Let's Talk Superman - Take 2

Alright, let's try this again.

Last night for some reason I was on a Superman kick, so my article today is going to be about the upcoming Superman movie, Man of Steel.

Before I begin, I think it best to let you know 'where I'm coming from.' I'm a big of the Superman. From childhood until only very recently he was far and away my favorite superhero. His time of complete supremacy came to an end when Disney and Marvel introduced me to a guy named Steve Rogers, a.k.a., Captain America. But even now he is still in my top two.

You also need to know where my appreciate of Kal-El comes from. I'm not The Inner Dorkdom's resident comic book expert (that's Todd, no question). In fact, growing up I had very few comics. It's not that I disliked them; I just didn't collect them. And unless my memory fails me, I've never owned a single Superman comic. So when I talk about Superman, I'm not approaching it from the perspective of someone who knows all about Kal-El's decades of comic book exploits. My knowledge and appreciation of Superman comes from film/television (the Superman films and the old Superfriends cartoon show most notably).

I tell you this because someone might read my about-to-be-shared-with-you concerns about Man of Steel and say, "Come on man. This kind of stuff has been happening in the comics for years. Get with the program. Get with post-modernism. This us just the superhero genre growing up." I'm just going to go ahead and head that off at the pass: Yeah, that's great, and very well may be true. But I don't read the comics. And if I did, and if what you say is true, I'd probably feel the same about them as I do about what it looks like Man of Steel will be.

Ok, now with that behind us, let's talk about Man of Steel. The truth is we don't know that much about it. A couple of trailers have come out recently that have shed a little light, but we'll talk more about them in a minute.

It's a reboot. The all-news cast includes greats like Kevin Costner and Russel Crowe, and relative newcomers like Britain's Henry Cavill (Kal-El himself). Hans "I write superhero themes that consist of 4 notes" Zimmer is doing the score, and has said he won't be using any of John Williams' themes. And given the screenwriter (David S. Goyer), director (Zack Snyder), and producer (Christopher Nolan), folks have inferred that the film will give us a dark, more gritty, 'realistic' take on the story of the last son of Krypton.

And this is what concerns me. I'm just not a fan of applying the "darker and edgier" trope (overused these days anyway, in my opinion) to Superman. I'm ok with a Batman movie being dark. It fits with his character. "Dark" is even in one of his nicknames. But Superman isn't Batman. The story of Batman is the story of a man overcoming a great personal tragedy and using his wits and fortune to fight for justice in a corrupt place, channeling the darkness within him into his Batman persona. The story of Superman is the story of an alien...from outer space...orphaned as a newborn, who finds he has extraordinary powers..like invulnerability, flight, and laser eyes...and chooses to use them to protect the people of his adoptive home, fighting for truth, justice, and freedom wearing a blue and red uniform with a cape and a big bold S on the front.

I know that the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy has done very well for DC. The films were praised critically, and made boatloads of money. But that doesn't mean that the same formula should be, or must be, followed for all superhero films in order for them to perform well. Marvel's recent films I believe prove this conclusively (The Avengers, anyone?). I fear that the powers that be in the DC world are afraid to embrace the 'lighter' side of their properties on film. Maybe The Green Lantern is part of the reason. Then again, maybe I'm completely off-base on why they would choose to make Superman gritty.

But, with the release of two trailers now, I think it's safe to say that's exactly what they've done.

Or it is? I think we need to throw out a little disclaimer here, to keep us from jumping to conclusions.

See, the thing about trailers is they can very easily be misleading, because they exist for marketing purposes, not artistic purposes. They are made in order to 'sell' the movie to us. That being the case, they aren't designed to purely reflect the final film. Sure, they use footage from it, and attempt to give us at least a sketch of what the film will be about. But accurately previewing the tone, pacing, style, or overall vibe of the film is not the top priority. Now, this is nothing new and earth-shattering. Many of us have been the victim of a misleading trailer, going into the theater expecting a film very different (sometimes better, sometimes worse) than the one we actually saw. And there's an entire genre of videos on YouTube that exploit their inherent potential unreliability.

So information gleaned from trailers is somewhat suspect. Always good to remember that. But, bearing that in mind, I think it's safe to say the new trailer does give the impression that Man of Steel is going to be the grittier, darker, edgier, and 'more realistic' take on Superman that we were expecting.

First, so we're all on the same page, here's the trailer:

So all the usual suspects for "darker and edgier" are all here. Enya-style, chorus-filled, this-is-stinking-serious-folks-so-take-it-serious music: check. Muted color palate with a hearty helping of blue tint: check. Quick fades to people suffering: check. Tripod-free shaking cinematography: check. Random shots of water over rocks: check. Superhero outfit that has been modified from the traditional outfit in such a way that it almost seems to be apologizing for its roots: check.

But let's also notice the story points the trailer seems to be sharing with us, because that's where I think we get the 'more realistic' take stuff.

We begin, despite the initial images of him as an adult splayed out in the water (somewhat Jesus-style), with Clark as a small child. He's talking to his mother, presumably about the hardship his super-hearing is giving him. The world is too big, the voices are too many. It's making him cry it's so bad. And so his adopted mother is apparently trying to teach him how to cope by focusing only on one voice.

See? He has super-hearing, and it's not just coolness and rainbows for him. If someone really had super-hearing, yeah it would have advantages, but it would also be a total burden, man. This is realism.

