“Living by faith includes the call to something greater than cowardly self-preservation.”
– JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit
Y’know… every time I write up a superhero flick, I tend to be more conscious than usual about interpretation than with other projects. I don’t write my review of, say, a Pixar flick concerned about whether or not another viewer will pick up the subtle nods to The Hero’s Journey amidst the laughter and heartbreak. Hell, what makes Pixar films so great is that at their best they don’t force-feed you a message.
Superhero movies are different. There’s a lot of debate as to whether or not they should be consider the myths of our age, but one can’t deny certain similarities between the old myths and the comic tales of today. For one thing, their longevity leaves them open to interpretation. As social mores change and technology advances, it is both more important to keep in touch with old beliefs (if for no other reason than to observe historical relics) as well as question whether or not said beliefs and myths still have contemporary relevance. One of the more ingenious evolutions of Captain America was resurrecting him in the ‘60s, openly questioning whether an icon of the 1940 can function outside of his era.
Marvel and DC have had no problem reinventing their characters over and over again; be it through their specific out-of-canon imprints (What if…? titles and Elseworlds Comics, respectively), their “alternate” canon imprints (Ultimate Marvel and DC’s All-Star and “The New 52”), to their various interpretations through various films, tv series, and more. Batman alone has been around so long and gone through so many interpretations – some of them really confounding – that it’s doubtful Bill Finger and Bob Kane would even recognise their creation today.
Actually, they would. You know why? Because no matter how many times his costume has changed, the core of the character has remained the same: he’s a rich man who dons a mask to protect the innocent masses from the “superstitious, cowardly lot” of criminals. Heracles is always a demigod trying to resolve his divinity with his mortality, whether he’s played by Steve Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or animated Disney illustration. James Bond might played by any number of actors who give their own impression of him, but in the end he’s still fiercely loyal to the British crown and unapologetic about his vices. Critic-turned-screenwriter Robert “Massawyrm” Cargill said it best in his review of the first Twilight movie:
Everything that is great, alluring or horrific about the vampire mythos finds itself here watered down and rendered almost impotent for an audience easily drunk off of the slightest hint of a fang. It’s easy to attack this film for being an estrogen drenched epic or for perpetuating the pale skinned, tussled hair emo ideal. But I can forgive that. No, my problem is that they use the word vampire in something that isn’t actually a vampire film. […] Vampire myths range far and wide. From the hopping vampires of Asia, to the vetala of India, all the way to the modern Bram Stoker interpretation of European myths, there are a number of ways you can tell a vampire story. But when you use the word VAMPIRE, you have to understand that it carries a lot of connation that you have to back up. You’re effectively using a great myth and a cultural icon to shoulder the bulk of your storytelling and you are then dependant on doing something interesting with it. Ignoring some of the classic tropes is fine. You want them to be able to cross running water? Cool. Eat garlic loaded pasta and pizza? Fine. Not only ignore crosses, but adorn themselves with them. Right on. But when your VAMPIRES give a reflection in mirrors? When they don’t sleep in coffins? When they don’t have fangs? When they not only can walk around in sunlight…but glisten like they’re covered in diamonds when they do? Then they’re not vampires. They’re superheroes with special dietary concerns.
You can only stretch an interpretation so far until it’s the opposite of what you claim it be.
Such is true with Superman. The icon. He’s the very reason the word “super” precedes the word “hero”. And throughout his numerous reinventions and deconstructions over the years – overgrown Boy Scout, fascist government lacky, electric for some reason, murderous liberal vigilante (no, really – that’s how his creators made him) – the core elements that remain are that he uses his near-God-like powers to defend those who can’t defend themselves. He is one of the most intriguing exercises in Nature vs. Nurture: naturally gifted with abilities that literally allow him to stand above other Earthlings, but raised with a middle American sense of morality that keeps him from being a dictator.
So essential are these things to Superman’s character that it’s no wonder he’s regarded as the dull “good boy” when compared to the bone-breaking Batman. “Sure,” people often say “Superman could squish Batman like a bug, but he’s too nice. No one care about him shrugging off bullets, we wanna see him punch somebody! Like Lobo!” Despite these criticisms, the chiefs at DC have wisely kept Superman’s character unchanged throughout the decades. The few times they did were only temporary and were poorly received by the very “critics” who said they were tired of Superman. We know Superman. We love Superman.
This, my friends, is not Superman.
Light years away exists a planet named Krypton, whose inhabitants are genetically engineered. Shunning such eugenics, a scientist named Jor-El conceives a child with his wife. Shortly after the child is born (in secret), Jor-El reports to the planet’s elders that Krypton will soon explode. This matters little to General Zod, who is staging a coup d’état during the planet’s final days. As Krypton explodes, Jor-El sends his son, Kal-El, away in a rocket whilst Zod and his comrades are imprisoned in the Phantom Zone.
Kal-El lands on Earth, where he is raised by farmers Martha and Jonathan Kent (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner) as their son Clark. When his powers begin to manifest, they strongly emphasise that he must keep them secret. Although he (more or less) does this for 33 years, his secret threatens the very safety of the Earth itself when the newly-escaped Zod finds him.
What follows is a battle that has the fate of the entire world in the balance.
Where to begin?
How about with the fact that the plot is almost a scene-by-scene rip-off JJ Abrams’ aborted script, Superman: Flyby? How about how that film was aborted for having such a negative reaction from fans? Or maybe we’ll just start with the fact that producer Christopher Nolan, writer David Goyer (both of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy), and director Zack Snyder seemed determined to make a Batman film with Superman subterfuge?
