Be careful what you wish for.
Ever since the first Superman film directed by Richard Donner and iconically acted by Christopher Reeve came out in 1978, people–especially hardcore comic book fans–have yearned for a “proper” Superman movie. Not to say that all previous films about the guy in the blue and red suit were total failures;the two Donner films (one uncredited), in particular, are still loved by many. But Superman’s story is mighty ambitious and epic in scale even by comic book standards. And so while the live-action movies and TV series throughout the years got some of the story’s basics right, fans have still been left longing for more–more of the sci-fi that makes Krypton Krypton, more of the godly strength of Kryptonians, more of the thrill of flying when a man really denies the laws of physics, more of the mythos of Superman. Man of Steel, the latest reboot of the Superman hollywood franchise, aimed to do just that.
So why is it getting mixed reviews? Why does Superman Returns–a film sorely lacking in spectacle in comparison and so campy as to be mistaken from the ’90s–have a higher score on Rotten Tomatoes? Why the flak from more serious publications when most geeky sites, especially IGN, are praising the film as one of the finest superhero movies ever?
I set out to propose an argument.
The Contempt for a Serious Comic Book Movie
Many of the negative reviews about Man of Steel griped about the film’s supposedly overly serious tone–something which the industry and the audiences have been expecting ever since it was announced that Christopher Nolan was going to produce the film as Nolan is noted for his sombre and “realistic” take on Batman. Somehow, setting people’s–or rather, critics’–expectations still weren’t enough to make them appreciate the consistent seriousness of Man of Steel. In the end, several of them wished they laughed more (like at Iron Man 3) or found more silliness–perhaps like in the Donner films that kept on popping up in reviews and in comment sections like an unvanquishable planetary invader.
To me, the problem is not really that Henry Cavill as Clark Kent wasn’t cracking enough jokes or spewing witty one-liners a la Spiderman; it’s not really that director Zack Snyder took moody shots of butterflies and clothes hanging from a line as a boy in a cape played around with his dog in slow motion;or the fact that the entire movie was shot in a gloomy color palette oddly reminiscent of Instagram–the real problem is people’s reluctance to consume a serious comic book movie.
Comic books have long been deadly serious about being serious. Pick up any Superman or Action Comics these days and see how the stories are told with careful consideration to realistic consequences. Of course there are light moments and campy twists, you can’t get rid of those, but in general, the evolution of comic books has seen them developing from picture tales for very young boys into graphic media that can entertain and put in a reflective state even the gravest of adults. When Nolan translated this seriousness into his Dark Knight films, he simply pushed into a level of maturity a type of media that has been aping its comic book counterpart for a long time.
It’s interesting however, that despite the recurring, stale accusation from high-brow circles that we’ve been watching too many escapist popcorn flicks, we’re still not at that point where we are ready to accept drama and tragedy when they’re placed in intergalactic settings where spaceships fly in and out of other dimensions, beams shoot out of laser guns (or alien eyeballs), and folks in capes zoom like speeding bullets in the sky. We’re still not ready to consume a serious comic book movie.
This stubbornness to give in to the fantastic drama of it all is at the very root of the contempt or condescension toward comic book movies that shamelessly present themselves as serious. The fact that the same grumbles were said about The Dark Knight trilogy and Watchmen supports this argument, as well as critics’ head-over-heels praise for the recent slew of light-hearted Marvel films. In all of this, the real message from critics and displeased viewers to comic book films and the people who make them can be summarized as “Know your boundaries.”
Know your boundaries. You can put drama and real emotion in the interactions between your fictional comic characters, but don’t expect us to weep for them when they die or when misfortune befalls them, as when Pa Kent got swept by a tornado. You can instill pain and hatred in the protagonist, depict him as an alien outcast stranded in another planet, sure, we’ll try to understand his predicament, but don’t expect us to connect to him on THAT level (he’s an alien in spandex for Christ’s sake!). You can destroy an entire city or an entire planet and we’ll get the sadness and tension, that’s manageable, but don’t expect us to really consider the fear in this multitude of extras; after all, we imagine them ridiculously running hither and thither in a WB studio, surrounded by towering green screens.
