually not especially if your name happens to be Mark Waid). Quite frankly there is too much of that on the comics internet and life in general as it is. This is why Man of Steel works for me, nothing more. Your mileage may vary.

Who is Jonathan Kent?

The first issue I had with MoS going back to one of the very early trailers is the fact that when asked whether Clark should have let his classmates drown when he could have saved them Pa Kent says "maybe."

This flies in the face of my favorite representation of the Kents: the one presented by John Byrne in his reboot of the character following Crisis on Infinite Earths. In this rendition it's Jonathan who suggests the idea of Superman to Clark as a way to protect his life from the constant intrusion of people who just want him to do stuff for them. The first issue of the Byrne mini-series (also titled Man of Steel) is the first version of the origin that I absorbed for the details rather than the broader scope of story and its the one that's stuck with me as The Way It Should Be.

So what changed my mind? Well a lot of it is in the delivery. Kevin Costner puts a lot of weight and depth into that one word. When he says "maybe", this is what I hear: "yes, no, maybe...I don't know." I don't hear him telling Clark "Hell yeah son, let 'em drown. Being a hero is for suckers. Look out for number one." He's expressing doubt, because he doesn't know. He doesn't know how long Clark can hold his breath. He doesn't know how much Clark can lift. He doesn't know that Pete's mom isn't going to call the FBI or the tabloids and he doesn't know that the government isn't going to show up on his farm and take his son away from him and vivisect him on a cold steel table somewhere. This is the same impulse that leads to his death. We know Clark can save him but does Jonathan?

There's another element to this which I've saved until last because it leads into my next point: ultimately the Kents don't matter. Jor El and Lara don't matter. What is quintessential, to me at least, about Superman's character, what places him a cut above all of the Sentries and Hyperions, all of the Apollos and the Supremes, is that he is a fundamentally good person. Regardless of who raises him or in what circumstances he becomes a hero. It's a realization I arrived at after reading Red Son, a story that shows that the worst person imaginable (in this case Josef Stalin) could raise Kal-El and he would still do good in the end. Yes I am aware that there are stories in which Kal-El grows up to be the bad guy, but those are not good Superman stories in my opinion and Man of Steel is not one of them.

Here He Comes to Save the Day (Or Not?) 

The biggest issue that I shared with a lot of critics was the fact that Superman doesn't come off as very heroic. He allows half of Smallville and Metropolis to be reduced to rubble while he engages in gratuitous fisticuffs with Zod and his troops. Instead of saving people's lives he fights admittedly spectacular battles with a succession of Kryptonian goons, which only makes matters worse as he winds up being used as a ballistic missile. In the end he causes more damage saving the city than Godzilla does in destroying it.

I thought all that before I actually finished watching the movie. The first time through I couldn't get past Pa Kent's death and I turned it off as he was being devoured by Galactus. I then made the mistake of letting the echo chamber of the internet confirm my own worst impressions of the film instead of making up my mind for myself. Having watched the scenes in question, I don't think that's how the battle is supposed to play out at all (the fact that it does is indicative of one of the movie's biggest flaws but more on that later).

Here's how I read the last act now:

Superman knows that Zod wants to wipe out the human race and use the Kryptonian DNA Jor-El hid in his cells to build a new race that will be answerable to his vision of what Krypton should have been. To this end he slaves his ship to the world engine and between the two machines he starts transforming earth into a planet that will be more amenable to his respiratory system while removing all the pesky humans without having to kill them one by one (a tedious task if ever there was one). Zod's ship (with all of his allies) is in Metropolis while the World Engine is above the Indian Ocean...on the other side of the planet. The good guys figure out that they can open up a portal into the Phantom Zone by performing some scientific voodoo on the drive system of the ship that brought Kal El to Earth (can I just say here that I think it's pretty cool that the Phantom Zone is basically hyperspace?) and dropping it like a bomb onto Zod's ship. Sounds like a plan...but you still have this other thing threatening the other side of the planet safely outside of the "event horizon". The only person who can take this Superman.

