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Man of Steel – Part 1: Ultimate Superman

This is not a review of the latest Superman film. For reasons too private to mention, the character of Superman and the stories he has appeared in are incredibly meaningful to me, so much so that I just don’t think I can approach any Superman film in the standard review format. Instead, this will be a look at the film through the eyes of a guy who’s worldview, attitudes, philosophical ideals, and emotional growth have been hugely affected by the stories he’s consumed, of which Superman was a major component.

Please read this only if you’ve seen the movie. SPOILERS ahead, and a lot of the things I will write about need to be taken into context with how certain ideas, themes, and filmic language and cinematic elements are utilized in the picture. 

I’m splitting it into two parts. First, I will address most of the arguments against the film that I’ve read online, as well as some of the issues that people I know personally have. I don’t aim to change anyone’s mind about the film, everyone’s entitled to an opinion after all, I just want to point out why they don’t bother me.

On a side note, I really hate how the internet seems to have enabled quite a large number of people to delude themselves into thinking they can negate someone else’s opinion through sheer force of typing. Just because I like/dislike something you like/dislike doesn’t make your opinion the only thing that matters in the world.

In the next part, I will write about just why I love this fucking movie so fucking much. 

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1. “Superman should be…”

A number of articles/reviews/angry forum posts/angry Facebook statuses have decried this movie as being wrong in how it chose to present the Superman character. I’ve seen things like: “Superman should be an unassailable moral pillar, impervious to doubt and willing to put everyone above himself”, “Superman should be like a god, with a perfect code of honour”, “Superman should be jovial, the light to Batman’s darkness. He should have no tortured psyche” and so on and so forth. 

Really, once you approach a film adaptation of any sort with that mindset, there is no pleasing everyone. I think the problem here lies in the fact that Superman is such an established icon of popular culture that many people think they instantly “get” him, whether it’s through familiarity with the books, movies, cartoons, or the general cultural zeitgeist. They don’t consider the fact that in addition to being a brand and an icon, he is STILL a fictional character who regularly appears in stories published to this day, and has been so for 75 years.

Who is to say what Superman SHOULD be like? 

Is it Siegel and Shuster who created him? Is their concept of the character the one everyone should embrace? Really? You want a Superman who can’t fly, bullies confessions out of common criminals by dangling them over the city via telephone wires? The Superman who works in the Daily Star, who treats everyone around him like they’re inferior toys (Seriously, read the 30’s comic strips… he basically uses his Clark Kent indentity to make fun of his coworkers)? The Superman who treats women like shit and makes a habit of disrespecting Lois Lane any chance he gets?

Oh and let’s not forget, Superman KILLS people in some of these strips. There’s one scene I remember where he picks up a foreign soldier, interrogates him, and THROWS him miles away to presumably die a horrible death when he SPLATS on the ground.

Or should Superman be the Silver Age Superman of Mort Weisinger and company? The one with no moral complexity, the one who flies across galaxies, shoving planets out of harm’s way (completely disregarding that doing so would wreck havoc on said planets’ gravitational fields, orbital stability, and essentially KILLING billions of sentient beings)? 

What about the post-crisis Superman? 

Starting with the reboot by John Byrne in 1986, this was the Superman I grew up with essentially, and where I think a lot of people’s concept of the character comes from (aside from the Donner films, which I’ll get to). So I see why people would claim this character as “SUPERMAN SHOULD BE…”) But even then, this Superman wasn’t the perfect paragon of justice. I remind you all that it was in this era that Superman was shown to KILL twice (but I’ll get to that). And yet again, which version of this post-crisis Superman SHOULD he be? Should we give him a mullet? Make him Electro Blue/Red Superman? 

Should Superman be always and forever the Donner/Chris Reeves version? The one who SPUN THE PLANET backwards to turn back time, developed super “forget my secret identity” kisses, fights Richard Pryor, and has “rebuild Great Wall of China super-vision”? This was the other Superman I grew up with. In fact, for some insane reason (and not by choice) I think I’ve seen Superman III more than any other installment. 

My point is this: the character is 75 years old, and he’s gone through lots of changes in that period. Each of those iterations have had incredibly cheesy bits to them, but each change meant something to someone. There is no definitive version of who the character is, because there just can’t be. Even this one… Zack Snyder is going to make his films, make a few more ones, throw in a Justice League here and there, and them someone will reboot. Hell, the comics change continuities all the time. 

Making and adaptation means that you have to find the core of the character and then cherry-pick elements that resonate with you and the story/theme you’re trying to tell from the decades of continuity. Marvel did this with their Ultimate Comics line to great success. So I like to think of Man of Steel as “Ultimate Superman” on the big screen. 

Looking through the entirety of Superman canon, the core elements are very simple: strange visitor from another planet, immigrant, loving small-town American family, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men (which vary by era, of course), and in the end does good things. Everything else is window dressing to be changed and manipulated as the editors, producers, and the culture insist.

