Hollywood just doesn’t get Superman.
I mean, sure. They get some stuff right. The easy stuff. They know how to make George Reeves bust through brick walls. And they know how to make Christopher Reeve look like he stepped off of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez’s drafting table. And they can even make us believe Brandon Routh can catch a falling airplane.
And in the most recent re-boot, the dreamy plank of cedar Henry Cavill zips across the skies, fueled not by Earth’s yellow sun, but by dual processor chips linked over hundreds of networked computers.
And sure, I guess some of these effects look sorta nice. For the most part. But Christ, if you spend a reported $225 million, you’d better goddamn hope they can get that shit right.
However, when it comes to Superman himself, Hollywood has yet to get Superman truly RIGHT.
Now, before we proceed, I want to make one thing abundantly clear – I am not a deranged “fanboy” who insists there is only one true Superman, dismissing all other variations as blasphemous, out-of-continuity aberrations, worthy only of mockery and disdain.
I relish the fact that there have been dozens of interpretations of Superman through the years. He changes with us over the decades, reflecting our societal views and cultural needs.
We’ve had the ‘30s social vigilante. The ‘40s War Bonds crusader. The Fleischer animated marvel. The ‘50s sci-fi weirdo. The George Reeves moral beacon. The gutsy WGBS TV reporter. The ‘80s government company man. The Superfriends card board cut out, the Timm-verse team leader, the Alex Ross legend and everything else in between…
But despite their differences, each Superman was STILL Superman, because each creative team got the important stuff right. They all honored who he is and always stayed true to his core beliefs.
Superman is heroic. He’s humble. He’s fearless. He’s powerful. He’s kind. He’s intelligent. He’s compassionate. He will fight for truth and justice until he’s got nothing left… and then somehow fight a little more. But most importantly, he values life above everything else.
That last one is key. SUPERMAN DOESN’T KILL.
Seems kinda obvious. Every kid knows that. So do good writers (something Man Of Steel is desperately lacking).
Good writers know there’s no drama when Superman kills his opponent. He’s Superman, fer chrissake. Dude can punch a hole through a planet. It’d be like Optimus Prime fighting Woody Allen. It’s not an even match up. And Superman knows that, which is why he always fights with one arm tied behind his back. The guy’s all about fair play.
With Superman, the drama comes from seeing how he triumphs DESPITE these self-imposed restraints. In the end, Superman doesn’t want to defeat his opponents with brute force — that merely crushes his foe. Superman wants to enlighten them. He BELIEVES there’s good in everyone.
Which is why Superman always finds a way to avoid killing.
This kind of unique, emotional maturity didn’t happen by accident – a fact illustrated wonderfully in my favorite sequence from any Superman movie. In Superman: The Motion Picture, a teenaged Clark Kent is a lowly waterboy for the Smallville high school football team. He watches sheepishly from the sidelines as dickhole Brad and his jerkoff buddies finish practice.
Cheerleader Lana Lang invites Clark to come out with the cool kids. But it turns out Clark can’t join them because Brad is a dick. Clark is left to clean up discarded football gear as the cool kids go off to their rock ‘n roll orgy.
Once alone, Clark shows off his secret talents by kicking a football miles into the air (in a truly awe-inspiring practical effect. A real football was fired from a cannon hidden under the grass in the field. How about that? No CGI necessary!).
You can feel his exasperation. Man… if only everyone could see how awesome he really was. Then he’d show them who’s boss!
Clark then proceeds to race home, zooming past a speeding locomotive (nice touch!) before skidding to a stop outside his family’s farm. Moments later, a shocked Brad and Lana pull up in their car.
“How’d you get here so fast?” they ask.
Clark shrugs smugly, “I ran.”
Totally weirded out, the cool kids peel out.
Clark’s moment in the sun is interrupted by the disappointed voice of his adoptive human father, Jonathan Kent. “Showing off a bit there, aren’t you, son?”
Clark is immediately contrite. He knows he shouldn’t act out like that, but he’s so frustrated by his lot in life. He could score a touchdown every time, if he were just given the ball! Why is that a bad thing?
Jonathan cuts him off, and what follows is the most perfect window into just how Superman became who he is (helped by a beautifully nuanced performance by the great Glenn Ford).
Pa Kent tells Clark that he is here on Earth for a reason. Pa struggles to define what that reason could actually be. He’s a simple farmer, after all. This metaphysical question is outside his wheelhouse. After a moment, his voice trails off and he admits, “I don’t know…”
But then adds, with quiet, mid-western wisdom, “But it’s NOT to score touchdowns.”
What a tremendous understanding of character and theme.
This is Superman.
Pa Kent knows a kid with Clark’s abilities could easily be seduced by glory and power. His son still has some growing up to do.
