Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Rock, Black Adam and Captain Marvel

Dwayne Johnson, former wrestler now actor, has been long rumored for a role in a DC Comics movie. In years past, it has been suggested that he would portray Shazam (then called Captain Marvel), his nemesis Black Adam or Green Lantern John Stewart. Johnson, for his part, always made it clear that he wanted to work as these characters, often taking to Twitter or Instagram showing his affection for these characters and a desire to develop them for the silver screen.

Recently, Johnson revealed that he was given a choice by Warner Bros. regarding the Shazam movie in development. He could play the titular character or he could play Black Adam. Johnson said he had some thinking to do. For those of you not entirely familiar with the characters, we’ll go over them quickly and I’ll give my opinion of which character he should choose.

Shazam was created by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker in 1939; the character was meant to be Fawcett Comics’ answer to Superman. Until 2011, when DC’s New 52 reboot dismantled continuity, he was called Captain Marvel. Marvel was even more of a boy scout than Superman was—because he actually was a boy scout. His secret identity was Billy Batson, a twelve year old boy who was given his powers by the wizard Shazam. Batson would transform into Marvel by yelling “SHAZAM,” giving him the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury.

Captain Marvel sold well because he was the epitome of the comics-as-wish-fulfillment concept. Little Billy Batson was a homeless newsboy with no hope, yet he was—through luck, kindness and personal strength—able to achieve great things. With World War II raging and many boys losing their fathers, the message was a hopeful one. Comics at the time were full of characters that had that kind of tone—Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America too were all part of this idea that despite things being bad now, you can turn it all around.

In the early years, Captain Marvel did as many superheroes did—he fought the Axis powers, often foiling the plots of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, he had his own villains as well—Dr. Sivana, Mister Mind, Ibac and Captain Nazi. Black Adam was most connected to the Marvel family—he was Marvel’s ancient and corrupted predecessor, yet only appeared in a single issue in 1945. He would not be heard from again until the 1970s.   

His popularity lead to spinoffs, supplementary series, radio, TV and animated appearances. Eventually, Captain Marvel was outselling Superman so DC Comics sued Fawcett into bankruptcy as well as several other comic companies for their blatant Superman rip-offs. Dozens of these characters are lost to time, and DC purchased all of their licenses. DC owned Captain Marvel and his entire family.

As a character, Captain Marvel is a goody-two-shoes in a way that makes Superman look like The Punisher. Since he’s a kid in a man’s body, Captain Marvel often came off naïve and idealistic. Over the years he added to his family—Captain Marvel, Jr. (who Elvis Presley was a big fan of; DC Comics in turn made Captain Marvel, Jr. an Elvis fan), Mary Marvel and Tawky Tawny. There were other characters like Fat Marvel, Tall Marvel, Hillbilly Marvel and Uncle Marvel but it’s best we just pretend that never happened.

With two very similar archetypes in play, Superman and Captain Marvel have repeatedly fought. In general, Captain Marvel usually looks up to Superman, but in several mitigating circumstances (sales boosts needed) they fought each other brutally. Each of these encounters (most notably in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come) were incredibly exciting. Their power levels are roughly the same, but Captain Marvel has the advantage—he’s made of magic and Superman is very vulnerable to magic.

More recently, however, Captain Marvel has not exactly maintained his popularity. As time went on, Captain Marvel was seen as corny, and in the modern age of comics—ones that demand a more serious approach—having a little boy turn into an adult and tell everyone to eat their vegetables didn’t wow audiences anymore. Over the last twenty years in particular, many creators including Jerry Ordway, Peter J. Tomasi and Geoff Johns have all tried their hand at modernizing the character, yet none of the takes have really worked. Captain Marvel has had over a half dozen different titles cancelled over the years. What made Captain Marvel fun was its goofy nature—both as a character and as a series, and while Black Adam and Captain Nazi graduated into more adult themed stories, Captain Marvel does not exactly work in the same way. That’s not to say he doesn’t work as a character, it’s just that no one has come along that’s been able to write Captain Marvel with a modern take that’s able to merge what’s popular now with the whimsy that made him popular in the first place.

When DC Comics rebooted their line with the New 52 in 2011, Captain Marvel was rebranded as Shazam. This was done for a variety of reasons:
1-Presumed revitalization
2-Marvel Comics was suing them despite not really having a case
3-Marvel also had a character called Captain Marvel
4-Supposedly more people recognized him as Shazam anyway (take this was a grain of salt)

Warner Bros.’ desire to place him on film now is a major risk considering the character’s fluctuating popularity and explains why they want Johnson as bad as they do to help build up the profile of Captain Marvel…I mean, Shazam.

Were Johnson to choose to play Captain Marvel/Shazam, it would be a financial decision more than anything. Shazam is the protagonist, and therefore will have a much larger catalog of merchandise attached to him once the movie is released. It’s impossible to say what changes to the character and his personality will be made when adapted to film, though making him more of a brooding anti-hero is not the way to go, as Man of Steel taught us. Dark doesn’t work with everyone, especially when you have a character like Black Adam.

