Jun 20, 2013

The Clark Ages: How Grim N’ Grit Will Ruin DC’s Future Movies

By Paul Krueger


I’ve had a chance to watch Man of Steel, and it lived up to my every expectation.  Which is to say it was a mess of a movie that missed the point of who Superman is and like virtually everything else Zack Snyder has ever done, trafficked exclusively in style.  Between the blatant product placement, the even more blatant military recruitment propaganda, and the complete lack of meaningful material for Lois Lane, I think it’s fair to say this is a movie that Superman himself probably wouldn’t have enjoyed very much.

Superman occupies a troubled place in movie adaptation history.  He’s had the second-most films made about him, behind only Batman.  And of those, I’d say maybe two of them were good if I were feeling charitable (and after what I spent to sit through Man of Steel, I’m not).  There are many fundamental problems with the way movies have chosen to approach the character, all of them essentially leading back to one thing: Superman’s not like every other hero, and can’t be treated as such.

I’m hardly the first person to hit on this idea.  A writer I very much admire, A. Lee Martinez, touched on this in his own post-mortem of the movie.  Another creator I hold in very high esteem, the inestimable Quentin Tarantino, made that notion the centerpiece of one of the best monologues he ever wrote.  But if a great, quirky novelist and one of the best filmmakers alive and a broke-ass blogger can all reach this conclusion relatively painlessly, why is it that none of the people steering the franchise seem to be capable of the same feat?

If Superman III and IV were empty spectacle and Superman Returns was a load of brooding nonsense, then Man of Steel has somehow managed to thread the needle between both extremes and emerge as a gestalt of both.  Zack Snyder’s the easier target here, and he’s definitely responsible for the last half hour basically turning into an episode of Dragon Ball Z.  But the real culprit for much of the movie’s faults, in my mind, is actually the increasingly fallible Christopher Nolan.

When Nolan was first brought on as a producer years ago, it was meant as a reassurance to fans that this time, they’d finally get it right.  But I remained skeptical.  Christopher Nolan is a good storyteller, but his is a dark sensibility.  And there’s not a single thing about Superman’s mythology that calls for darkness.  He’s not a black-clad dweller of the shadows, like the superhero that made Nolan a household name.  He’s a living banner for the kinds of ideals to which we’re supposed to strive.

And now we come to the late-emerging point of this diatribe.  Man of Steel is not the actual problem here, though it’s certainly problematic.  The real problem is that this movie is supposed to launch a cinematic multiverse similar to the one Marvel’s established with its own characters.  So consider Iron Man, the movie that launched a billion-dollar investment return.  It was fun.  It was splashy.  It was true to the source material while taking advantage of the unique qualities of film.  And all the movies that came after it stayed true to the tone it set.

Now consider the joyless abyss certain to spin into existence with a movie like Man of Steel as its foundation.

It’s funny.  DC’s superheroes were created in an earlier age, when things were a bit goofier.  By contrast, most of Marvel’s notables were created a decade or two later, and are slightly more down to Earth.  But in its movie-verse, Marvel has gleefully embraced all the implications of having a fighting robo-suit, a Norse god, a living reboot of Mr. Hyde, and Samuel L. motherfucking Jackson sharing a world.  If the Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel are anything to go off, DC almost seems embarrassed that its stories have to have superhumans in them, as if afraid audiences won’t take them seriously if they just roll with their innate oddness.

So instead we get a world where Superman, paragon of paragons, kills.

And by the way, I’m not just talking about how he dispatches General Zod.  I also mean the way he allows himself to be tossed around a crowded urban area like a red-and-blue wrecking ball.  A great scientific analysis of the movie concluded that Superman had wreaked more havoc on his adopted city than 9/11 did on New York.

I don’t know about you, but I never thought I’d see the day when I’d rather see a plane flying above the rooftops.

“But Iron Man kills!” people might say.  “So does Wolverine!  And the Hulk, that dude’s made of kill!”  Yeah, but look at who we’re talking about here: an ego-tripping, womanizing alcoholic with a heart of gold, a veteran of every war in the past hundred years, and a one-man Viking horde in emerald.  Those aren’t men to admire.  You can think they’re cool.  You can like them.  You can even respect them.  But other than budding psychopaths, contrarian trolls, and internet tough guys, who can honestly say they aspire to be like Wolverine in their day to day lives?

So with a sequel fast-tracked and a universe in the offing, this is what we have to look forward to.  Superman’s teammates are, for the most part, human.  They’re extraordinary humans, but they’re human nonetheless and thus subject to the same flaws as all of us.  But Superman, as mentioned before, isn’t like them.  To bring up one of my favorite quotes, by the philosopher Epicurus:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?  Then he is not omnipotent.  Is he able, but not willing?  Then he is malevolent.  Is he both able and willing?  Then whence cometh evil?  Is he neither able nor willing?  Then why call him God?”

Snyder, Nolan: come on.  If I get it, and a Greek philosopher who predates Superman by over two millennia gets it, then why couldn’t you guys?

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