Man of Steel, Ownership, and Entitlement

I'm a little confused - and a lot put off - by the wellspring of hatred I'm seeing online about Man of Steel, which in some corners is approaching near-evangelical proportions.  It's not enough for some folks to just dislike the movie, nor is it seemingly enough for them to let you know they disliked it.  They need you to dislike it, too, and will tell you that you are wrong if you don't.

Now, I totally understand not liking the movie.  As I said in my post about it, I enjoyed it but there were certainly some things I would have preferred to see handled in a different way.  If, say, cutting just 5-10 minutes out of that long fight sequence would have made room in the script to give Richard Schiff's Dr. Emil Hamilton more to do, that would be an improvement in my book.  Schiff's a terrific actor (there's a post to be written about how much I like disliking Toby Ziegler once I get through all 7 seasons of The West Wing), Hamilton is one of my favorite Superman supporting cast members... you hire that guy to be that character, do something with him, you know?  But I digress.  It's not a perfect film; it interprets some characters and goes in directions that some folks may not like.  I don't have those problems, but I get why people do: this isn't their Superman.

Yet this is where the entire argument turns problematic for me, this idea of ownership (and yes, I'm as guilty of it as anyone, seeing as I wrote not too long ago about how Steven Moffat's Doctor Who isn't my Doctor Who).  A character on Superman's level of notoriety isn't just a fictional character anymore, but an icon that crosses most demographics you could name.  When something worms its way into the cultural consciousness like that, it becomes a part of us on a basic and personal level; how we define and relate to that character helps shape how we define and relate to the world.


We don't really own Superman (or the Doctor, or Harry Potter, or Sherlock Holmes, or Tarzan, or or or...), despite how personal that relationship may feel (says the guy who has worn a Superman watch every single day for the last 10 years).  Zach Snyder doesn't own Superman.  The heirs of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster don't even own Superman, no matter how unfair you think that may be.  Superman is corporately-owned property, all about making Time-Warner profits via the sales of movie tickets, action figures, coloring books, pajamas, bed sheets, and maybe even the occasional comic book.  That personal relationship you or I may have with the concept of the Man of Steel means exactly nothing to them so long as it keeps them in that bed sheet money.  They don't, if I may borrow a concept that came up in a Twitter conversation I had with podcaster Peter Rios, "rent him out" to us for our own needs and fictions, no matter how we may perceive the relationship between creation and audience.

Interest does not equal involvement.

You don't like the movie, or this (or some other) version of Superman?  Fine, that's your right.  With a cash cow character like Superman, there's always some new project coming along that may better appeal to your sensibilities.  Heck, in comics alone DC is publishing books featuring at least 4 or 5 separate versions of the guy (each with his own continuity) right now... you've got loads of choices.  If you're still displeased, I suppose you could even write an online screed, create an (admittedly very fun in a sick way) online game, or write 35-40 Facebook posts in a single day and then pay to have some of them promoted by Facebook for maximum in-your-faceness (as an artist in my friend's FB feed did).  I think that's a very stupid thing to do, but it's within your rights to waste time and money that way.

Sooner or later, though, you need to realize that you own exactly no percent of Superman.

You also need to accept that maybe your Superman isn't always going to also be my Superman, and that no one else's own personal Last Son of Krypton is less (or more) valid than yours.  Any feelings to the contrary are just fan entitlement, and don't we put up with enough of that already?

Pretty Sketchy: Mini Marvel Jr.!

Captain Marvel Jr. by Mini-Marvels and G-Man creator Chris Giarrusso!  I picked this up at a signing/sketching event earlier this year at the great Boston comics shop Comicazi.  Chris also did an awesome G-Man sketch for my son, who ended up loving the first G-Man collection that we also picked up that day (I need to get the next volume, come to think of it).

There are reasons why it wasn't called Superman - nine thoughts on Man of Steel (SPOILERS)

I'll keep this general as I can for the first paragraph or so, but beyond that, it's SPOILER country.  Got it?  Good.

