Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Inane Battles of the Internet: Man of Steel

Like being a snot chef or romantic masturbater, there's little acclaim to be won in winning a fight on the internet. Maybe that attitude is a bit like ridiculing a jogger for spending an hour a day running in a circle though. If they were trying to get somewhere, they'd be driving; joggers do it for the exercise. Maybe the united trolls and comment warriors aren't attempting to delineate their dominance over fictional characters so much as to simply sharpen their rhetorical claws, feel the rush of conflict, or spit out some excess bile over discovering another one of life's infinite, sucking orifices.

As most of you know, I didn't like Man of Steel. That doesn't mean it's a bad movie. A reviled film can be perfectly good. A cinematic disaster can be loved. We could journey down the rabbit hole of just what exactly makes a movie good or bad, but it would be a waste of time.

That Man of Steel squanders the promise of a Superman movie makes it bad. You can't cite sources on a movie being awful, but if I could, I'd mention Chris Sims' "On My Planet, The 'S' Is For Sucks," Andrew Wheeler's "Choice And The Moral Universe Of 'Man Of Steel,'" and Tom Scioli's "I Teach You The Superman."

There's also Rude's bit, RDGStout's words on it, Dave Willis' Shortpacked!, Bully Says a few words about parallels with 9/11 and a thousand other nerds talking about it, so go where you want with it.

This puppy is over 6,000 words. In addition, though I don't think I need to say it, after the jump...

I've been getting into scrapes on the internet over the past few days over Man of Steel because while my comics love is 40% Authority, 25% Avengers: The Initiative, 1% miscellaneous, and 847% Batman, I've been electrified by how MOS so utterly misses the point of Superman.

Without further ad--

"Wait. Hasn't Superman killed dudes before?"
Absolutely correct. As Chris Sims points out, he has killed before. Specifically, he killed Zod before. In the actual comics (At least once, and at least once in an alternate universe, but it still counts). He also pushed a depowered Zod off of a cliff in Superman II. He and Doomsday punched each other to death in the comics (both got better, but it still counts).

As far as the comics go, Superman has killed. A couple of times. He also spent several dozen issues made of lightning and more than that using robotic duplicates in intricate ploys to keep from marrying Lois. Those are exceptions to the rule and even within them, Superman is still being Superman. He's trying to talk down Doomsday even when to all appearances he's a dumb space monster. In Superman II, the reason there are massive cliffs to throw Zod off of is that Superman lured him to The Fortress of Solitude where no innocents would be hurt. Even within these exceptions to the rule, Superman is trying to avoid unnecessary deaths. That a character has done something before does not make it an integral part of that character.

Of course, I say "unnecessary deaths," but Zod's death in Superman II was pretty unnecessary (That Superman II has a deleted scene where Zod is being arrested doesn't matter). Many of the same people who criticize Zod's death in MOS also criticize Superman II. Of course, there aren't as many feature-length articles being written about movies that came out decades ago as there are about current Hollywood blockbuster, but that's the arbitrary nature of the media for you.

It is a difference of style though. In both, we see that Zod has been removed as a threat at the end of the story, but if someone can't parse the difference between those deaths, then I could only recommend they swap the endings of each movie and explain why they don't match[1].

"They're gonna fix it in the next one."
That's what they said after Phantom Menace, and believing that is how I was tricked into watching Attack of the Clones.

"Don't be a dick; this begins an arc that's completed in the inevitable Man of Steel II."
Gods, just writing those last four words makes me want to choke. I won't appeal to tradition by mentioning that most folks making a trilogy will make one good movie that stands alone before ending a second movie on a downbeat that invites the third. Oh wait, I will mention that, but maybe the guys that made Man of Steel know better than The Empire Strikes Back, Wrath of Khan, The Dark Knight, and a hundred other good film series. Unironically, I will say that they're entitled to make their own creative decisions and criticizing MOS for not being what I'm used to is both counter to my character and an utter lie about the originality of Man of Steel.

What is fair to say is that those movies are aware of their downbeats. They tell us that Han's capture, Spock's death, and Batman's status as a criminal are all bad things. We feel bad at the end because our heroes have a paid a price for their victories. We want to watch the next one because the ending of the movie feels wrong; because of the grounded nature of the film, we feel like thousands of human lives were snuffed out, but none one we see seems the slightest bit affected by it.

The only indication that this is going to be broached in Man of St--ugh--the sequel comes from the creative team talking about how it's where Superman learns not to kill. Sidestepping the desire to talk about the cynical philosophy invited by that statement becomes much easier when you leave it on the cutting room floor with Zod's arrest in Superman II; maybe they should have put that into the movie if it was that important.