(If you'll allow me the opportunity to be especially dorky, I don't think this is actually more realistic. His super-hearing is apparently an innate ability all Kryptonians have, and is, barring hearing sounds on other planets despite a vacuum between them and Earth, just a souped up version of our hearing. So why would he need his mom to help him learn how to filter sounds? We humans have that ability on a smaller scale, and no one has to teach us. Our moms don't have to sit down with us when we're at the mall or supermarket or some other place with a lot of voices and sounds and help us learn how to focus on just one. We just do it. It is an innate ability, and seems to be a part of the "ability to hear" package. So it seems odd that if Superman's natural hearing ability is just a better version of ours, his sound sorting ability would be a thing that had to be learned, making it worse than ours.)

The second story point in the trailer takes us a few years further into Clark's life. He's in high school it looks like. A school but plummets into the water, and he saves everyone. His dad is concerned, because saving a bus full of children puts the secret of his abilities in danger. Should Clark have just let them all die? "Maybe," his dad says.

See, Clark's parents have to wrestle with the fact that a person with superhuman abilities isn't just going to be accepted and welcomed. People will be curious, fearful, jealous. They'll want to know why he can do those things. They don't want that for their son, so they wrestle with whether or not he should use his powers. This also is realism man.

The third clear story point (as the second half of the trailer includes tiny snippets of all sorts of action-filled scenes) is an extension of the second. Clark, apparently in military custody, is telling someone that his dad (presumably Pa Kent) thought that if the world knew who he was, it would reject him. He believed people weren't ready for him.

See, this is realism man. An alien with superpowers shows up on Earth, puts on a suit and starts flying around fighting evil, it doesn't matter that he's fighting evil. That's going to freak people out. They're not going to respond with gasps of joy, thunderous applause, and looks of awe, admiration, and gratitude. He won't be man of the year. He'll be public enemy number one.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not against realism completely. I don't even know how one could be, unless you're all into strange French cinema. You need some realism. This is not a matter of absolutes. It's a matter of balance. And while it is true in many types of stories, it is perhaps especially true that in superhero stories you're always having to find that good, balanced amount of realism. You need to have some minimum amount, so that characters behave in believable ways and plots feel cohesive and believable. But if you have too much realism then, well, Superman can't fly (no dense molecules and amazing strength because the gravity of his star...not even his own planet...was higher, no zero point energy, no telekinesis).

So my concern isn't that there might be some realism in a Superman story. My concern stems from the fact that, at least these days, realism seems always to be of the 'dark and edgy' variety. It's as though in many people's minds, "realism," inherently includes, "dark and edgy." Just note the three examples from this trailer: A boy crying because he hears a bunch of stuff a lot, a parent who tells his young son that maybe he should have let a bus full of children, his own peers, die, and a person trying to do good bound with chains.

So if Man of Steel is going to give us a more realistic take on Superman (a.k.a. a flying space alien in a tight suit who fights crime), that means it's probably also going to present that realism in a dark, gritty, edgy way. In a way that (maybe until the end of the film) lacks any vibe of optimism. That is, it won't be like, "Life is rough but then comes Superman to give us all hope and help! Hooray!" It'll be, "Life stinks, even for one trying to be a hero."

Again, don't misunderstand. I'm not anti such ideas being explored. When done so in a thoughtful and skilled way the results can be thought-provoking and emotionally moving. But, and this is just personal preference, I don't want to see them explored in Superman. My reasoning is simple: because the character for so long has been the one voice of optimism when everyone else in the room was being pessimistic. To fight the dark, Bruce Wayne embraces the dark. To fight the dark, Kal-El stands in the light. To take that character and give him the dark treatment, and to do so in the name of realism, I just don't think it fits.

This is also not to say that I doubt that the film will be executed well. Zack Synder is a skilled director. David Goyer is a good writer. The cast members whose work I'm familiar with are all talented actors and actresses. And I suspect the editing team, sound designers, etc. will do well with their unsung but oh so important contributions.

My suspicion is that I'll roll away from the film thinking, "That was a good film. But it didn't feel right. It didn't feel like Superman."

Hans Zimmer's score in general, and the lack of the classic themes in particular, I think will be a major contributing factor. It's not that I hate Zimmer. He's a better composer than I, no question. But I'm typically not impressed with his scores. They feel less like "underscore" to me and more like "background music." That's not my attempt at being a musical elitist or anything. I'm not trying to make any kind of normative (look it up) statement. What I'm trying to articulate is just a difference in style. When I talk of, "underscore," I'm thinking of music that complements the on-screen action, but also stands up well on its own. When I talk of, "background music," I'm thinking of music that complements the on-screen action, but isn't the sort that stands up on its own. That doesn't make it inferior, it just makes it different. It's a different style, one that I personally don't enjoy as much, especially in genre films.

And of course there's the matter of themes. As I've already mentioned twice now, the indication is John Williams' themes will not be used. I find that disappointing, because...

Now that's what I'm talking about! That's how I personally want it done.

Obviously I'm not alone in that sentiment. But on the other hand there are many folks who feel just the opposite. Some people may want to chalk the difference up to a generational thing (the old folks who grew up on Williams want his themes, whereas the young whipper-snappers who grew up with this modern trend in film scores want Zimmer). Some may think it's just a fanboy thing (some folks love Williams, and others, like one person whose comment I saw on YouTube want Zimmer, because "he's f-ing Hans Zimmer").

Those explanations account for some of the differences, sure. But I think the most real, the most artistically relevant reason, is one of tone. Someone I know referred to the Williams themes as "cheesy," and not suited to Man of Steel. One person on YouTube said the Williams music won't fit "with the tone and type of superman movie" that Man of Steel will be.

Allow me to be the old fogey: If that's true, it's because they aren't trying to make a Superman movie that is positive, optimistic, hopeful, inspiring, and fun. Because Williams' music fits perfectly with that type of film.

Alright, well, I guess I'll leave it there for now. I'm sure there'll be much more Superman discussion in the weeks and months to come.

Until later, I am,

 - Nic

Posted on January 18, 2013 .