Big Fight in Smallville
Back when, the Pa Kent-Superboy dynamic made a certain kind of wholesome sense, didn’t it? Behind the eventual Superman’s heroism there was always this one old Kansas farmer’s values, really saving the world. There was something kind of safe and comforting about that. And, it’s not so much in opposition to the idea of an ‘alien’ being Earth’s savior as it is a championing of good parenting, sacrifice, trust—all that stuff that needs no argument.
However, Man of Steel, it’s a decidedly post-Dexter story, isn’t it? Or, we can’t watch it without thinking how Dexter’s father trained him to be a sort of complicated hero, anyway. At least I couldn’t.
It didn’t make push me away from this Superman any, though, no worries. Really, just kind of made me like Dexter more.
Which isn’t to say that you can still say “Phantom Zone” and not get a knee-jerk Danny Phantom out of me. To say nothing of the “Genesis Chamber”; I half-expected Khan to come striding out of it. But of course by then I’d already seen Kal-el’s John Carter/Spider-Man learn-your-powers montage—and appreciated it—and right when the movie started I felt like I was reliving James Thaddeus Kirk’s JJ Abrams (re-)birth, so, you know: no harm, no foul. We live in a cineplex where the pop-culture snowball is monstrous, and we’re all rolling in it. Happily rolling.
What actually interests me about this Man of Steel, though, it’s this positioning of the superhero way out on the fringes of society, instead of the banner around which we all rally. From what I gather from the trailers from Wolverine, Logan’s similarly bearded and remote, this time around. And, I’m not just completely sure what this is saying about us, right now. I mean, assuming marketing is telling the studios that this is the only hero we’ll accept. Does this mean we’re soon going to see another spate of Renegades on our television sets? That whole troubled-past/reluctant hero thing, just moving from place to place. Have gun, will travel; it’s very much the western model. And, if we’re tending back that direction, great, can’t wait. All you really need to save the world, after all, it’s a good poker face, a dusty serape, and a backstory you’d really rather not talk about.
What doesn’t interest me about this iteration of the superhero story is how the studios and/or directors seem to be in competition, for who can destroy New York City* the most spectacularly. Make your own list, there, but the rule seems to be that, if NYC is standing at the end of your movie, then the movie’s a failure. Meaning, the question going into a story like that, it’s not the back and forth between good and evil, or character development, narrative reversal, all that MFA stuff, it’s How do we stage this such that we get to trash New York City at the end? It’s looking like, for the common dude in the world of superheroes, the only safe place is the suburbs.
Anyway, what I appreciate about Man of Steel is the writers’ awareness that Superman is only really interesting when A) in a serious moral dilemma, and B) when pitted against an equal-strength super-villian. Let me underline that: equal-strength. If Supes is stronger, then, I mean, it’s just another day, dude’s stronger than everybody, and if he’s slightly weaker (Doomsday, say), then the story suddenly and kind of terribly starts to hinge on his ‘human’ cleverness. And that’s not what we want from Pa Kent’s favorite son: we want him to smash, like Hulk. And the only way we’re going to get to see that, it’s if he’s Rocky Balboa’d up against some Apollo Creed: toe-to-toe, just trading blows, where what finally wins, it’s that very American thing, True Grit.
Which brings us back to Pa Kent and those values we all cherish.
What I also appreciate is that, this time around, General Zod isn’t just some angry evil dude, out to, like Nix from The Lord of Illusions, “murder the world.” Those kind of bad guys are all right when pitted against normal folk, but, against somebody with standing membership in the Superfriends, we need a bad guy with a very specific mission. Like you hear all the time, the villain’s the hero of his own story. So it is here: Zod’s going all Titan AE on us earthlings (or, if you know your The Justice League, he’s going all Thanagarian on Earth). Which is all good and fine, except, oops, turns out he was genetically programmed to, like Jessica Rabbit, be bad, which kind of makes him suddenly a victim also.
But he gets punched a lot, anyway. Surely that helps.
And, people keep talking about the Christian overtones or underpinnings of Man of Steel. And, sure; it’s a superhero story, after all. What do you expect? Aren’t they all, more or less? Wasn’t Unbreakable even tending that way? Which isn’t to say I’m at all in favor of Supes being both bearded and thirty-three, here, but so it goes. Nobody called, asked me what to do.
Anyway, yes, this iteration of Superman starts out way off-Earth. Like, far, far away, where the tech’s all Giger-y. And we’ve got Morpheus editing the Daily Planet, which rocks, and Michael Shannon brings enough of Terence Stamp’s crazy. And our favorite gladiator is playing Don Corleone playing Jor-el, which is pretty excellent, and we all love to see Kevin Costner out in those fields where dreams come true. For my money, though, Diane Lane’s the real show stealer, here (she was in Perfect Storm, too—remember?). I’m not sure why that Aunt May dynamic is so vital to the superhero story. But try taking her out of this story, see what happens. Or, what doesn’t happen. And, though it goes without saying, Henry Cavill’s hair is so Super(man), along with the rest of him, right down to the new 52 suit. He sells it well, and he’s got those Jim Caviezel eyes, which of course ports a little Passion of the Christ across. And, yep, Amy Adam’s a good Lois Lane, even though, for a lot of us, Lois will forever be Margot Kidder. What’s even cooler, though, it’s that this Lois Lane, she gets the best line of the whole movie, and it’s a play on words I’d somehow never even considered, and wouldn’t dream of spoiling for you.
So, were this a review and I a reviewer, I’d give this two Fonzie thumbs straight up, yep. Also, whereas that last Superman reboot, all I remember of it’s the very beginning, with the plane, this time I think I’m going to remember most of the story. Except whatever might have happened after the credits. Anything, anybody? I was hoping for Brainiac to tap Lex Luthor on the shoulder, or for that distant barking to turn out to be Krypto, but then of course I remembered that Hollywood’s contractually-bound to include Samuel Jackson in every post credit sequence. And I had to get to lunch, anyway. These nearly three-hour movies, man. Maybe I’m supposed to feel like I’m getting my money’s worth, I don’t know. I do know that a lot of exceedingly fine stories have been told in a shade over a hundred pages, though, and kind of wish we could dial back to then . . .
*”Metropolis is New York in the daytime; Gotham City is New York at Night” — Frank Miller