Jonathan is teaching Superman how to be a hero.
But the movie doesn’t stop there. Young Clark has one more major lesson to learn. And it occurs moments later, when Jonathan drops to the ground, struck by a heart attack. A helpless Clark can only watch as his father dies before him.
Later at the funeral, Clark tells his human mother Martha, “All those things I can do… All those powers. And I still couldn’t save him.”
This is Jonathan’s parting lesson to his (almost) all-powerful son. Life is precious. It is fragile. It MUST be cherished. And protected at all costs.
Watching Man Of Steel, I was struck by how wrong they got the character of Superman. And to see just how wrong, all one has to do is compare the above sequence to the corresponding Jonathan Kent scenes in the hip, edgy reboot.
In what is probably the movie’s only compelling moment, Clark’s school bus careens off a bridge into a river. Dozens of school kids are about to drown to death.
But Clark takes action and uses his incredible powers to push the bus to safety. His schoolmates are rescued. Huzzah!
Seems like a good thing, right?
Wrong, asshole. According to Nolan’s and Goyer’s reimagining of Jonathan Kent, Clark fucked up.
Remember, this is a new, edgy Superman. He lives in a dark and dangerous modern world. Which is why Pa Kent chastises Clark for taking action. He shouldn’t have risked being exposed. He should have stayed hidden. Jonathan Kent actually tells Clark that it would have been better to let all those children DIE.
No. Seriously. He literally says that.
In essence, he tells young Superman that HE’S more important THAN EVERYONE ELSE.
And that’s not Superman.
The real Superman knows that he may have greater powers than anyone else. But he also knows that doesn’t make him BETTER than anyone else.
Think about it — Superman does not spend his off-time posing as a billionaire playboy or a hotshot test pilot. Just the opposite. Superman lives among us as a mild mannered reporter. He’s a working stiff who pays his taxes and doesn’t attract attention to himself. He’s humble. Honest. He’s one of us. And his understanding of the human existence is what makes him “super.”
Considering this movie’s version of Pa Kent, it should come as no surprise that Man Of Steel is virtually wall-to-wall violence and mayhem.
But even so, I sure as hell wasn’t prepared for the character assassination it pulled on the world’s most beloved hero.
By this point, it’s no secret that life is cheap in this latest installment of the franchise. Superman himself contributes to the virtual destruction of Metropolis, not to mention his hometown of Smallville, without even the slightest consideration for the human loss around him.
I estimate the death toll to be somewhere in the 1.6 million range. Others suggest it’s more like 500,000. But in any case, it’s a number that would make Pol Pot proud.
Some fanboys dismiss this ugly detail as a necessary “tweak” to update a hokey character for a modern audience. This is 2013, dude. You gotta make him gritty. Real, bro. He’s got to be edgy. Who gives a shit, anyway? Those buildings blowing up were fucking SUH-WEEEEET!
But that’s the thing. Superman isn’t John McLane or The Punisher. He’s not James Bond or Jason Bourne. He’s not even Batman. He’s frickin’ Superman,
And this Man Of Steel turd-a-palooza claims to be a movie about Superman. But the truth is, I didn’t see him anywhere in the two and a half hours I endured. I saw “Superman.” You can call it Goyer’s “Superman” or Warner Brother’s “Superman” or Nolan’s “Superman.” But whatever it was, it sure as hell wasn’t Superman.
Superman (the real one) inspires people. He saves people. He helps people. He brings out the best in people.
Carly Simon was wrong. No one does it better than Superman. Sometimes he punches meteorites in half like they were made of papier-mâché. Other times he freezes lava flows with his super breath. Or he catches falling reporters in one hand and crashing helicopters in the other.
But my absolute favorite “save” Superman ever pulled is from All Star Superman, a love letter to Big Blue written by the masterful Grant Morrison and rendered with glorious Technicolor flourishes by Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant.
A distraught kid is about to commit suicide by jumping off a building. Moments before he does, Superman appears behind him. Almost magically. The composition of the image makes the meaning clear — Superman’s got his back…
Superman was clearly alerted to the situation by his super-hearing. And he tracked down the suicidal boy using his x-ray vision. But he SAVED the boy with his knowledge of the human heart. He inspired the boy. He wanted THE BOY to be the hero. His own hero.
And that’s what makes Superman so goddamn great.
It’s not throwing Krptonians through buildings or punching them into orbiting satellites. Or even scoring touchdowns.
Superman’s greatest “superpower” is that he relates to the human experience. To all of us. Because he lives as one of us. He is Clark Kent. Son. Husband. Employee. Pal. Which is why he always tries so desperately to save EVERYONE.