Black Adam (also known as Teth-Adam) is Shazam’s reflection in broken glass. He was the son of pharaoh Ramesses II and imbued with the Wizard’s powers due to his bravery and kindness. He protected his people—in the fictional country of Kahndaq—for generations before being seduced and led astray by the evil priestess Blaze which led to the murder of his wife and children.

Black Adam is different from other archenemies like Joker or Lex Luthor. Joker is merely insane, and Lex Luthor believes that having a savior in Superman makes regular humans weak and lazy, Black Adam in turn seeks order and his own strange definitions of justice and redemption (he once killed two million people in Bialya for those specific reasons) and his status as a former good guy make him more complex. While often made to seem as a dictator similar to Gaddafi by giving Black Adam good intentions makes him begrudgingly likable. 

Modern incarnations (specifically in the series 52, The Dark Age and JSA) have focused more on Black Adam’s old school militancy and of Draconian sense of justice. He again took control of Kahndaq and made it prosperous. He rescued a victim of human trafficking named Isis, as well as her brother Amon. He imbues them with his powers, making Amon into Osiris. Adam and Isis eventually wed. He asks Captain Marvel to be his best man—they are technically all family—and for a while things are good until Isis and Osiris are eventually killed, Kahndaq is nearly destroyed, and leads again to Black Adam losing his mind.  

This would be the role for Johnson to choose. As a wrestler, he was always more fun as a bad guy, and in truth, playing the bad guy is always more fun. Financially, there is likely less merchandising and arguably less exposure to be had, but from an artistic perspective, it’s impossible not to find the contradictory traits of Black Adam appealing. In one moment, you have Black Adam building reservoirs of water for his people and the next you have him committing a genocide in the name of his wife and nephew. They say that a hero is only as good as his villain, and for a time there were ongoing Black Adam miniseries and appearances while Captain Marvel/Shazam was relegated to sporadic cameos in various Justice League titles. Black Adam is the way to go.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

Diversity in Comics

In the last few days, Marvel announced two major shifts in their universe. Thor is now a woman; Steve Rogers—Captain America—has be de-powered and replaced by Sam Wilson, an African American. These two acts are the latest in a recent trend in the comics industry to add more diversity to their many lines. The results have been mixed and we’ll explore these attempts here.

So Thor is now a woman and Captain America is black. There is nothing inherently right or wrong about either decision. On a story level, shakeups like these—replacing an established hero with someone else—is nothing new in comics. In-world, Cap’s case is more than understandable. Sam Wilson is Cap’s best friend and has years of superheroing experience as The Falcon. Marvel is going for something meaningful with this: Captain America—an iconic representative of the United States in comics and in the real world is now black. Therein, yes, it sounds special and momentous. It isn’t, however. Not really, anyway. Marvel wants to portray an ethnically diverse universe, and that’s fine. All that takes is time. Falcon is a long-lived well established character whose popularity has grown larger thanks to his appearance in Captain America 2. While he doesn’t have name recognition the way Cap does, the best way (read: the honest way) would be to raise the profile of the character by featuring him in the Avengers title or giving him his own mini or on-going series. No, it’s not flashy and quick but at least it has creative integrity.

Meanwhile, the monolithic Thor has also been de-powered and to be replaced by a new character, a female. (Thor is a name, not a title so I’m confused why she’s also called Thor now but that’s beside the point.) In a number of ways, this makes sense. Second to Wonder Woman, there are no characters besides Thor with a stranger or more confusing continuity. Sometimes it is just best to wipe the slate clean. Seeing a female Thor called Thor is an interesting concept. She isn’t Lady Thor: Mistress of Thunder, but simply Thor: God of Thunder. There is something special in that.

Again, this could be momentous. Two of the biggest names in the Avengers are being replaced to add more diversity. As stories, they very well could be compelling.

The only problem is the condescension and laziness inherent in this move.

Comics are an Ouroboros, cycling over and over again with no change and no ending. Invariably, the dead always rise to reclaim their former titles like toys being placed back in the box, and will be replaced again once sales lag a bit. There is nothing special about these changes to Thor or Captain America because it’s extremely temporary. Sam Wilson is actually the seventh person to wield the shield; Thor writer Jason Aaron has already said that he’s replaced the common Thor for “a little while.” This is a shortcut to success and an insult to fans’ intelligence. Sam Wilson will be Falcon again within two years; this new Thor will be de-powered or relegated to another section of the Marvel universe within the same time frame.

Both Marvel and DC want to be lauded for the progressive ideas and diverse casts, but neither are willing to take the slow road to get there. Rather than introducing a character—female or minority or whatever—and build them into something iconic, they’ll stamp something new onto an existing entity and commend themselves for such racial sensitivity.

