Sunday, June 16, 2013

Superman, Man of Steel, and my Thoughts on Both

Author's Note: Spoilers Galore. I'm going to get to Man of Steel, eventually, and when I do, it's full access. You've been warned.

The first Superman comic I ever owned.
A great cover, but a lousy comic inside.
Nothing against Curt Swan, but at that
age, I was not a fan. Now I appreciate
that artwork, mostly because I'm sup-
posed to, but it still doesn't move me.
Either by design or by grand accident,
Superman never really had a gallery of
iconic artists working on him the way,
say, that Batman or Spider-Man did.



I've been aware of Superman, near as I can figure, since the age of five. Thirty-seven years. And as a member of Generation X, I had the unique advantage of seeing a wider span of Superman incarnations over the years, thanks to being around during the age of television before Cable and the Internet. As a result, my thoughts on Superman are a little jumbled. I'm going to sort them out before I talk about  Man of Steel, because I think it's worth contemplating and trying to figure out where this new movie fits in the character's long and complicated history.

I am not sure if my first exposure to Superman was a comic book or a cartoon, but I remember which was which very clearly. Before cable gave us 200 channels with nothing on them, local stations bought syndicated packages of programming--reruns of old television shows, along with cartoons, two-reel comedies, and so forth. It's the reason why so many people my age know who the Little Rascals are, and why we prefer Bugs Bunny over Mickey Mouse. And, for many of us, why the greatest cartoons of all time are still the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons.

These cartoons were shown in between liberal doses of The Three Stooges, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and all of the other animated shorts that had been relegated to the status of "kid's cartoons." Of course, when I was a lad, there was a going concern on Saturday morning called The Super Friends, which morphed into the cooler, more interesting Challenge of the Super Friends, as I got older. When the Super Friends gave way to Super Powers, starring Darkseid, I was too old to care, but by then, the damage had been done.

I had comics, of course, but Superman wasn't my first comic book. In fact, it came later, but I remember clearly what my first Superman-only comic book was. It sure was different from the 1940s cartoons, and the vaguely-good-for-you Saturday morning fare. It was kinda static and boring, to be honest, and I found the Neal Adams cover art more compelling than the stories within (and really, can't we say that about a lot of Neal Adams' seventies comic book work?)

Maybe it was because this was someone else's Superman. I was old enough to read in the nascent fan and popular scholarship (which amounted to little more than introductions in trade and hardcover collections of comics) about the character's history. I had read popular myth about Seigel and Shuster, and Action Comics #1, and all of it. A weird, sick part of me has always wanted to see the Broadway musical, It's a Bird, It's a Plane, it's Superman! Just to see for myself, you know? It's the comic book equivalent of seeking out the Star Wars Holiday Special. You know you can't unsee it, but you have to scratch that itch.

George Reeves and Noel Neill from the 1950's TV
show. Cleverly produced, the powers-that-be still
had no choice but to fall back on character by-play
because there were only so many times we could
watch a hoodlum throw a rubber gun at Superman's
chest when he ran out of bullets.
There was another Superman in syndication, as well, and that was the 1950s television show starring George Reeves. These were shown, by the way, right alongside the 1966 Batman TV show reruns, the 1966 Green Hornet TV show reruns, and (at the time) Wonder Woman in prime time starring Lynda Carter. I'm seven years old. This stuff is going in with no filter, you understand? No judgements. It's all Super Heroes, with all that implies. There was no gradient for quality. It all looked basically the same: cheap and cheesy. We knew, for example, that the special effects were going to be crappy, because, well, how else are you going to have Batman walk up a wall? Or Superman fly?

Technical achievements aside, it was a great time to be a kid in the 1970s. This stuff was everywhere, from Slurpee cups to Burger King glasses and all points in between. My Mego Superman could rescue Captain Kirk from the Gorn, and together they could fight off the gorillas from Planet of the Apes. And it was all good. But I was borrowing all of it. There wasn't any of it that I took ownership of, as a fan. Not really.


