In geekdom, as in politics, people are known to argue minutiae until they are blue in the face. Neither side is EVER going to convince the other that they are on the wrong side of the argument. Never. As a fan, I can acknowledge this, and know it's a losing battle, so it's better to save my breath for other things.
In academia, the strength of the argument is supposed to be what counts, your sources, the tone and style with which you present yourself.
An acafan is an academic who identifies as a fan. The best acknowledge their fan status, but still try to analyze works as academics. In theory, it's the best of both worlds- the knowledge of fandom, with the strength of academia.
All that being said, I was prompted to write this because I was interested at the role switching I watched in real time this weekend on social media as people discussed Man of Steel.
WARNING: spoilers ahead
With the premiere of Man of Steel this weekend, the internet and social media are abuzz with critiques and praises for this new retelling. Many of the detractors have used social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter to conduct a shot by shot take down of the film. Some of these critiques have come from fans that are disappointed that once again, Superman has been badly done, and most of these critiques point to Superman Returns as the first, failed attempt to reboot the series. A large percentage of these people have used Nolan's Batman trilogy as comparison for how "it should have been done". Quite a few of these critiques have been made by media academics I admire. As I followed their list of issues with Man of Steel, I was reminded of this video published on YouTube on 24 December 2012.
When this video first started to make the social media rounds, I remember many of these same academics dissecting Man of Steel complaining about the snarky and nasty tone of both the above video, and the comments discussing it. So I was a little surprised yesterday to read these same people using the same tone. It got me thinking about how and why the same audience would react so differently to two different reboots- Batman and Superman, and it had me wondering what made the reactions different.
In full disclosure, I am a staff writer for the blog 8 Days a Geek where I mostly write reviews of geek centered television shows and movies. I wrote the review for Man of Steel. As an audience member, I enjoyed the movie, and while I can acknowledge the issues with particular scenes and decisions, it was the majority of these decisions that I thought defined the film as a reboot because it did some very interesting, and new, things with the story, and character. It made me think a lot of William Proctor's Regeneration and Rebirth: Anatomy of the Franchise Reboot: http://www.scope.nottingham.ac.uk/February_2012/proctor.pdf, I quote his definition of reboots and remakes here in its entirety for clarity:
"Reboots and remakes share an abundance of commonalities, but this does not mean they are conjoined entities without distinction. Both remakes and reboots "repeat recognizable narrative units" to some extent (Verevis, 2006: 1), while both rearticulate properties from the cultural past in a pattern of repetition and novelty (Horton, 1998: 6). It can be argued, however, that a film remake is a singular text bound within a self-contained narrative schema; whereas a reboot attempts to forge a series of films, to begin a franchise anew from the ashes of an old or failed property. In other words, a remake is a reinterpretation of one film; a reboot "re-starts" a series of films that seek to disavow and render inert its predecessor's validity" (4).
By this definition, Superman Returns (2006) functions as a remake both because it became a single text as it failed to restart the franchise and due to the homage nature of Singer's film making, it is a reinterpretation of Superman (1978). Following Proctor's definition, Man of Steel is a reboot, and not a remake as it seeks to restart the franchise, and because it veers away from (I hesitate to say disavow) the original film. Yet, it seems to be the very fact that Man of Steel seeks to "render inert its predecessor's validity" that critics, and academics, seem to have a problem with.
There are several scenes/creative decisions that detractors seem to agree are problematic:
- The Kryptonian ship in the arctic just happening to have Clark's Superman suit, in his size
- The fact that the suit doesn't resemble any other Kryptonian suit seen
- The Kent farm being run by Martha by herself after Jonathan's death while Clark wanders the world to find himself
- Jonathan Kent's "Maybe" comment when Clark asks him whether or not he should have let the bus full of kids die rather than show his powers to the public
- Superman in his fight with Zod shows no regard for property damage or loss of human life
- Superman doesn't kill
- The fact that there is no appearance of Clark Kent, except for the small scene at the end
Once Clark puts on the suit, he has passed the threshold of Campbell's cycle. The next part of the cycle focuses on the helper, the mentor, and the temptation. In Man of Steel, Lois Lane, in her (finally) strong role serves as helper, it is Martha Kent, not her husband, that allows Clark to reconcile his two sides, and finally Zod, with his argument for preserving Krypton, serves as the temptation.
Another thing I think Goyer and Nolan's story does well is how both Lois Lane and Martha Kent are written. They no longer appear as stock characters to prop up Superman. Lois Lane for the first time is actually an investigative journalist. She's also who Jor-El entrusts with the secret for defeating Zod. What seems the most innovative though is the decision to let her in on Clark's real identity from the beginning, thus opening new storylines instead of recycling the same old narrative that insists she's too stupid to figure it out and too weak to stand on her own. The potential for Clark and Lois to act as partners in other installments of the franchise is definitely a step forward.
Martha Kent has an understated role, both in the comics, previous movie incarnations, and this film. However, in Man of Steel, as Clark is questioning how he can balance both lives, and who he owes loyalty to- humans or Kryptonians, it is Martha who provides the answer, and by her absolute certainty, conveys to Clark that he can do it.