Marvel has succeeded and failed in this before. Some of their major successes are in their X-Men line. The X-Men were meant to be a statement on race in America (though more recently that has understandably shifted to being a statement on homosexuality in America). The X-Men introduced Kitty Pryde in the early 1980s; she’s Jewish, though that was only one facet of the character. In more recent years, the X-Man Northstar married his longtime love, Kyle Jinadu; they were a gay and interracial couple. These were carefully orchestrated and original characters that were allowed to grow organically overtime. Their powers were their gimmicks, not their religion or sexual preference. Of course there was that awkward moment last year when mutant activist Havoc went on TV and decried a Senator for using the “M-word.” Thematically, I appreciate that, though the moment was a tad over-played.

Also in the X-Men lineup are Magneto and Charles Xavier. Magneto was a concentration camp survivor and Xavier was a paraplegic; two groups not often explored or represented in comics. Magneto now has his own title; Xavier has died and returned on numerous occasions and is currently dead. 

Now, things are about to get a little complicated. In Marvel there’s the primary universe (dubbed 616) and the “Ultimate” universe that was launched in 2000. The Ultimate line was in a different parallel reality and featured a then-modern rendition of all of Marvel’s characters. A few years ago, the Ultimate universe’s Spider-man was killed. Through coincidence and technobabble, a new Spider-man rose. Miles Morales who was black and Puerto Rican. It felt a little forced—not only did he have to be a minority but he had to be bi-racial from two minority groups—but he was fairly well written and actualized and over time became a compelling character in his own right. Then, the backstory came in. Despite his parents being educated and wealthy, apparently both his father and his uncle were former career criminals which somehow led to Miles getting his powers, and led to their deaths. 
Kamala Khan, the newest Ms. Marvel (not to be confused with the Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, X-Men’s Ms. Marvel or DC Comics’ Captain Marvel). She’s a Pakistani-American and a practicing Muslim, and was created by G. Willow Wilson (not to be confused with G. Gordon Liddy or G. Gordon Godfrey) who herself is a practicing Muslim. Kamala deals with life as a teen and a Muslim but keeps from getting preachy. The title itself is loads of fun and is cleverly written.

The only problem is the fact that she’s called Ms. Marvel. Rather than build the character up in her own right, Marvel took a quick fix and had her inherit another’s name—one of their few major female players—because Kamala’s hero is Carol Danvers. While this was a contrivance, Kamala doesn’t actually replace Carol Danvers who is still around and has her own adventures. It’s just confusing now that there are two of them. At the same time, giving Kamala the title forces her into a situation within the fandom where she can constantly be (and is) compared to Danvers, and undermines the ability of Kamala to stand on her own or be entirely accepted.   

At DC, Greg Rucka re-introduced Batwoman almost a decade ago, who had been missing from comics for roughly thirty years. Kate Kane was an out and proud Jewish lesbian. She lost her commission at West Point because of her sexual preferences, though that wasn’t part of her thinking in becoming a superhero. It was merely a character point (and a way to explain her combat expertise). Now, Kate Kane is a different Batwoman than the original Batwoman named Kathy Kane (oh, comics!) but, again, we’re given confusing origins and murky identities for the sake of headlines:

Ms. Marvel is a Muslim! Batwoman is gay!

DC’s own victories and losses are also as complicated. In 1972, DC added John Stewart to the Green Lantern corps; the first African American green lantern, one of the first African American superheroes to not have “black” or some derivation of that in his name, and the first to not be reduced to common stereotypes. He was an architect and former Marine, and in the early days his viewpoint as an African American was explored through a 70s lens. It still comes up from time to time, when it’s meaningful or relevant. Stewart grew in popularity over the years, appearing in the Justice League Animated Series, a handful of video games and currently leads his own title.

Along the way there were some missteps with African American characters.

I don't know, stupid, maybe because your armor is black for stealth purposes?

Oh, Geoff.

In the mid-90s, Cassandra Cain was introduced to the Batman-family. She was of mixed Asian descent, and was very popular. She became Batgirl for a while—which, like Thor and Captain America—didn’t stick. Fans were not pleased. In the New 52, the DC Comics reboot of their entire line, Cassandra was lost in the mix and hasn’t been heard from since before 2011. More recently, a new character called Batwing was introduced. Both were black—the first African, the second (and current) is African-American.

A few wins in their favor started in the late 90s with a series called The Authority which featured an eponymous team with members Midnighter and Apollo who were gay lovers. They were not stereotyped or exaggerated. They were emotionally stable people (rare for superheroes) and eventually adopted a daughter. Other gay characters were also introduced—Obsidian, Scandal Savage and Knockout. Gail Simone recently introduced DC’s first minority transgendered bi-sexual character in Yeoh (they sure do like piling on); Scott Snyder introduced the gay Cullen Row (though he’s had little to do); gay writer Marc Andreyko lauded Manhunter series featured several gay and lesbian characters; a new Teen Titan member named Bunker is an openly gay and widely accepted character (despite inconsistent writing from Scott Lobdell).  

