Saturday, June 29, 2013

Superman: For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Anger. . .

For thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Anger, now and forever. Amen. The doxology of the Man of Steel, according to Zack Synder.

The Irish know a thing or two about anger, it's almost a national trait. The cute side is Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man, getting all angry at her feelings toward Sean Thornton. Sean himself, afraid of getting angry outside of the ring, because he could kill a man with a blow. And let's not forget George Bailey, so angry at his life he wants to throw it away over something as ridiculous as money.

Besides my celluloid kinsman, my own Irish-American dad had a lot of anger, and I've been told people have worried about my own temper. So let's say that I'm an authority of sorts on anger as a destructive force.

What struck me in the Man of Steel was the unchecked anger of the beloved Superman, and the unchecked cosmic anger that Zack Synder and, dare I say, Hollywood seems to be suffering from.

Declare Your Superman Creds
To write anything about SM requires some context, the spectrum of his devotees is so broad. I'm in the ranks of the casual Superman fan. I saw reruns of the 1950s classic TV show for years in the 60s.  (I remember so clearly the experience of the two Lois Lanes, and vaguely remember liking the more caustic Phyllis Coates. That actress switch at the dawn of TV laid the foundation for double Darrins and Beckys to come.)

The Superman opening credits were the first that I knew by heart, I had seen it so many times. An English major in the making, I knew it was 57 seconds of perfect exposition (and the best TV use of the harp).

Faster than a speeding bullet.
More powerful than a locomotive!
Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!

("Look! Up in the sky!" "It's a bird!" "It's a plane!" "It's Superman!")... Yes, it's Superman ... strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman ... who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!

I wasn't into comic books, or the Justice League, and I saw the Christopher Reeve movies when they hit TV, but not before.

But I have some emotional bond to the character and the idea of Superman by cultural osmosis, and the musical manipulation of John Williams. I didn't like the cartoony Lois & Clark, but Smallville was an excellent series, with the perfect ending (as Lance Mannion well knows). So this is what I entered the theater with to see Man of Steel.

[Minor spoilers]

I found myself responding to the super-moments: Superman saving the guys on the oil rig; boy Clark saving the bus of kids; Superman's birth history; the first look at Caville in the suit, with the cape flying behind him; the kneel down on the ice to the great leap into the sky. All iconographic, all tingle points, event for the casual fan.

And then there are the HUGE problems, neatly articulated by Super-fan Mark Waid.

Broad points:

Superman's oblivious, literal destruction of Smallville & Metropolis is horrific. The loss of life amongst all those building being destroyed is incalculable and obscene. This is not who Superman is.

Some of Mark's great lines:

"Superman making absolutely no effort to take the fight, like, ONE BLOCK AWAY INTO A CORNFIELD INSTEAD OF ON MAIN STREET." [I love this point.]

"From everything shown to us from the moment he put on the suit, Superman rarely if ever bothered to give the safety and welfare of the people around him one bit of thought."

"As the credits rolled, I told myself I was upset because Superman doesn’t kill. Full-stop. Superman doesn’t kill."

Grief, Anger, and 9/11
I don't know the whole Superman canon for examples of previous anger. The casual fan saw Christopher Reeve's profound grief in Superman II over the death of Lois Lane turn into an anger so great that he could fly against the rotation of the earth and reset time. Cool. That was anger channeled to do something positive. Plus, it was the beginning of the 1980s, big things seemed possible.

Zack Snyder's Superman is oblivious to the anger that drives him to destroy the buildings of his hometown, and then blocks and blocks of the skyscrapers of Metropolis. That's what's so terrible.

Here are interesting points from some real fans, back in 2006 for Superman Returns. The thread? Angry Superman:

•I think its an awful idea to make Superman behave in an angry irrational manner. He should stand for truth and justice and balance.

•Among all his other gifts one of his greatest powers was his instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. you cant exactly have that if your raging around being mad at everything. his cool head has kept him on top even in the worst of situations.

•And while it might be nice to see Big Blue go up against someone who could take a punch without their head splattering, the last thing I want to see is Superman throwing a hissy-fit. Save the angry-all-the-time crap for folks like Batman or Wolverine; Superman's supposed to be someone you actually like.

Of course it's really Zack Snyder calling the shots. One has to ask: What is he so blindly angry about that he doesn't see how over-the-top, unnecessary, fatiguing, repetitive, and obscene his last battle sequence is. Is this a sign of broader zeitgeist anger—about the collapsed economy, government hacking, wars that don't end, corporate malfeasance—that is showing up as a super serious Superman, a World War Z, a Pacific Rim of rock 'em sock 'em robots. Humanity is getting quite a bashing.

My own angry moments of the film experience came from the 9/11 imagery. It's stupid to level Metropolis; it's sad and offensive to do it matching 9/11 imagery frame by frame. Vulture's Kyle Buchanan used Man of Steel to write about, "Is it Possible to Make Hollywood Blockbuster Without Evoking 9/11?"

His point: "It’s lazy, it’s cheap, it’s deadening, and it needs to stop." Amen.

But it's the change in Superman himself that I find the more telling point.

In the days and weeks after 9/11, phrases like "nothing will ever be the same" and  "everything is now entirely different" were everywhere. They were empty words for me at the time, so trite, so small in comparison to the monstrosity.

A decade out, this change in the ethos of Superman, part of the very DNA of pop culture America born of immigration, seems to be a real example. Damn.


O. Douglas Jennings said...

The context I took with me into the theater when I viewed MOS was as a comic fan who's been following Superman primarily in that medium for the last 30 years. And as a graphic artist, I was hoping for innovative cinematography and a visionary design sensibility.

I was very happy with the movie on those levels. I liked the science fiction angle. I liked the interaction between Clark and his parents in all those scenes. And I thoroughly enjoyed Russel Crowe as his Kryptonian father.

I can understand your and Mark Waid's point of view. The scale of collateral human destruction nagged at me and definitely dampened my complete satisfaction with the film. Another telling moment for me that it lacked general appeal was when my young adult daughter, who went with me to the show (and who inherited some of my Comics fan feeling), fell asleep during the final battle between Zod and Superman. :-/

I had 911 flashbacks during the movie as well and I don't like how that event still psychically gloms onto every movie that features metropolitan disasters.

But I like your review of the movie with your insightful remarks and associations regarding what it says about our angry times.

Sometimes I wonder if Orwell's fear of humanity's future as symbolized by a boot smashing a human face forever (or at least until extinction) will be realized. I dream that Superman can save us from such a fate.

Here is my initial review of the movie.

Ellen O'Neill said...

ODJ, thanks for stopping by. I like your Superman art very much.

Anonymous said...

Found your blog through Vagabond Scholar's post-- I agree with every bit of it. My review had a bit more swearing in it:

Also, minor nitpick: you mean Christopher Reeve, not George Reeves, in the "Grief, Anger, and 9/11" section. I know this post was from months ago, but still. :-)

Ellen O'Neill said...

Infinitefreetime: Fixed. Thanks very much. Everyone needs an editor. And I liked the passion of your post.