Critics have stated that Clark abandons Martha to run the farm after Jonathan's death. I reject this premise as it falls into old sexist attitudes. Why exactly does Martha, a capable, intelligent woman, need him to stay? The implication that Martha can't take care of the farm on her own is insulting. As a mother, why wouldn't she want her son to go out on his own?
That being said, Man of Steel still fails the Bechdel Test which states that:
1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
In "Is Superman Still Relevant in a Postmodern World?" asks whether or not Superman's image as a character who maintained "order and brought about social justice" is compatible with a postmodern world. He discusses the "darker, psychologically-nuanced depiction of Batman" as "what a postmodern superhero could really look like...a mirror for a culture that was no longer willing to look up to authorities who advocated playing by the rules and perpetuated the myth that the world was inherently a good place." Certainly, the last twenty years have seen more postmodern superhero characters than the do-gooder patriots that were so popular when comics were in their infancy. It is a problem Joss Whedon's script for The Avengers (2012) pokes fun of in the character of Steve Rogers/Captain America- is there a place for this type of hero in the modern day or are they simply a relic of times past? Given Superman's history, a reboot has to find a way to address this. Singer, in Superman Returns, mostly ignored the issue. His Superman is clearly the exact same character we've always seen. Singer's only concession to a postmodern perspective is Lois Lane's article Why The World Doesn't Need Superman and her subsequent conversation with Superman about it. Superman's response is"You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one." While this is an understandable answer, it is perhaps not a satisfying one. It seems to skirt the issue, insisting that the world will always need Superman, but never addressing how the Superman, or the people, of a postmodern world would deal with it.
Man of Steel answers this question, but it's apparently not the answer people were looking for. It can be seen in three key scenes; Superman's final fight with Zod, the death of Zod, and the appearance of the Clark Kent at The Daily Planet at the end of the movie.
Superman's final fight with Zod has been described as
"endless brawls between the two where neither seems able to get hurt...they go on forever and have a numbing sameness. They're simply excuses to smash the scenery to bits while Hans Zimmer works up a sweat beating the drums of war on the soundtrack."
"Due to the cataclysmic battle in this film, much of the Man of Steel's mystery and novelty have been used up. Subsequent adventures may lose altitude."
Superman's final fight with Zod is huge in scale. It takes place on the destroyed desert of what was downtown Metropolis. Just as with his fight with Zod's second in command, Faora-Ul, Superman seems unconcerned with destruction or loss of life. Many have critiqued these scenes as being betrayals of a character who always places human lives above everything else. I present two rebuttals. The first is that this Superman has not emerged from the Fortress of Solitude fully formed. The whole point of the movie is to show audiences how Superman became Superman, therefore expecting him to behave as though he has figured out everything is unreasonable. Secondly, Superman has, as the story unfolds, been given very little time to harness his powers, and has no experience with controlling the destructiveness of a battle with enemies that enjoy his powers. Therefore, it is unreasonable to expect him to act as a seasoned warrior. As Zod points out, Superman has no experience as a warrior.
A postmodern audience knows that a big climatic battle is the de rigueur, and certain superheroes/supervillains can't be killed, so how do you raise the stakes, at the same time that you move the story forward? How, in a post 9/11 world, do you have a superhero respond to evil that will never stop, and perhaps, cannot be stopped through the methods that had worked before? Again, the answer may not be the one people were looking for. You have him kill. At the end of Man of Steel, there's a moment where Zod confesses that he will never stop. And you see on Superman's face that he knows this is the truth. That Zod will never stop on his own, and can't be stopped. So Superman snaps his neck. When faced with an impossible decision, he does the unthinkable. And you see what it costs him in Cavill's portrayal. It destroys him.
With Zod's death, we have the completion of what Jonathan Kent hinted at when Clarks asks him "What was I supposed to do? Let them die?" and he responds with "Maybe..". Jonathan is unsure of what all the answers are. He is not the all knowing father as previous incarnations have presented him. Instead, he puts his faith in the fact that Clark will know what to do when the time comes. And he does. Clark becomes Superman, not when he dons the suit, but when he makes the hard decision to save Earth from the threat.
It is Superman's fight with Zod, and killing him, that represents the revelation in the hero's journey, and it is specifically, a postmodern revelation- that sometimes evil must be stopped, no matter the cost. It is only after this revelation that we see Superman transformed into the hero we are familiar with. It is only after this that Superman realizes that there is a fine line to be walked between being a savior, and being a villain, as can be seen both in his exchange with General Swanwick and with his entry into The Daily Planet at the end of the film. Superman realizes (in a very postmodern way) that constructed identity is as important as his actual identity, and in fact, one is necessary for the other.
Helvie argues that "There is something about Superman that speaks to certain aspects of the human condition, the belief in something transcendence, or at the least, the potential for such greatness to exist in our world." This is at the heart of the appeal of Superman. Man of Steel ends with the hero's journey incomplete. While we, as an audience, have seen his transformation into the beginnings of what we "know" as Superman, we have not seen the end. I look forward to seeing how Goyer and Nolan present him as he tries to atone for the mistakes he made in Man of Steel, and how he returns to his roots.
Until then, I will continue to argue that Man of Steel is a welcome reboot that presents what all strong reboots do- something new.