Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Ballad Of Hobo Superman: Further Thoughts On Man Of Steel

You know, one of the reasons I was always a Marvel kid as opposed to a DC kid was because my first introduction to DC comics was the silly Silver Age. This was the era when continuity didn't matter and the goofier the story of the issue could be conveyed on the cover, the better. This is the ethic that brought us Bat Mite, The Bat Baby, The Bat Mummy, and Superman's amazing Super Ventriloquism and Rainbow Powers. And this was before the Adam West TV show or the Donner Superman films famous for absurd elements like Egghead and Amnesia Kisses.

But even in light of all of these references and the above visual evidence that is already quickly eroding whatever respect you might have had for these classic characters, the one example that I always point to typifying the retard strength of the Silver Age's nonsense lies in the following images.

See that. That's Hobo Superman.

And here it is again, in a different issue. Same concept.

And you'll notice, they didn't just do that shit, they did that shit TWICE. They made Superman pretend to be a hobo for an issue, and either thought it was so successful that it merited a second go, or cared so little about repeating themselves that they forgot, and then somehow independently came up with the idea again and thought it was a good idea the second time too!

This kind of thing is why, for all my criticisms, I have to forgive the aforementioned Donner films and the Adam West show, because ultimately, this was what they had to work with. They didn't have Frank Miller (back when he wasn't insane) or Post Crisis story lines to inform their understanding of these characters, and as such its somewhat remarkable that they weren't even worse in terms of fealty to what is now considered the essence of these archetypes. Though they pay homage to this now maligned comic book era, they still represented a jolt of cultural relevance to the brands that at least in the Batman case saved the books from cancellation, and in hindsight acted as a necessary stepping stone for more faithful adaptations.

But of course, we live in a time and place where there is no excuse for this kind of stupid crap. Surely the most recent foray into Superman's world will have learned something from history.

Fuck. This. Movie.

My friend and colleague Nate Zoebl began his review of Man of Steel the same way he did his review of Superman Returns several years earlier, by asking the question of whether or not Superman is even relevant anymore in today's complicated world. This is a question often asked by people with little experience with the comic book incarnation of the character, and whose understanding comes mostly from the films. The answer is simple: Yes, and now more than ever. The problem is, in every way Superman can be relevant, the latest effort by Snyder and Nolan gets everything about him exactly wrong.

Superman is not Batman. That might seem like an obvious point, but in light of the financial powerhouse that was Nolan's gritty Dark Knight trilogy, this fact seems to have been lost on the producers of the Superman reboot. The strength of Superman is his capacity to be an antidote to the kind of doom and gloom we associate with the Bat in the post Dark Knight Returns landscape, a stalwart, optimistic, and yes somewhat naive scion of hope in an otherwise scary and dangerous world. Gotham can get away with a hyper realistic portrayal of its hometown hero, but Metropolis is a shining city on the hill in the near future present, and its protector needs to reflect this.

The style employed in Man of Steel strives to emulate Nolan's previous DC work, when it should be trying to be the antithesis of it. Superman isn't broody or melancholy, and while he often carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, he does it with a quiet serenity that allows the humans he protects to place their trust in him even in light of his potentially dangerous God-like powers. In short, Superman doesn't scream and cry like a little bitch. Oh, and he also knows how to keep super battles in the middle of the city from causing so much death and destruction, and always takes the time to ensure as little collateral damage as possible. He wouldn't let his city end up as it does at the end of this film, and if he did, no one would have any reason to embrace him as their hero.

Nolan famously treated Bruce Wayne as a man seeking to embody a living symbol of incorruptible justice, so steadfast in this characterization that in the final installment of the trilogy he takes this to the logical conclusion and passes on the symbol to another person. That this action flies in the face of everything we know about the character, that it is the Bruce Wayne persona that is the fabrication and he can no less quit being Batman than he can commit suicide, either never occurred to Nolan, or didn't faze him. Here under his stewardship, an attempt to attach a similarly unnecessary symbolism to Superman fails just as miserably and is just as much of an insult to anyone who knows the canon, hampered even more by how shamelessly superficial it is.