Not until Superman: the Movie came to the theaters in 1978. "You will believe a man can fly," said the teaser campaign, and you know what? I did. The flying rig they used for the movie is still a thing of beauty. In a couple of scenes, Christopher Reeve takes off from the ground and is hoisted up into the air some twenty or thirty feet in what looks like someone literally defying gravity. No computers. Just really thin wires and smart camera work.

Never mind those 1970's track suits. These were real villains
with little regard for the laws of Earth or Krypton.
The film was a monster success, still widely considered to be one of the best super hero movies ever made, and that's in a world that currently includes Spider-Man II, X-Men II, The Avengers, and Batman: The Dark Knight. Why does it work so well? Special effects have gotten exponentially better since then. There's not even a super villain (meaning, a super-powered villain) in the movie. What makes it work?

Chris Reeve's Superman is the Superman for Generation X because it was a complete overhaul of the character at the time. When it came out in the late 1970s, it was a re-interpretation of everything that had gone on before. It was almost iconoclastic. Compare the movie to the comics of the late 1970s--wait, on second thought, don't bother. It's a night and day difference. What the movie did was ground all of the lunacy of the comic books from the 1950s and 1960s and take the good parts that worked, and replace the rest. There is no Toyman, no Mxyzptlk, not even Brainiac...there is only Lex Luthor, and he bears literally no resemblance to the mad scientist who wears a mechanical suit of purple and green armor and blames Superboy for the loss of his hair. Yeah. That's all straight out of the comics.

Chris Reeve's turn as Clark Kent was the best-ever take
on Superman's Secret Identity. He was the total package
from physically altering his posture to the octave change
in his voice (a trick from the old radio show). Watching
him almost morph from Clark to Supes and back again
is one of the best scenes in the movie.
In Superman: the Movie, Luthor is pro-active, removing the threat of Superman before Superman even knows he's got an arch enemy. That Luthor fails isn't because the plan didn't work. He didn't calculate on human emotion. Miss Tessmacher is the Goddess in the Machine that allows Superman to interfere directly with human events (the timestream). He makes and keeps a promise, and then when that cost is paid, he uses his powers to fly backwards in time and be literally two places at once. Why? All for love. So he can save Lois Lane.

See, the stuff that they kept, and moved forward into other versions of Superman, such as Lois & Clark and even Smallville, is that romance with Lois Lane. There is an emotional core to Superman, and that's part of the struggle he has, balancing the needs of the people who depend on him with his own happiness. We'll come back to this later.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, 1978. And of course, one can't watch Superman without discussing Superman II--flawed in execution, but we have all forgiven those lapses because of the three rogue Kryptonians and the ensuing fight between them and Superman. Awesome in every respect, and it's in that fight that we are shown something fundamental about the character. To quote General Zod, "He cares. He cares about these humans." Of course, we knew it already, but for the more obtuse members of the audience (hey, it was the 1980s), this is a core concept for Superman.

My first betrayal as an adolescent geek.
This movie was supposed to be better
than the first two, and yet, it wasn't.
At all. In any way, shape, or form. I
personally think one of the many
reasons was the attempt to try and
marry more of the comic book stuff
into the movie. That's where the
silly tone come from, largely.

Granted, being a member of Generation X also means we have to at least acknowledge Superman III. No one asked for this, and I'm still not sure why we got it. Or the fourth movie, which was even more terrible. But it doesn't matter, because in 1988, something interesting happened: Superman's 50th Birthday.  And our birthday present from DC comics was John Byrne's Man of Steel.

This was the first public acknowledgement of a character revamp for Superman. Byrne was, at the time, a respected and popular comic book writer and artist, and this was an extremely high profile job. He was tasked with cleaning out the Superman closet. Get rid of super-ventriloquism and freeze breath and all of the other goof-ass things that made Superman such a buffoon over the years, and give us a Superman for the modern era.

