Saturday, April 18, 2015

MAN OF STEEL (2013) & Dumb Darkness

Perusing Facebook tonight, my eye plucked from the plentiful geeky puffery that perpetually passes through my feed a brief op-ed piece from Uproxx that purports to explain "Why the DC Universe is Dark and Gritty." Released alongside the first substantial trailer for BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and authored by a Dan Seitz, it makes a show of tackling criticism that has been leveled at the tone of DC's cinematic offerings but mostly manages to rather spectacularly miss the point of that criticism. It seems a good hook on which to hang my long-delayed review of MAN OF STEEL.

Seitz begins by beating up a straw man, "the implied idea that nobody wants to see dark and gritty superhero movies." If anyone had ever seriously pursued that line the box-office figures Seitz cites are sufficient to refute it but of course that hasn't been the argument. That a movie featuring some species of dark tone can make lots of money says nothing about whether it should have that tone. Obviously, the Batman should be dark but what critics in the fan community have noted--and what Seitz entirely sidesteps while in defense of darkness--was that the version of "dark" adopted by MAN OF STEEL, the film that launched DC's new cinematic universe, was entirely inappropriate to the character and material. And those critics are correct. MOS's "Superman" is born of contempt for the basic nature of the character. The key to Superman is the "man" part, not the "super." Though an alien, he was raised as one of us. He's a good man, the Midwestern farmboy whose parents instilled in him strong values that guide him through life and who just happens to be able to juggle mountains, powers he uses to help others in need. Some writers over the years have taken this to an extreme, presenting him as a "big blue boyscout" and even something akin to a saint but such treatments are an exaggeration of the existing character, not any sort of revision of it. Superman is truth and justice, sometimes "the American way," offered with a wink from a friend who is here to help. He's a character of hope and of light, whose powers are literally derived from the sun itself. That sort of thing may be frowned upon in some quarters today but that's Supeman. Superman is not a brooding, alienated anti-hero/god and if you lose what I've just described and turn him into one, you may be trendy and real kewl and all but you aren't doing Superman anymore.[1] The superbeing from MOS who wallows in angst, who chooses to let his adoptive father die for nothing when it would be child's play to save the man[2] and who zips around amidst falling skyscrapers utterly indifferent to--and, in fact, helping cause--hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of deaths is no more Superman than he is Bob Newhart.[3] He's the anti-Superman, a fundamental negation of the character. No one involved in the production of MAN OF STEEL had the slightest interest in making a Superman movie and they didn't.

Superman isn't even the protagonist in MOS. The film is about a civil conflict on a long-dead world being continued on Earth, a fight between an exiled criminal and the ghost of his dead enemy. While Superman is the title character in what's supposed to be the beginning of a franchise built around him, he's virtually irrelevant to the story. He merely shows up to act as the proxy of a dead father he never even knew in the final act of a battle that happened before he was born.

Seitz argues that "the entire point of these movies" is that "the good guy wins against all odds. All we’re really talking about here is how brightly lit his path happens to be as he gets to his inevitable destination." Even setting aside the question of this truncated notion of what the films should be, one can't escape (even though Seitz doesn't address) the fact that the hero's triumphant "win" at the end of MOS occurs over an almost indescribable excess of carnage and death, horrors which, in the movie, are, for all intents and purposes, entirely without consequence. Put on the screen before one's eyes then not even touched upon.[4] Elsewhere, in reply to critics who had slammed the film for its humorlessness and, more broadly, joylessness, Seitz asserts that the film "just wants you to take the idea of a man who can fly and bend steel with his bare hands seriously." Is it really necessary to point out that this consequence-free destruction hardly bespeaks a serious, mature engagement with the material?[5]

The rest of the film doesn't fare any better on that score.

