Thursday, June 6, 2013

Superman: The Happiest Fella?

Edit 4/5/2016:  For some reason today I started getting hits to this post today.  On the outside chance anyone is using this post to bolster their argument that the Superman depicted in Man of Steel or Batman v Superman was a-ok:  After I saw Man of Steel opening night at midnight and again about 36 hours later, all of the arguments below regarding why Snyder's Superman portrayal might not be a disaster were thrown out the window.  

Snyder's portrayal of Superman had, at best, a tenuous understanding of the character and his motivations, and the attempts to update the character did not achieve anything in the realm of reality.  Following the mentality of a teenager filtering reality through a PS2, Snyder abandoned the character's path of discovery and, instead, simply blessed him as a tactical weapon.  

While certainly some of what I say below dovetails with Snyder's own arguments for his movies, his execution is a failure.   I sincerely hope anyone who is out there saying this movie really "gets" Superman takes a moment to understand that anyone who has been a fan of Superman since before 2013 heartily disagrees with that assessment.  While there is certainly some of the core of Superman in Man of Steel, the movie, its creators and studio have failed to understand Superman's desire to inspire through deeds and actions, and that is its own reward.  Not the emotionally crippled man-child told by his parents to stay home and play videogames.

The original post begins below:

Just up here in space, smiling at nobody

There have been a lot of posts (hi, Max!) and articles by longtime Superman fans regarding the to-date seemingly somber tone of the new Superman film, Man of Steel.

Folks are worried about a "grim'n'gritty" Superman versus the cheerful fellow who takes delight in his powers that you've seen since Superman's first appearance in Action Comics #1.  That imagery has been a part of the "discovery" part of the story for Superman in one form or another in all sorts of representations, from Superboy comics, to the animated series, to Superman Returns and Superman: The Movie where we see a young Clark Kent running faster than a freight train and beating Brad and the gang back past the Kent homestead.  And, of course, the absolutely terrific "reveal" sequence when Superman saves Lois and then runs around Metropolis saving the day.

Probably the most joyful you're likely to see Superman is in Superman: The Movie after The Man of Steel first appears and then flies around Metropolis performing super good deeds.

In fact, I've gone on record as saying that the key to my understanding of Superman in many ways is the moment wherein he saves Lois, reminds her of the relative safety of air travel, and then turns around and lets loose with this huge grin before flying away:

"Man, I wish she'd fall out of a helicopter EVERY day!"

Being Superman can be pretty terrific, especially when you've just left a "seen it all" big city reporter utterly tongue-tied and mystified.  And, you've not only managed to save the day, you've also been totally cool and collected while doing so.  There's a lot of talk about the difference between Clark Kent and Superman, and I think - especially in the Reeve movies - both are roles played by Kal-El.  And the smile is Kal-El letting the mask slip for a moment.  This Superman business is going to work out.

But worrying that we don't see Henry Cavill grinning from ear to ear in a trailer that's frankly-Superman-lite seems hinged on an idea that Chris Reeve was all smiles in the first two Superman movies (or 3 and 4, even).  This idea, is, of course, bunk.

smile, dammit!
Probably the last time Superman was all smiles may have been in Action Comics #1, but who knows?  Joe Shuster's art isn't exactly a master class in detailed rendering.

Superman could always put on the "stern" face when it was time to wade into machinegun fire, fight robots, punch a death ray into submission or, basically, leap into the fray.

I get that what folks are trying to say is that they share a concern that this new Superman movie will remove the joy from being Superman.*  That to fly is pretty cool, to lift cars and help people is really neat, and that if you could do all those things, you'd be the happiest man in Springfield.


I've not seen the new Superman movie, but when I see Superman walking in handcuffs or surrounded by tanks and attack helicopters with gigantic guns strapped to them...  This is the same logic applied to Superman that was applied to Batman in the (surprise!) Christopher Nolan/ David Goyer Batman movies. If a person showed up who could shoot lasers from his eyes and shrug off the shells from a bazooka, the first reaction of the government, pundits and the public in general would not be to yell "It's a bird!  It's a plane!  What fun!"  It would be "oh my God we can't kill it, this is terrifying, somebody kill it".  Or, perhaps you have not seen how we've reacted to threats to our security over the past 12 years?

To me, and I haven't seen this movie...  But to me, the movie looks like the arc of Kal-El of Krypton earning the ability to be the Superman who elicits applause and cheers and doesn't drive people running back into buildings whenever he appears.  Nothing like killing your own people to save your adopted people to win you some kudos.