Like a lot of people in this country (to the tune of $125 million, according to Box Office Mojo), I saw Man of Steel this weekend.  Unlike a little more than half the critics (according to Rotten Tomatoes) and a bunch of really loud people on the internet, I enjoyed it.  I don't think it was the best superhero movie ever made (that'd be The Incredibles), nor do I think it's the perfect Superman movie (because as much as I like some of the others, I don't think that has been made yet), but it was pretty much everything I wanted it to be: epic, sweeping, well-acted, well-shot & edited, and with Superman foiling something other than real estate-based crime.  There were some stylistic and story choices that I may not have agreed with, and a few scenes that I'm still a little haunted by a few days later, but I think the fact that I'm still thinking about them at all - and that they're causing such discussion online and in the media - is actually a good thing, and that it contributes to the film's overall success.  Like it or hate it, you had a reaction, and that's a win for Zach Snyder, David Goyer, and everyone else involved with bringing this movie to life.

Okay, now for some more specific thoughts.  Here's where it's going to get SPOILERY.  And I'm going to talk about the film's BIG happening first, because let's face it, that's the Kryptonian Flame Dragon in the room.  If you haven't seen the movie yet, you read on at your own risk.

  1. Yes, in the film's climax, Kal-El kills Zod.  Many people have problems with this (Mark Waid, for instance, though I'm sure his story is representative of many others'), and I struggled with this for a while, too, because Superman famously DOES NOT KILL.  But notice my wording back there: I didn't say Superman kills Zod, I say Kal-El kills Zod.  At this point in the story, Clark has only been called Superman by people in the Army, and then only as a description or code name.  It's implied that Lois tries to, but she never gets to finish the sentence.  And our man has only recently learned of and embraced his Kryptonian heritage, and has only gone public to attempt to spare Earth from Zod.  He hasn't even mastered all of his powers yet, only recently learned to fly.  For all intents and purposes, he isn't Superman yet.  He took the only action he saw open to him in order to save lives, a decision made in haste, in the heat of the moment, and without much experience to guide him.  And obviously it pained him.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the sequel, and if we see this as the moment that drives Kal-El to seek a better way and truly become a Superman.

  2. (or maybe 1A)  Continuing on from the above point, Superman doesn't kill?  True, except for those times when he has.  Hell, he's killed Zod twice before - most obviously in the Byrne era, and presumably in the Richard Donner/Richard Lester Superman II, where he throws the depowered general into a bottomless pit (and don't cite Zod being arrested in the Donner cut as your counterargument to that, because that is an unfinished, "coulda been" thought experiment, not a complete film, the equivalent of telling your teacher what your essay would have contained if you had actually handed it in).  And didn't he kill someone at the end of Our Worlds at War, necessitating the black and red "mourning" logo and the therapy sessions to help deal with the guilt?  And it sure seemed like his intent was to kill Darkseid in the finale of Justice League Unlimited (even if it was Luthor who ended up sealing the deal).

    All this is to say that I think such moral absolutism works if you're writing stories for (mostly) 8-year-olds in the 1950s, but situations are more complicated in stories for a (mostly) wider-age-ranged audience in the modern era.  Such a black and white stance is what has made Superman so hard for people nowadays to grasp, given that our world shows time and again that protecting the freedom and safety of others sometimes leads to the spilling of blood, distasteful as it may be.  This is especially true in the movies, where other heroes who famously Do Not Kill still lead to the death of villains (and Batman refusing to save Ra's al Ghul in Batman Begins is exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about here... even if that train did the dirty work, Batman straight up let that guy die).

    Also, in the same situation that Kal-El faced? As much as I wouldn't want to, I'd have probably done the same thing.

  3. What bothered me more than that was the wholesale destruction of Metropolis.  I wasn't even near NYC when September 11th happened, and it still caused me to have some unpleasant flashbacks.  That's still an open wound for a lot of people, so I can't be alone in feeling that.  I suppose the idea was to up the ante on the destruction of New York in The Avengers, but still, I think this could have been dialed back quite a bit.  On the other hand, if you have a bunch of powered Kryptonians throwing each other around a city and only one of them has any regard for life, well, that's probably what the scene would look like.  And a lot of us have been saying for years we wanted a film where Superman finally throws down... hard to deny that we got our wish.

