Wicked Weekends: Man of Steel

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

My favorite version of Superman’s origin story comes from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. It’s four sentences, eight words, with accompanying visuals: Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple. That’s it. And we’re off.

I’ve gone on record as saying that I don’t see the point in origin stories, at least not where the legends of our time are concerned. We don’t start every new series of Sherlock Holmes movies by recounting how Holmes and Watson came to live and work together at 221B Baker Street. We don’t completely reboot James Bond with each new actor who steps into that venerable role. As much as I love Batman Begins, we know the story by cultural osmosis. It, too, can be distilled into a few words: Happy family. Unspeakable loss. Years wandering. New purpose. Or Spider-Man: Spider bite. Wasted power. Fallen mentor. Great responsibility.

So we know Superman’s story. The last survivor of an alien race, he was sent to Earth as an infant, where he was adopted by kindly farmers, protected and raised with their values. Imbued with great powers through his exposure to our yellow sun, he now fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.

Man of Steel is an origin story. There’s no getting around that. It’s a reboot for the Superman film franchise, taking up the torch from the classic movies starring Christopher Reeve and the cinematic saga that came to a close with the rather tepid spiritual sequel Superman Returns. I’m not sure we needed that reboot. I’m not sure we needed to be told this story again. As a rule, I would rather see the origins of these characters taken as read, so we can just get on with new tales. But it was an enjoyable, faithful, and thought-provoking ride nonetheless.

Yes, thank you, Zack Snyder. GET ON WITH IT!

Yes, thank you, Zack Snyder. GET ON WITH IT!

As sentient beings, painfully aware of our mortality and our ultimate insignificance in the face of eternity, we have been haunted throughout our existence with the same questions: are we alone? Is there something out there greater than ourselves? Do we need to be saved – from ourselves, from forces we cannot control, from forces we cannot yet comprehend or perceive – and, if so, will we be saved? And, above all, are we worthy of salvation? Superman represents a potential answer. Above all else, Superman represents hope that, yes, there is something more out there, a great and benevolent force that sees the good in humanity and will act to protect it. The parallels to religious doctrine, and particular to Christianity, are obvious. It is not surprising that Man of Steel grapples with those questions and draws those parallels, showing human beings at their best and their worst, and depicting Clark Kent’s struggle to find his role relative to our planet and our people in the face of all our complexity and contradiction. The movie’s failures are similarly complex and contradictory: it either goes too far in pursuit of these themes, or not far enough. The Christ imagery is heavy-handed and scarcely worthy of the name ‘metaphor’: Clark is 33 years old when he’s thrust before humanity and compelled to sacrifice himself for all mankind. He has a conversation about whether or not he should sacrifice himself, whether or not it’s the right thing to do, in a church, with a priest, while sitting in front of a giant stained glass window depicting Jesus Christ. At one point he drops through the sky while extending his arms in a Christlike pose. Yes. We get it. (In fact, it appears that Warner Bros. is aggressively marketing the film to Christian churches. I’m not sure what to think about that.)

At the same time, the movie fails to really hammer its points about humanity home. At one point, we see Clark confront a trucker harassing a waitress, backing down when it’s clear that the confrontation will only end in violence – Clark isn’t prepared to use force in this situation, even if the guy is an asshole. Later the trucker walks out of the restaurant to find his rig completely totaled, impaled on multiple telephone poles in an act of destruction and petty revenge that hardly seems in keeping with Superman’s sense of morality and self-control. Maybe the point is that Clark hasn’t quite become Superman yet – and it’s true, he hasn’t – but while the visual was good for a quick laugh, it didn’t feel quite right, somehow. Later, during a vicious attack on Metropolis, we see a Daily Planet intern trapped under some debris, and Perry White, as well as another Planet employee, stay with her even in the face of certain destruction. It’s a sweet moment, but lacks the punch of, say, multiple citizens working together to free her, racing against time, saving the day even without powers.