Superman is not now, nor has he ever been, a tough guy. Not convincingly, anyway. When the “gritty” era of ‘90s comics came about – with all the giant muscles, giant thighs, and pouches (so many pouches) – they were mostly confined to DC’s rivals, Marvel and the upstart Image. But they could only ignore the market for so long, so they responded with a few noticeably “dark” storylines, like Batman having his back broken, Katmandi at World’s End, and Superman being killed… and then appearing in World’s End (the jury’s still out as to which was the worse fate). As mentioned, they didn’t last. The latter was worse because they turned Superman into the sort of bloodthirsty vigilante they thought the fans wanted. They didn’t. Superman isn’t any more convincing as a tough guy than MC Hammer was.
But this film thinks he should be. It spends its entire running time trying to make him into an avatar of something Superman should never represent: revenge. The biggest theme of this film is “justified revenge”. From the opening scenes of Jor-El – once played ethereally by Marlon Brando, but turned into a tough action star with the casting of Russell Crowe – being stabbed to death by Zod, to a young Clark Kent being bullied by schoolmates, it all leads up to our “hero” getting revenge on his tormentors in the end. He broods and isolates himself from others. His adoptive father’s parenting habits – namely shaming the boy into not using his powers, even to the point where people die as a result – are questionable and results in a petulant Clark to shout “You’re not my father!” at him. When the fighting begins, he doesn’t care about the collateral damage and lost lives. He gives the US military an ultimatum best translated as “you don’t fuck with me, I don’t fuck with you” (thankfully the word “fuck” is not actually spoken in the film, but Harry Lennix’s general does bark at him “Are you out of your ‘f-in’ mind?!”). This film is clearly trying to keep up with the over-the-top violence of comic-based films like Wanted and Kick-Ass. I’m no prude about on-screen violence; one of my favourite recent films is the martial arts film The Raid: Redemption, but there’s a difference between a film like that, in which the characters are developed and the fights well-choreographed, and some film with a pornographic display of on-screen melee.
Kevin Smith was once commissioned to write a Superman screenplay in the ‘90s and said this about the experience:
[T]hey were trying to give Superman angst. […] Superman’s angst is not that he doesn’t want to be Superman. If he has any, it’s that he can’t do it all; he can’t do enough and save everyone. It’s not enough to make him want to quit being Superman; it’s enough to make the guy stay up at night so he’s out doing shit constantly. […] Batman is about angst; Superman is about hope.
And that is the major problem with the film: they don’t make Superman into someone whom we aspire to be, they make him into an angry emo boy with an “S” on his chest. He says he won’t hurt us, but how do we know that for sure? Nolan produced a film about another angry “hero”, Goyer wrote one that can’t distinguish itself from every other modern reboot – from Casino Royale to Iron Man to even Batman Begins – and Snyder directed a bunch of computer generated sprites punching one another with no emotional resonance. These men clearly didn’t care about Superman, so there’s no reason we should either.
And what of the cast saddled with the unenviable task of breathing life into one-dimensional caricatures? They deserve better, every one of them. I can’t say I’m all that familiar with English actor Henry Cavill, but if this film is to be believed, his acting technique is “Blue Steel”. There are only so many ways you can portray a superpowered adult acting like a spoiled teen (“No one understands me! God!”), but he seems to have been directed to just pick one brooding look and stick with it through the entire film. Previous actors in the role, especially the late Christopher Reeve, were allowed – nay, encouraged – to have fun with the role; winking at the audience every now and then. The only time Cavill is allowed to do that is in the Carl’s Jr. spot that ties into the film. God forbid he show any such personality in the actual film.
The rest of the cast seem to be slumming. Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Harry Lennix – all fine actors with not a semblance of character from which to draw in the script. How do we know Lois Lane (Adams) is a Pulitzer-winner? Because she says so, not through any display of intrepid journalism (even Amy Archer from The Hudsucker Proxy was able to get some reporting done). Mr. White (Fishburne) is her perpetual brow-beating boss. Martha Kent (Lane) is passive to the point of being invisible. Michael Shannon tries his best as Zod, but he’s never more than a moustache-twirling villain. All in all, the cast are just another example of this film’s wasted potential.
And that’s the thing: this could have been a great film. The few moments when I was actually invested take place in the middle of the film. Zod has tracked Kal-El to Earth, scrambled the planet’s transmissions, and threatened “consequences” if Kal-El doesn’t surrender himself within 24 hours. The story of an alien hiding on Earth, then forced to reveal himself to prevent calamity is a good foundation and – to Snyder’s credit – the mood of these scenes is done well. But there are two problems: 1) Kal-El/Clark is so poorly developed that we can’t relate to his dilemma; and 2) this sci-fi premise does not work for a Superman story. Yes, I know Superman is from a far-off planet, but his story works best when grounded in the American Immigrant experience: the child of foreigners able to find success in a new land. Trying to do Starman-as-imagined-by-the-director-of-the-Dawn–of–the–Dead-remake is just awkward.
The reason why DC’s recent film interpretations have, with the exception of the Batman films (and you know how I feel about those), failed to garner the sort of fanfare or acclaim of their Marvel counterparts is that the latter have found the perfect balance between honouring the source material and doing something new with it. Marvel films try to set trends rather than follow them. They don’t always succeed, but atleast their films make one love to be a hero.