Thu
Feb 6 2014 11:00am

Geek Love: Man Of Steel, Fandom Of Kleenex

Growing up, I always had an affinity for Superman—but only the idea, the figure, rather than stories. Even when I was a very young comics fan, scrounging up my buck at the corner store, I preferred the soap opera theatrics of Claremont X-Men (and most especially their junior class, the New Mutants) over anything DC had to offer... But when pressed for my favorite comics characters, I’d invariably name Superman, Wonder Woman, and Hal Jordan. People I knew only through their Who’s Who biographies and indexes, whose histories were banked forever in that corner of my mind but whose monthly adventures—actually participating and enjoying them as they occurred—didn’t interest me at all.

For me, that math was simple and it remains simple: I like the idea of Superman and Wonder Woman, of inclusive human perfection, a lot more than the feet of clay that any given story demonstrates. I was a kid that loved soldiers and warriors, as ideas, but preferred my reading companions to be directly identifiable: I can talk about Superman all day, my house is frankly full of Superman crap, but I’d rather be reading about characters I understood and felt for.

Characters like Illyana Rasputin and Rachel Grey—even Rahne Sinclair—shouldering other people’s burdens at a much too young age and thinking that made them tainted forever. Doug Ramsey, coded alternately as either gay or tragically useless. Storm, in her Mohawk Nutcase phase. Emma Frost, who haunted my nightmares throughout childhood and grew to be my second-favorite person in all of comics. Franklin Richards, the Messiah that never happened. Jean Grey, the Messiah that keeps happening.

I realize this isn’t everybody’s experience, and it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out why those characters and stories appealed to me back then. But something about those DC heroes, their iconic—totemic—resonance, made my stubborn childhood self feel like I’d be betraying them if I watched them go through the vagaries of superheroics month after month. How are you supposed to love a God that ends up with a gorilla head once a month? Or whose compatriots included a flying super-horse, dog, mouse and cat that could talk?

No thanks. You can’t disrespect the numinous like that, not when the mutant kids over at Marvel were freaking the hell out like regular human beings, balancing their overblown real-life strife with an unending series of apocalypses, and most/best of all, throwing everything they had into loving the people that hated them.

Which is personal and specific and strange—although I’ve come across more people who agree with this formulation than I would have thought, as I’ve grown—but I think takes us to an interesting place in our geek heritage, which is what I’m interested in talking about: Is it possible to ever make a Superman movie that succeeds on more than one or two levels, or are we so locked into our culture of complaint that we’ll stick to everybody’s Bizarro internet discussion in which successful films are failures?

I like Zack Snyder. Whatever wavelength he is on, I feel it, and I try to support his movies. (And yes, if I had a Geek Card, you could safely confiscate it now.) But even after the honest-to-God masterpiece that is Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman—surely an exception that proves the rule—I still wasn’t positive about whether I’d ever see Man Of Steel. I’d seen Superman Returns and liked it okay, as a movie, but it definitely hit me in the same place: It was brave, it was interesting, it was modern, and it absolutely was not my favorite Superman Thing. (Alternately I never cared for Batman, but love those movies, because his hands come pre-dirty; they are the subject of the conversation the movie is having, rather than a troubled and problematic by-product.)

But recently I did see Man of Steel, and I loved it. It got to the parts of the myth that I identify with. It put an icon at odds with reality. It questioned hyper-powered vigilantism in the same way as Warren Ellis’s Stormwatch/Authority stories, which is to say it asked first whether Superman is a good idea, and then put his immovable force up against an apocalyptic irresistible force: Either way, Superman is necessary for today’s purposes. These are smart questions! If Superman is a notion of perfection, what happens in a post-Dark Knight comic book world where perfection, if anything, counts against you?

The details, as with Superman Returns, do get a little sticky. But as with the prior movie, something tells me there is a bit of retroactive complaint going on. Sometimes when we’re uncomfortable with an approach because it indicts us in some way, we backfill our reasons for being outraged. Which is not to read the minds of others, but it’s a pattern I’ve picked up. Girls backlash, for example, felt more like a need to control the conversation than to actually exact social justice. And in the case of Man Of Steel, and the prior reboot, it seems to point us toward that old totemic breakdown I obsessed on as a child.

Why am I talking about this now? Well, I just saw the movie—for reasons that directly involve this dichotomy—and two, because the Captain America sequel is on its way.

The complaints—not exhaustively, but substantively—point to a question not of “what Superman would do,” but of what Superman does not do. Superman figures out a better way; Superman has his eye upon the sparrow; Superman does not allow giant terraforming machines to have their way with the seven seas; and so on. But I think you’ll find—as I did, when I was a boy—that if you keep adding to the list of things Superman does not do, you soon end up with a very small list of things Superman ever does do. You can watch it wink out of existence.