Since a lot of people have already set the limits of a comic book movie before they even watch it, they end up generally judging it based on how well it has cleverly played around such limits without breaking them. Any attempt to destroy these boundaries is treated as an insulting effrontery, as if comic book movies don’t ever have a right to touch you deeper or, at the very least, to be taken by you as seriously as any Martin Scorsese film. As if there can be no such thing as a Superhero drama (which begs the question–just what the heck were the Nolan Batman films?).
A Sweet Spot for Destruction
Another aspect of Man of Steel derided by some critics is the wanton destruction: buildings keep falling; spaceships keep crashing down; stuff keep blowing up, and Superman and his enemies never seem to run out of walls to puncture with their heads. The film is described as too noisy and chaotic like the much-hated Transformers series by the equally hated director Michael Bay.
But I would like to contest that even this revulsion for epic destruction stems from the unspoken contempt for a serious comic book movie. See, seriousness, grittiness–“realism”–require supreme attention to accuracy. Back in the day of the Donner films, Metropolis’ buildings couldn’t be made to shatter in a gazillion pieces. A racial civil war (essentially as grim as the World War II in our history books) on another ancient planet couldn’t be staged. But today, we have the technology to create these scenes and more. I can only imagine the strict rules by which CGI animators comply with; the destruction and violence on screen could have been a lot more unnerving if comic book movies were allowed to be as realistic as possible. Just imagine burning bodies raining down from the skies or a river of blood flowing down the streets of Metropolis.
Studios won’t go that far, though. Comic books themselves and mainstream titles like Superman in particular, won’t go that route, too. Nobody would or could appreciate that level of visual realism. People even have trouble appreciating the obsession to detail given by CGI animators to now cliche scenes of cities as war-torn battle zones. There’s a stupid irony in the fact that people like to see, say, cars transforming into 20-foot robots battling equally gigantic metallic villains, and their revulsion for the total ruin that ensues from their loud, violent fights; the irony in asking for a proper depiction of a super-powered Kryptonian drenched in the energy of a yellow sun, and the scorn for the wide-scale collateral damage when such a being battles his own kind with the entire human race’s survival on the line. There is a stupid irony in the idea of a sweet spot for destruction.
The sweet spot for destruction is just another manifestation of the invisible margins that comic book movies, in general, are not allowed to transgress. People can only appreciate a certain amount of apocalypse without getting “bored.” In truth, such boredom arises from the inability to consume the level of violence depicted in the movie. The audience simply can’t accept the fact that the events unfolding before their eyes should entail so much harm to life and property, and for protracted periods of time. Unconsciously, the mind stops itself from caring too much and the feeling of boredom in the face of epic violence sets in like a defense mechanism. It is, again, ironic since if you really tried to imagine the fights in Man of Steel happening in real life, they would probably play out like the ones onscreen–they would require extended periods of senseless destruction.
A Different Kind of Audience
To sum it up, Man of Steel is not for everyone. It looks for a different kind of audience, one that’s only emerging now. The unlikely combination of Christopher Nolan’s grit and gravity, and Zack Snyder’s spectacle and sense of epicness gave birth to quite an anomaly in the superhero film menu. Man of Steel at once has the familiar fantasy of Marvel films and the self-importance of The Dark Knight trilogy. Perhaps, for the first time, we witnessed a truly solemn comic book movie that asks to be taken as it is unapologetically–complete with its expansive sci-fi, its space pods, capes, and winged beasts.
Many people won’t get it but those who have been looking for a proper Superman movie for years would know when the end credits roll that their wishes have finally been fulfilled. And it is a nice feeling, especially when you can see Justice League just around the corner.
As somebody who highly respects the dedication of Nolan’s and Snyder’s team to deliver a Superman origin movie that can stand for a long time, and who recognizes a love letter to Superman fans when he sees one, and moreover, as just another viewer who got so much more than what he paid for–I give Man of Steel 5 out of 5 stars.