Goyer’s “Superman” sure as hell couldn’t give a rat’s ass about anyone other than Lois and Ma Kent. They’re the only two people he regularly saved. Everyone else was totally expendable. That fact was shocking to me.
“Superman” went out of his way to use buildings, gas stations, train yards and even his old buddy Pete’s IHOP as a battlefield. He never once tried to pull the war away from the innocent civilians. They didn’t seem to even warrant his consideration. The humans were merely ants on the streets of Dresden.
During the interminable final battle, I kept thinking of a line from the start of the movie. Jor-El tells an attacking Zod, “You’re not a monster! You were a good man once!”
When I heard this line, I assumed this was foreshadowing. Surely, Superman was ultimately going to stop Zod by mending his broken soul. I was certain that he’d help Zod remember he had the capacity for good. Superman would remind him how to be a hero. Because Superman always finds a way.
But no. Turns out I was wrong. Instead, “Superman” defeats Zod by SNAPPING HIS GODDAMN NECK!!!!!
Wow… That’s totally not Superman. That’s just some stupid Die Hard macho hero. Goyer might as well have added some dumb quip like, “General… you’ve just been demoted!”
Worse still — I’m still not sure why Superman ultimately committed this violent act. I mean sure… a family of four was about to be incinerated by Zod’s heat vision. But how are their 4 deaths any different from the 1.6 million that came before? Is 1.6 million Superman’s limit?
If I were one of the lucky few survivors, I’d probably want to ask Superman a few questions…
“Um… Hey, Superman. So, thanks for snapping that guy’s neck. He sure seemed like an asshole. But, listen, I have to ask… if you were planning on just killing that guy, could you have done it, I don’t know… a little sooner? Because, everyone I know is dead.
“And, honestly, I’m not trying to be a jerk here. I’m sincerely curious. Because, far as I can see, you randomly decided that family of four didn’t deserve to die. But, for some reason, you had no problem with the other 1.6 million people dying. Horribly.
“So, if you wouldn’t mind clearing this up for me, that would be great. My therapist says it might help lessen my crippling survivor’s guilt. Thanks.”
The brutal killing of Zod is merely the most graphic example of the filmmakers’ utter lack of understanding of the source material.
And worse — it is an affront to a character that has stood for truth and justice since 1938. I was stunned. Slack jawed. Partly enraged, but also overwhelmingly sad.
Not so much for me, but for the father and 8 year-old son sitting in front of me. I kinda wanted to lean up to the kid and whisper, “That’s YOUR Superman, kid. Not mine. Enjoy the nightmares!”
Think about that. A Superman movie was made that will give children nightmares.
Wow. Thanks, fanboys. You just did the unthinkable. You made Superman so “cool” and “edgy” that you ruined him for CHILDREN.
And that’s the real issue here. Man Of Steel is only the most recent example of what the Supreme Being bemoaned earlier when he asked if nerds were ruining the film industry. (Spoiler Alert: They are).
Man Of Steel is the kind of masturbatory crap that services nerd fantasies at the expense of theme, story and character. Geoff Johns bullshit.
Robot Chicken does a fine takedown of what it means to be a fanboy here. A trio of nerds discussing how Return Of The Jedi would’ve been SO much better if a lightsaber wielding Boba Fett survived the Sarlacc Pit and slaughtered all the Ewoks while a gold bikini-clad Princess Leia drops it like its hot.
Of course, any rational person knows this is nothing more than the juvenile ramblings of a 14 year-old boy sitting in a basement with other pimply virgins.
Trust me. I know. I was one of those pimply virgins.
But 30 years later, many of those same geeks have now taken over the industry. They’re regularly handed 200 million dollar budgets and end up spraying their fan-fic on movie screens instead of into discarded tube socks where it belongs.
And now Goyer’s version of Superman is cleaning up at the box office. And as a reward, he’s been handed the key to the entire DC Comics kingdom.
I can only imagine what we’ll get next from him. Maybe Wonder Woman will crush the Cheetah with a train full of commuters. Or perhaps Aquaman will rip a narwhal in half and beat Black Manta to death with it. The possibilities are endless.
I’m sure I still won’t be able to take my 8-year old nephews to see it.
True story — when I left Man Of Steel, the first thing I did was call my brother. I told him if he had been considering taking his boys to the new Superman movie, don’t.
Because it’s not Superman.
God Made Slugs has known the Supreme Being and the Evil Genius… oh, since before you were born. They’ve worked together. And they’ve done other things together that should probably not be discussed in front of law enforcement personnel. When he’s not bemoaning the state of cinema, God Made Slugs can be found reading old comic books and staring at his action figures, willing them to life. He also puts words in the mouths of actors on that box that sits in your living room.