You then have the interlocking mesh of levels-of-fandom: The movie must satisfy people who vaguely remember Christopher Reeve, mainstream movie people, people who have been following the character’s history every week for decades, the people who—like myself—relate more to the insignia and the idea of the man and less to anything he’s ever said or done. That’s a Venn diagram with no way out, of course. And in this movie, those exact definitions—from every kind of fan or viewer—are all determinedly put to the test.

Likewise, while fans most often point to the bizarre plot of Superman Returns, the giant island of Kryptonite and so on, as the major problems, I think it’s because he got his hands dirty. He had sex with a woman before he left, and returns to find her happily raising that child with a man he can’t help but admire. In the film’s most indelible shot, a crayon drawing presents the boy’s (traditional, religious; correct) take on the situation: Superman lifts the father, the father lifts the mother, and they all lift the child into safety. Clark accepts his role as demigod, which is lonely; Clark becomes the father (or at least the protective uncle) of the whole world that is his home. That’s beautiful to me, but easy to trip on due to the sex part.

So then contrast that with Captain America—a hero I have always loved, in the Superman vein, without reading or caring about him (Kid Jacob: No mutants, no thank you). The First Avenger was a quiet success (relative to the overall Marvel domination of the world, I mean) and even more surprisingly, told its story humbly, sweetly, movingly. He did regrettable things—a Superman no-no—and repented them, and never stopped trying to excel or to better himself, and our world. None of which would work, or has worked in practice, for a Superman film.

It managed to tell a story of Steve Rogers as an avatar of America itself: Sometimes campy, sometimes compromised by corporate interests, sometimes the USO cheerleader for democracy and other times its dirty-handed (but not too dirty!) sleeper agent. In the end, the filmic story of Steve Rogers is the story of hopes—clean, strong, blonde, white American ones—forced unwillingly into a future with an altogether more elastic and relative morality. America is flexible, and to be American is to make your peace with that; but our love for the better part of ourselves goes on, even in the darkness.

Whether or not our nostalgia for American kitsch has retroactively forced this rosy-glassed view of a history—marred continuously by hatred, greed and violence as it is—it feels true. In the same way that Superman’s “birth” in humble Kansas, his boot-strapping success over adversity and immigration stigma, and the continual efforts of merely-human haters like Lex Luthor feels, to a lot of us, true. But one of them is the spirit of America, while the other is the spirit of something much larger and grander: We can turn and look at America and see how far Steve has to go, but we can’t really turn and look at ourselves and see Superman doing anything interesting, because—I think—it’s just too weird.

Or, you could say: Superman becomes “boring” at right around the same time vampires and werewolves become “sexy”: What’s healthy for us, in examining the humanity of our Evil monsters—Cylons, serial killers, William the Bloody—is very unlucky for Superman, as an unassailable Good. The metaphor falls apart, the totem doesn’t signify anymore: We take apart the numinous to put something else together—something new, that we haven’t culturally seen yet.

So the question becomes: Is it possible to tell a Superman story, in this day and age—and leaving out, again, All-Star, which is just wonderful—without tripping over this confusion? Critics say that Superman is impossible because he is, himself, boring. That perfection and mega-power add up to a story without obstacles or consequence. And when our stories introduce obstacles, or consequence—the gritty gorilla-heads and talking horses of superheroes, after Moore and Miller—they are tarnishing the perfection that just a moment ago was irritating us so much. You can imagine, without much effort, the response to a Superman movie in which he just stands around for two hours being better than everybody.

I think it’s a wider thing we’ve got going on, ideologically in this country, about what good and evil mean. If you’re on the internet, calling out other people for not being ideologically pure is a staged version of this fight that involves getting into vicious screaming fights with people that you agree with on every issue. Lotta hustle, not a lot of work. And so a movie that seeks to dig directly into this obsolete dichotomy is bound to fail, because our new definition of good is “whatever I am saying right now” and our definition of evil is “wherever we disagree.” Captain America can respond to this because he’s not an avatar of Good, he’s an avatar of America, which contains multitudes and plenty of fuckups. Superman doesn’t have that luxury; Superman is required to be both immovable and in constant motion at the same time.

We want a Superman movie just like the Superman movie we remember in our heads: Anything else is disrespectful or nonsensical. And we want a Superman movie unlike any Superman movie ever made, because Hollywood is a whore with no fresh, new ideas. And we want a Superman movie that leads to a JLA movie, but with any actors other than the ones we hear about in the trades and gossip columns. We want a story that isn’t cleft-chinned, cartoonish “good guy” exceptionalism, but we don’t want a story in which Superman does anything wrong.