  4. Based on the initial trailers, I was afraid the film would play up Clark's (literal) alienation way too much, and that most of the first half would be Clark Kent, Emo Itinerant Fisherman, but I thought it was handled pretty well.  Yes, most of his childhood was spent apart from (and being misunderstood by) his peers, especially as some of them learned what he could do, but I thought the film did a good job balancing this with the love and support showed to him by his parents, particularly Diane Lane's Martha.  I can't help but wonder, though, how much of that alienation was fostered (however unintentionally) by Kevin Costner's Jonathan and his constant "they'll misunderstand and fear you, son" speeches.  I get that he's trying to protect the kid, but that thinking might have cost a bus full of kids their lives, and it did cost him his.

  5. While on the subject of casting, I don't know if I have a single complaint about any of the film's key players.  Particularly the film's three Clarks - Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry as the younger versions, and Henry Cavill as the one we paid to see.  All three of them did an excellent job portraying the confusion, frustration, occasional anger, and eventual acceptance of the gifts and legacies of Krypton.  Once Cavill strode out into the snow in uniform for the first time, finally understanding his life and origins, I was sold.  This was Superman, even if, as I said, he wasn't really Superman yet.  I'm looking forward to seeing his take on Clark-as-secret-identity in the next film.  Amy Adams was great as Lois - determined, pushy, and at long last smart enough to put everything together LONG before anyone else does.  I'd like to see her get a bit more to do next time (but I always do, because Lois Lane is awesome), but she's off to a good start here. 

    Lawrence Fishburne as Perry White? Yes, definitely, more of this please.  More of the entire Daily Planet crew, in fact.  Let's see some of that Steve Lombard/Clark Kent rivalry, and of course, we need some Olsen in there, be it Jimmy or Jenny.  Russell Crowe is an actor I've never been a big fan of, but I thought he was great as Action Scientist Jor-El, and Ayelet Zurer made the most of the usually thankless role of Lara.  Christopher Meloni turned what could have been one-note military guy Col. Hardy into a character I was rooting for by the end, and Richard Schiff was great in his too-few moments as Dr. Emil Hamilton, and I was more bummed out by their losses near the end than I was by Zod's.  And Michael Shannon as Zod?  Well, it's hard to run around shouting stuff like "SURRENDER THE CODEX, JOR-EL!" and not look silly, but dude plays menacing pretty damn well. I've never been a big fan of Zod in any iteration, and this film doesn't really change that, but Shannon did well just the same.

  6. And since I'm asking, maybe one "Great Caesar's Ghost!"? Please?
  7. Some nice visual work with the color palette throughout the film, with everything looking very washed out at the beginning of the film and growing gradually brighter, particularly as (again) Clark steps out into the snow in uniform, and at the end as he begins his new life in Metropolis.  Color sets the scene in movies so subtly that it's almost subliminal, and I love when it's used so purposefully like it was here.

  8. The Donner/Lester/Salkinds movies have cast a long shadow on Superman since the 80s, often affecting the look & feel of his adventures in various media from additional movies to live-action TV shows, cartoons, and even the comics themselves, so I was happy to finally see a film that wasn't afraid to go its own way in designing the Man of Steel's universe.  There were a lot of elements that harkened back to the past, of course - the Byrne / post-COIE era in particular, what with the desolate Krypton and hovering robots and what not (Kelex FTW!) - and that is to be expected and is appreciated because obviously we want some semblance of the Superman we know and love. 

    After years of slavish adherence to the Christopher Reeve movies (which I love, even 3 and 4), it was refreshing to get something that was as new as it was familiar.  Particularly the score.  As much as I love John Williams's Superman march (I'd argue it might be the strongest piece of film music out of his entire career), Hans Zimmer's music matched and even set the tone of a film like this much better than yet another rehashing of Williams's ever could.  This just wasn't a John Williams type of movie.  "Da-DaDa-Da-Daaaaah, twist that neck..." Yeah, that doesn't work for me.

  9. There were quite a few rumors we'd see a cameo of a certain Amazonian princess or manhunter from Mars in the movie itself or a post-credits scene in order to sow the seeds for an eventual (and long-rumored) Justice League movie, and the dudes behind me at the screening I saw were annoyed that no such thing happened.  I was glad that wasn't there, though.  With the exception of the Nolan Batman movies, DC-related films have been non-starters for a while now.  Rather than try and play the Marvel game and gamble on a shared universe project that DC's movie history shows could very well be doomed before it ever gets off the ground, I was happy to see them focus on just this corner of the universe.  Get this right and then see where things go.  Marvel has always been better at the shared-universe thing, anyway, and a straightforward attempt to get a DC film universe going right out of the starting gate would be seen by audiences as the blatant attempt at copying Marvel's strategy that of course it would be.  You only really get one shot at that sort of thing, bold as it is, and Marvel got there first.  Let any bigger DC franchise grow organically based on audience desire to see it rather than corporate desire to force it.