Well, the first place Byrne went to was the Superman movie. Yeah. He pulled a lot from the film in terms of tone, in terms of scale, and in terms of sensibilities. This was before Tim Burton's creative interpretation of Batman, remember, and so to remake a super hero as iconic as Superman was a bold move, but it was one that worked. Goofy Luthor was no more. Now he was a wealthy industrialist with vast resources, pretty much the image of Luthor that everyone since then has grown up with. Byrne also scaled Superman's powers way down. Way down. He was still the most powerful guy around, but no more of this planet-juggling strength, or flying so fast that he could break the time barrier. That was crucial, because, otherwise, how do you write for a character that can do anything? That's where Kryptonite came from in the first place, after all. They needed it for the radio program because the writers couldn't envision a scenario that Superman couldn't punch, fly, or otherwise demolish his way out of. They had to give him something to weaken him.

Everything in this movie was a love note
to Chris Reeve's Superman. The only prob-
lem was this: we didn't need a love note.
We knew it was great, and this re-tread over
familiar ground wasn't necessary.
But you probably know all of this, right? After all, you're like me, or mostly so. We have a lot of shared experiences in common, especially if you're around my age, give or take a few years. So, we're going to skip ahead to 2006 and the spectacular failure that was Superman Returns.

This is a film that should have worked. The special effects got a much needed upgrade. We saw a bullet bounce off of Supeman's eyeball, for crying out loud. That was very cool.They went back to what had by then become sacred source material: the original Richard Donner directed Superman: The Movie and Superman II. They did something we've all been doing for decades: they pretended that the third and fourth Superman movies never happened. So why did it fail?

I think the answer lies in why Man of Steel is currently doing so well. That Superman was our Superman (meaning, my generation), and while we are certainly all movie-goers, we're just a fraction of the total audience. There were more people who considered those movies "old" and "classic" and less charitably, "dated" than there were us. And you know what? They were right. In the same way that I watched George Reeves playing Superman in the 1950s and feeling like I wasn't in on the joke, Brandon Routh's earnest Superman failed because it wasn't the Superman for Generation Y (or, if you prefer, the Millennials).

It has been argued that comics are a reflection of their time period, and they mirror the concerns and the ideals of each new generation that discovers them. I agree with that, for the most part, but I think there is an exception found in Superman. I think we tend to re-invent Superman, not as a reflection of the zeitgeist, but rather as a reaction to it. We remake Superman into what we need at the time. I can't think of any other super hero or fictional character from popular culture where this is so. It seems to be unique to Superman. But when you think about it, we can chart Superman by the decade and see that he's either a call or a response to each era.

There's a lot to say about Lois chasing
after Superman, trying to get him to
settle down, have kids, etc. Was it
a reaction to the soldiers coming
home from World War II? Or was
it aimed at the young girls who wanted
romance with a modern day Prince
Charming from another world...?

When Superman first appeared, he was a populist reaction to the people working outside of the system, taking unfair advantage, etc. It was the late 1930's and the Great Depression was still coloring and shaping politics and culture. Superman of 1940's  became an ideal, and not just of the "ubermensch" variety, either. Truth, Justice, and the American way were the order of the day, and Superman's marching orders were very clear: lead the troops.

By the 1950's (and well into the 1960's, too), Superman's biggest adversary was Lois Lane and the threat of both exposing his secret identity, and putting a wedding ring on his finger. Most of Superman's other adversaries took on an otherworldly aspect, which makes a certain kind of sense in the uncertain times of the 1950s. The threat of exposure for Clark Kent also has an eerie resonance when you consider the Communist witchhunts of the mid-1950's. Superman gets even nuttier in the 1960's--lots of changes, don't you know. Red kryponite was a perfect plot device for these writers who were scraping the barrel to make Kal-El entertaining month after month.

By the 1970's, the comics were going nowhere, but the Superman movie gave us a breath of fresh air. Right in the middle of disco, jaded politics, and a new, emerging kind of cynicism that certainly colored my generation's participation in politics, here's this fresh-faced guy who never lies, believes in the goodness of other people, and is incorruptible. It certainly gave me hope, and I was only 9 at the time.