We want a modern sensibility, but without the ambiguity that sensibility requires. This is nuts to me, and we all do it, and I’m not here to tell you why. Just that I’ve realized, for me, it’s because I never liked Superman in the first place. I only ever loved him.


Jacob Clifton is a freelance writer and critic based in Austin, Texas. He currently recaps The Good Wife, True Detective, and The Blacklist for Television Without Pity.com. Check out jacobclifton.com, Twitter and Facebook.

19 comments
Emmet O'Brien
1. EmmetAOBrien
You can imagine, without much effort, the response to a Superman movie
in which he just stands around for two hours being better than
everybody.

To be inspired by it. That strikes me as pretty much the entire point of depicting a character who is both inspired by the best of humanity and inspiring to the best of humanity. All-Star Superman understands this. So does Doctor Who at heart.

For all the ways Superman Returns doesn't work, it's handling of the Superman/Lois/whatshisname dynamic in an everyone being their best selves sort of way rather than a cliched and cynical love triangle sort of way was the best part of it.
TM Thomas
2. TM Thomas
Jacob, I'm still processing the ideas to know what I think of the thesis. But the language itself was so well chosen and your imagery so well defined...great work.
TM Thomas
3. Colin R
I don't think it's impossible to make a good Superman movie, but I think the current atmosphere works against it. It's not just a problem for the movies--DC recently released a collection of "Superman's greatest stories," and for some reason a huge number them are about Superman losing or Superman being sad.

For some reason everyone, including DC Comics, is sort of embarrassed by Superman--a dude who is immensely powerful and immensely good, and definitely does not break his enemies' necks. There is the assumption that we have to muddy Supermans' character up--make him 'serious'. At some point people should just relax and allow him to be fun. To an extent this desire for seriousness infects the film attempts at Batman too--see all the adulation heaped on the recent very serious Batman movies made by serious director Christopher Nolan and serious actor Christian Bale. This is serious business. Batman is for grownups people!

I contrast this with the Marvel movies, where generally they haven't been afraid to have more fun. Much of the initial Marvel wave was powered by Robert Downey Jr.'s wisecracking, and they haven't been shy about passing about one-liners, or deflating the seriousness a bit.
TM Thomas
4. Theo16
Depending on your age, you may be selling Superman comics short by buying into the stereotype of the differences between DC & Marvel. The Post-Crisis Superman comcis were far more nuanced than you give them credit for. The character was much more human than any other depiction in film, TV or early comics.
TM Thomas
5. Charlotte Dixon
This piece and it got me thinking. I understand and can relate to quite a bit of it.
Oddly, while I like the mutant stories and all that X-Men jazz, sometimes I would get frustrated with the way they would let their personal crap get in the way of saving the world. It annoyed me. I wanted to yell at them "Get the fuck over yourself!". I like them as characters but not as heroes.
I loved the most recent Superman Movie and I am very excited about the next Superman movie and the casting. This puts me in a minority.
I liked the Superman Movie not because Superman is perfect and good - but because he isn't but is trying to be.
I loved that the most recent movie showed a man who tried to deny himself and who he is and who struggled with becoming what his new home world needed.
A man who in trying to please his father lost him.
A man who has guilt and doubt.
A man who still tries to make the right decisions.
The movie gave me a Superman who is both good and noble and bigger than - but also still flawed and human.
I am excited about what Ben can bring to Batman.
While the last Batman trilogy was great cinematic work - it was not my Batman.
I think Ben can find my Batman again.
My Batman still has some of that swaggering playboy that Bruce grew up with - tempered by the loss of his parents.
My batman is a little jaded - he lives in the gray - but in the mid tone to light grays... not the dark charcoals one step away from black that the most recent films had him inhabiting.
Despite understandable cynicism and world weariness my Batman is still at heart a hero.
Perhaps some of this article explains why Captain America is my favorite avenger.
He's not perfect - but he is always striving and questioning and never gets lost in his own mystique.
B. Dowdle
6. Lancer
Superman to me is one of those characters whose Strength is his Weakness...The man has EVERY SUPER POWER THERE IS (Almost) and his villians save 2 are fallable. Lex Luthor can Beat Superman because he can mentally mess w/ his mind. But the 3 villians who can go toe to toe w/ Big Blue & Hurt him physically (I am NOT counting Zod we saw him already twice) are Bizarro, Darkseid & Brainiac. IF and that is a big if, the next Man of Steel or Pending Justice League can harness either of those guys...Bizarro in finding one of the clones from the crashed ship and premaurely growing it or Brainiac by finding some piece of Kryptonian Computer and it runs amok, then we have a shot. Darkseid...well that is a no brainer and I do Hope that we build up to him like Avengers is building up to Thanos...but I digress...Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, & Martian Manhunter are Pantheon Mythic Heroes that virtually have little to no weaknesses, and that has been DCs achilles heel and if they do these next movies right, their Biggest Strength. I became a Batman fan over Superman because of Batman's human quality. (He being Human is just coincidence) I do hope that as they did w/ Man of Steel this sequal will be as EPIC & Not DESTROYED by its hugeness (Or by Ben "F-ing" Affelck!
TM Thomas
7. Wizard Clip
Jacob, this is a very thoughtful, provocative piece. You might check out the Superman storyline from a few years back in which he clashes with The Elite, a cynical team of "heroes" based on Elissis's Authority.
TM Thomas
8. Cybersnark
Theo16 (@4) is right in a way that cuts to the core of "the Superman issue."