I hope they do address this in TIS (The Inevitable Sequel), but if someone is going to justify the dead-stop ending of Man of Steel with that, then I'm going to say that the forced inclusion is a result of people like me bitching about it. You're welcome for your improved moviegoing experience.

"You're just being a fanboy. It's an original take on the character."
Making Superman choose between his duty to Earth and his desire to learn about Krypton is a good conflict that can drive a movie. Even if he chooses incorrectly and has to face the consequences of that, I can get behind it. That's why I loved Superman Returns (not listed: All the reasons not to love Superman Returns).

The thing is, personally, Man of Steel was starting to sell me on it. It does have an original take, with space-dad doing the morality thing and working in a central conflict based around whether or not Superman can trust the human government (represented by the US National Guard). It touches on those points well, and I can accept the story being told.

Just to say it explicitly; the stories behind both Superman Returns and Man of Steel are solid stories with good conflicts and characters overshadowed by the necessity of having and resolving completely different conflicts with antagonists (Luthor and Zod, respectively).

What isn't original is everything after the space crib blows up The World Engine. The fight only exists to further itself and destroy more scenery. As soon as it starts, if you have a working fucking synapse, you know Superman is going to kill Zod. You can hope for a Spider-Man-esque death where Zod does a thing and Superman dodges and it kills Zod instead, but odds are slim.

Like every other action film, Man of Steel builds to a climax where we reiterate the antagonist is evil and they and the hero trade punches until we arrive at the scene where we're shown the physical elements and dialog that enable and justify the protagonist's killing of the villain. I don't have the time or tools to construct a video supercut of all the films that do this, but if someone is interested, I'll look into it.

"This is a modern take on the character which makes him relevant again."
That's insane. The world isn't getting worse. If you draw a line from, say 40,000 BC to right fucking now, the incidence of disease is down.The number of children who've seen people they know die, much less get killed right in front of them, is down. A higher percentage of people have food, have self-determination, have security than ever in human history and plenty more are still fighting for it.

Shit, it's not perfect and the bad spots seem all the worse because we can be instantly connected with every one of them in seconds, but for most of the people reading this, we have the privilege of turning away from all that and focusing on the hardships we face in our own lives with the hope that we can overcome them.

We aren't living in a grimdark future. Murder, pain, death, and fear aren't new and edgy concepts; they're old. Ancient even. Jesus-fuck, you people; if you're arguing over Man of Steel, you've got it good!

The good that Superman represents, the example Jor-El mentions in the book. The superior man that Jonathan Kent sees standing before the human race posses a virtue that is universal and timeless. It's not strange because those of use who are alive today face new threats that require a new kind of space-age pessimism. The threats we face today are the same threats faced by humanity since the dawn of time; oppression, hatred, jealousy, revenge, ambition, all of which are symptoms of a disease of moral weakness. All of which threaten to defeat us, not by empowering our enemies to assault our walls and slit our threats as we sleep, but by making us into them as we slowly plan to do the same to them.

That Man of Steel starts a slow waltz towards these ideas only to jump feet-first into a mosh pit at the last minute is bizarre and startling. That a movie, a Superman movie, charts the high road so extensively before dishing up the same base, uncomplicated fantasy conflict in which all evils can be expelled with killing is more disappointing than if it had just been lazy and unambitious from the start.

"But there was no way out!"

Lee Rodriguez
In a world where there's no Kryptonite, nor any other weakness to exploit, how was Superman supposed to win AND let Zod live?

-Have Zod's attempts to kill Superman kill himself. (aka Spider-Manning)
-Have Superman kill Zod accidentally.
-Take away the things that give Zod his power, like the sun and Earth air.
-Uploading his consciousness into a Kryptonian USB drive like Jor-El, which is still a cop-out, as it's basically killing the real Zod, but at least it's a compromise.
-Punching him into a rapidly-collapsing Phantom Zone portal.
-Have Superman tell Zod how wrong he is. How his planet is destroyed. Make Kal-El cry while he's doing it to show he regrets the enormity of his own actions. Zod gets more desperate and sloppy with his attacks until he eventually collapses, utterly broken, and cries at Superman's feet. Then he either kills himself, leaves Earth forever, serves Superman, or willingly submits to any number of the other options presented above.

That's seven in, like, two minutes, plus another 30 of reading these comments. I'm not even a professional Hollywood guy. I can't even call Grant Morrison or Kevin Smith or whoever and ask, "How can Superman stop Zod without killing him?" If I could, I could probably multiply that number by two or something.
I'd also like to point out that this story was created and written by people and it lasted over two hours. It's the scenario that's objectionable. That there are no alternatives is a problem with the people who wrote the story. That's (one of) the problem(s) here.

