Friday, June 28, 2013

Clark Smash!

(The following contains spoilers for Man of Steel, Superman Unbound, and the grill at your local 7-11 store.)

I walked into the Man of Steel movie with no small amount of trepidation. Zack Snyder is hit-and-miss as a director, in my opinion, and producer Christopher Nolan's liberties taken with the Batman universe in The Dark Knight Rises - particularly in the last ten minutes or so - are still giving me heartburn. (It might also be the Cheeseburger Big Bites™ from 7-11, but I'm sure TDKR is a factor.)
However, there's another reason that I was not allowing my hopes to get too high for the latest live-action (that's a bit of a loose term these days, isn't it?) incarnation of the last son of Krypton:
Superman is a little boring.
I know, I know: American icon, most recognizable superhero logo, metaphor for indomitability, etc., etc.
But come on: Superman is stronger than pretty much anything on Earth. He can fly farther, run faster, and lift heavier things higher than any other superhero. He is impervious to harm. He was the first superhero of his kind in the comics, and that made him interesting. However, the novelty wore off eventually, so he had to be given new powers and new vulnerabilities: he shoots laser from his eyes, he can be killed by fragments of space rock from the remnants of his home planet.
The only way to keep Superman interesting was to pit him against brilliant foes like Lex Luthor and Brainiac or much stronger enemies like Darkseid and Doomsday. The problem with the former is that eventually Supes comes across, at best, as a well-meaning naïf and, at worst, a bit of a dullard. He eventually wises up and then overpowers the baddie, but it's really just a super-powered Archie and Jughead story at that point. In the case of the latter, the story devolves into one giant slugfest, and the only thing that allows Superman to save the day is his unfaltering will and maybe a little help from an intrepid reporter or someone.

In the case of the animated movie Superman Unbound, Brainiac is altered to embody both of these types of foes. He is a world-devourer bent on consuming Earth. He absorbs both knowledge and power, making him all-knowing and all-powerful. Oh, what a seemingly insurmountable challenge for our hero! Please. Besides ripping off the character of Galactus from Marvel, this is an all-too common storyline for Superman lately: a powerful, malevolent force is destroying everything in its path, and the
"Hasta la vista, baby."
only thing standing in its way is Superman and all of his goodness. (Yawn.) In the end, it's a Yosemite-Sam-vs.-Bugs-Bunny ridiculous smackdown.
"You hit me with a car and smashed me into a supermarket, Brainiac? Well, now I'm going to hit you with this truck and crash you into a skyscraper! Take that!"
"Well-played, Superman, but, say, look at this ocean liner I just landed next to . . ."
On the animated Justice League and Justice League Unlimited series, Superman's primary role was muscle. This is why many of the story lines involved him being away from Earth on some mission, only to come in at the end and pull the big, bad monster off of Green Lantern and toss him into the sun. (These stories alternated with the ones in which Batman turned up at the end disguised as one of the villain's henchmen having secretly hacked the world-destroying anti-matter gun and reprogrammed it to make toast.)
Fortunately, in "live-action" movies, the enormity of Superman's powers makes for some real cinematic eye-candy. That's why the teaser tagline for the 1978 movie was "You will believe that a man can fly." The effects in that film were ground-breaking. Christopher Reeve looked like he was flying as opposed to simply levitating in front of a projection screen.
However, by the time we get to 2013, we've seen Iron Man, Thor, the kids from Chronicle, Will Freaking Smith, and dozens of other characters fly thanks to the handiwork of some very skilled CGI animators. So what is left for Superman to do in Man of Steel? Well, he's got that interesting backstory of being an alien raised by simple but forthright humans. Of course, Snyder glossed over this a bit by showing these elements only in snippets in flashback. There is something terribly poignant about the death of Jonathan Kent by heart attack, as it is something that none of Clark Kent's powers could stop. Of course, Snyder changed this to Jonathan being killed by a tornado, forbidding Clark from helping him out of a sense of midwestern paranoia. It was a way to go. I just didn't like it.
On to the villains: Zod and company are super-powered as well, coming from Superman's home planet of Krypton. Their aim is to restore the Kryptonian race first by obtaining a device that was supposedly hidden in Superman's baby rocket and second - as we find out - by converting Earth into a new Krypton, effectively killing every human on the planet. This is completely different from the Superman Unbound storyline. Completely.
"Do I smell Cheeseburger Big Bites™?"
I'm not accusing plagiarism here, I'm just pointing out that there are only a couple of ways to tell a Superman story, and Superman Returns had already used the other one.
So, this one gets to be the slugfest: the one where Supes gets a bit of help from the intrepid reporter - oh, and an apparently self-aware hologram of his birth father.
Here was my hope: Superman would show his moral superiority by finding a way to stop General Zod without having to kill him. ::crunch:: Well, so much for that.
In some ways, Zod got off easy. At least he doesn't have to figure out how to rebuild Smallville and Metropolis - both of which are basically leveled by Superman's battle with the bad guys. The bad guys have an excuse: they're trying to destroy everything. Superman just comes across as careless.
Maybe I'm just getting old, because during the two prolonged and ultimately boring slugfests in the film, I found myself thinking about the ridiculous amounts of property damage and absurdly obvious corporate product placements throughout. Or, it could just be that they were prolonged and ultimately
"I'm thinking we could have landed quite a few more
Property Insurance sponsors for this movie."
As an icon, Superman is pretty great. He is a symbol for truth, justice, and the American way. I have the Superman logo on a number of hats and shirts in my collection. However, as a character around whom to build a compelling storyline, he's a bit of a dud. Superman tends to be a favorite among people who aren't really into comic books: they dig the symbology. Among die-hard comic book fans, however, Superman typically rates somewhere off the top-ten list. Batman, Spider-Man, Green Arrow, Punisher, Wolverine, Iron Man - these characters and their adventures speak to readers on many more levels than Superman does anymore.
A caveat on Man of Steel: I loved the prelude scenes on Krypton and the allusions to Zod and Jor-El's back stories. Hey, Zack and Christopher: before you get too far on that already-planned sequel, how about a prequel? Just keep George Lucas away from it.


No comments:

Post a Comment