Every movie (and many of the TV series) have tried to capture the Pre-Crisis Superman --a perfect, cardboard, Messiah-figure who disguises himself as a bumbling milquetoast to blend in. Trouble is, you can't make a good movie about Superman, because Superman isn't a character; he's a costume and a powerset.

The Post-Crisis Superman is deliberately the opposite: an optimistic, idealistic (sometimes sarcastic, humourous, geeky, and irrational) human-being(*) who puts on the costume to find anonymity in spectacle. He doesn't want to be singled out or given recognition, he's just doing what he believes anyone would do if they had his powers (and that's what makes him inspiring, because we often don't believe that of ourselves).

My comic-reading memories of him are more involved with Clark debating Beastie Boys with Jimmy, or pranking his asshole jock co-worker, or being a surprisingly bad father-figure to Superboy (sending him away rather than actually nurturing him), or acknowledging that Lois isn't just his wife, but his partner, or bickering with Batman over their less-than-state-of-the-art security systems (butler-with-a-shotgun vs semi-trained-dog), or nerding out with John Irons over a metal-rich meteorite, or showing up to a JLA meeting with food on his face.

My biggest problem with Man of Steel actually has nothing to do with the neck-snapping scene; it's that it finally, finally gives us a story that's not about Superman-the-icon, but makes it about Kal-El the alien-on-Earth rather than Clark Kent the farmboy-from-Kansas. Kal-El spends the entire movie reiterating that he's not a normal person (but not a Kryptonian either), but never adequately defines what he is. When he finally moves to protect Earth, we're left wondering why he cares; he connects with humanity on an intellectual level, but he's shown to have no human friends or confidants other than Lois (who he's just met) and Martha (who he walked away from and hasn't seen for years).

It also minimizes Lois and Luthor, who should be full ensemble members; Luthor isn't just one of Superman's rivals, he's his mirror image --the self-made man (as opposed to Clark, who was handed everything he's ever had) who grew up in Suicide Slum and forged himself into Metropolis' de facto king. Luthor is the Alpha Male ubermensch to Clark's humble and selfless Superman.

(* He may be Kryptonian, but Post-Crisis Superman didn't have Jor-El's learning tapes playing in his ears during the trip to Earth. Until he hit puberty, he believed himself to be a perfectly normal human, and he still thinks of himself that way. Earth isn't his "adopted planet," it's his planet full-stop.)
R O T
9. rogerothornhill
That is just a beautiful little essay. I will not even attempt to embellish it with comments from my own geekery.
TM Thomas
10. OldMan
I just enjoyed the Larry Niven reference in the title
TM Thomas
11. laotsekung
Great article, articulating a lot of complex ideas with clarity. I really enjoyed reading it.

