Man of Steel.
Say those words to a group of Superman fans and then step back because nine times out of ten it is about to get real up in whatever joint you happen to be in. Even civil conversations about the show can have a charged edge to them. I think it is safe to say that the last time Superman fandom got itself into a tizzy over something related to the Last Son of Krypton was, oddly enough, the John Byrne mini-series Man of Steel.
There must be something about using that name in association with a revamp.
I have some seriously mixed feelings about the film Man of Steel. I wasn’t angry like some but I didn’t fall in absolute love with it like others. I can and will list off the aspects of the movie that I really liked but ever since my first viewing there is something about it that just didn’t sit right with me. It’s this nagging thought scratching at the back of my mind that doesn’t have a name. I knew I had this big problem with the film but I couldn’t articulate what it was.
As someone that likes to be able to explain why I have a problem with something this was very annoying.
Recently the wife and I upgraded our home entertainment system with a new television and our first Blu-Ray player because I love being behind the times. After the long, arduous process of getting everything set up I popped the Man of Steel Blu-Ray disc (I bought the combo pack when it came out because I knew this day was coming) into the player and started going through the special features that were not available on the DVD version. One of those features was called Strong Characters, Legendary Roles, which was really good. It explored what aspects of the Superman legend that the writers and director and other behind the scenes people were drawing from for the movie. At one point David Goyer (the guy that wrote the film in case you didn’t know) begins to discuss where he was coming from with Superman and he revealed that Man of Steel was a first contact story. Since Superman was an alien he would fundamentally change humanity and that’s what Goyer wanted to explore.
As soon as he said the words, “first contact,” it hit me.
My problem with Man of Steel is that it’s a first contact movie.
And that’s a terrible way to introduce Superman.
Here’s one of the dirty little secrets of Superman; he’s a tough sell. We as fans tend to overlook this fact because we like him but that doesn’t change the fact that at the end of the day he is an all-powerful character that does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do because that’s what he was raised to believe. I grew up with a Superman, both in film and in the comics, that was accepted right from the jump. Most people liked him, respected him and accepted him without a whole lot of thought because of who he was deep down. It’s something that separated those that loved Superman from those that hated the character. There are people out there that see how Superman is treated and can’t accept that humanity as a whole wouldn’t be, at the very least, worried about what he might do. I’m not judging those people. I am just acknowledging their existence.
Right around 2008 that started to change. During the New Krypton storyline the idea that there was a portion of the government and the population that didn’t trust Superman started to creeping into the comics. This idea was retroactively put into the early days of Superman thanks to Geoff Johns and Gary Franks’ Superman: Secret Origin mini-series. The people of Metropolis don’t trust Superman at first. Superman even doubts what he is doing in terms of putting on the costume and saving people.
At first I balked at this notion. In my head people should accept Superman from the moment he makes his first big save. Slowly, over time, I realized that such thinking is pretty naive. Yes this is a fictional character and yes you can do whatever you want in fiction but Superman needs to change somewhat with the times so if the contemporary audience can’t accept a world where Superman is okay in everyone’s book without a shaking down period of people not completely trusting this all powerful demi-god that has suddenly appeared before them maybe the creators responsible for Superman’s adventures can work that into the story. I came to peace with this idea and was fine with it as long as that period of mistrust didn’t stretch too far into Superman’s career.
I could go into how DC took this idea too far during the New 52 but I want to keep this thing focused.
Man of Steel saw that concept and took it to the next level by having Superman revealed to the world as an alien first and a hero second. He didn’t save Lois after she tumbled out of a helicopter or prevented a bomb from killing people on a space shuttle or even saved everyone from a plane that was doing its best to make a very giant hole in Metropolis. Because of the lessons of Jonathan Kent (which, again, is another essay in and of itself) this Clark Kent was taught to hide his abilities because he was an alien and Jonathan believed people would not accept him. When he finally puts on the costume it is because Jor-El tells him of his origins and nudges him down the path of stepping out into the light. He never gets a chance to do this on his own because of the combination of Lois tracking him down and Zod coming to Earth and starting a ruckus. The people of Earth never got to know Superman as a hero. To them he was a potential threat because of these other aliens who made it clear that things would go badly if they didn’t turn Superman over to them.
And that’s completely unfair to Superman.