"But Avengers did it!"
The whole thing about the destruction and collateral damage, people are bothered by it here but in every other superhero film it doesn't even phase them? I mean the Avengers went to eat Indian food right after destroying a chunk of New York.

There's also a difference in presentation. The Chitauri were firing wildly into the streets like idiots while buildings in Metropolis were falling like gingerbread houses at a Christmas-themed eating contest. Avengers shoot Chitauri and punch them so they fall over like the well-trained stuntmen they are while Superman snaps a man's neck.

Sure, folks die all over the place in both, but there's a difference between the clean, missionary-position-and-condom deaths of Avengers and the rough, wait-why-are-there-two-guys-in-masks-here deaths of Man of Steel.

"But...killing takes character!"
the superman from superman returns and smallville is not and will always be the worse versions of the character.

MORE MOS. can't wait to see a ton of back pedaling once the sequel directly deals with all of this nonsense. He's not my perfect superman just yet but clearly has the willpower to do so.

Killing doesn't take any willpower; any coward wielding an ounce of power can do it.

Personal Favorite: "But it's not realistic!"
I entirely agree with this very respectful article, though I will say, we're getting to a "this isn't your grandpa's superman" sort of place.

This Superman is different, and I don't much care for him. But at the same time, I always resented the "Superman never kills rule", as in the real world, people die. All the time. It just happens, and if Superman never killed, then he'd never be a part of the real world. If you want to exist here, with the humans, in real-life-land? You're gonna get blood on your space-suit.

So, what do you want your Superman movie to be? An idealized fantasy, or a story about the horrors of the real world?

Most people, you'd assume, would want the first. But it might be time for us to consider that there's a whole new generation of fans who might be interested in the second.

If something is a realistic experience, and omitting those real experiences diminishes your immersion in a movie about human-looking space dudes with laser eyes fighting through an imaginary city in stylized spandex, then why didn't Zod and Superman resolve the movie with rough, gay sex?

Rough, gay sex is a real thing. I've resolved a surprisingly high number of conflicts with it. While I don't have the numbers on hand, I'm betting it outnumbers snapping a dude's neck with your bare hands in terms of global conflict resolution.

If you want to exist here, in real-life-land, you're gonna get some santorum on your space-spandex.

Anything else is a flight of fantasy that uses poor, contrived writing to make a dumb movie for babies.
Likewise, I'd like to mention that sex, plain, vanilla, homosexual-type sex, is also a real thing that happens. At least 7 billion times. Minimum. It can bring people together and signal a close relationship and a renewed trust between them. Then, I'd like to mention Care Bears movies, which are about closeness and love. I will now allow you to imagine a completely original movie in your head--any movie your imagination just called up--and explain to me why you may or may not feel comfortable with things happening in it[2].

Finally, I have a very special conversation below, but you can read the original here:
There is another point I think people are largely missing. They are trying to tell a different story and build the character (I know this is hard to believe given the movie). What difference does it make if the world in this movie would be better without Superman. Does that mean he is bad because folks showed up to kill him? Does that mean that Jor-el is wrong sending Kal because he had no idea Zod would show up? Would the world be better if people turned everyone away because bad events might happen? This point is largely lost on me. Does everyone really want a straight up black and white movie? Where is the opportunity for interest? Where is the opportunity for character development? I think building a character in a flawed world, growing him into Superman is more interesting than throwing me into a fully realized Superman in a cotton candy world of black and white. By no means is this a perfect movie but I give them credit for having events roll out in a different fashion. Life would be easy if we always knew the right choice and every event that played out was for the benefit of humanity but it doesn't work that way. This is the world they chose to start this Superman in and you know I kind of appreciate that. And ultimately Superman's choices in this world will have more meaning than in cotton candy superland.
A movie where Zod is a genocidal madman and Kal-El is a genocidal nice guy is not black and white; it's black and black. An interesting movie would have a plot that addresses complex morality in such a way that it can appeal to a larger audience. That didn't happen here. Watching two dudes punch each other until one dies is bloodsport and that's how Man of Steel ended. MOS could've had a Clark who errs, learns from his mistakes, and vows to be better because of it. It could've also had a Clark who mistrusts humanity, eventually trusts them, and is rewarded for that trust. Both of those are fine arcs for a Superman story, but MOS barely starts the first one and sort of forgets about the second one. In doing so, it never gets around to showing Kal-El being more than a regular guy with laser eyes.