As for the Kryptonian side of the equation, the situation is similarly muddled. Jor-El’s plans for his son, the last survivor of Krypton, are unclear. In the movie’s story, Clark’s cells have been imbued with the information contained within the Codex, a Kryptonian artifact holding the genetic code for all of Krypton’s future citizens – Krypton now relies on artificial reproduction, you see, and each citizen is born to fulfill a specific role. Clark, as Kal-El, is the first natural-born child of Krypton in centuries, and though Jor-El and Lara clearly care for him, he seems to be an experiment as much as a child to Jor-El, a test of the value of free will. The movie’s antagonist, General Zod, wants to use the Codex in conjunction with recovered Kryptonian technology to turn Earth into a new Krypton, exterminating the human race and breeding new generations of Kryptonians. Jor-El, brought to Earth in Clark’s capsule in the form of an AI, finally confesses his own plan when pressed, claiming that he hoped Clark would eventually use the information contained within the Codex to recreate the Kryptonian race as equals to mankind, and Clark himself, familiar with both Earth and Krypton, would act as a bridge between the two peoples. An ambitious and worthy goal, to be sure, but considering that the Codex is designed to produce Kryptonians only for specific roles, it’s not entirely clear to me how ‘New Krypton’ would be any better than the old one. It’s also not clear to me how the Kryptonians lack free will to begin with. Certainly Jor-El was able to break whatever genetic programming he had to deal with and act in open defiance of the laws and traditions of his people.

Laurence Fishburne and Amy Adams as Perry White and Lois Lane

Laurence Fishburne and Amy Adams as Perry White and Lois Lane

Still, despite the muddled plot, heavy-handed imagery and occasional lack of conviction, the movie is a lot of fun to watch, and it does shine in several respects. The cast as a whole is solid. Henry Cavill is an excellent Superman, and Amy Adams is fantastic as a 21st-century Lois Lane. She may not be the fast-talking, nickname-tossing, old-school reporter we all know and love, but she’s a bright, clever, determined woman, a skilled investigator, and a dedicated journalist who only stops chasing the man who will become Superman when the potential consequences of her actions become clear. Despite her decision to abandon the story, she’s pulled into Superman’s life again and becomes integral to the fight against Zod. Though she does indeed form a romantic connection with Superman by the end of the story, it feels fairly natural after everything they’ve been through. The movie adds a new wrinkle to the classic story of Clark/Lois/Superman by introducing Clark Kent as we know him (reporter for the Daily Planet and mild-mannered secret identity for the all-powerful Superman) only at the end of the film, after Lois has already tracked down the mysterious ‘guardian angel’ who keeps appearing out of nowhere and saving lives all over the world and stood alongside Superman in both Smallville and Metropolis. In the Man of Steel universe, the Clark/Superman/Lois love triangle simply does not exist. Lois knows his identity from the start. And frankly, as much fun as that triangle can be, it’s been overused and I’m quite glad to see it dismissed completely in this iteration of the Superman mythology. Basically, I love this version of Lois almost as much as I love Dana Delany‘s version from the old animated series, and the movie is practically worth seeing for her alone.

Similarly, Laurence Fishburne is a Perry White for our time. He may not chomp cigars and shout “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” at the drop of a hat, but he’s a perfect foil for Lois, a caring and dedicated boss who isn’t fooled by her shenanigans but quietly supports her in her crusade for the truth nonetheless. Richard Schiff has a small but memorable role as long-time Superman ally Dr. Emil Hamilton. (Amusingly, Alessandro Juliani, who played Dr. Emil Hamilton in the ninth and tenth seasons of Smallville, also has a small role in the film.) Christopher Meloni doesn’t get a lot of screen time, either, but he makes what little he does get count, particularly as the film reaches its climax. And Michael Shannon chews the scenery a bit as Zod, but, well, it’s General Zod, so I can forgive that.

Jor-El on Krypton

Jor-El on Krypton

Last, but far from least, the movie does not skimp on the eye candy. The Krypton of Man of Steel puts one in mind of Time Lords and New Gods and the Asgard of the Thor movie, with ships and robots and suits of armor that reshape themselves at a thought, impossible architecture, gorgeous vistas, and ridiculous hats to spare. The ideas of John Byrne’s seminal post-Crisis reboot (also titled, in fact, The Man of Steel), are combined with modern cinematic sensibilities into something genuinely beautiful. The powers of the Kryptonians on Earth – their strength, speed, enhanced perception, heat vision and flight – are depicted in ways that, if not precisely revolutionary, are nevertheless decently realistic and fun to watch. The set designers and effects artist have even thrown in a few ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ cameos to reward sharp-eyed fans – notably Lexcorp and WayneTech logos on key props and set pieces.

All things considered, Man of Steel is not a perfect film, nor is it my favorite version of the Superman myth. But it’s a solid film, well-made and a hell of a lot of fun, and it’s saved by stunning visual effects and a charming and talented cast. I can’t wait for the sequel.

Superman Rating: 4 out of 5 capes. Super.