Here, again, is where things get a little complex. As mentioned before, DC rebooted their line and dubbed it the New 52, a gimmick to create a jumping on point for new readers and boost sales. Some changes were controversial, some were pretty cool.

Starfire was turned from a warrior queen to a barely clothed nymph/warrior queen, Catwoman was relegated to little more than Batman’s paramour. Barbara Gordon who was crippled by the Joker suddenly walks again. So does Niles Caulder from Doom Patrol, so there are currently no major disabled characters in the Big Two anymore.

Elsewhere, Alan Scott was turned gay—a reference to his son Obsidian who no longer exists apparently. Cyborg, an African American superhero, was now made a founding member of the Justice League.

Attempts have been made to create original characters. Recently, Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz were added to the Green Lantern corps. This doesn’t really fall under the umbrella of what’s going on with Thor or Cap considering the corps are a large team of space-cops and already have five or six human characters of different backgrounds. The problem becomes how these characters were introduced.

Baz started out pretty well. The first issue he appeared began with a silent breakdown. As a boy, he watches the 9/11 terror attacks on television. He’s then the target of phobic school bullies, and as an adult, treated suspiciously because he’s a Muslim. Great! Interesting! Contemporary! Let’s see where this goes. Turns out, he’s not a terrorist but he is a career criminal and a noted car thief. Of course. Naturally. His sister works for the State Department, and we’re meant to take that as a gift, as if to say “See, we don’t believe all Muslims are terrorists!” However, Baz’s sister isn’t an important character. Baz is. And yes, he’s not a terrorist, but he is a criminal.

Jessica Cruz was introduced just a few months ago. When the ring finds her, she is shown to be a smart, capable and kick-ass lady. So, good on us. 

Helena Bertinelli (the former Huntress) had been absent since the New 52 began in September of 2011. She debuted again a few months ago as an African American character. So was Wally West. And here’s where things get more controversial.

DC didn’t go out looking for headlines in changing Helena’s race. It was treated quietly and with dignity, and felt strangely correct—like a matter of course. It’s like Beverly Katz in Hannibal being portrayed by Hettienne Park, a Korean. No noise was made by anybody, largely because it was done respectfully. You normally don’t see a Korean with the last name of Katz, and you don’t normally see a black person with the name of Bertinelli. Bi-racial children are simply of normal course and isn’t something to make a big deal out of.

But then there’s Wally West. 
Of course, sucks is in slang.

From 1986-2008, Wally West was the Flash. A freckle-faced ginger reminiscent of Jimmy Olsen or Archie Andrews if either had a backbone. The character was created in 1959 as Kid Flash, sidekick to Barry Allen’s Flash. After Barry’s death in 1986, Wally fulfilled the promise that legacy characters almost never do. He became the mentor. He replaced the old guy. For an entire generation reading the comics or watching the animated series—myself included—Wally West was our Flash. In the late 90s he married long-time girlfriend Linda Park (a Korean-American) and they had two kids—Barry and Iris. He was one of the few characters in comics to actually age and grow up (the only others that come to mind are Dick Grayson, Peter Parker and Donna Troy).

When DC launched the New 52, Wally was written out of continuity and Barry returned to the mantle. Once a dial tone bore, Barry suddenly had Wally’s humor and some of his tics; he was also given a number of Wally’s powers. Wally, himself, among fans, bloggers and comic-con attendees would haunt DC Comics higher-ups like Geoff Johns, Dan DiDio and Bob Harras with chants of “Where’s Wally?”

Well, Wally came back a few months ago as an African American street kid, tagging buildings in graffiti, dropping consonants and talking in slang as if to imbue him with some sort of urban sincerity, but is actually as contemporary as The Warriors and as tiringly demeaning as Uncle Ruckus. You see, like Miles Morales, Wally West must have some connection to criminal gang culture due to their race. They simply couldn’t be treated as any regular characters. In an attempt to make them more gritty or realistic or whatever keyword Marvel or DC like to throw around to make more sales. The point, maybe is to portray these characters as something youths—minority or not—could identify with. Rather than set an example, in both cases, the point was to jump up and down and scream “Look, look we have black characters and they’re really black!” but that isn’t representative. It’s condescending, hacky and shows both the creative bankruptcy and how out of touch these companies are. Progress isn’t depicting more black criminals, but by having more characters who are treated and act like regular people.

I think had DC handled Wally differently, the backlash from fans and special interest groups would not have been so severe. If Helena’s change had been met with a semi-annoyed shrug but a nod of understanding, Wally’s was met with a deep, rancid bile. While we do live nowadays in a knee-jerk society, prone to outrage just to feel important, I kinda understand this one. Critics have dubbed the change offensive and unnecessary (apparently black people don’t need a black Flash to like the character!). Mostly, they ask the question: If you wanted to create a Flash that was black why not just make a new character?

Because it’s supposed to look like retroactive progressivism. Instead, it’s obsequious pandering to an audience you might lose by trying too hard to make them stay.    