And so on, and so on, for generation after generation, while bored editors decide to take a character "back to their roots," only Superman gets updated to reflect the times in which he is operating.

If that's my premise, then, it would stand to reason that Man of Steel is Generation Y's Superman--the Superman they need right now. Certainly box office numbers would bear that out. Apart from Rotten Tomatoes, and of course, Mark Waid's spot-on breakdown of the movie, I haven't kept up with the Internet chatter. I'm willing to bet that everyone over the age of 35 had problems with the film, and everyone under the age of 30 is sneering at us old men in our black socks, standing on our collective porch, waving our canes at the punks.

Tom Welling played young Clark Kent for
ten seasons on Smallville, and they also
ran a super team's worth of similarly hot
teen heroes we were supposed to recognize
like Cyborg and Aquaman. Big deal. But I
ask you: can that kid smolder, or can that
kid smolder? Heat vision, indeed...
I can't argue with any of it, really. It's not the movie for us. We had our movie, some 25 years ago. It still gives me goose bumps to watch it. The sweeping soundtrack, the first time Clark yanks open his shirt to reveal the iconic S on the chest, the wry asides that sort of snub their noses at the older generation, like when Clark's looking for a place to change and he stops next to a payphone, looks it up and down, and runs on. No one under the age of 40 gets that Superman changing in a phone booth was, like, an established thing for decades. That's my Superman movie, and I can still watch it, but let's be clear: it's pure nostalgia that fuels my feelings for the movie. I haven't felt a connection with Superman in years.

They've tried, God bless 'em, they really have. Lois & Clark: the Adventures of Superman was a joke, it really was. As much as I liked the cast, they just didn't work for me. Why even make a soap opera about the most powerful man on the planet if all he's going to do is untie Lois Lane every week? Same thing with Smallville. I know many of you liked the series, but more teen angst I just do not need. I suspect the audience for these shows were starved of a certain kind of super heroic entertainment that DC was (and largely still is) incapable of producing on a large scale. Only their animated series scratched any kind of itch, and that we completely due to Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, and I think we can all agree on that.

The Mego Superman Action Figure, one
of the greatest toy lines of all time. The
reason: scale! When everything was the
same scale, the mash-ups that occurred
were inevitable. I still loved using the
Enterprise Bridge Set to transform Mr.
Spock into a gorilla soldier from Planet
of the Apes. It was a simpler time...


We can also agree that while the Superman (and other) cartoons were great, they weren't being watched by all of the people who turned up to see Man of Steel this weekend. I think it's fair to say that the audience in the theater was largely made up of people who knew about Superman, but didn't know Superman the way we know Superman. They know the broad strokes, the popular culture commonalities that exist out there in a communal state, ready to be accessed any time a rock band needs a quick metaphor or a sketch comedy troupe needs a topical skit. When it comes to defining a character like Superman, you need a movie to reach the most people, and in Man of Steel, Generation Y got their man.

But what did they get, exactly? I'll defer to Mark Waid's commentary, for the most part. I think he covered the ground pretty well. Truthfully, I'm still struggling with whether or not I liked the movie enough to say I liked it. I think for most of my writerly friends, we called it as soon as we heard that Zach Snyder was helming the project--we all said that it would be pretty, but ultimately devoid of heart, and that assessment is accurate. Snyder's use of the CGI medium has certainly matured, and he's finally gotten rid of that slow-mo-fast-mo-slow-mo explosion shot that has dogged him since his first film. He has replaced that shot with a hand-held camcorder that is supposed to lend immediacy to the scenes, but only makes me want to pop a handful of dramamine.

One of the best comics of the 1970's by any
definition. Art by Neal Adams.