Man of Steel, as an adaptation, hit all those core concepts. Then, they cherry-picked from (as far as I can tell) Birthright, Superman: Earth One, Superman: the Man of Steel, Superman: For Tomorrow, Superman Red Son and Superman: Secret Identity.

So that’s a loooooong-winded way of saying… there is no one way Superman SHOULD be. If they hit the important core elements, then there’s only one way he should be to serve the particular story being told in the era the literature is made.

Face it, the “big blue boyscout” that people want is not a character. He’s an icon, a statue to look at. That misconception is the whole reason most people either hated the character for being boring or thought he was difficult to write for. If they made a character that strictly hewed to the common conception, audiences would laugh. Hell, the closest we’ve come to that is Superman Returns which basically brought the Donner Superman to modern times. It didn’t click with people (although I loved that one too, warts and all!)

Is Superman all light and funny and jovial? Sure, if you’re reading the 50’s incarnation. Is he patriarchal and noble and righteous? Sure, if you’re reading the Jurgens/Simonson/Stern run. Is he a tortured introspective soul unsure of his place in the world? Sure, if you read For Tomorrow.

And is he a troubled introspective young man desperate to find answers about his identity, unsure of his abilities, his place in the world, and how people will perceive him? Sure, if you watch Man of Steel. 

2. “Superman doesn’t kill!”

As I’ve indicated above, yes… yes he does. But not lightly (in modern times, anyway). Disregarding the pre-crisis Superman who tossed foreign soldiers to their deaths and basically killed entire solar systems by playing marbles with the planets, the modern take on Superman killed twice, as far as I know.

The first time he killed is actually the whole reason I’m surprised people are in an uproar about the movie death of Zod. In an early John Byrne comic in the late 80’s, General Zod and his cronies DID invade Earth and did essentially present Superman with an ultimatum: either they die, or humanity does. Superman kills the evil Kryptonians by exposing them to Kryptonite, and only because he absolutely had to.

What I loved about this is that that act stayed with Superman the rest of his life. Numerous issues dealt with the torture that Clark felt each day knowing he killed… but knowing he had to because it was the only way to stop Zod. Now, who’s to say that the same thing won’t happen in future instalments of Man of Steel? The movie explicitly showed the anguish Clark felt at the act… and I’m certain we’ll see more introspection about that later on.

3. “Superman should have been saving more people! Too much collateral damage!”

There are several factors to this. First of all, yes, the movie could have been all about how Superman would use his super powers to save everyone in sight, blowing out fires while fending off super villains. But then, this kind of treatment runs right smack into the problem a lot of people have with the character: if he can do all of that, then there’s no fear that he’ll fail, the stakes immediately lower, and it’s difficult to write credible threats for him. He becomes less realistic, less of a character.

I actually like this kind of character, and I do think there are ways to present him well. But I have no problems with the way the filmmakers went.

This movie set him up in the role of saviour-by-inspiration. It’s right there in the Jor-El voiceover: “You will give them an ideal, they will run behind you, they will stumble, they will fall… but in the end they will join you in the sun” (or something like that). This is a Superman who won’t do humanity’s work for them.

Take note of the scene when 12 year old Clark was being bullied. The clue to what Superman is intended to be is the very deliberate choice by Snyder to put a book of Plato’s writings in Clark’s hand. Plato’s most famous idea is that of the Platonic Ideal, as represented by the allegory of Plato’s cave. Juxtaposing that onto the film, I take it to mean that once Clark finds himself, matures fully, and accepts who he is and what he has to do, he becomes that platonic ideal that casts shadows on the cave wall. Humans are the shadows lying in the darkness , but when they look up at him, at the things he does and the choices he makes, they too can “join him in the sun”. 

And besides the philosophical slant, look at it this way too. This is a Superman who literally JUST learned who he really is and what he can really do something like ten minutes ago. He’s not a combat specialist who’s trained for years under Wonder Woman or Batman, he’s just a farmboy with superpowers trying to survive. He’s doing the best he can, and I don’t think his best includes being able to dictate the battle with battle-hardened General Zod in a way that saves every single human life. 

In fact, at the beginning of the Smallville fight, he IS shown to grab Faora and attempt to leap away, only to be smacked down from the side by the bigger, better trained brute. It’s quite clear he was trying to take the fight elsewhere, but was just incapable of it. What do you want… you want him to stop and say “No! The People!” ala Superman 2? You want it spoonfed to you that he did try but failed? 

As for the collateral damage… what do you think would happen to a city if two god-like beings fought? If superheroes and supervillains existed in our world, I guarantee the damage would be even greater than depicted in this film.

Related to this is a point some online reviewers have mentioned regarding the Metropolis destruction. “Why did he stop the machine in the ocean first? Why did he not stop Zod’s ship in order to save more metropolis citizens first?” 

