This essay originally appeared at Mantality Magazine.
I watched the new Superman movie, “Man of Steel”. I paid no money to do so however, as I have been boycotting DC Comics (and it’s rival Marvel Comics) since a point in the late 1990s, over the poor track record in compensating and crediting the many imaginative writers and artists who have breathed such powerful life into these icons throughout the past 80 or so years, icons like Superman. I grew up with the character, I admit. So out of the need to stay informed as well as a morbid curiosity I watched “Man of Steel” online (illegally) the weekend of its release.
It was certainly a new take on the character, I will give them that. David Goyer can be a brilliant writer, having penned one of my all-time favorite films, Dark City. And he was arguably the finest pick for the job of reintroducing Superman to Americana, being a long-time comics scribe himself on top of his long list of comic book-related Tinsel Town credits. And being a long-time comics fan I could see scattered homages to the works of past writers of the various Superman comics, folks like Mark Waid and John Byrne and Grant Morrison. And equally, Christopher Nolan is a brilliant film-maker more often than not. I adored Christopher Priest’s novel “The Prestige”, and felt Nolan stayed very true to the spirit of the source material for his film adaptation (and casting David Bowie as Nikola Tesla remains fucking genius). I am not alone in thinking Nolan may have perfected the formula for bringing the silly genre of superheroes to live-action in a surprisingly believable manner. And Zack Snyder is a tremendously talented director. I prefer his “Dawn of the Dead” to the original, by bounds and leaps. But despite the work of this trio of powerhouses, despite the efforts of a genuinely remarkable cast (I’ve crushed on Diane Lane since 1998′s Gunshy), “Man of Steel” was a horrible, horrible thing.
Obviously the demand for hyper-realism would pull this new franchise far from the more light-hearted previous work of Richard Donner, or Bryan Singer’s more recent ode to said Donner movies. I knew that going in. But in doing so they forgot the most vital part of the character, the most fantastic part of Superman. Which has nothing to do with godlike powers, or even the familiar red underwear (Supes went commando, HA!). I’m talking about what constitutes a hero in the greatest sense, from the assorted hero-focused genres that comics often offer to especially in the real world. The most unbelievable aspect of the character is Clark Kent. The overgrown boy-scout of a leading man simply does not exist in the real world, this dastardly cutthroat world where everyone has their own selfish agenda. Superman, through the hands of hundreds of creative artisans over the years has predominately put others before himself (which is where the real Christ-analogy comes in). We mere mortals cannot go a day without being tempted by the Fruit of Eden, but Clark Kent’s alien biology means he doesn’t even have to eat, so that he has never had to taste the crow of a bad decision made. He always does the right thing, and that is what inspires his fans. That is the hopeless example set for readers of all ages to try to follow. Embrace that hope seen only in symbols and strive to be our best in life. But “Man of Steel” was entirely free of any real sense of hope, with the self-possessed personality of the main character resulting in higher and higher mortality rates as the film progressed. What we got was a hollow man who defined the apparent differences between an army of one and a hero, super or otherwise. But that’s not even the worst.
I have no problems with violence. Or sex. I’ve known too many people over the years who only speak those languages. Superman could wipe out the world in a day if he wanted to, so where was the heroic sacrifice of the gruesome killing blow in the final act? A true hero would never have cause to kill, as a true hero should be more concerned with keeping everybody alive. Killing has no ethical place in a healthy real world, and it certainly has no place in purportedly creative fiction. We live in the 21st century, and should expect more of our culture than the kill or be killed mentality of a gladiator pit. When you kill an opponent you silence the argument, you do not win the debate. And in the doing you send the message to impressionable minds that killing can ever be a solution to any problem. I am far from a prude. I’m just foolish enough to believe that art can maintain deeper values that benefit our species far more than the abruptness of taking a life can ever hope to, and it can be done in ways that allow for stories more imaginative and creative and original and intelligent than anything presenting so final a solution. But due to the quality of our cultural materials, more often than not our storytellers are more than happy to tell valueless stories lazily accepted as status quo. Nuts to that.
Don’t watch “Man of Steel”. Don’t buy the blue-ray. Instead, hunt down something better, like the 1928 cinematic masterpiece, The Crowd.
Directed by the legendary King Vidor, “The Crowd” stars James Murray as a real everyman, a hopeless daydreamer caught in the grind of blue collar fun while pursuing and appeasing his dreamgirl, played by Eleanor Boardman. The film takes place over several years, through trial and tribulations, with jaw-dropping footage of 1920s New York City and a wry wit that wins out in the end. It’s a silent film, and depressing as Hell, but presents a working class hero who tries maddeningly to balance his dreams with the real world. Sadly, Murray himself would ultimately live out much of his performance in the film, after the fact. Whereas the part played by Henry Cavill in “Man of Steel” called for a complete lack of compassion and humanity and no sacrifice whatsoever, the part played by Murray in “The Crowd” was nothing but. Or at least Murray’s character learned how important such things are by film’s end, a lesson that even a superman failed miserably to grasp.