Thursday, October 23, 2014
Requiem for Superheroes
I read comic books from age 5 to about 27 -- 1975 to 1997 -- when the DC storylines started getting too complicated for my taste. I still got a charge out of hearing that John Williams theme music in Superman Returns in 2006, and while it wasn't as good as the 1st 2 films in the Christopher Reeve series, Brandon Routh at least had more to work with than Reeve did in his last 2.
(I had given up on Marvel fairly quickly, and while I did see the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies, I haven't seen the Andrew Garfield Amazing Spider-Man movies or the various films connected with The Avengers. So I won't get into them.)
UPDATE: I have since seen Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, and enjoyed them.)
But Man of Steel, based on DC Comics' "New 52" reboot, was wrong on so many levels. I liked the twist of Amy Adams' Lois Lane learning that Clark Kent was Superman before she even met him, let alone before he took on the identity. But Lois is not a redhead. Lana Lang is.
Laurence Fishburne made a good Perry White (a character written as a white guy who grew up in a pre-World War II slum, so having a black Perry in charge of a big-city newspaper in 2013 isn't a stretch at all), but he should have had the Daily Planet building evacuated a lot faster.
And I don't have a problem with Superman killing General Zod at the end: Most of us, given the same situation, would not have been able to quickly think of an alternative that would have saved millions of other lives. This is a guy who is, clearly, still learning how to be Superman -- that was the whole point, just as the 2006 Casino Royale showed us a James Bond still learning how to be Agent 007.
And I don't blame Henry Cavill's portrayal of Superman: He played the character as it was written.
And therein lies a problem far greater than these small gripes. Cavill's Superman was as whiny and moody as Hayden Christensen's Anakin Skywalker was in Episodes II & III of Star Wars. He's not a "wooden actor," as many Lucasians complain. He played the part as it was written.
(Same with Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight: I never got the idea that this was The Joker. He seemed more like someone who admired a Joker that Batman defeated long ago, and tried to copy what he thought the Joker was like. Ledger was great at it, but Jack Nicholson's performance reminded me more of the comics' Joker. Even though the 2005-12 Batmovies were better than the 1989-97 ones.)
Cavill played Clark Kent as a reluctant hero. The reason for this is that Kevin Costner's version of his father, Jonathan Kent, was totally opposed to previous portrayals, such as those of Glenn Ford (1978 film), Eddie Jones (1990s TV series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), and John Schneider (showing more depth in the 2000s TV series Smallville than he ever showed as Bo Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard).
Ford's version told Clark, "What I know, son, is that you are here for a reason. I don't know what that reason is, but I can tell you this: It's not to score touchdowns." That was believable. There's no way Jonathan Kent would ever tell his son, essentially, "Let them die." Or even, "Let me die."
And, of course, Man of Steel shows what the battle between Chris Reeve and the Kryptonian villains led by Terence Stamp's Zod in Superman II only hinted at: If there really were such a battle, a major city could be ruined.
We saw what the 9/11 attacks did to New York: 3,000 deaths and major infrastructure issues in Lower Manhattan. What Michael Shannon's Zod did to Metropolis with his "world engine" wiped out a big chunk of that city's central core.
Imagine a bomb (not even an atomic bomb, just a conventional bomb with a lot of power) causing an earthquake at 7.0 on the Richter scale, with its epicenter at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue... every 3 minutes or so for half an hour. The main Library, Grand Central Terminal, the Chrysler Building, Times Square, Port Authority Bus Terminal, possibly the United Nations, the New York end of the Lincoln Tunnel, and, yes, the Daily News Building that stood in for the Daily Planet Building in the Chris Reeve movies, either reduced to rubble or ruined beyond repair. Every major Subway line would also be disabled.
I saw one estimate (based on what, I'm not sure) that suggested that, if this movie were a real event that had happened, nearly 120,000 people would have died. In other words, 40 9/11s. Enough people to fill Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center.
Sure, we like to see explosions, and it was cool to see Reeve catch the TV antenna from the Empire State Building (how'd that get in Metropolis?) in Superman II, and then use it to temporarily trap one of the villains. But do we really want to think about the 100 or so people who must have died in the battle with 1981 Zod, let alone the 100,000 or more who may have been killed by 2013 Zod? No, we don't.
We go to Batman movies to see a guy carry out our fantasies of kicking criminals' asses. But we know, in the end, as Batman does, that this is not an end in and of itself. We go to Superman movies to see Superman save people. We go to see him stop needless destruction, not to avenge it. We go to see him face Lex Luthor, Brainiac, ordinary bank robbers, what have you, and, in effect, give them Gandalf's message from Lord of the Rings: "You shall not pass!" And then insure that they don't pass.