For decades, comic Superman's extraordinary powers have been said to come from the reaction of his Kryptonian physiology to Earth's yellow sun. MOS alters this equation--they're now the result of a combination of Earth's sun and atmosphere. Appropriately, given this, when Superman goes on the villains' ship and breathes its Kryptonian atmosphere, he loses his powers. But throughout the film, the Kryptonian villains walk around on Earth in spacesuits that pump Kryptonian air for them to breathe yet have all the godlike powers of Superman anyway. Zod, their leader, wants to terraform Earth, giving it a Kryptonian atmosphere, which would presumably take away their powers. Why in hell would anyone who could live as a demi-god want to do that? It gets better too, because he also asserts that merely living on Earth as it is, sans terraforming, would require years of pain to adjust to its atmosphere then when his suit is damaged, he adjusts to the Earth atmosphere almost immediately. Zod has a world engine that can make over the Earth into a clone of Krypton but the process will destroy its inhabitants. This same world engine could presumably make over any planet in exactly the same way but he wants to use it on Earth because, well, because he's the designated villain and that's just the sort of evil stuff villains do. To defeat the villains at the end, Superman opens a black hole within the Earth's atmosphere!

These are just some examples of how "seriously" MOS takes its premise. For Seitz, though, humorlessness and "darkness" equal "seriously." It's a view one encountered with depressing regularity in the early '90s, when the mad proliferation of the sort of rubbish "dark" comics being aped by this film helped to very nearly run the entire industry into the ground. Seitz doesn't stop short of implying the inverse either, that because THE AVENGERS has humor, it doesn't take itself at all seriously, another unfortunate manifestation of that same constipated early-'90s attitude.

In reality, the "serious" MOS is nothing more than a big, stupid, noisy, explosion-filled special effects show aimed straight at the lowest common denominator, a perfect example of the absolute worst breed of Hollywood tentpole spectacle[6] that is utterly off-putting to anyone with any respect for the character.[7] Awash in muted colors, mindless video-game violence,[8] trendy brooding and consequence-free disaster porn, it's a 2+-hour insult, a $225 million rape of a venerable American classic and a black mark on its 77-year history, one Warner Brothers now aims to use as the foundation of its big DC cinematic universe. Pity these iconic characters that they find themselves in the hands of such creatures.[9]



[1] The inappropriately bleak tone is accompanied by inappropriately bleak, shitty, washed-out, near-black-and-white cinematography--lifted, without alteration, straight from the Nolan bat-flicks. But, hey, at least Jon Peters got his Superman-in-black battling a giant robot spider at the end, eh?

[2] A pay-off for an earlier scene wherein, as a boy, Clark saves an entire bus full of his schoolmates from drowning but nearly has his powers exposed and his adoptive father Jonathan, the man who, in the mythos, plays such a central role in imparting to Clark his sense of moral purpose, tells the boy it may have been better to simply let them drown. John Schneider, who essayed Jonathan Kent for years on SMALLVILLE, recently registered the outrage every fan of the Superman mythos owes that moment.

[3] Bob Newhart would actually be a welcome presence because he would at least bring some humor to a picture so entirely lacking it.

[4] Thursday, Joss Whedon revealed he had designed his upcoming AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON as a refutation of this sort of thing.

[5] Or, for that matter, that nothing about humor or joy bespeaks a lack of same?

[6] That such movies have been a dime-a-dozen for a few decades gives some wider context to Seitz's effort to argue in favor of such films on the grounds that "it's nice to have a little variety."

[7] Superman's killing Zod at the end of the film created some controversy in the fan community, where many hold that Superman should never kill at all. I don't share this view; in his line of work, that sort of thing may sometimes be necessary. My own objection to that moment was his immediate and over-acted, depth-of-his-soul grief at having taken out a monster who had just committed mass murder against helpless innocents on the scale of a war, was promising more and was in the process of carrying out that promise. To kill someone is a terrible thing but this kind of totally unbalanced reaction suggests a rather profound moral deformity. Salve your conscience later, hero--there are people still dying in the rubble who need your help.

[8] Also mind-numbing. The movie turns into a CGI cartoon for what feels like about 40 minutes in which big sections of the world are being completely destroyed by battling superbeings yet the computer-generated images are so divorced from any semblance of humanity that it becomes boring, like watching a video game demo you can't skip.