The movie was well-cast, except for Amy Adams, who is wasted in her role as Lois Lane. It's not her fault; it's just that the part isn't there. There's almost no characterization for her. The only reason we buy her as Lois Lane is because we are told to. Michael Shannon is tremendous as the very believable General Zod who is not evil, merely villainous. At least, initially. I liked everyone else in the movie, even the leading man, Henry Cavill, who certainly looks the part, even if he had very little to do as an actor.

For me, the biggest disappointment and I think a failing of the film is this: I didn't connect with Superman, or Clark Kent. Not at all. Not until the death of Jonathan Kent did I feel even a pang of sympathy for him. But that's all right, because Superman doesn't seem to care for us. See Mark Waid, above.

I'm not going to complain about the changes to the canon: Lois figures out Clark's secret identity pretty quickly, and with little fanfare. That's knocking out a major chunk of iconography, right there. I guess we're going to just trust that the reporter with the Pulitzer is going to sit on this one story, because of how it all sounds, when you add it up. The "strange visitor from another world..." part, that is. We are apparently at ground zero, in a world without super heroes (even though we get a couple of shots of LexCorp trucks). So, when Superman reveals himself (in costume, as opposed to moving from town to town, helping with disasters and bullies before moving on down the road, like David Banner from the Incredible Hulk TV show), it should be a big deal, right?

Alex Ross, the Neal Adams of the 1990's, gave Superman that
timeless quality that we all sorta took for granted.  All of his
lush paintings seemed to recapture and redefine those essential
elements of the iconic super heroes. But Ross' reworkings
were not re-imaginings so much as the ability to hone in on
the nostalgic elements that everyone keyed off of. Ross'
Superman, then, was more what we thought he SHOULD
have looked like all along.
I never got that sense of gravitas, of awe, of wonder, and of joy. It's absent from this film. And the thirty minutes of disaster porn that makes up the last two reels of the film only call to mind what happened on 9/11 and how I felt about it then. That's clearly the vibe Snyder was shooting for, and he scored.  In fact, I did get anxious when I saw all of the buildings coming down, literally, like rows of dominos, and do you know what my reaction was? "Superman will save them." But he didn't. He just didn't. I'm on record as being the guy who says its okay to rework comic book characters for the big screen provided you get the core of the character right. This isn't mechanical versus natural web shooters we're talking about, here. It's a fundamental re-write of the core value system of a seventy five year old character that is one of the most recognizable characters on the entire planet.

This promotional image should tell you everything
you need to know about the Lois & Clark TV show.
And yet, I didn't know how good I had it...
I think I've just made up my mind about the movie. This is bullshit. Kudos to DC; you may just have jump-started your slow march to a Justice League movie. But if this is how you start the journey, it's going to be more like the Bataan Death March.

In addition to the wanton destruction of Metropolis, the whole thing felt as if it were free of consequences. I kept expecting there to be a scene like in Superman II where he begs the rogue Kryptonians to leave the civilians alone. I never got that moment. It was not just weird, it was off-putting. I would never have guessed that the part of the character most in need of a revamp was his heart and his empathy.

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the visuals. They are sumptuous, especially on Krypton. And the Superman-Zod fight is one of the best super hero battles I've ever seen on film, ever. When the movie works, it works as grand spectacle, even as Snyder is pulling images from seventy five years of memorable scenes. The oil tanker wall catch, for example, is lifted straight out of the Fleischer cartoon where Superman catches a falling building. But that's not a problem, as far as I'm concerned. Part of the fun of a movie like this is throwing those iconic moments into the film for more resonance. Man of Steel needed all the help it could get, I tell you what. As I watched it, waiting for my heart to start caring about what I was seeing, I reflected on this version of Superman. This cold, pale, conflicted, Superman, who is told to protect the secret of his super powers because basically, people are a cowardly, superstitious lot. Wow.