"But wait," says Lois, "if this thing is creating Kryptonian atmosphere won't you lose at least some of your powers when you get close to it?"

"That's a risk I'm willing to take," says SUPERMAN. Think what you want folks, but for me that in a nutshell is very heroic and very Superman.    

Now you could make the case that Zod is the greater threat and that the world engine could wait. This is a fair point and I think the movie would have improved about 100% if they had added a scene where it makes it clear that a city in India is in imminent danger of being threatened by a tidal wave or earthquake as a result of the world engine's operation as it adds another human element to the drama. It's not a cardinal sin though and the omission, while glaring, doesn't really spoil the movie for me.

By the time Superman finishes off the world engine and gets back to Metropolis just in time to save Lois the battle is pretty much over. Thanks to the sacrifices made by Hamilton and Hardy the Phantom Zone portal has been opened and sucked in all the Kryptonians except for one.

Oh, Snap

And here we come to the elephant in the room, the one hurdle with which you almost certainly will not jump over with me: Superman killing General Zod.

Now in and of itself I do not have a problem with Superman taking the life of another sapient being, so long as its done as a last resort and so long as he doesn't start doing it gratuitously. I don't think ending another intelligent life diminishes him as a hero anymore than I think it diminishes the men who stormed the beaches of Normandy or the men AND women who are now risking their lives in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Afghanistan. That said on top of my dim view of the film's Jonathan Kent and what I perceived to be Superman pummeling while Metropolis was crumbling, it seemed to me like too much piled too high and too deep, more in line with what you might expect from The Authority or Squadron Supreme than Superman

Actually watching the sequence gave me an appreciation of the sequence for several reasons.

First off the writers actually dared to place the character in a situation where he had no good choice that could reasonably be made. Zod makes it clear: kill me or I kill you. Oh yeah and in the process I'm going to wreck the other half of this city that already looks like a nuke had been dropped on it. And yet Superman doesn't immediately kill Zod as soon as he delivers his ultimatum. He tries to fight him, maybe to knock him out (because that's how it usually works in the movies, never mind that it ain't that easy) and what happens in the process: Zod causes more damage and threatens (if not kills) more people.

In the end Zod really leaves him no alternative. After a protracted duel Superman's choices are either to kill him or watch him kill even more people. In this situation, being faced with two horrible choices, Superman makes the best decision available to him in the moment and breaks Zod's neck.

And he suffers. Unlike almost every other movie (except Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy) in which a hero who professes not to kill just straight up murders people, Superman shows remorse. The reaction he makes after he kills Zod is probably Cavill's finest moment in the whole movie and one of the few times he shows any emotion while wearing the costume (and that I will freely admit is a problem with both MoS and BvS; Cavill should externalize his emotions more in the suit even it means internalizing them more as Clark).

If you just can't get past this scene that's fine. There are plenty of ways they could have avoided killing Zod. He could have been sucked into the Phantom Zone along with the rest of his cronies. Superman could have covered his eyes with his hand (it's established earlier in the film that another Kryptonian's heat vision could injure him but it didn't have to be). He could have flown him up to arctic circle and dropped him into a block of ice or imprisoned him on the dark side of the moon. Lois could have killed him with a Kryptonite bullet and kept Superman's hand's clean. This is fantasy which means that the writer makes the rules. Marvel has done a great job of leaving their characters an out that avoids violating their moral core values. DC decided to go a different rout and I can't fault them for that because there are tragic heroes as well as triumphant ones. For those who think that tragedy has absolutely no place in a Superman story, I remind you he's not called the Last Son of Krypton without a reason.Tragedy for me is one of the touchstones of his story, one of the things that draws me back to his story again and again, in iteration after iteration. In this regard the ending of Man of Steel rings true for me. It might not for you, but we will have to agree to disagree.


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