[Cross-posted to my movie blog]
Perusing Facebook tonight, my eye plucked from the plentiful geeky
puffery that perpetually passes through my feed a brief op-ed piece from
Uproxx that purports to explain "Why the DC Universe is Dark and Gritty." Released alongside the first substantial trailer for
BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and authored by a Dan Seitz, it
makes a show of tackling criticism that has been leveled at the tone of
DC's cinematic offerings but mostly manages to rather spectacularly miss
the point of that criticism. It seems a good hook on which to hang my
long-delayed review of MAN OF STEEL.
Seitz begins by
beating up a straw man, "the implied idea that nobody wants to see dark
and gritty superhero movies." If anyone had ever seriously pursued that
line the box-office figures Seitz cites are sufficient to refute it but
of course that hasn't been the argument. That a movie featuring some species of dark tone can make lots of money says nothing about whether it should have
that tone. Obviously, the Batman should be dark but what critics in the
fan community have noted--and what Seitz entirely sidesteps while in
defense of darkness--was that the version of "dark" adopted by MAN OF
STEEL, the film that launched DC's new cinematic universe, was entirely
inappropriate to the character and material. And those critics are
correct. MOS's "Superman" is born of contempt for the basic nature of
the character. The key to
Superman is the "man" part, not the "super." Though an alien, he was raised as one of us. He's a good
man, the Midwestern farmboy
whose parents instilled in in him strong values that guide him
through life and who just happens to be able to juggle mountains, powers
he uses to help others in need. Some writers over the years have taken
this to an extreme, presenting him as a "big blue boyscout" and even
something akin to a saint but such treatments are an exaggeration of the
existing character, not any sort of revision of it. Superman is truth and justice, sometimes "the American way," offered with a wink from a friend who is here to help. He's a character of hope and of light, whose powers are literally derived from the sun itself. That sort of thing may be frowned upon in some quarters today but that's Supeman. Superman is not a brooding, alienated anti-hero/god and if you lose what I've just described and turn him into one, you may be trendy and real kewl
and all but you aren't doing Superman anymore. The superbeing from
MOS who wallows in angst, who chooses to let his adoptive father die for
nothing when it would be child's play to save the man and who zips
around amidst falling skyscrapers utterly indifferent to--and, in fact,
helping cause--hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of deaths is no
more Superman than he is Bob Newhart. He's the anti-Superman, a
fundamental negation of the character. No one involved in the production
of MAN OF STEEL had the slightest interest in making a Superman movie
and they didn't.
Superman isn't even the protagonist in
MOS. The film is about a civil conflict on a long-dead world being
continued on Earth, a fight between an exiled criminal and the ghost of
his dead enemy. While Superman is the title character in what's supposed
to be the beginning of a franchise built around him, he's virtually
irrelevant to the story. He merely shows up to act as the proxy of a
dead father he never even knew in the final act of a battle that
happened before he was born.
Seitz argues that "the
entire point of these movies" is that "the good guy wins against all
odds. All we’re really talking about here is how brightly lit his path
happens to be as he gets to his inevitable destination." Even setting
aside the question of this truncated notion of what the films should be,
one can't escape (even though Seitz doesn't address) the fact that the
hero's triumphant "win" at the end of MOS occurs over an almost
indescribable excess of carnage and death, horrors which, in the movie,
are, for all intents and purposes, entirely without consequence. Put on
the screen before one's eyes then not even touched upon. Elsewhere,
in reply to critics who had slammed the film for its humorlessness and,
more broadly, joylessness, Seitz asserts that the film "just wants you
to take the idea of a man who can fly and bend steel with his bare
hands seriously." Is it really necessary to point out that this
consequence-free destruction hardly bespeaks a serious, mature
engagement with the material?
The rest of the film doesn't fare any better on that score.
decades, comic Superman's extraordinary powers have been said to come
from the reaction of his Kryptonian physiology to Earth's yellow sun.