The days of the Super Friends are over.
These cartoons are now a cultural
artifact unto themselves, and not in a
good way. Especially the Wendy and
Marvin years.
I've heard some people are laying the film's dark tone at the feet of producer Christopher Nolan, who of course, gave us his recent Batman trilogy, to much critical acclaim. Maybe. Maybe not. Just as both characters are orphaned by tragedy, the point of Superman and Batman as a study in contrasts is that they take different paths. Batman embraces the dark. Superman, the light. But the light that this Superman embraces is a post-9/11 sunrise, where authority figures have to make difficult decisions and calculate the value of one life for many, and also have to ponder just how dirty do their hands have to get in order to accomplish their goals. How else do you explain Superman snapping Zod's neck at the end of the film?

There's no Phantom Zone reprieve, there's no re-wiring the molecule chamber to take their powers away...it's just a difficult choice that does clearly cause Superman great anguish, but doesn't prevent him from pulling the trigger. Granted, we've seen this before in--wait for it--the comic books. Remember those? John Byrne killed the Phantom Zone renegades in his stewardship of the Superman character. And it was a big, huge deal. It impacted Superman negatively, and spun out into a story line that took years to resolve. It fragmented Superman's core identity and brought about a split personality! THAT'S how big a deal it was. Because Superman doesn't kill, you see. Well, not until the end of the 1980's, that is. I'm sure there's come cultural relevance there, but I'm too exhausted to seek it out right now.  But after Superman snaps Zod's neck, and cries out, we go straight to a shot of him smirking at the General and telling him, "you're not the boss of me." So, yeah, extreme actions carry very little consequences whenever they are used to stop American deaths. I wonder, out loud, if there are any parallels to our current political climate that could be used as a metaphor here? But I digress. As thirty minutes of disaster porn cascaded over me, rendering me numb and cold, I could see that the film was leading up to this final confrontation, and I felt like I was watching Seven all over again. Snyder gives us the ending we're asking for, but it doesn't make anyone feel any better.

I bought this treasury edition with my own
money. And it was so very worth it.
Check that. It didn't make me (or Mark Waid) feel any better. Everyone else, from the looks of the box office and the comments I've seen, loved it. The critics remain unmoved in their lukewarm appraisal of the film, but the rest of the world is happy that Superman has been re-defined and updated into a "real hero." You and I know that this is only good for, what? Ten, fifteen years? And then we'll re-define Superman again, and that'll be the flavor of the month. I know now that it had to happen. I'm just not very happy with what it says about us as a people right now. Then again, there's this website, something that could only have come about in the Millennial Age; a post-modern, ironic deconstruction of established popular culture. Ah, well, we have to tear down the old idols before we can put up new ones, don't we?

If you'd rather hear me waxing positive about Superman, you can download and listen to the recent RevolutionSF Roundtable Podcasts wherein I talked all about what I liked about the character with my fellow round tablers. It's a lively show, especially when I start making fun of Doctor Who. Give it a listen, won't you? Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

UPDATE: 
David Goyer answers a lot of questions and concerns in this letter to Bleeding Cool. I appreciate him breaking radio silence, and he does seem to address and confirm a couple of points I made in the post above, but he seems to be trading "heroic" for "realistic" as adjectives and I don't think I buy that. Not quite. One of the best scenes in The Avengers was the scene where Cap saved the people in the bank. It's a standout scene in the big battle, and it's full of Kirby-esque dynamism that speaks directly to Cap's character in every way. You can't tell me that in thirty minutes of disaster porn, you couldn't tip in two minutes worth of scenes where young, inexperienced Clark Kent is saving lives--you know, like the one he couldn't save, his father's...? Did I miss a piece of motivation, there? One second of a man flying out of a window of a building that Superman destroyed--he looks down, and sees him falling, and their eyes lock--and then we cut to a one second shot of Jonathan Kent with his hand up, the tornado swallowing him, young Clark screaming--and then we're back in the present day, and Superman's mind is made up: never again! His eyes darken, his jaw sets, and he swoops down and plucks the man out of the sky and lands, only to immediately leap into the air again.

The man watches him go, crying, and laughing.

Don't tell me there wasn't room for that in the movie. I don't believe it. And if Goyer didn't think to include it, then that's his failing.


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