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Moments You Find in Frank Miller Stories, Volume 1

1--A sleazy anti-hero talking to a femme-fatale.
FF: "You could really use a shower."
Sleazy anti-hero turns to her, his face half-covered in darkness.
SA-H: "Yeah. A shower of bullets."

2--Superhero: "The rain falls on my shoulders like missiles of guilt on the building of my conscience."

3--Ex-Con: "There's BLOOD on me. Not all of it's MINE. Some of it's HIS. Enough to make me smile."

4--"Seeing the fire and inhaling the smoke of what used to be the Senator's empire now just a crumbling waste like the dreams of our parents watching what we've become is as close to heaven as I know I'll ever get."


6--"I go down HARD. There's blood in my throat and bits of molar. The CITY is starting to lose focus like it was being reflected in the black water that it's built on. I could die here, Christ knows I deserve it, but then I think about Suzy at home that she's the only good thing I've ever done and she shouldn't haveta live the way she does and that makes me just crazy enough to get up. I spit more blood than spit. 'That it, sissy?'"

7--Young Police Captain: "You can't do things like this. Justice isn't cracking a sap against some skel's head! Due process! Search and seizure! Warrants! Are these foreign concepts?"
Grizzled Detective: "Guess it ain't the good ol' days anymore."
Young Police Captain: "This isn't your world anymore, old man."
Grizzled Detective, pointing: "You Ivy League politicians with your greased hair and your bold ties. You have no idea how the world is. Just leave it to real men to solve all the problems."

8--World Weary Person: "Noir City. Steel and grit and crime. You're my habit, my mistress, my mother, my sister, my one true love. I breathe for you, I'll die for you."

9--Hard Boiled Individual: "For a second I hear the angels singing but it's just the sound of his bones breaking."

10--Barely legal prostitute and her cop boyfriend 35 years older than her.
Cop, (soliloquy): "She's young enough to be my daughter but I still keep coming here. The place reeks of booze. I don't know which one of us it is. She's like everything else in my life. Wrong. Her red lips break a smile. The kinda smile that makes a guy like me wonder what he did to deserve somethin' so perfect. I try not to think about how many times she's flashed that smile today or that she's probably just faking it to make an old man like me feel like I was worth it. I taste her and decide not to think that by midnight we'll both be dead. Aww hell, it might be love."

11--Dominatrix dealing with a client. He's a middle-management type with glasses, a short-sleeved dress shirt and tie. Probably a mustache also. 
Dominatrix, (soliloquy): Melvin here is a cuck that likes to TALK. He likes to tell me about his fat wife stepping out with the BLACK neighbor or his boss. I don't like Melvin like this. I like Melvin when he's TIED UP with his little pud hanging out. I like Melvin when I'm BEATING him the way life has. Oh, Melvin, you loser."

If you liked this you can also read my article Moments You Find in James Ellroy Stories Post 1990.
Note: The link just takes you back here. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Film Review: Man of Steel

And after six years, he rose again.
I was surprised by the immediacy of the backlash this movie received. The last time we had a Superman movie, it seemed it if movie goers were mostly positive in their reviews, only to sudden change their minds later on when it became cool to bash Superman Returns. This film, however, has received an extremely polarized reaction. Of course, I understand many of these complaints, and some of these changes weren't handled perfectly, but Man of Steel is an excellent comic book film despite its sometimes heady flaws.

This review is going to be structured differently than the usual ones, so bear with me, because I'm trying something new. However, as always, there are spoilers.

We'll start with the controversies.

1. Superman the thief: After saving the oil rig, Clark washes up on shore and steals clothes that are drying outside. People find this break of morality to be too much for them. Obviously he wasn't stealing from rich people. It was a ramshackle house, the people were working class. Fans complain that Superman isn't a badass or he's too squeaky clean. Suddenly he steals some clothes and now he's Hitler.

2. Jor-El dies well before Lara: Many people have the image in their minds of the original death of the El family on Krypton, watching their son's rocket fly into the distance, bracing each other as the world around them shits itself to death. The Man of Steel version is less sentimental and a bit of a plot contrivance, something that was done largely to create more conflict between Clark and Zod. A positive from it is that it's an early indication that what we'll be watching is going to be different from what we should expect in a Superman movie.

3. Lois knows that Superman is Clark Kent: This was a brilliant move. When Superman finally revealed his identity to Lois in the comics, the community at large basically said, "Well it only took her forty years." The fact is that Lois is supposed to be this great reporter, and she couldn't tell Clark Kent was Superman. It was always an inconsistency that undermined what we're told about Lois. Here, she figures it out quickly and by the movie's last scene decides to keep the secret with him. There is no waiting. It's something I wish the New 52 had done because it made Lois look incredibly competent and opens up new conflict for them to face in the sequel.

