DCEU : SUPERMAN

3 May

I just released a new book! Battle Cry (book 4 in my Freedom/Hate series) is out now, and here’s the link! I should totally be doing more publicity for that. But… I’m going to ramble about geeky stuff instead for a while (and by “ramble” I mean that this isn’t a professionally crafted think piece. It’s random thoughts that are coming to mind as I type). So, go check out my book link, read the blurb (warning: spoilers for the series up to that point may be in the blurb… it’s book 4, after all), look at the pretty cover, and then read my geeky ramblings. That way I don’t have to feel bad about spending my time on this stuff.

Okay, here I go. Deep breath…

Look around the internet and you will find a million people, saying a million bad things about the DC Extended Universe. They don’t like the colors, they don’t like the directors, they don’t like the way the characters are handled. All of these comments are fine. People are entitled to their opinions, and all of that (for now anyway).

In the past, I’ve given some of my thoughts on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Anyone who knows me will be able to tell you that I’m not the hugest fan of that franchise. I do like some of it, but I’m not as forgiving as a lot of people. So, is it weird that I actually like the DC Expanded Universe, while so many others seem to hate it? Am I just disagreeable?

No. For starters, I don’t view this as an either/or situation. I don’t think there is some grand competition going on. I don’t think that either franchise is going to take money away from the other (okay, Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok might compete a little), because both seem to be doing just fine when it comes to money. I have no loyalties to any brand or franchise. So, this isn’t going to be a comparison to Marvel. (besides, maybe the Marvel lovers are the disagreeable ones! After all, I don’t see many DC fans calling for the entire franchise to be scrapped just because they don’t like it!)

To begin this conversation, we should take a look at the first of the DCEU movies, Man of Steel. When Henry Cavill was first announced as Superman, I wasn’t totally thrilled with the casting. It’s like casting an American as James Bond or The Doctor. Superman is as American as apple pie, and this news came out around the time that Superman was said to be renouncing his US citizenship in the comic books, so I was worried that we’d lose “Truth, justice and the American way”, in favor of some political message that the DC people wanted to push on fans. Fortunately, we didn’t. Cavill proved to be a very good pick for the role, so we might as well start casting the American Doctor now. All bets are off.

Why do I like this Superman?

To understand my position here, we have to go back many years. I grew up in a post-Christopher Reeve era. A lot of the Superman comic books that I read were modeled after him. Even the TV show, Smallville, was inspired by those 1970’s movies. However, I was not a big fan. Not to slam Reeve, who starred in one of my favorite movies, Somewhere In Time, but he didn’t really fit the role for me. He wasn’t commanding. He seemed softer than I’d always imagined Superman. It just wasn’t a good fit, in my opinion. (I have other issues with those movies, but this isn’t a review of them, so I will move on)

As I read the comic books, I was also struck by how alien Superman was in a lot of them. Clark Kent was the costume, while Superman was the reality. His upbringing was pushed to the side, and his alien heritage was the focus.

To get to the point, I grew up with a lot of versions of Superman (comic books, cartoons, old serials, old TV shows, new TV shows…), and most of them weren’t quite right for me. They were focusing on the image of Superman, and not the character. Nobody seemed to be breaking the character down, the way you would with any character that you write. They just wrote toward the image of the cape waving in the wind and his hands on his hips. So for years, I was longing for a Superman that really explored the character. Who was he? How did he view himself? How did he view his human heritage and his alien heritage? What was the reality, and what was the act? What would Superman be like if he were an actual person?

Then I saw the trailer for Man of Steel, and it didn’t look like a cartoon. It didn’t look like the same thing that I had seen (and rolled my eyes at) for so many years. It looked like an actual film, with thought and effort put not only into the character, but into the world that he inhabited. The film looked beautiful. Young Clark Kent, standing with a towel (or sheet, or whatever) tied around his neck and his hands on his hips was the iconic image of Superman, but it was also something that I could immediately relate to. I could feel that scene right away, with the smells and sounds that would go with it, because it was like so many evenings that I’d experienced growing up. The trailer caught my eye and made me excited to see more.

Sitting in the theater, I knew what to expect. I’d seen Superman’s origin story a hundred times by this point. There are always slight variations, but it’s usually more or less the same. Except, this time, it wasn’t the same. The movie didn’t do what I expected it to do, it did what I wanted it to do! They broke down the character!

What would Clark’s childhood be like? We’d always seen the idealized version of it, with Clark learning how to leap and fly in the corn field, while Ma and Pa Kent offered wholesome advice. What Man of Steel offered instead was the more natural version of this character.

What would the Kent home life be like? Would Jonathan and Martha Kent ever be able to hire a babysitter when Clark was a baby? No. They would have him close to home, and they would be right there with him. They would love him, but they would also have experienced that adorable little baby snapping their fingers by mistake, before he could even talk. The Kents wouldn’t be the popular and perfect family in Smallville, they would probably be the people that were whispered about and kept to themselves, because they’d have no choice but to be very private, keep secrets, and maybe become a little paranoid of who was asking questions about them.

As Clark grew, they wouldn’t be able to keep him in a bubble. He would have to be out in the world and around other people, but they would always be on alert. Clark would be the weirdo in school, because nobody would really understand him. This kid can hear things from a mile away. He can light things on fire with his eyes. He might eventually learn how to control how people see him, but it would be almost impossible for that to happen when he was growing up.