MOS alters this equation--they're now the result of a combination of
Earth's sun and atmosphere. Appropriately, given this, when Superman
goes on the villains' ship and breathes its Kryptonian atmosphere, he
loses his powers. But throughout the film, the Kryptonian villains walk
around on Earth in spacesuits that pump Kryptonian air for them to
breathe yet have all the godlike powers of Superman anyway. Zod, their
leader, wants to terraform Earth, giving it a Kryptonian atmosphere,
which would presumably take away their powers. Why in hell would anyone
who could live as a demi-god want to do that? It gets better too,
because he also asserts that merely living on Earth as it is, sans
terraforming, would require years of pain to adjust to its atmosphere
then when his suit is damaged, he adjusts to the Earth atmosphere almost
immediately. Zod has a world engine that can make over the Earth into a
clone of Krypton but the process will destroy its inhabitants. This
same world engine could presumably make over any planet in
exactly the same way but he wants to use it on Earth because, well,
because he's the designated villain and that's just the sort of evil
stuff villains do. To defeat the villains at the end, Superman opens a black hole within the Earth's atmosphere!
are just some examples of how "seriously" MOS takes its premise. For
Seitz, though, humorlessness and "darkness" equal "seriously." It's a
view one encountered with depressing regularity in the early '90s, when
the mad proliferation of the sort of rubbish "dark" comics being aped by
this film helped to very nearly run the entire industry into the
ground. Seitz doesn't stop short of implying the inverse either, that
because THE AVENGERS has humor, it doesn't take itself at all seriously, another unfortunate manifestation of that same constipated early-'90s attitude.
reality, the "serious" MOS is nothing more than a big, stupid, noisy,
explosion-filled special effects show aimed straight at the lowest
common denominator, a perfect example of the absolute worst breed of
Hollywood tentpole spectacle that is utterly off-putting to anyone
with any respect for the character. Awash in muted colors, mindless
video-game violence, trendy brooding and consequence-free disaster
porn, it's a 2+-hour insult, a $225 million rape of a venerable American
classic and a black mark on its 77-year history, one Warner Brothers
now aims to use as the foundation of its big DC cinematic universe. Pity
these iconic characters that they find themselves in the hands of such
The inappropriately bleak tone is accompanied by inappropriately bleak,
shitty, washed-out, near-black-and-white cinematography--lifted,
without alteration, straight from the Nolan bat-flicks. But, hey, at least Jon Peters got his Superman-in-black battling a giant robot spider at the end, eh?
A pay-off for an earlier scene wherein, as a boy, Clark saves an entire
bus full of his schoolmates from drowning but nearly has his powers
exposed and his adoptive father Jonathan, the man who, in the mythos,
plays such a central role in imparting to Clark his sense of moral
purpose, tells the boy it may have been better to simply let them drown.
John Schneider, who essayed Jonathan Kent for years on SMALLVILLE, recently registered the outrage every fan of the Superman mythos owes that moment.
Bob Newhart would actually be a welcome presence because he would at
least bring some humor to a picture so entirely lacking it.
 Thursday, Joss Whedon revealed he had designed his upcoming AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON as a refutation of this sort of thing.
 Or, for that matter, that nothing about humor or joy bespeaks a lack of same?
That such movies have been a dime-a-dozen for a few decades gives some
wider context to Seitz's effort to argue in favor of such films on the
grounds that "it's nice to have a little variety."
Superman's killing Zod at the end of the film created some controversy
in the fan community, where many hold that Superman should never kill at
all. I don't share this view; in his line of work, that sort of thing
may sometimes be necessary. My own objection to that moment was his
immediate and over-acted, depth-of-his-soul grief at having taken out a
monster who had just committed mass murder against helpless innocents on
the scale of a war, was promising more and was in the process of
carrying out that promise. To kill someone is a terrible thing but this
kind of totally unbalanced reaction suggests a rather profound moral
deformity. Salve your conscience later, hero--there are people still
dying in the rubble who need your help.
mind-numbing. The movie turns into a CGI cartoon for what feels like
about 40 minutes in which big sections of the world are being completely
destroyed by battling superbeings yet the computer-generated images are
so divorced from any semblance of humanity that it becomes boring, like
watching a video game demo you can't skip.
to be fair, Warner Brothers' tv-based DC products have fared much
better. DC doesn't have a cohesive universe sewn between its tv and
feature productions like Marvel and this has made a mess of the various
projects, which feature or will soon feature two Flashes, two Supermen,
two Deadshots, two Deathstrokes, two Bruce Waynes (both set in the
present but one being a 40-something adult hero and the other being a
young, pre-Batman teen), and on and on.