General Film Rating: 7 out of 10. Well worth seeing in theaters, but not the best movie you’ll see all year.

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Media Mondays: Wonder Woman

You may have noticed by now that I kind of have a thing for Amazons. My favorite comic book superheroine, after all, is Wonder Girl, and Wonder Woman herself is a very close second. I go by Themiscyra just about anywhere and everywhere I can, and it’s not solely a Wonder Woman reference. And so it goes. The Amazon label is admittedly a problematic one, frequently co-opted by the less pleasant elements of radical feminism (you know, the folks who basically hate me for calling myself a woman, who gleefully throw pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘him’ at women like me when they’re not calling us ‘it,’ who don’t think we have any place in women’s spaces, that sort of thing), but it’s one I wear with pride nonetheless. I’m a firm believer in the power of archetypes – in our ability to draw strength from symbols deeply embedded into our culture. And the Amazons are pretty damn potent. To me, they represent a strength that embraces womanhood, rather than rejecting or denigrating it, as our popular culture too often does. They represent every last woman who chose to stand up and face the world on her own terms rather than giving in to the pressures of the dominant society. So hell yes, I’m an Amazon. Or, at least, I aspire to be one.

That said, of course, I have to concede the point that the Amazons as portrayed in Greek mythology aren’t necessarily perfect, praiseworthy figures. Some of the legends have them slicing off their breasts to better aim their arrows, taking those men they did not kill as slaves, engaging in sexual congress with men only to reproduce and then abandoning or killing any male children. To the Greeks, these were most likely figures of utter terror…and yet, at the same time, they were also clearly figures of intense fascination, because they keep showing up. The Amazons we know today – mostly through media like, well, Wonder Woman – bear only a partial resemblance to the Amazons of antiquity. That’s something I’ve struggled to accept – to the point of having a visceral negative reaction to the Amazons’ recent appearance on Supernatural. (I won’t spoil the episode, but the Amazons of Paradise Island don’t have a whole lot in common with the Amazons of the Supernatural universe, either.)

Wonder Woman’s history is a bit troubled as well: created by William Moulton Marston, whose work contributed to the modern polygraph test, she was not only intended to serve as the world’s first female superhero, but also as a proponent of his philosophy. The idea was to combine “ideal” female attributes – tenderness, submission, and beauty, most notably – with the power of Superman. Wonder Woman would use this power to encourage submission to loving authority. The early stories are thus rather confused, filled with outmoded ideas and instances of bondage that may or may not have been intended as sexual but certainly come off that way. While Marston’s goals may have been noble, he was definitely still rather misguided, and the execution of his ideas was seriously lacking.

And yet, for all the flaws of her creator, for all the missteps along the way, Wonder Woman became a feminist icon. Maybe it was because she was the most prominent female superhero out there – but I’ve always thought there was more to it than that. Wonder Woman is not without her issues, but nevertheless, she’s an undeniably strong woman who embraces her womanhood. She makes no apologies for who she is. At her best, she’s a warrior and a peacemaker at once, a philosopher and ambassador who falls back on violence only as a last resort – but fights capably and ferociously when she must. Yeah, she does all this in a strapless star-spangled swimsuit (and while I ended up avoiding J. Michael Straczynski‘s run on the comic book, I have to admit that I did kind of like seeing Wonder Woman in pants and a jacket in those promo pictures)…but look past that. Look at who Diana is. There’s a lot to love.

Trouble in Paradise

As I’ve said before, I gave up on comics altogether around the time when DC announced the New 52 – a reboot of their entire universe – and made a number of unwelcome changes to characters a loved a hell of a lot. At that point, I really didn’t trust them to do right by Wonder Woman. They’d already messed up Cassie Sandsmark and it soon came out that they’d seriously messed up Starfire. But my friends have been telling me that the current Wonder Woman run is actually excellent, so I took some time in the last week to see what Diana’s been up to.

Well, she’s…different. So are the Amazons. So’s Paradise Island. There are elements I like. I actually like the tension between Diana and her fellow Amazons. It makes for interesting drama. And while this Diana is angrier than the Wonder Woman I’m used to, she’s still strong and fiercely protective of those she cares about. She has the same powerful sense of loyalty and family and the same willingness to build her own family that I remember. She’s a little quicker to jump into a fight, but she’s still clever enough to avoid one.