In other words, just as J.J. Abrams' take on Star Trek is designed to appeal to people who don't like Star Trek, and want a Captain James T. Kirk who blows shit up and takes alien women to bed, without all that high-minded pontificating about peace and man's place in the stars, Man of Steel was designed to make Superman appeal to Batman fans.
Superman isn't supposed to appeal to Batman fans. He's supposed to appeal to fans of superheroes -- and so is Batman. It's like being a fan of a sport first, and your own team second: A Yankee fan like me, for example, should appreciate a great performance by a player on another team: "Hey, did you hear, while Jeter was going 4-for-4 last night, Clayton Kershaw pitched a no-hitter?" Even if it's against your own team: "Man, we couldn't get that guy out. No wonder he was named the MVP last season. He totally deserves it again."
There's nothing wrong with Batman being your favorite superhero, as long as you respect the genre as a whole. There's nothing wrong with preferring DC to Marvel, or vice versa. There's also nothing wrong with being a DC fan first, and admitting that, in terms of making movies, Marvel has its act much more together than DC does.
Or admitting that Batman movies, on the average, are better than Superman movies. It's like baseball, again: Babe Ruth, the Superman of baseball, has had at least 4 movies made about him, and none of them are any good; Lou Gehrig, who should never be called his "sidekick," has had 2 movies made about him, and both are very good.
It's when you're a Batman fan only, and you treat all other heroes as lesser, that, pardon the phrase, you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. It's the idea of "Batman always wins" and its corollary, "Batman can beat Superman." You get locked into a fallacy, and you refuse to get out, even though the key is right there with you.
And let's get this out of the way: No, Batman can't beat Superman. The most cited example of when he does is Frank Miller's graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, in which Batman gets on his high horse -- literally, at one point in the story -- and "beats Superman."
Except Batman has every factor in his favor: Superman's just absorbed a nuclear explosion that almost killed him, Batman's wearing protective armor, he's fighting on his home field of Gotham City, and he still needs to cheat by having Green Arrow shoot a Kryptonite arrow... and Batman still "dies," thus losing the fight at the moment of victory! That whole sequence was nothing more than porn for Batman fans, and made no damn sense.
I could have forgiven Man of Steel -- or Man of Stool, as some angry comics fans call it, to suggest that it's a piece of shit -- as a one-time-only abomination, except that it's in line with the "New 52" line of DC Comics, which make the assumption that the reason Batman has become more popular than Superman is that Batman is dark, disturbed, brooding, musing on never being able to "win the war."
Which is beside the point. Remember the opening to the 1950s TV series The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves? The special effects are laughable compared to what can be done today, and Reeves' Superman mainly fought gangsters instead of supervillains (probably to save money on costumes and special effects), but he never shied away from his responsibility: He "fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way!"
People who prefer Superman to Batman do so because he's not dark, disturbed and brooding, and, indeed, embraces his role as protector of Metropolis, Earth as a whole when necessary, even (in some versions) planets he'd never even heard of before. We prefer Superman because, even more than the symbol on his chest as a Kryptonian word, he means "hope." (If little else, that was one thing that Man of Steel got absolutely right.)
People who prefer Batman tend to say that he's "more relatable." As Stephen King put it, "Batman, however, was just a guy. A rich guy, yeah. A strong guy, sure. A smart guy, you bet. But... he couldn't fly. He didn't have X-ray vision. If you cut him, he would bleed. If you shoot him, he could die."
It's true: If someone had enough money to buy the training, the equipment, and the facility necessary to house everything he needed, then, theoretically, he could become a Batman.
But none of us came from another planet to Earth, whose yellow sun and lower gravity would make us a superman (either Upper- or lower-case S). We're not going to get doused with electrified chemicals, and if we do, we're going to die, rather than become the fastest man alive, like Barry Allen did to become the Flash. We're not going to get bequeathed a power ring, like Hal Jordan did to become the most familiar version of Green Lantern. And although women on film from Claudette Colbert to Angelina Jolie, and on TV from Irish McCalla to Lucy Lawless, have been called "amazons," and some women have proven themselves capable of wonderful things, no woman among us is ever going to be Wonder Woman.
In other words, we don't want heroes we can relate to. We want heroes who can do the things we wish we could do. Protect people. Catch killers. Expose racketeers and lead to their being brought to justice. Take on the kind of threats that even gun nuts can't handle. (You know, the kind of people who think they can stop a guy who already has his gun drawn on them.)
That's why the most popular TV shows now are NCIS and Castle. NCIS has Mark Harmon as Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, an ex-Marine who avenged the murders of his wife and daughter, and who's a lot closer to being a Batman-type figure than Adam West was on the 1960s TV series. (Just listen to the way Special Agents Tony DiNozzo and Tim McGee, and forensic specialist Dr. Abby Sciuto, talk about him.)