I am not arguing that this isn’t an intriguing or valid interpretation of the character. As a story it has potential but it’s horribly unfair to Superman. Right from the start he is at a disadvantage because now he has to not only deal with the fact that people might be afraid of him because he can fly and shoot fire from his eyes and all that but he also has to deal with the fact that having his existence being revealed to the world is a major paradigm shift for humanity. We have long wondered if we are alone in the universe and now we know that there is life out there and our first experience with them is to have humanity threatened by a terraforming device that will change the environment for these aliens and kill off every living thing on the planet that isn’t from Krypton.
That’s a lot to overcome.
Making the origin a first contact story also misses the point of what Superman represents because of all the little things you have to deal with in focusing on the alien aspect of the character. Young Clark Kent would feel different because of the things he can do and because he knows he is not from this world but Superman is not supposed to be about angst even though angst is built into his character. He’s not motivated by guilt or despair or revenge. When you boil down the various incarnations of Superman over the decades you get a character that does the right thing for no other reason than it is the right thing to do. He is a hero in the purest sense of the word and because of that others will look to him as a source of inspiration. Superman is the guy that makes everyone feel at ease when he shows up. If Superman is on the scene you know it’s going to be all right but if his coming out party is part of an alien invasion and the world learning that he is also an alien than getting to that point will be so much harder.
Again, that is completely unfair to Superman as a character. We as the audience have to wait two to three years to see how this is going to play out. Maybe if this was in the comics or on a television series I’d feel differently but movies are a different beast. You have to do more with less time.
I mentioned before that Superman is a tough sell. I also mentioned that some people may look at his motivations as naïve and would prefer the character be something else so they can accept him. I am realistic that a movie like Man of Steel has to appeal to more than just Superman fans. Films are a business and if we want more of them they have to make money. This gives film executives, or at least the ones at Warner Brothers, pause. After watching the documentary The Death of Superman Lives What Happened?, written and directed by Jon Schnepp, I got the sense that a lot of the higher ups at Warner Brothers and also the director and writers they went with were uncomfortable with taking Superman as he has been traditionally presented and doing that version of the character. They almost seemed embarrassed by the idea so they start changing Superman to fit their needs and then justifying that by essentially saying that this is what the mass audience will accept.
Back in 1997 that might have been true. Back in 2001 that might have been true but after the success of the Marvel slate of films I think it’s evident that contemporary audiences are willing to accept a hero that does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. I believe a more traditional Superman film would have done just fine if the filmmakers involved believed in that version of the character and played it straight and with sincerity, like Marvel did with the first and second Captain America films or even the first Thor movie. They didn’t. I don’t know who in the food chain decided that muddying the waters was a good idea but somewhere along the way the creative forces that shaped Man of Steel chose to go with a version of the character that the citizens of the world he inhabits would be afraid of and then come to accept.
Again…and I know I keep writing this…that is completely unfair to Superman.
And that is my problem with Man of Steel. It puts Superman on the back foot from the word go and because of that all of the awe and majesty that is associated with him takes a backseat to angst. There were brief flashes of that in Man of Steel. The scene where he first takes flight is amazing and I loved seeing him leap and then fly and then really take off. The scene where he is battling the Kryptonians in Smallville is likewise amazing and I can’t say enough about how epic the battle with the World Engine was. The thing is that as amazing as those scenes were I never got that feeling of awe and wonder that I did from previous Superman films. Even Superman Returns had a couple of moments where I just basked in the awesome that was Superman and I think that’s because the creators of Man of Steel were so focused on their alien tone that, for me, cast a shadow over the entire movie.
I’m not saying I hate Man of Steel. I actually like the movie quite a bit. I am not saying that the Superman in that film wasn’t Superman because he was. It’s not my place to dictate what is and is not Superman. I am not saying that this was a totally alien Superman because Clark makes some hard decisions regarding the Kryptonians that favored the people of Earth over the last survivors of his dead homeworld. What I am saying is that by making this a first contact movie and by having everyone mistrust Superman from the beginning that the people responsible for this movie missed the point of Superman. He’s not driven by angst or guilt. He’s doesn’t have a fatal flaw that motivates him. He’s a hero because that what he wants to be.
When Superman emerges from the ship in full costume we get the following narration from Jor-El. “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”
I like that. I really like that as a matter of fact. I just wish the rest of the film matched the feeling I briefly had during that scene.
And that is my problem with Man of Steel.
Well…outside of Jonathan Kent, but I’ll get to that another time.