[9] Though to be fair, Warner Brothers' tv-based DC products have fared much better. DC doesn't have a cohesive universe sewn between its tv and feature productions like Marvel and this has made a mess of the various projects, which feature or will soon feature two Flashes, two Supermen, two Deadshots, two Deathstrokes, two Bruce Waynes (both set in the present but one being a 40-something adult hero and the other being a young, pre-Batman teen), and on and on.


  1. Although I have to admit that I like "darkened" versions of usually bright characters, you pretty much hit the spot on the comic elements here. I'm a sucker for Christopher Nolan's moody take on characters (especially original ones like Inception), but it's not really right for Superman. Although I'm mixed on the story elements (I agree with you on the killing Zod was necessary thing), what really turned me off was the jarring violence, which is something I can attribute to Zack Snyder's habit of gloriously jacked-up violence (something he's more than able to avoid in movies, i.e. Watchmen). That last battle was borderline Transformers-level.

    This link has spoilers, but it kinda shows that Batman v Superman might address the violence problems of the first film, which is why the trailer shows that Superman's gotten quite unpopular for it.

    Also this is the article that Whedon article came from, with more details.
    I also think that the Captain America: Civil War deals with the aftermath of the battle of Age of Ultron which leads to the creation of the Registration act. It makes sense.

    By the way, it's nice to see you write more about other things. I'd like to see a Daredevil review some time (the show of course; you already did the movie). Daredevil for me is the kind of comic you approach with darkness, which results in a pretty great show. It's not perfect, and some elements seem generic, but it's a great adaptation of the character. Also, I'm cautious about Jessica Jones. Sure, the cast is committed - Krysten Ritter read the bulk of Alias for the part - but Twilight screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg is the showrunner, and that makes me nervous.

    1. I just wrote a more substantial reply to this only to see this wonderful machine I'm using lose it. The short version: There's definitely a Daredevil review coming, probably in the near future--I have 2 eps left.

      Whedon is great. The concerns around which he's built his new picture were also front-and-center in his first Avengers movie. They have, in fact, been present in nearly all of the other Marvel movies, good and bad. Snyder, meanwhile, is looking to fucking video games for his new picture (the soldiers bowing down to Superman). I don't think the BvS trailer shows Superman has become unpopular--half of its running-time is spent zooming into a huge statue erected in his honor. The latter is the work of a vandal, the former of an organized society.

    2. The only reason why I'm slightly optimistic for BvS is because David S. Goyer's script was re-written by Chris Terrio, who wrote Argo, which I liked. I'm thankful Terrio's also doing Justice League, but so is Snyder. Hope for the best, I suppose.

      When Whedon signed on for Avengers, it was in his contract that he'll serve as a creative consultant for the Phase Two films, so you can see his touches here and there (i.e. he wrote the Thor 2 battle scene in Vanaheim, where Thor one-hit kills the rock soldier). It's a shame he's not coming back for Infinity War, not only because his contract's done, but also because he's said many times about how Avengers 2 exhausted him. He also expressed his desire to create a "new universe", whatever medium it could be. Although I was impressed with Cap 2 as their debut, the Russos have a lot of work cut out for them.

  2. I was overwhelmed and somewhat disappointed with your The Walking Dead reviews; not because they were numerous, but because they dared to point out flaws in a show whose flaws I wanted to ignore (and ignore I mostly did... I mean, how could you?!).

    I have avoided rewatching Man of Steel, a movie I was very much looking forward to viewing prior to its release. Watching it, it didn't sit well with me, and though I could point to a few reasons, I couldn't accurately sum up my displeasure.

    Reading your review made me realise why. There were so many aspects of the film which were off putting, jarring, boring, over done, disappointing etc, that I simply couldn't, or didn't want to, spend time considering them.

    I was always disappointed with the mass destruction scenes in these sci-fi movies purported to be set in our world, which aside from the sci-fi elements, traded on realism.

    The ending of MOS practically destroyed the planet, irreversibly. That's it... no more planet Earth as we know it. How does the planet and its inhabitants recover from something so ridiculous that in a comic book might seem trivial and par for the course, but in a 'realistic' movie is completely outrageous.

    Such a shame. I am hoping that the sequel will be a departure.