And Castle has Stana Katic as Detective Kate Beckett, whose mother was killed in a deep, dark conspiracy, and who, aided by Nathan Fillion as mystery writer (and now fiancée) Richard Castle, has finally solved that case, along with over 100 others, including one in which the killer, at first, seemed to be a Batman-type superhero.
Except both shows have an element of humor. Both shows get better reaction from their fans when they're not excessively dark, and bad reactions when they are. Sure, we want our heroes to kick ass, but we also want them to entertain us and give us hope. Gibbs and his team, and Castle and Beckett, do this for us. Superman does this for us. Batman is better when he does as well.
Do we really want someone to embody our dark sides? No, we want someone to realize our hopes. Batman frequently does this, and comic book fans love this; people who are simply Batman fans don't love it.
But it's not enough that DC Comics has been taken over by writers who took the characters we loved into dark and/or ridiculous directions with The New 52 in 2011. They've made Superman short-tempered, as if his weakness isn't so much Kryptonite as the fact that he hasn't fully grown up.
They've also made the prominent female characters less mature, more impulsive, and racier. Particularly offensive was the recent Wonder Woman "selfie" cover, showing Princess Diana of Themiscyra taking a picture of herself with her arm wrapped around a statue (possibly of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom), with her tongue hanging out as if she was Miley Cyrus in her current Bangerz phase.
And these writers don't mean it as a joke.
No, that's not enough. The defenders of this crap make it even worse. Today, I saw someone post a comment one of these defenders made: "When Wonder Woman was a boring nun-like character nobody gave a crap about her book, at least people are buying it now. Only the weakling, effeminate gays want her to go back to being a pacifist."
If the guy who said that wants to read about people who put on costumes and go out to kick an enemy's ass, and if any civilians are helped by this that's fine but secondary, there are plenty of stories he can get into.
But when a person's first choice is to fight, to engage in violence, to go on the attack, that person is not a hero. And anyone who prefers that kind of story is no friend.
It's why it pisses me off when some Star Wars fans actually root for Darth Vader. Yes, he looks cool, sounds cool, and is a serious badass. He's also a maniac who has personally murdered countless innocent people.
You wouldn't root for the Borg in Star Trek, would you? You wouldn't root of the Nazis in Casablanca, would you? You wouldn't root for Barzini in The Godfather, would you? True, the Corleones were criminals, and they were killers, but mostly in defense of their own. And, I'll admit, in The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West had a point: Dorothy, however unintentionally, did kill her sister, and by any legal rights we would recognize, those ruby slippers belonged to her, not to Dorothy.
Sometime in the early 1990s, in the comics, after Clark Kent told Lois Lane his identity, and she agreed to marry him, she asked him, "Why are you Superman?" He said, with no hesitation, "Because nobody else can be."
People like Clark, Bruce Wayne, Princess Diana, Barry Allen, Oliver Queen and so on do what they do because they have what so many of us have, the desire to help; but they also, unlike the vast majority of us, have the means to actually carry that help out, whether it's through powers or the money to produce gadgets.
People like that, their desire to help is aided by wealth or supernatural circumstance. Peace is their first choice, but more dear to them than peace is justice. They stand for those who cannot, for whatever reason, stand for themselves.
That's what a hero does, whether costumed, uniformed, or ordinarily dressed. That's what Kevin Vickers, the Sergeant-at-Arms in Canada's Parliament did yesterday: He would have been satisfied if he had lived out his life in peace, with 99 percent of the world never knowing his name; but, yesterday, he had to save lives, and we'll never know how many he saved, but he became a hero (if, that is, he wasn't one already).
When Marvel brought back Captain America from his apparent death at the end of the Civil War storyline, Bucky Barnes made the point that he wasn't a hero because he was Captain America, he was a hero because he was Steve Rogers. And that's why I used the "real" names of the DC heroes above: As Dean Cain put it on TV in 1995, "Superman is what I can do, Clark Kent is who I am."
And those of us who would like to be heroes, but don't have the opportunity, we want to read books, and watch movies and TV shows, about people who get the opportunity, and make the most of it.
We like Superman not because he's strong of body, but because he's strong of heart. We like Batman not because he kicks ass, but because he does so to protect the innocent. Certainly, we want Wonder Woman to be happy, and it would be great if she found true love. But passion is not limited to physical desire, and her passion for humanity knows no bounds, and that's what drives her to be a hero.
And if that's not the kind of "superhero" story you want to read, then go watch a Michael Bay movie, and watch "good guys" blow up as much shit as the bad guys, bringing themselves down to the villains' level -- indeed, lower, because good guys are supposed to know better. Go read and watch that kind of stuff.
Let us have the heroes who have earned our admiration. We still think that DC will see their falling sales, and see the error of their ways, and start over.
The Big Red S... and the Bat-Signal, and the Eagle that Wonder Woman wears... still mean "hope."