Man, I don't know about anyone else here, but I would watch a movie about Superman killing a dude--even brutally snap his neck--and be okay with it. If that movie produced a Superman who was otherwise a decent guy. If he reacted with more pathos than me stubbing my toe.

As it is, Superman--in this Superman film--never completes the arc where he becomes a good person who doesn't kill people and tries to find a better way. I'm not one those these guys who thinks I have the authority to declare a thing Not A True Thing, but if we have to wait until the next movie to learn that Superman does not kill people, then Goyer, Snyder, Nolan, etc. could not, in two hours of runtime, fit Superman into a Superman movie.
Snyder is on record saying Superman not killing any more and regretting what happened is the whole point of that scene. And the other arc you mentioned in paragraph 2 happened. If you scream and mourn like that when you stub your toe, you've got problems. You're forgetting movies have time limits; they couldn't have 6 hours of superman being sad. Movies have to use shorthand a lot of the time to imply what characters are feeling, as was the case with Superman's scream and the scene ending on him mourning. Unfortunately, much of the audience for this film is refusing to read the signs like they would for any other movie.

That's awesome for Snyder, but assuming you haven't read the admittedly long post above, if Snyder had something to say to me, he had two and a quarter hours to fuckin' say it. There's nothing "shorthand" about a two hour movie, unless you count the cramped handwriting necessary to fit in three different movies into one "shorthand."

If a director has something to say in a film, they've got 90 of my minutes. If they sell me on it, they get more. I'm keenly aware that movies should have time limits and talented film creators are considered talented because they can get those messages across in the allotted time. Say what you want to about Michael fucking Bay, but The Rock didn't need a fucking director's commentary to be complete.
Van - you need to look up 'genocidal'. Because you obviously don't really know what it means.

And this - "two dudes punch each other until one dies" - is obviously NOT what happened. Either you weren't paying attention, or you're just indulging in hyperbole. I'm guessing it's the latter, but neither makes for a very strong argument.
He destroyed the baby-pods and sent The Last Uterus of Krypton back to The Phantom Zone. He could hypothetically still restart the Kryptonian race by single-handedly stealing Kryptonian salvage from the US government, reverse-engineering it, scouring the galaxy for more Kryptonian baby-pods, extracting the codex from his own DNA, and then raising an entire generation of super-babies in space.

But if you need to reinvent space travel, test-tube babies, and society from a pile of rubble with a Kansas high-school education[3], then maybe you gotta admit that the fire went out and you're just working with embers.

And yes, it's hyperbole:

Dude I am not sure what movie you watched but in the one I saw he saves a bunch of people on a burning oil rig, saves a bus full of children, stands up for a woman being sexually harassed, saves Lois Lane several times, freaks out when his mom is threatened, tries and does save several Airforce SF guys and at some point I am not sure when.,.., oh wait he saves the whole f)$&ing planet from being terraformed which would kill everyone on earth. Not to mention the fact he spends the majority of his young life depressed that he can't come out and save more people. This is a silly argument you have willfully ignore vast expanses of the movie to even entertain it.

Andrew says in the article that he saves dudes who are right in front of him. Had he chosen not to save every person he saved, had he chosen to let Earth be destroyed, had he chosen to hide instead of face Zod he would have been a sociopath. This Superman is not a sociopath. Congrats. You've won that argument.

As a kid, his dad tells him, "Son, maybe you should watch people die." You've heard people bitching about that and it goes to the paragraph above; Superman chooses not to be an amoral monster who watches people die. Get out the party favors and hail The Man of Tomorrow.

I don't even know what your point is. I mentioned things I would have liked to have seen. I brought up our common interest in morally complex stories. I brought up the arcs that Man of Steel introduced and didn't capitalize on. I asked how a film could be this long and helmed by people this talented and still not provide a satisfying arc.

Voltes, you literally told me a list of nice things that Superman did and how he wanted to do more of them and then called my argument silly. I hope you're right about some of that, because even if he isn't going to do more than the bare minimum to carry a superhero movie, I'd like to think Superman and I both want to see him come out and save more people.

[1] Cue some point-missing asshole with a perfectly irrefutable opinion that 5 seconds of screaming means that a brutal execution has more pathos than a  VILLAIN EXITS STAGE LEFT AS HERO SMILES stage direction.
[2] Then why do Care Bears even have genders, dumbass?
[3] Possibly college, which gives Clark an edge if he studied sociology, engineering, and/or biology.


Rude39 said...

You have won the battle. +XP points.

VanVelding said...

I'd argue, but Comics Alliance just changed their layout and it looks like it erased all the comments.

Except for mine.

Because I'm a narcissist.

Rude39 said...