Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Why the World Needed “The Man of Steel”

(With apologizes to Lois Lane)

Please be forewarned that this article discusses plot points from the new movie “Man of Steel”, and other Superman related movies, games and comics and reveals many spoilers.  If you have not seen the film, I highly recommend that you see the movie first.

This past weekend the much anticipated movie, the Man of Steel opened in theaters. With its release came some of the most emotional and varied opinions on a Comic Book inspired film that I have personally ever seen.  Within this particular genre there have always been a group of very vocal and passionate moviegoers, the Fanboy and Fangirl.  I am very proud to consider myself a part of this particular group, which consists of women and men who are coming to the film experience usually with a lifetime of appreciation and love for the characters appearing on the screen before us.  We are the people Michael Keaton told to “Grow up!” when his casting as Batman was criticized, we are the people who get upset when the movies don’t adhere to strict Comic Book continuity (even though the comics themselves don’t), and we are the people who wait at the end of every Marvel Comics movie to catch a glimpse of what the studio has planned for the next films in the franchises.  We are a group that is usually universally united in our outrage and passion.  This weekend that unity dissolved as Fangirls and Fanboys either fell completely in love with Superman reboot, or walked out deflated over what was done to their beloved hero.

Prior to the movie’s release, the anticipation on part of the Comic Book community was very guarded.  Reaction to Bryan Singer’s tribute of the Donner films, Superman Returns, was not positive and many fans seemed to be adopting a “wait and see” approach to the new film.  Up until the ending of the film reaction seemed universally positive. Indeed, it is the ending that has divided the comic book community as never before.

Superman kills.  This act, the central issue of the controversy, has made the rest of the film irrelevant for much of the public.  In a scene at the end of the film, in a situation where the writers have given him no other option, Kal-el is locked in a struggle with General Zod who, while immobilized in a head lock by Superman, attempts to use his heat vision to incinerate a family trapped in a corner of the train station where he Superman are doing battle.  Pleading with Zod to stop, Superman fails to convince his opponent to relent and violently snaps Zod’s neck to prevent the death of the human family in front of him.  Superman releases a gut wrenching, primal scream of anguish what he has done. At this point, Synder has Lois Lane comfort Superman in a very touching and very refreshing moment which shows strong male figure in the grips of emotional pain, anguish and vulnerability.  It is this scene that has fandom divided.

The reasons people give for their negative reactions are very clear and perfectly reasonable;

“Superman shouldn’t kill, Superheroes don’t kill.”

“Superhero movies have become too violent”

 “I can’t bring my daughter or son to see a film like this”

I firmly believe all of these arguments are valid, and completely understand all of them.  However I also feel very strongly that “The Man of Steel” was one of the best Superhero movies ever made.

I grew up reading Comic Books and idolized Superheroes.  Superman was the first movie I saw in the theaters as a child, after Star Wars.  My father brought me to the film as a surprise after he and my mother had gone earlier that week to check it out and make sure it OK for me to watch.  I have always loved those movies and very much enjoyed Singer’s homage to those films in “Superman Returns”.

The comics I read growing up were mostly Silver Age comics, comics created in the post “Seduction of the Innocent” era.  For those not familiar with “Seduction”, it was a book written by Fredric Wertham that placed much of the blame for juvenile delinquency on comic books.  The end result was the creation of the Comics Code Authority that regulated everything that could be done, said or shown in comic books.  If you didn’t adhere to their strict guidelines, you didn’t receive their seal of approval.  It wasn’t until the late 1960’s when Marvel put out a series of three Spiderman comics without the seal, that people started to realize how little people cared about the code.

As a child growing up, these books were enjoyable to me and completely appropriate, and I read them over and over again. I know that in my parents’ place I would not have wanted my six or seven year old child reading comic books that featured drug use, sex or extreme violence.  As I got older and more mature though, my taste in comics and other media changed.  I no longer wanted to read the campy stories that I read when first became a comic book reader. 

O’Neil and Adams “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” and Moore’s Watchman changed what I looked for in Comics and became prime examples I gave to my peers when I was called immature for reading comics.  I still enjoyed the books that I read when I was younger and read them to this day.  I read them with fondness and great nostalgia and believe they hold a very real and very important place in the world of Comic Books today.

In the same way that my tastes in Comics Books has changed, so has my taste in Comic Book films.  I felt very much invested in the “Man of Steel”. It is a mature film for a mature audience that gives us a story that has grown up along with its fans.  It is not campy and takes itself very seriously.  What ultimately divides us on the film is each individual’s philosophy on what a hero is be and how should they behave.

When I open a comic book, I want the heroes that I see in the pages of Comic Books to be a reflection of who we are as a society.  They should embody our values and they should strive to be the best of who we are.  I want to emphasize that last statement, Superheroes should strive to be the best of who we are.  I say this because there is nothing interesting about flawless characters in any form.  What makes Peter Parker one of the most sympathetic characters in comics is the fact that he made a mistake that haunts him his whole life.  A good story is built on conflict and struggle and the consequences there of.

A hero who always does the right thing is not interesting, or very human.  We as human beings make mistakes, we sometimes act without thinking, make rash decisions and sometimes make the wrong choices.

Real heroes deserve a much higher place in our culture.  Real heroes like the women and men in our armed forces.  Like those in Fire Departments and Police Forces. Teachers and nurses and doctors.  Religious and secular leaders who dedicate their lives and spare time to lift up others.  These are the individuals who should be celebrated and we need to see them reflected in our Superheroes.  How many police officers or soldiers have had to kill to save a life?  It is a sad truth that sometimes there is no other choice or option presented to those in their line of work. It is wholly appropriate that Superheroes reflect the men and women who have to make life and death.

It does not bother me that Superman ends Zod’s life in the Man of Steel.  Had it been handled any differently, I may have responded the same as so many others.  For those that were bothered, I certainly understand and in no way feel that your reactions are not valid. 

What does bother me is that Superhero movies as a medium have become too violent, and it is driving many people away from the medium and keeping parents from introducing their children to these great characters.  Violence does have a place in mature storytelling, but a film should never be violent simply for the sake of violence.  That appeals to a side of us that is antithetical to what Superheroes are all about.  There need to be films that we can bring our young children to.  If we don’t have Superhero movies and animation that appeal to the younger set, they will never get to experience the great feelings of nostalgia that those of us who grew up with the Superfriends, Adam West and Saturday morning Spiderman cartoons did.  Being able to share with our children the interests and experiences we had when we were their age, is something far too valuable for us as a society to abandon.

A world where all versions of our heroes are the same as those of our youth is as bleak as it’s opposite.  As we mature, so too must our heroes.  We need to see ourselves reflected in the Man of Steel, otherwise he becomes a caricature as two dimensional as the drawings he came from.

The world needed to see a film like “Man of Steel”.  If not for the mature, refreshing look at a character that after 75 years has become as much a part of the world’s folklore as any other fictional character, then the world needed this movie for the discussions it has initiated about heroes and our expections of them.