  10. There was a lot of hand-wringing over the costume - too dark, what's with the silver cuffs and hip accents, no trunks, yadda yadda yadda.  But I liked it.  Like the costume seen in the Smallville Season 11 comics, it proves you can rework the classic look into something that pays homage to the original but still looks up-to-date (and, in keeping with the film's theme, not-of-this-Earth), and in a way that is not, in fact, eye-gougingly awful like it stepped off the holofoil variant cover of the most Image-clone 90s comic book imaginable (in case you can't tell, I hate the New 52 costume, you guys).  It looks good on the screen, it looks good in print, it even looks good in Lego:
    His greatest power is the damage he can do to bare feet.
    If this aspect of the movie made its way from the screen into the comics, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.  At least import this version of the S-shield.  The one going now looks too much like the scratchy Electric Superman thing, and as I've made clear, I need less 90s imagery in my Superman, not more.
Long story short (WAY too late), I enjoyed myself, it made me think, and it has people talking about Superman, and as far as I'm concerned, that makes Man of Steel a success in my mind.  You are, of course, welcome to tell me that I am right or wrong.  Please bear in mind that no discussion at all will only confirm in my mind that I am the most correct person in the history of being correct and that all of my opinions are therefore unimpeachably, according to Hoyle 100% accurate for now and the rest of time. You have been warned.
(BTW, this was post 1300!)

The Adventure People's Astro Knight: An Appreciation (or, Legends of the Short Knight)

Astro Knight was one of my favorite toys as a kid, but he was also an enigma.

There's no question that he was the greatest of the Adventure People (though Clawtron and X-Ray Man were pretty cool, too), but he never really fit in with the rest of the line.  His legs were permanently stuck together, his arms only moved outward in a flying pose (or some sort of space hug, I suppose), and he was a good head shorter than all the other figures.

But that was a lot less noticeable when he was paired with his glider, which was pretty awesome as toy hang gliders go (and sturdier than the later G.I. Joe Falcon and Viper Gliders, if memory serves).

But what was his deal?  Was Astro Knight his name or is that just a job description like the rest of the Adventure People had?  What sort of power set did he have?  The packaging seems to indicate he could survive in space and that he could fly, but if he could fly then why the hang glider?  And what's with the little opening on his helmet above the visor?  I always imagined some sort of laser beam came out of that (sounding like your typical Jonny Quest-style death ray), but again, that's just guess work.  Was he human or alien?  And why so short?  If alien, was he considered short or tall on his homeworld?

I'll never get the answers I'm seeking, since Fisher-Price was great on product design but pretty lousy with the backstory.  But maybe that was an advantage here.  The blank slate meant he could be dropped pretty easily into any setting and with any other like-sized action figure line, which became even more helpful when I started repurposing figures into my DIY Doctor Who toys because I didn't have to come up with some weird scenario in which some short, cosmic-powered guy was showing up to help fight Cobra or something.  And he got a lot of use throughout my action-figure-playing-with period, since like most Fisher-Price toys, he was awesomely permanent.  I'm sure the brick-like nature of his design added to his near-indestructibility (another power?).

And a quick look around the internet shows that I'm not the only one upon whom Astro Knight cast an ironically long shadow, as a few people have attempted to customize their own updated versions (while correcting for poseability and height).

Astro Knight, you brought up a lot more questions than you ever did answer, and I always thought it was weird that a superhero-looking guy would've needed to sit on a phone book to see out of car window (this was long before I had ever heard of Wolverine, remember), but you always held a place of honor in the toy box.

Re-Trailed: Man of Steel

Yes, more Superman talk.  I'm excited, okay?  Anyway, here's the trailer for Man of Steel recast shot-for-shot in Minecraft, combining one of my life's great obsessions with one of my son's (seriously, the kid is a Minecraft fanatic, though I don't see the appeal... and now I know how my parents felt when I'd talk about Doctor Who or Atari games all the time):

And not to be outdone, the folks at The Hub cable network redid the trailer approximately shot-for-shot (as close as they could manage, anyway) using footage from Superman: The Animated Series, but went the extra mile and recruited the original voice cast from that series to dub in the trailer's dialog.  It's a promo for a S:TAS marathon this weekend, and if I still had cable and didn't already own the whole series on DVD, I'd totally watch on the strength of this effort alone:

At long last, flights and tights.

