Sunday, 16 June 2013

Yeah, But You Haven't Read the Comics

I'm writing about the new Superman movie this week, because I liked last week's Major Spoiler picture so much, so getting the warning out early:

"That's right, I'm back."

Well, that and the fact that I just watched Man of Steel last night. So it's even topical!

The movie itself is not amazing, although I'll admit I liked it. The effects were mostly pretty good, and I enjoyed Michael Shannon chewing the scenery as General Zod. The fight scenes, on the other hand, were kind of a pain to watch, not just because I didn't have my glasses on, but because Zack Snyder's directing style is clearly a product of the Peter Jackson School of Frenetic Pacing. I was also kind of put off by the ridiculous amount of carnage, which seems a little funny for a movie where they're portraying Superman as some kind of space-Jesus.

Intriguingly, the Kryptonian symbol for "hope" is very similar to the Earth-letter "S". Go figure.

Now, I watched it with my little sister, who hated it. She had the same objections as me, but also didn't like Michael Shannon's performance, which I can agree was hamstrung by a pretty dodgy script. But I do kind of wonder if my appreciation of the movie was also partly informed by the fact that I had the weight of decades of comics history in mind while watching it.

I've never been a huge Superman fan, but I like the idea of the character, and really loved the Bruce Timm-designed Superman cartoon from the 90s. Just like Batman, he's an archetype (I don't like the word "iconic"), and you always know that a Superman story will have crazy things like aliens and giant gorillas and a rainbow of kryptonite.

Just FYI, this is the idea I'm pitching to Christopher Nolan for the second film, so hands off.

I also appreciate the idea of Zod, which is basically the question, what would happen if there was an evil Superman running around? In the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC continuity that I grew up reading, Zod and his minions were so dangerous that Superman was eventually forced to kill them, in order to defend humanity; that act was always presented as haunting Superman, because it was such a betrayal of his ideals that he swore he'd never do it again.

So naturally, in the movie, that's the outcome when he's going hand-to-hand with Zod in the climax. Zod's just discovered that Earth's sun gives him heat vision, and he's preparing to use it to incinerate some hapless family, so Superman is forced to break Zod's neck to save them. It was a satisfying conclusion when it happened, in part because Henry Cavill really sold what a struggle it was for his character to do that. Or at least, that was my first impression.

When my fore-brain took over again, it occurred to me that this movie-Superman doesn't really have that weight of refusing to kill, because we haven't really seen him in action. According to the movie it's his first outing in the cape and tights, so to be honest, for all we know he'll spend the next two movies (I presume it'll be a trilogy) cheerfully slaughtering his way through an endless succession of Lex Luthors, Parasites, Brainiacs and giant radioactive gorillas.

That is to say, it's a powerful moment, but it relies on our cultural understanding of Superman, and how he's the ultimate Boy Scout. I liked it at first, but then a second later I realized that we hadn't really earned it, and that was kind of frustrating. And it must have been even more frustrating for my sister, because she doesn't have the same knowledge of Superman's history as I do.

I kind of wonder how many of these book-to-movie or comic-to-movie transitions rely on the same thing. Obviously, the Red Wedding in the third season of Game of Thrones works regardless of whether you've read the books. But things like Batman, Superman or Star Trek have been around for decades, so they're even more imprinted on the cultural consciousness; everybody knows that Batman brings the Joker in at the end, and that Captain Kirk's going to get his shirt ripped open gratuitously at some point.

This is clearly the fine line that filmmakers have to keep in mind when rebooting a well-known property. You don't want to mess around with it too much, because then it's not Superman or whatever anymore, but you also don't necessarily have time to fully get your character to the point that everybody  recognizes. In this case, I think Zack Snyder probably got the balance wrong.

But then, I hated Skyfall, which loads of other people seemed to like, so maybe my problem is that I can't turn my brain off for these sorts of things.

In any case, I'm hoping the next movie introduces the whole Superman family, ranging from Krypto the Super-Dog to Comet the Super-Horse, fighting against Mr Mxyzptlk. And then the third movie can be Mxyzptlk teaming up with Bat-Mite for a World's Greatest Heroes-style crossover...