Overthinking Movies? But That's Our Thing: Writers Saying Smart Things About Superman
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Overthinking Movies? But That's Our Thing: Writers Saying Smart Things About Superman

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Trade News | June 18, 2013 | Comments ()

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I don't know if you heard, but that new Superman movie came out over the weekend, Man of Steel. I have it on good authority that it's named that because in this iteration Clark works in a foundry. The film is getting some interestingly mixed reviews, with a lot of really smart people loving it, and a lot of them hating it, in particular the ending. Spoiler warning: the film has an ending.

This has been interesting, not simply because there are a lot of conflicting articles written about the film, and a good argument is a beautiful thing, but because the conversation has ripped open an entire slew of nuanced arguments about the nature of the Superman mythology and his place in our culture.

Ash Mahtani wrote this gorgeous bit of prose over at DC Comics (seriously go read the entire article), meditating on what makes the character matter:

Because a good Superman story isn't about punching things into submission. It's about the things that Superman can't do. And how he tries to save the world anyway...

For every fire you put out, another raged half a world away. For every child you saved from abuse or neglect or an oncoming car driven by some drunken asshole, there are ten others who suffered the consequences of your impossible choice. You look at your parents, your friends, the woman you love, a newborn baby, a puppy... And you know. Not just think, but know that you will live beyond them. The world will crumble, the sun will fade, time will lose all meaning and sound will be nothing more than a memory in the dark. But you will still be there. So you try to memorize their heartbeats so you can mourn a perfect rhythm.

Power has nothing to do with it.

Several psychiatrists had this to say in an interesting article connecting Superman's journey to things we know about psychology:

At the end of the day, Superman's greatest power may not be a power at all, but rather, a very human quality: restraint. If Superman were to behave recklessly, the consequences could literally be earth-shattering - and make for a terrible movie (we're looking at you, Superman III). In Man of Steel, even when the adolescent Clark Kent is faced with the aggressive teasing of other kids spoiling for a fight, he chooses not act recklessly. Maybe Superman read Thucydides' The History of the Peloponnesian War and took these words to heart: "Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses people the most."

And in the midst of a review, Dana Stevens made the connection between modern comics and medieval religious iconography:

A colleague of mine made the astute observation that superhero blockbusters have something in common with medieval religious art. Both rely on rigidly fixed iconographies drawn from a narrow range of canonical subject matter. The individual creator may vary the style, but the terms of the representation are governed by a larger divine or quasi-divine cosmic order: hence the endless variations on the Annunciation, the descent from the cross, the first appearance of the cape and tights, the final fistfight atop a skyscraper. Zack Snyder's Man of Steel doesn't aim to turn that cosmic order inside out; this is the work of a man of faith, a director whose whole career has been predicated on his love for the comic and graphic-novel form. But Snyder (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch) provides an elegantly illuminated retelling of the origin story of that most saintly of superheroes, Superman.

Finally, here's a bit from Mark Waid, a fantastic comic book writer who has written for Superman in comics, in addition to writing the magnificent Irredeemable, which tells the story of a hero similar to Superman who snaps and becomes the ultimate villain. Waid hated the film, and wrote an enthralling blog post about why, including this gem:

The essential part of Superman that got lost in MAN OF STEEL, the fundamental break in trust between the movie and the audience, is that we don't just want Superman to save us; we want him to protect us. He was okay at the former, but really, really lousy at the latter. Once he puts on that suit, everyone he bothers to help along the way is pretty much an afterthought, a fly ball he might as well shag since he's flying past anyway, so what the hell. Where Christopher Reeve won me over with his portrayal was that his Superman clearly cared about everyone. Yes, this Superman cares in the abstract-he is willing to surrender to Zod to spare us-but the vibe I kept getting was that old Charles Schulz line: "I love mankind...it's people I can't stand."

So far Man of Steel might be my favorite movie of the year, and I haven't even seen it. The reason is that films that get people arguing about the mythology of our times are few and far between, and the conversation is always more important to me than the movie that sparked it.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • BlackRabbit

    I've said enough about this film that I'm talked out for a little. I am however sad that this film means they likely won't ever do a live-action Captain Marvel film. I mean, this movie had two flying bricks punching each other. Poor Cap doesn't even have sizzle-eyes.

  • Funny -- my issues with the movie were mostly not with Superman, himself. I think the story could have been better, all around, but I liked where the creative team chose to focus (hope, use of power vs. restraint, and self-determination -- or so I saw it). I like less how the female characters were handled (though they weren't as bad as they could have been) and the overkill, in my opinion, on fight/flight scenes. While there are things I would have done differently, I'd love to have been able to edit that movie, just to make the things they *did* do work a little bit better.

    Anyhow, I thought it was enjoyable, if not without problems. I also blogged about it (http://noshortageofopinions.wo..., but I'm already on board with movies being important partially because of the conversations they start! Overthinking? Bah!