Smallville never got a lot of play in our house when it ran on TV.  It wasn't Erin's particular brand of teen angst (she prefers her high school melodrama to be either based in the real world and/or with a touch supernatural, not sci-fi), and as I used to tell people when they asked why I wasn't a regular viewer, "I need more Superman in my Superman."  I'd watch the occasional episode if there was a particularly good guest star (Christopher Reeve) or some of the bigger "event" stories (ones with the proto-JLA, the Legion, the Justice Society), and the finale, and even though I liked some of those, I still thought the show needed more Superman.  How long can you talk about your destiny before you go try to fulfill it, you know?

Despite all this, the first collection of DC's digital-first Smallville: Season 11 comic called to me from the LCS shelf.  For one thing, it's written by Bryan Q. Miller, whose work I enjoyed on the Steph Brown Batgirl book a few years back.  Second, it very clearly attempts to solve the Superman drought that the series suffered from (IMHO) on TV.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, the in-continuity Superman books are just not doing it for me right now.  What I've read of that Kal-El makes him come off like a sullen, moody, headstrong jerk (even under Grant Morrison's pen), and for my money, that's not Superman (no wonder Lois isn't into him this go-round).  And as I said above, I need more Superman in my Superman.  Ironic, then, that Smallville: Season 11 is giving this to me where the "regular" Superman is not.

I hesitate to call this a more "traditional" Superman, because although a lot of the standard elements are there (the origin, Clark & Lois as a couple, the Daily Planet, villainous Lex, etc.), it is still steeped in the many changes that the show made to the story over the years (new characters like Chloe Sullivan, major changes to existing characters like Green Arrow or J'onn J'onzz, etc.), so there's still a vastly different status quo to get used to, especially if you weren't a regular viewer.  Miller does a good job setting the scene, though, explaining enough for the newbs like me to get by without seeming like it'd all be extraneous recap for the regulars.  Conversely, he is introducing story elements that will seem welcomingly familiar to long-time comics fans who may not have seen the show, but will be new twists to people who watched the show but might not know comics very well (e.g., Ollie & Chloe moving to Star City and trying to put together an international league of heroes who will have a base on the moon).

Also, the costume changes from the Brandon Routh-inspired suit seen (at a distance!) in the TV finale to something a little more up-to-date and, yes, lacking the red trunks.  Though this:
is much easier to take than the busy, squiggly, ugly armored thing Jim Lee gave him over in the New 52 books.  Artist Pere Perez's design does good work here, crafting a design that harkens back to the original but is up-to-date without seeming of a particular time (and reminds me a little of the post-Zero Hour LSH uniforms with the darker color going up the side), and will also be able to be replicated by any other artist who has to draw it down the line.  Also, it's not armor.  Or ugly.  That alone is a huge improvement.

The story itself is good.  We see the formal beginnings of the Superman/Lex rivalry (as opposed to the Clark/Lex "the air is thick with subtext" rivalry from the TV series) as Clark fights a new version of a familiar-to-comics-fans foe (who is given a lot more depth here than I ever felt we saw in the original version) and the seeds are planted for future storylines.  I don't think it breaks much new ground, but I don't know that it has to.  I'm looking for good Superman comics, dammit, ones that will give me exactly what I want while presenting it in a slightly different manner and adding some new ingredients to the recipe overall.  I realize that this is also what the New 52 is trying to do, but like a lot of the DC relaunch efforts, I think a lot of that is change for change's sake, and the end result feels different enough that I prefer to think of it as a different dish altogether.

It took over eleven years, but thanks to Bryan Q. Miller, Pere Perez, and others, Smallville is finally giving me more Superman, and I think the surprise of that is the best part of the whole thing.  You have to appreciate the sort of "value-added service" that level of enjoyment provides.

(And for the record, DC's other digital-first Superman title, Adventures of Superman, is also great and is distinctly more "traditional," but that's another post.)