Category Archives: super heroes

The problem with Superman

I missed it when it came out in the theaters, so three days ago I rushed down to my local mom-and-pop corner video store when I found out they had Man of Steel on DVD.

What follows is not a review, which would be fairly pointless for a film that’s been out for months. It is more my thoughts, reactions and questions regarding the film, and how it applies to the super-hero genre in general and my own, still-embryonic, super-hero tale.

Nevertheless, I AM GOING TO SPOIL THIS MOVIE IN EXCRUCIATING DETAIL, AT A LEVEL THAT IS PROBABLY ILLEGAL IN MOST STATES AND THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA!!!! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!!

Okay, that’s taken care of. Onward.

The first and foremost aspect of Man of Steel I really appreciate is that it deals with the tale of Superman with the gravity it deserves. It has humor, but the humor is appropriate and integral to the story, based on the interactions of the characters and not on silly villains or jokes. And there’s not a speck of camp in evidence, which is a profound relief. In my opinion, most other film versions of Superman have abjectly failed in this regard, and I am almost giddy to see a version that takes the character and his world seriously.

The initial scenes on Krypton kept me utterly riveted, aided in no small part by Hans Zimmer’s terrific score. Snyder’s vision of Krypton and Kryptonians is of a dying world and a great race in its decadence. When General Zod commits a coup just as Jor-el is trying to convince the Kryptonian high council of their peril, and a brief civil war ensues, I was rapt. Zod kills Jor-el just as Kal-el’s starship/bassinet launches, which is a great dramatic moment.

Once Kal-el/Clark Kent is on Earth, the movie adheres to some aspects of the classic template, and alters others (in this version Lana Lang is a brunette, and Lois Lane is a redhead. Go figure). Chief among the changes is that Lois Lane figures out Superman’s identity early on, so that particular piece of story tension is off the table, for the better, in my opinion. Clark’s struggle to find his place and understand who he is is dealt with in both present time and flashback. Just about the moment he gets it down, Zod and his surviving flunkies show up. Seems Jor-el had slipped the Codex, the master genetic database for Kryptonians, into Kal-el before sending him off. Zod needs the Codex to recreate the Kryptonian race, whom he then plans to settle on an Earth terraformed to Kryptonian standards, which will mean the destruction of the human race. At this point, it is game on between Superman and Zod (one point– don’t ever threaten Ma Kent. Very bad idea).

A tremendous amount of punching, throwing, smashing and general mayhem ensue, first in Smallville, and then in Metropolis. Once on Earth, the Kryptonians share Superman’s basic super-strength and invulnerability, although finer skills like heat-vision, flying and super-hearing take time to develop. The Kryptonians have to wear breathing apparatus, otherwise exposure to Earth’s atmosphere causes pain and disorientation as these extra abilities awaken and cause sensory overload.

Superman’s initial encounter with Faora and Nam-ek, two of Zod’s flunkies, is basically a stalemate until Superman manages to damage Faora’s breathing apparatus. Superman’s climatic battle with Zod is even more of a stalemate, because Zod has now acclimated to Earth’s atmosphere. The climatic moment comes as Zod, head-locked by Superman, threatens to fry bystanders with his heat vision. Superman warns him not to; when it becomes apparent Zod will carry out his threat, Superman snaps his neck and kills him.

Wait…what?

Rewind, look at that again. Superman breaks Zod’s neck. And at that moment, I was completely thrown out of the movie.

Why? Because up until that point, we had seen that Superman and the other Kryptonians were evenly matched. The fights have a frustrating aspect to them, precisely because nobody seems to really get the upper hand. More to the point, nobody gets physically hurt. In the fight in Smallville, neither Superman nor Faora and Nam-Ek suffer so much as a bloody nose. Faora is rendered unconscious, but that’s because of her breathing apparatus’ destruction. Her face doesn’t even get smudged. Superman takes a flaming locomotive engine in the kisser and emerges without a hair out of place. He throws Nam-Ek into the rail-yard in the first place and Nam-Ek apparently suffers no significant damage. Ditto through the titanic fight between Superman and Zod, up until the last moment.

Reviewing online arguments regarding this moment of the film, a lot of people seemed to justify what is, to me, a glaring logic failure by saying “Superman was on Earth longer, he was stronger”. Well, if so, foreshadow it. Have Superman break Nam-ek’s arm and give Faora a bloody lip, or something, so long as it indicates mutual vulnerability. This is a piece of narrative debt– not only must expectations set up in the first act be fulfilled in the third, the action of the third act must be adequately foreshadowed in the first.