4. Pa Kent wants kids to die: This caught everyone since the trailer first premiered. Clark saves a bus full of children. Pa gets mad at him. Clark says, "What was I supposed to do? Let them die?" Pa replies, "Maybe." Admittedly, yes, this is far and away from the man we knew Pa Kent to be, but I loved the scene. Pa Kent wasn't acting like the usual Pa Kent, he was acting like any father who wants to protect their kid. It may not have been Pa Kent, but it was certainly more human.
5. Superman kills Zod: Due to Superman's steady moral compass, killing is something that he's said he'd never do. It's a cornerstone of his character, one of the things that even non-fans know about, so when he snaps Zod's neck like Lennie with a rabbit, many fans were disturbed, claiming it to be a total betrayal of the character and a spit in the face to his fanbase and to the character's history. The problem is that Superman has killed before. He killed the plot device Doomsday before keeling over and dying himself. More importantly, in 1988, in Superman 22 written by John Byrne (considered to be one of the definitive Superman writers), Superman uses green Kryptonite to kill Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora for committing a genocide. It's a moment where Superman doubted himself, and his regret over executing these mass murderers was something that carried over into every Superman story for the next year.

I had no problem with Superman killing Zod because of this. His desperate scream after it was over was telling: not only was he mourning the death of the last connection he had to his people, but he was forced to betray the principles Pa brought him up with. It's a significant moment because that's where he chooses to be a human being rather than a Kryptonian, but in choosing he also ends up sacrificing some of that humanity, and acting like the only Kryptonian he actually knows: Zod. It's a subtle bit of sad irony at work.

6. Jor-El can fight: Jor-El kicked Zod's ass a little despite the fact he's a scientist and we learn that on Krypton people are bred for specific social classes and sects. I don't mind Jor-El still being able to fight because for a couple of reasons. First, there's no one to say you can't learn to fight just because you're a scientist. Secondly, and please bear with me as I indulge myself, if you go back to Superman creator Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, in naming Kal-El, the addition of "El" is a nod to Judaism where it is used as a name for God. Quite fitting for Superman. If you follow that Jewish trend to Israel you'll see that military service there is mandatory once you turn eighteen. So, maybe that's the explanation, a kind of thematic link, that Krypton has a same policy. Or maybe I'm over-thinking it. 

Moving on, Michael Shannon's General Exposition Zod stinks. This isn't just a knee jerk reaction because I grew up with Terance Stamp's perfect version of the character (and, honestly, the Reeve movies aren't that good anyway) but Man of Steel's Zod is a single dimensional hammy villain that only gives expository speeches or yells. Often, both at the same time. There isn't a sense of class or brilliance that the character usually has. He comes off as a cliche rather than a viable threat, whereas Faora, his second, either should have been the true villain in the movie or the model for what Zod should have been. She is calm and controlled, safe in the fact that her race is the superior one, and everything else is just an obstacle. She is a true-believer but doesn't need everyone to know. Those are the scary ones. Zod is a raving lunatic like Charles Manson. It's dull.

Man of Steel lacks structure. It often jumps around very suddenly to the point of being jarring--think Zod and Superman meeting in that psychic projection which suddenly has an explosion then--ahh, holy shit, ahh, violence, BAM BAM, sweet character scene, set-up scene, chara--oh no, it was a trick, 9/11 9/11, ahh, buildings--wait Perry White has an earring, what the hell is that?--YELLING YELLING (we heard you, dickhead), exposition exposition EXPOSITION, BOOM, SNAP, end. It's hard to say whose fault it is, whether it's in Goyer's script or it's director Zack Snyder who is known more for spectacle than for story. It's ironic that from the most positive to the most negative reviews all agree on one thing: the story of Clark Kent, the man, is much more interesting than the Superman. That isn't to say that the movie needed more goddamn origin work, but that we really were exploring the difficulties that Clark goes through very well. Superman is difficult to write because he's hard to identify with. By focusing on his inability to control his powers, adding angst because he doesn't fit in, the sense of isolation that adopted kids--and all people, really--end up feeling was the highlight of the film and a perfect lens to view his character. You could have easily cut down some of the action scenes or re-edited them to insert some more depth because the job being done to the character was excellent. But then, some things had to be explained in gruesome detail or something needed to be blown up. As much as character development should drive a story, you still need a story to glue it all together.

When you have a movie that's primarily an action experience, it would probably make the film look better if everything wasn't filtered in gray, making everything look bloodless, save for the extreme amount of lens flares--all of which were used to hide the fact that the film's budget couldn't match its ambition. Maybe then it's time reevaluate your position and instead focus on making the story the real draw: story should never supplement the action, action is supposed to supplement the story. You shouldn't put an exclamation point at the end of every word in a sentence. That said, the action itself is beautifully choreographed (outside of the occasional shakey-cam) if not always brilliantly rendered.