Seriously? It’s actually pretty clear that he had to stop the World Machine first. That’s where the terraforming was occurring, and that was the source of the gravity beam that Zod’s ship was reflecting back to it. Zod’s henchman (Jax-Ur) even said “We are slaved to the World Machine”. Anybody with a slight working knowledge of technology knows that if you’re “slaved” to something, you’re the secondary unit. Superman had to take out the World Machine before it completely destroyed Earth’s atmosphere, whereas Zod’s ship was only destroying one city. 

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Those were the three main issues I’ve seen bandied about online. There are a few more minor ones, but maybe I’ll save that for another post if enough people bug me about it. I’m tired of defending the film in this one post… in the next post I’m going to write about why I loved it. 

But hit me up in the comments or on twitter/Facebook if you want to debate more things. 

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Goodnight Justice League: A superhero bedtime poem

As a father who waves the geek flag proudly, I am always looking to inject anything comic book, sci-fi, or fantasy related into my daughter’s routine. And after having a really hard time finding a proper goodnight book that didn’t annoy me (aside from goodnight moon, which is excellent), I decided to just write one myself. If I could actually draw, I’d even illustrate it.

I call it: “Goodnight Justice League”. She seems to like it. I’m sharing it here, just in case other geek parents find it applicable.

Goodnight Justice League.

In a shining moonbase called the Watchtower,

Sits a green Martian with shapechanging power.

He watches the monitor, vigilant and wise,

But soon falls asleep and closes his eyes.

And soon he is relieved, monitor duty done,

For Green Arrow is here, to have all the fun.

In a world of Luthors and Jokers and Sinestros and Cheetahs,

We can all sleep soundly, for the Justice League watch over us.

Goodnight J’onn, Manhunter from Mars,

Goodnight Batman, and all your bat-cars.

Goodnight Superman and your wife Lois Lane,

Goodnight Wonder Woman, and your invisible plane.

Goodnight Batgirl, in your billowing black cape,

Goodnight Flash, saving the city from a big bad Ape.

Goodnight Aquaman, noble King of the Sea,

Goodnight Green Lantern, with your power battery.

Goodnight Oracle, smart, sassy and geeky,

Goodnight Supergirl and your pet cat Streaky.

Goodnight Robin, Red Robin, and Nightwing as well,

Goodnight Zatanna, casting a backwards spell.

Goodnight Earth,

See you in the new day.

For when Evil attacks,

They fall to the JLA.

Goodnight!

Top 10: Favourite Comic Book Movies

With the release of so many comic book adaptations coming out this year and next, I figured it was about time I reassessed my top 10 list. Come on, comic fans, you know you guys have a list too.

Now I stress… this is my favourites list, so I won’t be doing any film school analyses of hero’s journey and third act turning points and the like. I won’t be looking at Metacritic scores are Oscar Awards. These are my favourite comic book films. Period.

And for the sake of brevity, and because I’m too damn lazy, no pictures in this post!

10. Iron Man 

This one shocked me. I am far from the world’s biggest Iron Man fan, in fact after Marvel’s Civil War crossover, I downright hated the character. I hated him so much that when he appeared in JMS’ Thor and Neil Gaiman’s Eternals, I got a thrill from seeing the titular characters layeth the smacketh down on Tony Stark’s candy-ass.

And so I went into the Iron Man screening ready to hate the hell out of the damn thing. Nothing could make me like Tony Stark. Nothing.

Except for Robert Downey, jr. apparently.

Not only was the film itself a rousing, fun thrill ride, RDJ gave me a Tony Stark that was vulnerable yet bad-ass, smarmy yet charming, infantile yet heroic. He was a mess of contradictions that made him fun to watch and easy to root for. The plot itself was alright, nothing great, and the villain was a cardboard cutout, but this film makes my list on the strength of RDJ alone.

9. Constantine

Yes, Keanu Reeves was horribly miscast. But if  you look beyond that, and the americanization of John Constantine, then what you’ll find is a smart supernatural thriller that is well worth a look, even if just to see Peter Stormare ham it up as Lucifer.

 

8. Superman Returns

And here’s where I completely lose most of my readers. Yes, Returns is an overlong homage to a better film, yes it recycled too many motifs that we’ve seen before, yes Superman should have had more “super” things to do than just lift things, yes the super-baby story is… unnecessary and kinda creepy, and yes Kate Bosworth is arguably the worst Lois Lane we’ve ever seen.
But goshdarnit, I enjoyed watching it. I am a die hard Superman fan, and have been since I was a kid. Until Returns came out, I had not had a chance to see Big Blue soar across the big screen. This film gave me a chance to do exactly that.

