Saturday, June 15, 2013

Ubermensh II: Why Can't Superman have a Brain?

Saw it yesterday with Sheba.  She loved it - the action was very Dragonball Z, very over the top.  Which presented its own problems, but it was indisputably the best part of the movie.  The rest of the movie was marred by what I'm going to call the "New Chris Nolan" problem: trying to be dark and epic.  But a little back story first...

I saw the third installment of the Linklater trilogy, Before Midnight, a week earlier.  I was astounded by just how effortless that movie was.  You'd think that a beloved trilogy 20 years in the making would inspire some sort of artistic overreaction, some tension in the execution, some pressure manifesting itself as a movie that tries too hard at times.  Instead it was nothing of the sort.  They just made a movie.  It stands on its own and as part of the larger story.  It honors what was done before and concludes it in a meaningful way.  Just storytelling.

No I wasn't looking to compare the writing talents of David Goyer to that of Linklater, Delpy and Hawke.  I just wanted something that wouldn't be "Superman: the Dark Knight from Krypton".  I was looking for an optimistic story.  I understand pursuing the realism angle.  I was excited about it, especially when it came to Superman.  But the realism was only done in a half-hearted way: no massive casualties from gods fighting in downtown Metropolis, no worldwide hysteria from aliens being among us or landing on Earth.  Very PG-13, very clinical.

And then, of course, you have the two moments in the movie that will cause people's heads to swim.  The first is John Kent dying in a tornado with Clark standing meters away.  Really?  He couldn't blow the tornado off-course, or go into the tornado himself to save the dog?  Or blow the ground until a big duststorm obscured everything allowing him to save the day?  Or dig underground and pop up where his father was, or just simply run into the tornado and miraculously explain afterwards how they both managed to survive?  Children could conceive of a way to solve that problem, if you gave them Superman's powers.  Superman, the Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow, the hero to end all heroes, our modern incarnation of Hercules, the shining light, the beacon of hope, our inspiration and champion, stood idly by and watched his father die when he had the power to save him?

Why can't Superman have a brain?

Superman's moral compass really rests in such a direction that he would be prepared to let people die rather than reveal himself?  That's a big problem.  Here's a question:  What if it wasn't just John Kent?  What if there were 20 people trapped in the cars, tornado bearing down on them?  Or one little girl?  When I saw in the trailers John Kent say that Clark might not be able to save everyone, I figure it was a sad acknowledgement that there would be times that he would have to choose who he could save and who couldn't.  I thought it was a responsible and realistic admission that Superman can't be everywhere and that he'd have to follow his heart and his head to save as many people as he can.  Instead, the movie makes John Kent out to be a hero, willing to sacrifice himself to protect his son, willing to practice what he preached.  However, his son is just a pussy.  He stood and watched someone die when he had the power to save them.  And had it been 20 people or a little girl in the path of that tornado, he would have done the same thing.  He thought about the cost to himself more than he thought about someone in need.  That isn't someone that the world can get behind, that isn't the Man of Tomorrow.  That's just a coward.

Goyer made a good effort to try and shape the moment into a sacrifice that Clark made: that he honored his father's wishes and lost a father in the process.  That his father believed that the world wasn't ready.  But this rings hollow when in the scene immediately before, Clark goes out of his way to say that John Kent isn't his father.  So did Clark really sacrifice the man that taught him everything he knew or did he sacrifice a some guy because it would make his life easier?  Goyer tries to make it seem like Clark did the right thing by not revealing himself that day.  But in order for that to have been the right call, you'd have to have some kind of scene where the world reaction to Superman was absolute awful - world leaders calling for his head, battle lines being drawn - something to show the worst instincts of humanity and vindicate the decision.    Instead it seems like everyone's kinda okay with this super-powered god destroying towns in defense of humanity, so it just seems as though - well, gee, how much trouble would Clark have really gotten into if he had run into a tornado and saved his father?  Would everyone really be like - wow, he ran really fast and saved his old man, what a monster?!?

Secondly, in addition to Superman letting people die, he also kills people.  Didn't you know?  Zod was about to flash fly some humans so Superman ripped his head off.  Lazy, is the word I'm looking for, fucking lazy.

Why can't Superman have a brain?

That's the best anyone working on this movie could come up with?  That the farmboy from Kansas who's literally never been in a fight in his life before today beat the military leader of Krypton in one-on-one, hand-to-hand combat?  At least tell us that Superman was stronger because he'd been on Earth longer or that Zod died after taking so much damage or that his body wasn't used to his powers and he succumbed to the injuries in the battle.  Or if Superman is strong enough to put Zod's head on backwards, you think he'd be strong enough to simply move his head so that it wouldn't vaporize some curiously motionless humans.  Poke him in the eyes, maim him?  But Superman straight up kills him in combat?  Superman, who didn't want to kill Zod, ended up killing Zod, who was trying to kill Superman. How does that work?  And again, just as in the example of John Kent's death, why make such a massive concession to the core of Superman without extraordinary circumstances and extraordinary consequences? Not to beat a dead horse but I'm pretty sure Superman could have grabbed Zod and flown out of there.  I'm pretty sure he could have used his heat vision to blast the floor beneath them causing them to fall.  He has too many abilities, too many powers for the only solution to be breaking some dude's neck.  It makes Superman seem very stupid.  And it makes the writing seem lazy, reaching for shock value rather than really creating the absurd, once-in-a-lifetime, kobayashi-maru situation in which Superman is actually left with no choice - where Superman would have to cross the line.  This is an expression of the "New Chris Nolan" problem: trying to make something epic and dark without putting enough work into it to be considered epic or enough sophistication to come off as dark.  And it is the same problem that I felt watching the Dark Knight Rises.

Is it better that Superman Returns?  Sure.  But again, if Superman isn't a mountain of virtue, if he isn't the Big Blue Boyscout, if he makes easy and often decisions on who lives and who dies, and if we don't see him at the very least struggle deeply with these decisions, it is very easy to imagine humanity never seeing him as a friend.  He will always be a threat, always be just a fallible human with powers rather than the Super-human that we are to aspire to be.  His strength is supposed to come not only from the sun, but from the combination of his super powers, his uncompromising moral rectitude and inner strength and the insights, "the smarts" and "wisdom" that only someone who could see through walls, hear far off whispers and observe humanity as an outsider could have.

Despite my cautious optimism, Superman is still just about punching aliens and lifting heavy things.  And with this Superman starting his journey in murky moral waters, I don't see how it's going to inspire people to believe a man can fly.

Man of Steel: Worth It Just For The Super-Powered Combat
Everything wrong with Man of Steel in 8 Minutes or Less


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