Now is as good a time as any to analyze Zack Snyder's role in Man of Steel. He's not particularly talented. He's never made a particularly good movie--his 4 hour cut of Watchmen is...okay, but as much as his affection for the comic was apparent on the screen, it never really felt like he understood the source material--while his other films 300, Sucker Punch and Dawn of the Dead emphasized style and movement over a serviceable plot with dynamic characters. Snyder is the type of love-or-hate director, so just by having him involved in this movie some people will automatically go in looking to hate it. He does indeed rein in his more obnoxious ticks--slow motion, fast motion, gore for no reason--likely under orders from Warner Bros. or Christopher Nolan; the action in Man of Steel (when the budget was on his side) is capable and exciting. If the film had a better budget he could have done an even better job as far as the look of the film goes.

Snyder has said that he wants to be the one to make Justice League. He's a DC guy the way Joss Whedon is a Marvel guy, which is certainly a good thing; he was slated to direct a Marvel movie when he vacated the position to take control of Superman. He said this in an interview recently:

“It’s Superman. If you get it right he’s kinda transcendent. The Superman shield is the second most recognisable symbol on planet Earth other than the Christian cross.”

“If you get it right, that’s the question you’ll be asking everyone else. That should be the question you’re asking Iron Man and Thor. How is it that you feel you can be making a superhero movie in a world where Superman and Batman exist?”

“They truly are purer archetypes…They’re literally Biblical. If you get the DC characters right, they can be important, they can be about us. It’s not just a romp [as with Marvel]. That’s the fun, for me, of working on this movie. We got that it was important. We weren’t apologising for Superman, which I feel has happened in the past. It’s Superman, for God’s sake. He’s a thing to be celebrated.”

Snyder won some points with me on this. He knows what he's talking about and he did set out to make a more contemplative movie (as DC's movies and comics tend to be), and while that goal was in certain places accomplished, other ideas never reached a full satisfying conclusion, most notably the reaction to Superman's killing of Zod. While the scream was evocative there didn't seem to be a long lasting impact on the character. We see him in the next scene quipping with a General.

By and large the film succeeds however, particularly in capturing the early Superman/Lois dynamic. They're cute together, almost playful but we're never really given an indication as to why they're attracted to each other because they don't really have all that many scenes together; Lois for her part doesn't have all that much to do in the story anyway.

Also, why use the Genesis Device World Engine to make Earth into Krypton. Here you have the powers of a god. Why make things unnecassarily hard on yourselves?


1-As I said, killing Zod was controversial but the right course of action. After the death we could see the world reacting not only to Superman but to his public execution. We see fear and paranoia, etc. It would also help explain the spy satellite. As a proper epilogue, we should see Clark sitting at Pa Kent's grave trying to work out this mix of emotions he's felt, wondering if he should use his powers, if he deserves this gift because of the murder. He should be seen doubting like in the image below. It's only when Lois or Ma come up to him and put things in perspective does he understand that he is meant to show humanity the way and he wants to, but he realizes he needs to be as worthy of humanity as they are of him.

2-Better writing for Zod. Rather than have Jor-El spoil Zod's role as a bad guy, have Zod's group befriend Kal-El, show him what Krypton used to be. Make Zod a kind of father figure to Kal before the eventual falling out and fight. Betrayal is bad enough but when it's someone who has cared for you, someone who represents the last vestige of your identity, it makes for a better audience reaction, a more emotional conflict, and a better story. It's as Lord Byron said, "There's not a joy the world can give like that it takes away."

3-Instead of having General Zilch, make him General Sam Lane, Lois' father. He's always hated Superman, and by using him here it would make more sense that Lois has all this military access and can create more conflict when he sees her attraction to Superman and when Zod wants her beamed up to the mothership with him.

When Supes took a life, as penance he exposed himself to a minor to yellow Kryptonite, which made him lose his powers for good.

4-More references to DC characters: I really don't know if this was a fault with the movie or with the studio, but it's a problem anyway. While it was nice to reference Wayne Industries, LexCorp, Supergirl (the one empty pod on the arctic ship), and Booster Gold (Blaze Comics Shop), there was a perfect opportunity to have Hal Jordan as one of the fighter pilots. This would answer whether or not (hopefully not) Ryan Reynolds is returning to the role, and adds a beloved character as an easter egg. When Superman was learning to fly, we could have seen Paradise Island, with Wonder Woman looking up to the sky and seeing him, only to be called to by someone off-screen.

5-Have the computer program on Zod's ship be called "Brainiac."

6-Clark should have, in his travels, been an independent reporter like he was in Mark Waid's Birthright, it would have made more sense the he was able to get a job with the Daily Planet that way.

7- While many have complained about the death of Pa Kent, I understood it. He didn't want Clark to use his abilities and reveal himself to so many strangers, I would have made an alteration. Rather than have Pa go back out there and die trying to save his idiot dog who got killed anyway, it should have been a live person. I have a theory that the reason it was meant to be a child, but the studio didn't want to do that because, you know, kids will be watching this movie and parents upon hearing that a kid was killed in a Superman movie, wouldn't take their kids to see it. So, just make it a person. Doesn't have to be a kid.

