Contemporary Superheroics

Before I saw it, MAN OF STEEL was positioned in my head as an antidote to IRON MAN 3. IRON MAN 3, that annoying, mediocre, poorly-plotted superhero film that hated being a superhero film. You could really feel the change in behind-the-camera talent as they leaned hard on the charm of Robert Downey Jr.'s banter to the point of breaking. They constantly undercut themselves, defating suspense in order to shoehorn psueod-witty back-and-forth at every unnatural opportunity.

It reminded me of a class clown who uses humor as a defense mechanism to avoid being vulnerable or opening up. Like a school bully who had accidentally revealed something deeply personal and serious, and upon noticing this, slams it shut by immediately giving a kid a wedgie. Like, dude. You can take yourself seriously sometimes, it's cool. No one's going to judge you.

Instead, we have Tony Stark & James Rhodes forcing some Seinfeld-ian banter about ammunition or whatever before they storm the enemy base. Or, a defeated and worn Tony Stark must rely on the kindness of a kid he just ran into — except because that kind of sincerity is lame to someone, let's make them both sarcastic assholes because we think that's all people like about Iron Man. Flimsy facades of personality for everyone!

I get that Iron Man is Not Your Dad's Superhero, but he's still a superhero, and when both Iron Man and the little kid are both poor attempts at Judd Apatow asshole characters, it's like the filmmakers don't really want to make a superhero movie but they have to. And they hate that. So they lop off the humanity and morality and sincerity and replace it with irony. About the only thing they treated with any kind of earnesty was Stark's recurring PTSD-like anxiety attacks, which didn't make sense, were poorly executed, and never came into play in a meaningful way.

Superhero movies in general have been going down this path for a while now. There were elements of it in the first Iron Man film, and now they've ripened enough to grow like vines all over the franchise. Upon the wild success of IRON MAN it was clear that he had become today's superhero, although not born of our time. The character evolved and so did the zeitgeist until both were serendipitously aligned. Iron Man was high tech, tied into war politics, and he was edgy in ways that felt new. He was an egomaniac that didn't give a fuck on his best days, but still saved the day because even though he was a jerk, he wasn't evil. That was where audiences saw escapism, in the superhero with a little less hero, more of a super entertainer.

And who better to cure us of this affliction than Superman? The first hero, and, if all went to plan in MAN OF STEEL, the one who showed us why inherent goodness is not just cool, but something to aspire to. That's what I wanted out of the movie, and what I had managed to talk myself into believing it would be. Ever since WATCHMEN, I've had to contend with Zach Snyder skepticism, but the cool trailers halped me beat it back. I thought that this would be it, the one where Snyder would crack the code and finally, at long last, make a movie that was more than just flash and sizzle. It would be the movie that would finally convey why Superman is one of the best and most important characters in American culture.

Instead we got more of the same, although maybe not in such a self-hating way as IRON MAN 3. It was more clumsy, a result of bad technique and form, rather than self-conscious irony boners. They tried to make something positive and optimistic, but they just fell in love with extended Dragon Ball Z fights instead of any exploration of theme other than ham-fisted Jesus analogies. MAN OF STEEL portrays a Superman that is more like every other superhero. He wants to do good, but doesn't accomplish much, and makes mistakes and takes easy ways out. Whether it's the wanton destruction (which no one seems to notice or care about) or how he caves in to lethal force, this is an attempt to water down the heroism of an icon so that he's more like everyone else.

It's also a film that doesn't seem to have many high aspirations regarding theme. There's some pretty ridiculous Jesus imagery that is way too obvious and cringe-inducing, while there's little to no thought given to the debate about lethal force that is central to the film's end. This is most indicative in the fact that Faora, a lieutenant to the main bad guy Zod, declares that Superman is weaker for adhering to a moral code. And guess what! The movie totally forgets this taunt by the bad guy and proves her right by allowing him to snap Zod's neck in the climax. Either the guys behind MAN OF STEEL aren't very good at exploring theme, or that's exactly the theme they wanted to teach you in a Superman movie: morality makes you weak. Bravo.

While I was mulling over this moment in superhero movies, Max Landis put out this thing about filmmakers focusing more on "super" rather than "hero" and he's essentially right. The top hero of our time is a barely reformed narcissist with a talent for one liners, and our greatest hero is an empty-headed vehicle for apocalyptic punch fights.

Just imagine, for a moment, what could have been. If there was simply one franchise that wasn't captive to the conventions of over-the-top destruction and angst masquerading as complexity and heroes that act in ways we wish we could, instead of characters that are just as trapped and shitty and sad as we are. In the overlong final fight of MAN OF STEEL, Superman decides the only way to finish it is to snap Zod's neck, but it's okay because he lets out an anguished scream of regret. The idea is that he didn't want to, but it was the only choice, he was stuck between two unideal choices. Surely, we as an audience can relate to that.

But we relate to it because we have to face that all the time, and MAN OF STEEL decides we shouldn't have a reprieve from pedestrian troubles. No-win situations exist in stories only because a writer decides they exist, but they also has the choice to channel the unique optimistic escapism that Superman embodies. His best stories allow us to live in a world where good can triumph, justice works, and when faced with two dead ends, he finds a way to make a third option. Superman should be a character for whom there's always a way, who never gives in to the easy way out, who comes from the sky and does only good. These ideas aren't passe. Just the way we convey them.