Yeah, we get it, Superman is Jesus. He's the super powered son sent to Earth from the Heavens by a wise father to be the savior of humanity. Angels appear at his shoulder and his arms are seen outstretched in a crucifixion pose, among other imagery so obvious that I almost thought I'd stepped into a Wachowski movie all of a sudden. One wonders why they didn't just make Doomsday the villain so they could get the whole death and resurrection thing out of the way. The problem with all of this, apart from the general stupidity of it, is that it reverses an essential element of Clark Kent's psyche and does so in a way that bastardizes key characters in his life for the sake of a completely pointless metaphor.

You see, unlike Batman who dons the guise of Bruce Wayne as a cover, Clark Kent is Clark Kent, and the cape is just part of the costume. For all his alien heritage, he's for all intents and purposes a Kansas farm boy at heart, and everything he knows about being a hero was taught to him not by his alien birth father (or his stubbornly reappearing hologram), but rather his Earth parents. His suit wasn't Kryptonian underwear, it was sewn for him by his mother, and he didn't wait until his father died to take responsibility for his powers, because it was his father who showed him that responsibility. Not the man he only knew as a shadow in a crystal, but the man who raised him. In order to extend the Christ parallel wherein the adoptive parents have little influence compared to the original magic ones, Man of Steel's Kents are given less than short shrift, treated as hurdles or stumbling blocks to his achieving a destiny only found in the stars, when in fact they are the essential part of his journey. The result is that he comes off even more alien, and thus less relatable.

Following the abysmal Green Lantern, which took one of the greatest story lines in the character's history and turned it into literally a giant flying poop monster, and the slightly better but still terrible Dark Knight Rises, which ended with Batman quitting his way to a happy ending, the biggest question now in the wake of Man of Steel is why DC, and by extension Warner Brothers, just can't get their superhero movies right. For all my criticisms of The Avengers, at the end of the day its main problem was that all the talent behind it and the proven track record of films in that series set it up to have a lot of potential that I felt was wasted. At this point it is not unreasonable to wonder why Marvel seems to pull off their adaptations so easily most of the time, and DC has so much more trouble by comparison, though I think the answer is obvious.

Director Kevin Smith actually clued us in to this on his very first Q&A special when he talked about his work on an unproduced Superman script. When he asked the producers why they picked him as opposed to one of the actual writers of the comic book, the reply from the executives was that this was unheard of. Movie people make movies, comic people make comics, and never the two shall meet. The ones who actually know something about these characters and have respect for them and their history are not allowed anywhere near these properties, because Barbara Streisand's former hairdresser turned Hollywood producer has this great idea about a funky robot sidekick and a polar bear fight.

The solution is equally as obvious it seems to me. DC has been producing quality films based on comic book movies for the last few years, only in animated form. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, fathers of the DC Animated Universe encompassing Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series among many others, have been writing and producing movies that could easily be done in a live action format as the start of a tent pole cinematic universe. Even Superman: Unbound, only decent by the standards of their other films, would have been a far superior reboot of this franchise, with the added benefit of dispensing with the origin story they didn't need to retell, and showcasing a villain that has yet to appear in a live action film. But they will never be hired to actually make any of these movies, because the bias of the studio would never allow it.

Upon reflection, I am only more convinced that the praise this film has received from so-called comic book fans is in large part merely a desperate and disingenuous acknowledgement of their collective defeat in the quest for a DC comic movie that respects them. It is an acceptance of this mediocre standard as the best we're ever going to get, and if we ever want a Justice League movie, even one as shitty as this or more than likely even shittier, we're all going to have to just pretend to like it this way and throw enough money at it in the hopes that they continue, and just maybe get their act together next time. Or the time after that. There comes a point where crossing your fingers hard enough threatens carpal tunnel syndrome.

I wasn't enthusiastic about the prospect of another Superman Movie after the disappointment of Superman Returns, until the trailers for Man Of Steel swayed me into thinking this one might actually be good for once. I should have known, as Snyder's movies always look better in the trailer than they actually are (even Sucker Punch looked interesting at the time). But like many who still cling to the vain hope of this new franchise getting better, my desire to see one good live action Superman movie before I die got the better of me. I've since given that up, because it hurts too much at this point. Maybe JSA will come, and maybe it won't, but it won't be good, and the sooner we all come to grips with that fact, the better.
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