Thank you Mr Clifton for sharing it.
Alan Brown
12. AlanBrown
Like Jacob, I am more of a Marvel guy myself, so I only dabble in the DC universe. I see the difficulties with Superman. I have most enjoyed the Superman cartoon of a few years ago, and the Lois and Clark show. First, because they stuck to the basics of the character. And second, because they limited his powers, which sometimes are portrayed in such a way that they make the storytelling stilted, because there it is no fun watching someone do something easy. Good stories come when the protagonists have to struggle to achieve their aims.
I have no trouble with the 'good guy' personality of either Superman or Captain America, though. Just because someone strives to be good, doesn't mean that they don't stuggle along the way. And those struggles make many opportunities for good storytelling. You don't have to 'go dark' to make a character interesting. Look at how Ed Brubaker did with Captain America in recent years, telling compelling stories about a guy who strove to be true to his ideals in a world full of shades of grey. And the movie did a good job as well. If the writers of Superman could capture that feel, they would be moving in the right direction.
Matt Stoumbaugh
13. LazerWulf
Small point of order, it's Christopher Reeve. Reeves was George Reeves, who played Superman in the 50s TV Show. Confusing, I know.
TM Thomas
16. WilliamMayBeWise
I like Superman. I like the comics. I don't like Zack Snyder films because the imagery, the cinematography is excellent, the stories are never internally consistent. I was disappointed by Man of Steel for exactly this reason. Stan Lee says the secret to his writing was to take his character and put them in an impossible situation, so the reader will kept reading to find out how they're goign to get out of that one. The film sets this up with Clark being shown (specifically) never to have thrown a punch in his entire life to avoid accidentally killing someone. Zod is someone who has done exactly the reverse, being genetically programmed and then trained from birth to excel in the martial arts. Clark has been on Earth longer, so should be faster and stronger, but will have no idea how to react in a fight. It's a classic "how's he going to win?" question - something to keep us on the edge of our seats. But then the internal consistancy goes out the window. Zod makes as good a use of his new powers as Clark (the only advantage Clark should have), and Clark is able to trade blow for accurate blow with Zod. Tell me where an untrained pacifist civilian will suddenly be able to stand tow-to-tow with a profession soldier in stand-up knock-down fight like that?
Scott Ly
17. Scottly
Love it. I like the decision to use the Lee redesign to illustrate it also.

In the spirit of what is becoming an undercurrent of performative utterance, dogs and cats and horses are OK but did the canonical Superman ever meet any of the proliferation of knock-off super-mice or is the author thinking of Alan Moore's classic Supreme / Squeak team-ups? And so the giant recedes.

(Discovering Fuzzy the Krypto Mouse brings him back.)
TM Thomas
18. c3
the answer to why Superman has been "out of step" with the kiddies since the 60s is easy. its in the name. hes "man". humanity is his real power.

over the decades, technology has replaced the humanities and sciences/arts as the driving meme of modernity. the 1960s were the end of humanity- aka TREK or Burning mans birth, and the 70s began the decade markers of transformation into something other..

be it vampire, mutant, pyschotic, autistic, zombie, cyborg, furrie etc, all memes suggested the spiralling end to the idea of the enlighted human. in fact the irony is that hes become the popular enemy in many ways..lex luthor of modern diniverse... irony of all ironies was his defeat of the DARK side in the series finally.

that animated superman spoke the most to the iconic image of superman, as did the ross illustrated books.. but they are now nostalgia, though it saddens me to say that.

maybe things will loop. they always do... but the costs to get back home are always huge. and dark ages suck if youre not the only Superman.
Dan Rice
19. driceman
I think I feel like the author of the article-I love Superman, but I just can't picture Hollywood making a depiction of him that's worthy of him, if that makes sense. I think Superman: The Movie was excellent, but that every movie since then has ranged from so-so to awful (including Man of Steel). And yes, that's being a bit hard on the filmmakers, to be sure. How do you make conflict if the character is perfect? How do you make it interesting rather than a long string of action sequences where Superman always wins, because he's Superman?

I think Man of Steel did some things well and some things not so well. I don't buy Clark letting Pa Kent die. I just don't. I know he's "respecting his father's wishes" and keeping his powers secret, but the man's LIFE is in danger! This is common human decency, not just something we should expect of Superman. He has the power to save his father; he should do so. Why not just give the guy a heart attack like in the original movie, or something along those lines? Then it displays that Superman DOES have limits. He can't solve every problem.

I liked that Zod was a tangible threat, though. It allowed for Superman to punch back, which he can't exactly do if he's standing off against Lex Luthor (assuming Luthor doesn't have kryptonite AGAIN). It's just not fair for Superman to fist fight a human; it's like a grown man punching a baby (a problem I had with Superman II). I didn't even have a problem with him snapping Zod's neck when so many people's lives were at risk. That moral dilemma of "is it for the greater good?" is a great question to pose in regards to Superman's motives.

As for the love triangle in Superman Returns, I heard a very good argument from a friend of mine who wasn't that into Superman as a character but saw the movie anyway. He simply said, "Superman was a punk," and that was his analysis. It's so true! He banged Lois and left! We shouldn't feel sorry for him at all! If anything, we should feel for Lois for being abandoned! I don't care if the Superman in Returns is floating around being lonely; he brought it on himself by abandoning the woman he loved to go see what happened to a rock out in space.

I think Superman can be portrayed in a way that is important, modern, and relevant. I think it would be difficult, but it CAN be done. As a guy who generally hates Zack Snyder, though, I don't think they have the right man for the job right now.

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