And for all it’s problems, there are many things I REALLY enjoyed. The plane sequence, obviously, was thrilling and worthy of a Superman film. The effects were great, the flights were well done, and Routh is picture perfect for the role. It’s just too bad that we won’t get to see him really let loose in the next film.

7. X2: X-Men United

After getting the origin stuff out of the way, director Bryan Singer gave us the X-Men film we’d all been waiting for. This one had everything: a (slightly) expanded role for Shadowcat, hints of the Dark Phoenix story-line, a greater emphasis on Jackman’s excellent performance of Wolverine, and a dark story that really delved even more into the core differences between Magneto and Xavier’s respective philosophies.

The mutant battles were better staged, there was no real standout horrible line of dialogue (ala Storm’s “You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning?” line from the first film), and Brian Cox (no, not the physicist) was exceptional as William Stryker.

This, for me, was the pinnacle of the X-Men films, and is the highest ranked Marvel film you’ll find on my list. So stop looking for Spider-Man 2.

6. Batman Begins

Yes, I enjoyed the Burton films, Batman Returns more than the other, but the Nolan pictures are better in almost every aspect. Well… except for Bale’s Batman voice.

Explaining why Batman Begins is such a great film would take up an entire post, so I’m going to limit myself to saying: This is how an origin film should be made. And the casting is spot on.

And Kevin Conroy should re-dub this movie. Just saying.

5. The Rocketeer

This is one of my favourite childhood movies. There’s a sense of whiz-bang fun pulpy adventure that permeates every scene in this thing, and that makes it impossible not to like. The flight scenes are amazing, the characters are well drawn, and the acting is superb.

But you know what my favourite thing about this is? The score. Composer James Horner has provided some amazing genre film soundtracks over the years (Aliens, Star Trek II, The Abyss, etc.), but the main theme he concocted for The Rocketeer is definitely one of his best. Lyrical and melodic, it captures the joy and wonder, and indeed the romance, of flight so perfectly, that when I dream of flying, this is the soundtrack I hear. John Williams’ Superman theme may be my favourite Superhero music, but this comes a close second.

4. Superman

And speaking of John Williams, his score for Superman was so perfect, that to this day, it is one of the defining elements of the Superman character for an entire generation.

The other defining element has to be Christopher Reeve. What was interesting about Reeve’s Superman is that his interpretation of the iconic character is not that of a muscle-bound strong man. Instead, Reeve’s Superman is lean, noble, kind, and oozing with humility. He’s a gentleman in a world of cynics. Would that we all were so…

3. The Dark Knight

Much like Bryan Singer did with X2, Nolan followed up his origin movie with a film that solidified everything people liked about the first. TDK is a masterful crime epic, Heat with capes as some people would say, and it gave us one of the single greatest villains to grace our modern screens.

Heath Ledger’s Joker is nothing like we’ve seen before, definitely not the mugging, campy Joker that Jack Nicholson gave us. It’s a shame that we won’t get to see where Nolan and Ledger could have taken us in succeeding films.

2. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Most people don’t know this, but Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful post apocalyptic sci-fi epic did not start out as a film that then got turned into a manga series. In fact, the Japanese legend had to produce the comic book first, just to prove that the concept he came up with was a viable one.

And, boy, is it.

Nausicaa, which follows the adventures of our titular heroine as she strives to bring peace and life back to a barren future, is a timeless classic, as relevant in our fossil-fuel driven culture today as it was in the 80’s, which was when this film came out. It is a message film, yes, but its message is wrapped in a wonderful coming of age story about a young girl accepting her destiny in a world determined to destroy itself.

Beautiful, poignant, gloriously animated, and with a haunting soundtrack, Nausicaa is not only one of my favourite comic book films… it’s one of my favourite films, period.

Aaaaannnndddd…..

1. Road to Perdition

Until Nolan took over the Batman franchise, this was the film I pointed to when people said that there were no quality films to come out of DC after Tim Burton took off. The original graphic novel was a competent crime drama, a standard Max Allan Collins story about a boy’s road trip with his gangster dad.

But when Oscar winning director Sam Mendes teamed up with Oscar winning cinematographer Conrad Hall, Oscar winning actors Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, and Grammy award winning composer Thomas Newman (I lied when I said I wouldn’t talk awards pedigree), Road to Perdition becomes an elegaic masterpiece.

This is a beautiful film; beautifully written, beautifully shot, beautifully acted, and beautifully scored. I’m going to devote a whole post to this film eventually, so I’ll keep my praise here short.

There are a handful of films that, when I watch them, make me feel lucky enough that I was alive to see them. They are life-affirming films that I go back to whenever I feel that the world is dark, or the pressures of my life are starting to get to me. They re-affirm that there is beauty in life, that there is magic and soul. The Shawshank Redemption is one. Road to Perdition is another.

Not only is this my favourite comic book film of all time, it is in my top five favourite films of all time. Period.