Thursday, June 20, 2013
As American As They Come
Truth, Justice, and The American Way. That's what Superman has stood for since his inception back in 1938. But in an effort to make Superman "relevant" for our more jaded, ironic age, the makers of Man of Steel (including director Zack Synder, producer Christopher Nolan, and writer David Goyer) have taken steps to ensure that their version of Superman isn't seen as a corny relic from a simpler time. In doing so, they do more harm than good to the character.
Now, if you haven't seen the movie yet, I'm about to jump into spoilers so stop reading now unless you want to know everything about Man of Steel's climax.
I'm serious. If you don't know and don't want to know, come back after you've seen the movie.
Ok, fair warning given. Now let's get into that ending...
At the end of Man of Steel, after a lengthy battle, General Zod is trying to fry a group of defenseless humans with his heat vision, straining against the neck hold that Superman has him in. As Zod refuses to give up, Superman resorts to lethal force, snapping Zod's neck and instantly killing him.
Henry Cavill delivers a powerful reaction immediately following but it's simply a moment that should not have happened. It's just too ugly. As readers know, Superman has killed in the comics before - killing Zod and his Kryptonian cronies, in fact - back at the end of John Byrne's historic run on Superman. In Superman #22, Superman acts as judge, jury, and executioner - exposing a Kryptonian trio to green kryptonite, killing all three. This deed occurs away from any witnesses but although the knowledge of what he's done rests solely with himself, Superman feels the full weight of his deadly actions, ruminating on the fact that none of the people of Earth who look up to him as a hero know that he's been tarnished.
So yes, Superman has killed but Man of Steel handles it much differently than Byrne did, depicting this monumental act in a much less responsible fashion. For one, in the Byrne issue, Superman kills his Kryptonian adversaries by means of a very "comic book-y" method. Seeing characters on a comic page fading away as they succumb to Kryptonite radiation is not nearly the same as the sight of Superman snapping a man's neck on the big screen, with the crack echoing in Dolby digital sound. We're talking about a very real world level of brutality here that is acceptable from a one man killing machine like The Punisher, but not from Superman.
This is a character that has inspired children for decades and still does. To have him straight-up murder someone, no matter what the circumstance, is just wrong. At 44, I'm plenty jaded and onscreen violence is nothing that I'm against as long as it's for an appropriate audience but there are some things that always need to be safe for kids to enjoy and Superman is way up there at the very top of that list. I'm the father of an eight-year-old boy who loves Superman and it was genuinely dispiriting to have our first Superman movie together on the big screen be crowned by the sight of Superman savagely murdering his opponent. Sorry, but it's just not cool. It's a sad conversation to have to have as you explain to your child that Superman was wrong and that he should've found a better way.
For those who want to cite Superman II (1981) as evidence that Superman has killed on film before, in the theatrical cut, the fate of Zod, Ursa, and Nod is left ambiguous and in the longer cut of the film that aired on ABC during its first television broadcast, there's a scene of all three being taken away from the Fortress of Solitude by the feds. So no, it's not quite the same. And for those who want to say, hey, times are different now - are they any worse than during the Depression or during World Wars or the tumult of the '60s? Or is just that people have poorer characters today? I'd say it's the latter.
As poor a decision as it was to have Superman kill, I could've almost gone with it had there been a thoughtful follow-up. But no, it's just glossed over. When Martha and Clark are standing over Pa Kent's grave at the end and Martha's saying she wishes Jonathan could've lived to see the man that Clark has became, my first thought was that he would've surely been appalled. After all, didn't Jonathan raise his son to be better? Couldn't they at least have had Clark acknowledge that he crossed a line that he never wants to cross again - that this is something that will haunt him and drive him to be a better hero? That even though no one blames him for killing Zod, he knows that he has to hold himself to a higher standard?
Some indication of guilt or shame would've been in line with Superman and it actually could've added a richer dimension to the character where he feels that he doesn't deserve the adulation he's receiving because, in his heart, he feels he could've avoided killing Zod.
Unfortunately, this movie was made by people who hold the short-sighted belief that a more violent Superman must naturally be a cooler Superman. It's just sad that the responsibility for this movie wound up in their hands and I wonder how anyone connected with this film (at least those who were in the position to make key creative decisions) can possibly feel good about themselves.
Even in Frank Miller's landmark The Dark Knight Returns, Batman starts to take The Joker's life by breaking his foe's neck but stops short of it. In a final mad act, The Joker finishes the job himself but Batman, the grimmest of heroes, couldn't bring himself to go there. Now we're saying that Superman can? No, I can't go along with that.
In one of Man of Steel's final scenes, Superman assures a general who still harbors a modicum of suspicion towards him that he's "as American as it gets."
And truth be told, in being depicted as content to go for an expedient, lazy, and morally wrong solution rather than working harder and smarter to do what's right, this Superman is as American as it gets.
That just doesn't say anything good about either modern Americans or Superman.