Man of Steel presented Clark’s secret as something less than a full-blown secret. Some people in Smallville know that something is going on with him. At the same time, they don’t feel a need to expose him. It’s not that they’re keeping his secret from the press, it’s that they’re not offering his secret to the press. It’s not a nice and clean situation, where people get knocked on the head and forget that they just watched him lift a car over his head.

When Clark saves the bus full of kids and Jonathan realizes that this secret has been threatened, he gets defensive of Clark. People have hated this scene, because Jonathan seems to suggest that Clark should have let those people die on the bus. I didn’t exactly see it this way. Jonathan says that maybe Clark should have let them die, but he doesn’t even sound convinced of it himself. He simply doesn’t know what good option there was in that moment, and his son is at risk. It wasn’t a flattering image of Jonathan Kent, but it was a human reaction that I could understand. At that moment, the bus full of kids was safe, and Clark was not.

When the tornado hits, people complain that Clark allowed Jonathan to die, rather than use his powers to save his own father. This is where the whole point of the movie comes in. Clark Kent’s life has always been about fear. Even with his amazing powers, Clark has lived in fear since he was a child. His parents lived in fear. That fear held him back and kept him from being the hero that he was destined to be. So, why did he allow Jonathan to die? Because, like man of us normal human beings, Clark is bound by fear. Jonathan allows himself to die because of fear.

I heard a story about elephants once. Could be true, or it could be crap. I don’t know elephants, but it’s a story with a point, so I’ll use it as my example here:

Baby elephants can be tied to a post with a normal rope. They struggle and pull, but they aren’t strong enough to break free, so they eventually stop trying. Eventually, they grow big enough to snap the rope and break whatever post its tied to, but they don’t, because they’ve been taught from an early age that they can’t break free from that rope.

This is the story of Clark Kent in Man of Steel. He’s bound by a rope that was tied to him as a baby, and the movie is all about him learning how to snap that rope and realize his potential. And he doesn’t just do it for himself, he does it for all of humanity. He faces his worst fears for the sake of others. People complain that the movie lacked heroism or hope, but those people are wrong. The movie is all about heroism and hope. Being a hero isn’t stopping the bad guy when you know you can’t be hurt. It’s about stopping the bad guy when you have everything to lose.

Man of Steel also faces my other Superman pet peeve head-on. The issue of his humanity vs. his alien nature. Who is he, and why is he the man that he is? Where do his loyalties lie? How does he view himself? This internal struggle is depicted in a literal fashion on screen.

In the movie, Clark embraces his nature. He doesn’t ignore what he is. However, he clearly picks his side. His home and his family are threatened by people from his home world. Clark obviously sides against Zod because Zod is a murderous psycho, but their battle is also the culmination of Clark’s entire internal struggle, from birth until that moment. Through that fight, he realizes who he really is, and in doing so, he realized his potential as a hero.

We can debate all day long about the level of destruction in the movie. You can say it’s too much, I can say that it’s all based on the reality set within the movie’s universe, and it would be dishonest to present a world-ending battle in a way that didn’t result in massive damage. You can say that Superman should never kill, and I could counter by arguing that he had no choice. There was no prison for Zod, and the man clearly stated that he would not rest until he had destroyed everyone on Earth. Clark would never want to kill. It goes against his nature and everything he was raised to believe. His killing Zod was a huge sacrifice for Clark to make.

You can say that the colors are too muted. I could argue that, looking around me right now, I don’t appear to live in a world of bright primary colors.

You can argue that this isn’t your Superman, and I would argue that you’re just saying what I was saying for decades before.

The depiction of these characters, whether we’re talking about Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or anyone else, tends to change from writer to writer, and artist to artist. There is no one proper version of the characters. There are only elements that make them who they are. Superman is a hero. He is genuine and good. He is a symbol of hope and overcoming insurmountable odds. I don’t see any of that missing in Man of Steel.

Superman has been on screen, or voiced for radio, for nearly as long as he has been in the comic books. There have been many actors playing him, each with their own spin. There have been different writers and directors as well. Those shows and movies are still out there, making money and making new generations happy. Is Christopher Reeve the “real” Superman for you? Great. George Reeves? Awesome. Tom Welling? Swell. Dean Cain? Groovy. All of these are great, notable, historic portrayals. But we don’t need someone to come and do them again. We don’t need the same vision of this character, copied and pasted for all of eternity. This is why Superman Returns failed. It tried to be something that already existed.

Nobody will take those versions of Superman from you, but Warner Bros and DC would be doing themselves no favors in putting the same movie out over and over again. People say that Marvel is getting it right and DC is getting it wrong, but they’re not remotely the same situation. DC got their characters right on screen decades ago, and several times again since that. Marvel is on round one for most of their lineup. You can’t even compare them, and you shouldn’t.

I would love it if people could stop judging Man of Steel based on what it “should be”, which itself is just based on versions of the movies that already exist. It’d be great if we could judge the film as a film, and break down the characters as characters, the same way we would with any movie or story.

Maybe this isn’t your Superman. That’s fine. I’m glad that you enjoy those other versions, and hope that you continue to do that for many years to come. In the meantime, why not let me have my Superman for a change? Why declare that the entire franchise should be scrapped because you don’t like the movies? I don’t particularly love most of the MCU movies or the Star Wars movies, but I don’t feel a great need to see them wiped from existence. They make Disney money, so they are a success in terms of business. The DCEU is, so far, making Warner Bros. Money, so they are a success in terms of business as well. There’s room enough for everyone.

 

Disagree with what I said above? Feel free to leave a comment. We can debate and discuss, which is always fun.

 

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