For my money, this was not done adequately. Killing Zod in that manner seemed to violate the rules set up for this universe, which appeared to be that even super-powered Kryptonians cannot significantly hurt one another. Considering all the action that had gone before, where Zod and Superman were basically tossing each other through buildings (and doubtless causing massive collateral casualties in the process) without a scratch, Superman suddenly snuffing Zod in this manner was jarringly out of place for me. What had been, at times, a powerful movie suddenly seemed contrived and false.

(As an aside, a lot of other people were upset by Superman killing Zod because “Superman doesn’t kill people.” Well, in the first instance, wrong, Superman has killed before. In the second instance, as far as I am concerned, the idea that Superman was above killing has always been unrealistic and a relic of the old Comic Code days. I was okay with him putting Zod six feet under, or however they do it on Krypton. ‘Nuff said on that subject).

I am just guessing, but it seems possible to me that the writers of the movie basically wrote themselves into a corner. Having committed themselves to Kryptonian invulnerability on Earth, they got to the climatic battle, couldn’t figure out how to end it in a consistent manner, and just threw in the neck snap business sort of ad hoc. I could be completely off-base on that point– it’s possible they didn’t realize there is a major logical problem, but that would be worse. However that may be, it’s clear to me that killing Zod in that manner without adequate preparation represents a major breakdown of the movie’s internal logic. There are other logic flaws in the story line that I won’t spend time discussing, but they are minor compared to this final “What the f….?”

If I had been part of the writing team for this movie (I can dream, can’t I?) I would have lobbied hard to make Superman and the Kryptonians vulnerable in one way or another, and to show it well before the climatic battle. Personally, I have never liked Superman’s invulnerability as a concept. It has long been identified as problematic for story-telling. It means that, aside from kryptonite, magic and a very few special villains, there is basically no way to put Superman in jeopardy in any ordinary sense. Over the years there have been several major reboots/re-imaginings that sought to dial Superman’s powers back and make him more vulnerable, but the mythos always seems to return to the classic character template. As a consequence, there have been decades of Superman stories lacking any real sense of danger.

Contrast Superman with Batman, especially Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about– Batman fails, is hurt, he definitely runs the risk of death, and he has to struggle to overcome adversity. As a result, a case could be made that Batman is the more compelling character of the two.

So this is the problem with Superman– one I want to definitely avoid in crafting my own story. It’s evident to me that when the time comes I will have to very carefully craft my tale, determine in advance the rules of the universe (as opposed to my usual, make-it-up-as-I-go process) and clearly outline the strengths and limits of my characters. Most particularly I want them to be vulnerable in some fashion that creates real danger and a real story.

As for Man of Steel itself, it has so many really strong elements, and fundamentally the right approach to the character, that it will eventually end up in my DVD collection. The minor logic flaws, almost inevitable in a fantasy about super-heroes (you’re starting with an impossible premise in the first place, so making it sound logical is really hard), I can generally forgive. As far as Zod’s death goes, I will just have to somehow compartmentalize my confusion and disappointment over it.

Perhaps the next film in this series will be able to avoid this sort of problem. More importantly, hopefully I can take this lesson to heart and make my story stronger.

Later.
*********************

Some additional thoughts, a few days later–

I’ve had the opportunity to watch the movie through again, paying closer attention to some of the details, and I feel impelled to clarify my view of the movie. Man of Steel, for my personal taste, is probably the best Superman movie ever made. It is not perfect and it is certainly not a masterpiece, but it does most the things I’ve always wanted to see in a Superman film, taking a much more realistic approach (e.g., yes, when two superbeings battle it out in an urban area, you’re going to get civilian casualties) to the mythos. There are still pieces of the narrative that don’t feel particularly well thought out, and Zod’s death still seems a massive failure/cop-out, but on the whole I appreciate the direction in which Snyder took this version.

Saying this is the best Superman movie ever is, frankly, also a statement of how I feel about most previous Superman films. Basically it’s been 35 years of general disappointment, with the first third of Superman (1978) being okay and Superman Returns (2006) being a worthy effort. Most everything else Superman-related in the movies has been worthless, in my opinion. Perhaps this puts my appreciation of Man of Steel in perspective. Hopefully the next film will build on the foundation Snyder has built.

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