  • junierizzle

    I'm not overthinking anything. I didn't like the choices they made. Plain and simple.

    1 TOO MUCH Krypton. He's an alien that's all we need. It also didn't help that the first 15 mins on Krypton were clunky and rushed.
    2. Flashbacks to tell his origi didn't work. Individually they wrote good moments but with nothing really leading up to those moments they had no weight or felt empty.
    3. No "nerdy glasses" Clark Kent was a bold and bad choice.
    4. Save your dad, Damn those people watching. The way Costner went out was Damn near comical. And what's with that argument before that? All his life you tell him he is going to change the world then get mad when he says he doesn't want to be a farmer?
    5. The fighting was too fast. Half the time I couldn't see what was happening.
    6. Raise the neckline on his suit or shave his chest hair.
    7. The sequence withZod in Supes head was, I just didn't like it.
    8. Why did he scream after he killed Zod? And why didn't those people Zod wastrying to kill just run to the left?
    9. The obligatory, stupid, joke: "I think he is kinda hot."

  • gp

    re: #6

    whooooa, let's not be too hasty.

  • Joe Grunenwald

    Still I think he's rather tasty.

  • Pants-are-a-must

    Man of Steel was a highly confusing movie, and I say this as someone who loves the shit out of Inception. What I took out of it was this: Henry Cavill is a very good Superman, and that in itself is high achievement for the movie.

  • MichaelAndTheArgonauts

    I loved Man of Steel. And to anyone who said the film lacked heart:
    1) Did you see Diane Lane nail the Martha Kent scene where she is soothing a frightened Clark at school?
    2) Did you see every scene with Kevin Costner?
    3) The look on Supe's face at the end when Zod was going to kill that family?

    I got "sand in my eye" a couple times.

  • Perhaps the Superman story isn't about Superman, or his super human abilities at all. Perhaps it is a testament to the power of good parenting and good old fashioned American values. If Kal-el's ship touches down anywhere else but the Clark farm. We may have an entirely different Superman. He doesn't come to this planet with any preconceived notions of goodness or caring for mankind. These are values instilled by his parents and his upbringing.

  • foolsage

    "Superman: Red Son" is a great take on that concept; Kal-El's spaceship lands in the Soviet Union in the 50s.

  • Fredo

    Usually I don't care too much for Millar (dude can be a bit of a douche) but I loved this story and the ending was awesome.

  • Joe Grunenwald

    That's because the ending was Grant Morrison's idea :-)

  • E Robb

    But why then would a writer underthink something like Fast and Furious 6, and praise it's "don't think about it"ness? Seems completely selective.

  • You don't always want the same things all the time from every movie. Sometimes you want symbolism and commentary on archetypes and sometimes you just want big shiny Ka-Booms.

  • E Robb

    That's fine on a personal level. But on an analytical level, it's kind of bullshit. A critic giving a pass to Fast 6 because it's dumb fun, but then ripping Man of Steel because it's dumb, but kind of fun.

    It's a meaningless distinction at that point.

  • Ok, yeah, I see your point now.

  • E Robb

    Basically, it seems to me like they're saying if you make a low brow movie intentionally, it becomes good. If you're ambitious and come up short, you're bad. Which is a very odd precedent to set.

  • TK

    That is an excellent point. I'm not even sure what the answer to that dilemma is. There is a distinction, though, even though I'm coming at the question from a different direction (I reviewed both Man of Steel and FF6 for this site and enjoyed both, but for very different reasons).

    That said, it's important to note that it's not making "a low brow movie intentionally" that makes it good. It's making a good low brow movie intentionally, you feel me? There's a sort of critical difference there. A movie does not have to be intellectually stimulating to be good. But it doesn't have to be low-brow to be bad, either.

    I feel like that didn't make a lick of damn sense.

  • E Robb

    Your response makes sense, but I still feel like the topic here is so esoteric, that from a film analysis standpoint it's so shaky, it's barely valid. I mean, critics usually end up projecting their own ideas of the intent of the work, and judging from there.

    They say things like "Fast 6 is very dumb, and the plot makes no sense, but the movie is self-aware and therefore relishes it's own nonsense." or something like that. Whereas a movie that tries hard to accomplish a goal usually get slammed as "pretentious" or "self important". And it's for lack of a better phrase, hipster criticism. It's not cool to try. And a filmmaker who tries and fails is to be mocked. But a filmmaker who doesn't try to push any boundaries, and accepts the absurdity of it all, is then in on their own joke. Making them cool.

    And that kinda talk was all good and fine when it was applied to Evil Dead 2. But now it's so pervasive in all of blogging and film criticism, that I'm amazed we have a Chris Nolan. Sly Stallone is having a career resurgance, because the high minded critics of the 90's and 2000's gave way to hipster criticism, and now as long as The Expendables 3 makes fun of itself, that it becomes high art. When I half think Sly is just continuing the absurdity of his film career in the 80's and he actually has no idea why it's cool again.