I'm also not inclined to disparage or stand in disbelief that maybe growing up with the ability to shoot lasers out of your eyes might make you feel a bit weird, especially if your parents were honest with you enough to insist you hide your laser eyes from your pals lest the government come along and whisk you away.  Flat out, these things weren't covered at all in the movies, and barely in the comics.  If your dad is constantly telling you "don't be seen being yourself or they'll kill you," I imagine that has some impact and will reduce the smile factor for flying and it's not what you're going to do to get down to the A&P.  But, frankly, if we're to believe Superman basically has a human-like capacity for emotion, I'll buy a version of Superman where the hiding and fear take their toll.  That's certainly what we've been shown in the trailers to date.

We've seen quite a bit in the trailers, but we haven't seen the entire movie, and getting glum that a Superman movie is being sold as a tad more serious after 25 years of articles talking about how Superman is a joke and can't be taken seriously because HE isn't a serious character was always going to change some strategy for how a movie would be thought about.

Now, before everyone gets huffy, I'm on your side.  I don't dig the knock-off Supermans by and large because they all seem to be asking the question "what is Superman was a jerk?".  Well, Mark Waid and Irredeemable really went to town answering that question.  It's answered.  I'm done.

I prefer a Superman who salutes boy scouts, helps girl scouts sell cookies, etc...

But I also am not against a movie that allows the writers to take a step back and consider the "now... really...  what if Superman really did show up?  How WOULD we react?  And what would he have to do to not spend the rest of his life running away from an hysterical population?"   Is this what the writers did?  Maybe.  It looks that way.  Do we know there's no "discovery" scene?  No.  And we won't until June 14th.

What I don't buy, and frankly I find a little confusing, is the idea that "man, if I could be Superman, everything would be perfect and I'd always be smiling" that I've seen put forward.  The first two Reeve movies, especially including the Donner cut of Superman II actually do go to lengths to explore the idea that being Superman has some great benefits, but it also doesn't lead to a balanced lifestyle.**  Even the pilot of the George Reeves-starring Adventures of Superman includes a mopey teenage Clark who is kind of freaked out about what's going on, and it's his relationship with his adopted parents that gets him through.

he's tied to brightly colored balloons and he's STILL not smiling.  Early DC grim'n'gritty.

And, seriously, you're gonna feel life is perfect when every time a plane crashes everyone's looking at you sideways, wondering what else you had going on that you didn't save those people?

I guess if you want to see a "believable" Superman, part of that core is going to be how the character reacts to the world and how it reacts to him.  I can't imagine anyone who has more pressure on them than the President of the United States, and sometimes these dudes smile, and sometimes they have on their game face.  And sometimes they're Calvin Coolidge.

I really am hoping for a Superman that's optimistic, that wants to save the day and not just beat up crooks while growling in a weird voice.  And I have a huge place in my heart for the winky Superman humor and whenever Superman appears in comics or other media with a grin on his mug.  I'm just not sure that we can't have a balance that tips toward the "man, it would be so weird if Superman were real" side and still get some of what we like about Superman as the character who doesn't wrap himself in funereal colors at all times and who, given a chance, is a pretty nice guy.

In so many ways, the Superman of Morrison's writing in JLA and (obviously) All Star Superman  is what I think of as the mature Superman, with a mature emotional range that somehow befits the worldview being Superman would bestow.  Actually, Roberson found that balance and emotional core pretty darn well in his run on Superman.

And while I get why folks love the John Byrne version of Superman's origin, I always found it a little stilted and the emotional resonance a bit lacking (and Ma and Pa so corny, they should have been shucked).  Waid's Birthright and Loeb's A Superman for All Seasons did far more to reflect, for me, on the uncertainty one would have setting out on this completely unpaven path.  There's joy, but alienation.  Questions about "why am I here?" and the uncertainty of "what am I doing?" when the suit first appears.  But there's weight to it that I think anyone can understand, and, in my mind, makes the character far more relatable than following through on an assumption that "given superpowers, I'd be the happiest fella!".  I just don't see that at all.

So, I guess we'll all just wait for the movie and see how this all plays out.  But I bet if the Lois of this movie were into you, you'd feel your fortunes were turning around pretty well.

*I'd argue the death of any joy derived from being Superman occurred in the 3rd reel of Superman IV.
**go back and take a look.  It's about Superman unable to connect with anyone but Lois, and the two cuts of Superman II both end with Lois having no idea that she did love Superman (emotionally and otherwise), and it went so poorly, he had to make her forget that ever happened

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