That said, there are also things that annoy me. The fact that (as revealed in the second issue) Wonder Woman is now the daughter of Zeus, for one. Wait a second – that’s Cassie Sandsmark’s story. You guys took Cassie’s story and shoved it into Diana’s? I’m not actually angry, because it does open up some interesting story possibilities, but I am a little vexed. And, well…Diana’s living in London now. Which is great. Sure. London. I like London. Except…why the hell is she still wearing a costume based on the American flag? Seriously, that’s the whole point of the costume: she dressed in the colors and patterns of the American flag to try and make a good impression on the United States (then one of the most powerful nations on the planet) when she revealed herself to ‘Man’s World’. I’m kind of hoping this will be explained later on – maybe she chose to abandon the U.S. for some reason. And the idea of a Wonder Woman who belongs to the whole world, not just the U.S.A. (which always did seem a little odd), appeals to me. But for the time being, it bugs me.

And then we come to the Amazons. Boy, oh, boy…the Amazons. This is where my opening paragraphs start to become relevant again.

Yeah, by the way, this is not a comic book for children. In case you were wondering.

Let me explain something about how the Amazons in Wonder Woman used to work: essentially, they were all immortal, and they were all childless. After playing their part in Greek mythology, and suffering temporary enslavement at the hands of Hercules, they retreated from Man’s World to the secluded island of Themyscira, or Paradise Island. Diana herself was actually the only child born on the island, and ‘created’ would be the more accurate term – her mother, Queen Hippolyta, crafted a baby girl out of clay and begged the gods to give her life. The rest of the Amazons went on without children or families of their own. They got to live forever, but only in isolation, without any real opportunity for reproduction.

That’s not the case anymore.

As revealed in the latest issue, the new Amazons hew much closer to the old myths. Oh, they still live in seclusion on Paradise Island – a necessary story detail, as otherwise they would have undoubtedly been overrun, destroyed and/or assimilated into other cultures over the intervening centuries. But they aren’t precisely confined there. They don’t hold themselves completely apart. Instead, at certain intervals, they go out to sea, board ships en masse, have their way with the men there, kill them all, then go home to bear any children that may result from the unions.

Oh wait. It gets better.

Yeah. So this happened.

The Amazons also hew to the myths in that they kill any male children they bear…or at least they used to. Turns out they made a little arrangement with Hephaestus, god of the forge, some time ago. They deliver all their male children to him, he takes them as slaves, and in exchange, the Amazons get weapons from his forge. Because…the Amazons are incapable of forging their own weapons? Okay, okay, that’s probably unfair: Hephaestus makes magical weapons, weapons of genuine power, and I’m sure the Amazons can’t really match his craftsmanship there. Even so…

It turns out that Hephaestus actually treats the kids pretty well. You know. For slaves. He certainly treats them well enough that, when Diana offers them their freedom, they refuse and politely ask her to untie their master. ‘Cause, you know, Stockholm Syndrome isn’t a thing. They point out that slavery is preferable to death – but they’re still slaves. They were still rejected by their mothers, banished from their homes and sold into servitude because of the circumstances of their birth. Because they failed at a test they had no power to pass.

As I said before, the Amazons of myth did, according to some legends, practice slavery. They did, according to some tales, kill or abandon their male children. This is not entirely inaccurate. But it still leaves a foul taste in my mouth.

All things considered, I think I prefer the Paradise Island of Wonder Woman‘s prior runs. The Amazons who used their time in seclusion to study and grow, creating astounding new technologies and becoming better people. The Amazons who, faced with a world that was now entirely capable of finding them, chose to put the best of them forward, to try and bring what they had learned to the rest of the world, to try and improve the lot of their sisters on the outside. While the Wonder Woman of the current series intrigues me, I still miss the Wonder Woman of Greg Rucka‘s run, or Gail Simone‘s: the Diana who found strength in family and friends, who was an ambassador and an idealist first and a warrior second. That’s my Princess Diana. That’s my Themyscira. This new world…I’m not so sure about it yet. I’ll keep reading, for now, but I feel distinctly unsettled.

As a Greek mythology buff, I appreciate the accuracy. But as an Amazon…and as an Amazon who would have been killed or sold into slavery under the new order…I kind of miss my sisters. Even if they were never really there to begin with.

NOTE: Yep. This is SUPER late. I’ve been caught up in PAX East prep, and it’s not likely to get better. I’m going to try and work ahead so the next few posts will go up on schedule, and I may try to do some blogging and tweeting from the con, but I’m probably going to be pretty quiet as a rule. Wish me luck in the Omegathon – and hopefully I’ll see some of you at the con!