    Ahnold is also having a comeback. We laughed at Collateral Damage for being an outdated rah rah action movie when it came it. But if it came out in 2013, I think it'd be a new "dumb but fun" tentpole franchise.

    Does that make sense, or am I just spinning my wheels here?

  • The way I have articulated my own thoughts on this elsewhere, in the post Why We Write in particular, is that I don't write movie reviews in order to say whether a movie is good or bad. I write about what the film made me think about, how it adds the gestalt. A complete brain dead movie like Fast 6 is a null value. There's just not much to talk about. Arguing with a film I disagree with is not the same as saying it's a worse film than Fast 6. It means that it's in the intellectual ring.

  • Fredo

    I'm going through Part II of my blog piece on it and landing in similar spots with this movie. I loved it. I loved the imagery, the iconography and the way it finally captures the essence of those comic book mega-fights, but it is disconcerting to see Kal-El beat the hell out of Zod in downtown Metropolis and causing buildings to collapse en masse. If this was set in any real kind of setting, the natural inclination of people would not be to cheer the blue alien, but to demand he be put in a rocket and hurled to Mars.

    To me, the essence of Superman is contained in an issue of a comic book written by Jeph Loeb. Batman is quoted as saying, "It is a remarkable dichotomy. In many ways, Clark is the most human of us all. Then... he shoots fire from the skies and it is difficult not to think of him as a god. And how fortunate we all are that it does not occur to him."

  • God Of Bal-Sagoth

    Superman/Batman. What a great series that was.

  • NateMan

    I have to say, I completely disagree with Waid's appraisal of the movie. I can see why the listed reasons are problems for him, but they're not for me. This Superman is very fallible, and he can't be everywhere at once. In the movie the characters had reasons for what they did, and even if they weren't the choices we would have made, they made sense in terms of the story.

    And what's more, Superman can't and has never been able to save everyone. He could have flown around trying to save every civilian in danger, and failed completely by not keeping the bigger picture in mind. Or he could try and stop the problem at the source, which is what he did. I'm not sure that in a super-speed fist fight, one has time to fly over to the next cornfield without getting one's head bashed in. Many civilians were shown to be killed, and it was one of the few things (IMO) that Snyder did better than Whedon; an alien invasion is not going to be antiseptic and casualty-free. Innocent people will die. And there's not always anything you can do about it.

  • Fredo

    I would submit that in previous versions, Superman has been aware of the collateral damage that could be done to the bystanders. In Superman II, he opts to fly away from Zod and his henchmen when they start targeting people. In Superman IV, he talks Nuclear Man into going to fight at the Moon.

  • NateMan

    True, and I understand the point, but I'd argue the more 'realistic' take this movie uses precludes that sort of action. When Supes goes off to take down the World-Maker, it makes sense. Why go after the target surrounded by other super-powered troops, when you can attempt the 'easier' target, seemingly undefended? Does anyone really believe that if he'd flown off from a fight in the middle of the city that Zod and his cronies would have let that happen, when they could either go for him when his back was turned or, just as likely, use the humans they'd already decided to exterminate as target practice until Superman turns back, and gets killed because he's trying to protect cannon fodder?

    It's not easy, and it's not for everyone. But it works for me.

  • Deidra

    And for those who either didn't realize that Superman is a Christ figure or are surprised about Snyder's lack of subtlety in imagery, I have two things:

    1) We also need to talk to you about Aslan the Great Lion.
    2) Please drink your juice while we pad all the sharp corners in your house.

  • Guest

    Well, Henry played Jim Caviezel's son in "Monte Cristo".

  • Nat Kittyface

    Considering that Superman is the son of a chosen, faraway, doomed people who is sent away in his crib by his parents to save his life, then found and adopted by new parents from a different group of people where he could live in safety and comfort, raised to believe he's one of them, and then eventually has it revealed to him that he isn't like everyone else and is special to boot - and also considering he was written by a bunch of Jewish guys - I feel pretty confident saying that Superman isn't really a Christ figure.

    Moses figure though, sure. Absolutely.

  • aroorda

    Yeah! Never mind superman strikes a Christ on the cross pose every single movie he's in, especially after he's done something to "save" humanity. Here's just one of at least 3-4 I caught in the new movie. http://tinyurl.com/l6vmrf6

  • Deidra

    Not to mention the age gap between his younger years and his emergence, nondescript day jobs (carpenter and journalist), the divine guidance from Jor-El (who sent his only son to Earth), performing savior miracles, etc. I feel pretty confident saying that here are elements of both, yes.

  • southworth

    I thought this was a very convincing defense of the ending from Snyder himself (spoilers obviously).


    It is an origin story, after all. The whole point is to see how Superman's ideals and personality are shaped, not to see them fully formed.

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