Saturday, June 15, 2013

Why This New Superman Works

Rather than simply review Man of Steel, I decided instead to discuss the specific reasons this movie succeeded as a Superman story. This is not the Superman of Richard Donner and Bryan Singer. This is not the Superman of the Silver Age, with all the classic trappings. This is a 21st Century story, unlike any live-action portrayal we've seen so far, and that's why it works. The filmmakers finally figured out that their audiences have grown up, and it's time for the Superman mythos to do the same.

From here on out I'll be discussing the movie in specific detail. There will be spoilers. I'm so glad I went into this movie as spoiler free as possible, and I recommend you do the same. 

The first reason this movie works has nothing to do with Superman but everything to do with Lois Lane. For 70+ years we've been expected to believe that Lois is not only one of the world's greatest reporters, but that she was completely incapable of realizing that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person. Apparently all the brains in the world amount to nothing in the face of a pair of glasses.

Man of Steel's Lois is not that Lois. This Lois Lane, awesomely portrayed by Amy Adams, has no trouble tracking this mysterious superhuman back to Smallville, Kansas. We finally get to see an ace reporter do some ace reporting. Now we can dispense with Clark clumsily trying to conceal his secret identity, pretending to be a humble farmboy while Lois falls in love with his alter-ego. We don't see Lois kept at arms length because knowing the truth would put her in danger. She knows who he is.

That was my biggest complaint about Bryan Singer's Superman Returns. That movie, too rooted in nostalgia, refused to consider that Lois had anything more to contribute than being a swooning damsel in distress. Singer couldn't conceive of a Superman universe in which Lois not only knew Clark's secret, but was an equal partner in his world-saving efforts.

Adams' Lois is no shrinking violet. In fact, she's the one person (outside his mother) Clark can trust. When they are taken prisoner by Zod, he gives her Jor-El's crystal (a Kryptonian USB apparently) and she winds up saving him with it. Not only saving him, but teaming up with Jor-El's hologram, grabbing a weapon, and blasting some aliens. She and Clark ultimately save each other several times, and the story is stronger for it.

Lois Lane works, and kudos to the filmmakers (Snyder, Goyer, Nolan) for trusting that the audience was ready for an actual relationship between Clark and Lois, and was ready for a Lois Lane who can actually put two and two together. We've had our fill with secret identities. It's time to move on.

What about Clark? This isn't the superhero disguised as the bumbling reporter. This isn't an experienced superhero who knows exactly what to do in every situation. This is a man trying to figure out who he is, where his loyalties lie, how to use his powers, all while facing down an alien invasion.

We don't see Superman rescuing cats from trees, catching falling reporters, and foiling bank robberies. They've already made those movies. No, we get to see a rookie take on a veteran, a farmboy try to fight an experienced warrior. While Superman is still super, at no time does he totally outclass the opposition, opposition that has no problem leveling a city, if not the world.

That's often the problem with Superman movies: he's his own deus ex machina. That can make the stories really boring, because where's the dramatic tension if we know Superman is more powerful? Suddenly we have a gang of Kyptonians who also have his powers and are much better at fighting, not to mention have no moral qualms about collateral damage.

You can't have a good Superman movie without a credible villain, and Zod is that villain.  Yes, we've seen him before, but not like this. This Zod is a committed patriot, a warrior who truly believes he's doing the right thing. He wants to rebuild Krypton, and if doing so means killing seven billion humans, it's a price he's willing to pay. He's complicated, passionate, conflicted, and very, very powerful. It doesn't take him long to learn to use his powers, making him more than a match for Superman.

The entire movie is an uphill battle, and that's important for a Superman story. He's a demigod, so he has to face a foe even more powerful, or face a moral choice that he can't punch his way out of. This movie provides both, particularly his final fight with Zod. Not only does Zod outclass Clark in raw strength and skill, but he puts our hero in an impossible bind. To save innocents, Superman must kill Zod. There is no other way, and in the end, Superman saves lives by taking one.

This is the moment that we're going to argue about for years. Does Superman kill? Isn't he supposed to be the big blue boy scout? Yes, but how does he come to that ethos? Peter Parker didn't become a hero until his arrogance got his Uncle Ben killed. Why wouldn't this work the same way? Superman doesn't kill because he killed Zod. He killed one of his own people, and that decision will forever haunt him. Never again.

Zod's death and the epic destruction of the fight will have repercussions for our hero should there be future installments. While we never see Lex Luthor, his company Lexcorp is very much a presence in the movie. He's not going to be happy with the aliens who came to our world and threw down in the middle of Metropolis. This will likely be what motivates Lex to take on Superman. No longer is Lex a two-bit criminal running real-estate scams. Instead, he's a billionaire businessman who regards Superman as a threat to his world. Lex will see himself as the hero of the next story, and I can't wait.

 We don't get a lot of young Clark Kent, but what we do get is just the right amount. We see an alienated outcast, afraid of his new powers and unsure how, or even if, he should use them. Pa Kent wants him to keep his abilities a secret, even if it means not saving people. In one of the movie's most powerful scenes, he gives his life to keep Clark's secret. Clark could have saved his dad from an oncoming tornado, but doing so would reveal himself, and his dad tells him no. He is willing to sacrifice his life for his son, for the greater good.

Sacrifice is a theme in the movie. Jor-El sacrifices his life to save his son from Kypton's destruction. Early on, Zod demands Clark hand himself over or he will destroy Earth. Clark seeks counsel inside a small church. Under a stained glass picture of Jesus, Clark contemplates sacrificing himself to save the world. Later in the movie, Clark must choose whether to sacrifice Krypton's future to save Earth, and in the end decides the needs of Earth outweigh Krypton's future.

This is what you need for a Superman story. It's not what he can do, it's what he can't. It's when he must make a choice, neither option is good, and he can't do both. What happens when the man who should be able to save everyone can't? What if the only way to save the world is to kill? How does that weigh on him?

Putting it all together, we have a fantastic Superman story for the 21st Century. This movie succeeded in all the ways Bryan Singer's Superman Returns didn't. Yes, there are things we can criticize, and as geeks we have an obligation to do just that. However, the whole is indeed greater than the sum of the parts, and that's why this story worked.

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