8-We learn in such definitive Superman stories as Birthright and All Star Superman that part of why Superman has a respect for all life is that he does see the particles of creation, to the point where he sees how everything is connected, and that each living thing has an aura, all different indescribable colors. It's a nice character moment where we see how important all life is to him.

"Welcome to Urrf."
9-Stronger focus on the supporting cast. One of the issues that the film suffers from is its dead on arrival supporting cast. Unfortunately, despite boasting a small but intimate group of friends in the comics, Man of Steel decides to make Clark a loner. Now, this does make he film work on an important level, focusing on the outcast concept, but everyone outside of Clark is essentially a glorified extra. Childhood friends like Lana Lang and Pete Ross are given the slightest reference (poor Pete was a senator then Vice President in the comics and a product placement IHOP greeter in the movie); Perry White is equivalent to Jim Gordon in the way that he's too good a reporter not to know that Clark is Superman but keeps it quiet for the sake of all; Amy Adams is a excellent and intrepid Lois Lane but is not given the room to be more than a love interest; Goyer and Snyder go through the trouble of pulling a gender-bender in Jimmy/Jenny Olsen only for the character to be unimportant.

While having all these people around Clark would negate the excellent sense of isolation Clark feels, there's no reason that the Daily Planet staff couldn't have been developed more on their own working together covering Superman's first appearances (rather than just launch Superman into the forefront in a multi-city leveling fiasco) and together figuring out how to handle the fact that aliens ow walk among us. They're in the position to provide the single largest piece of news in human history but the weight of that isn't there.  

I know it looks like I'm shitting on this movie despite saying I enjoyed it, but I really did. While it does need to thank Star Trek, Star Wars, Mass Effect, War of the Worlds and Independence Day for quite some of its ideas or designs, this movie was unlike any Superman movie before it just for the fact that it was able (willing?) to embrace a sci-fi style that's already built into the character.

Khalid Zod Mohammed
A new angle that the film well achieves is the grit that DC Comics is known for. This isn't a particularly happy movie, a rare occurrence with Superman. The socially relevant post-9/11 feel that was injected into aspects of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises returns here in the form of Jor-El mentioning the fall of Krypton was its desire to expand too far outward and its using up of natural resources; the military is using satellites and drones to spy and kill; white collar people running for their lives as skyscrapers crumble and an extreme amount of dust and debris escape the wreckage. The point of the bleakness is for Superman to have a greater challenge, and a harder journey to bring humanity into the light with him.

Superman's powers are given a bit of a needed overhaul. He's unaccustomed to his powers in this movie which causes him issues, his flight is once again based on the lighter gravity on earth, his abilities are due not only to the sun but the particular nutrients and particles found on earth. Plus he's not nearly as strong or invulnerable (the high caliber bullets from a helicopter hurt him) as he used to be. Freeze breath is apparently gone (thank you) and his heat vision is not only more vicious but actually hurts Superman and other Kryptonians to use. It's the little things like that that add a sense of reality to an unreal scenario.

One of the best decisions made in the movie, besides showing us Superman's new physical and emotional vulnerabilities, was the decision to show us Clark's cleverness and intelligence. Too often we've heard from non-fans that Superman is just a powerful idiot, an idea made popular in Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Dark Knight Strikes Again and unfortunately used also by some writers in the 90s and early part of the decade. All Star Superman, Grant Morrison's Action Comics, John Byrne's Superman, and Mark Waid's Birthright have all done much in undoing the damage Miller did to the character in making him a rube, and in Man of Steel Superman's biggest victories are achieved by using his intelligence (coming up with the Phantom drive bomb and damaging Zod's helmet when he saw he couldn't best him in a straight fight) and by being able to engender and earn the trust of the American military, which, wonderfully, has not been entirely earned by film's end while "I'm from Kansas, I'm as American as it gets" is a great line because it hearkens back to the premise of Truth, Justice, and the American Way aspect of the character that has been effectively removed from Superman in recent years in order to make Superman into a citizen of the world superhero (ugh).

My favorite addition to Superman in Man of Steel (that isn't a plot point) is the symbolism--placed with a hammer rather than a scalpel--relates back to the earlier mention of "El" meaning God, which, Clark is a Christ-like figure, and that his story is meant to be, in some place more than others, analogous to Christ's. This is not exactly most people's favorite interpretation of who Superman is meant to be, though this sort of thing has cropped up in a few comics, as well as a number of non-fiction books and papers, and even referenced in Superman Returns.

Man of Steel takes a more direct approach in showcasing this Superman-Christ connection. We first see it after Superman fails to fly the first time. He finds his footing again and before he tries again we see Superman pause and concentrate. His head gets turned upward and he closes his eyes meditatively (and rather Biblically) before exploding off the ground--the first man to fly, Superman's first miracle.

After, Zod demands humanity to turn Kal-El over to him. Suffering a bit of a crisis, he turns to the church--the Kents are Methodists--and asks the local priest for some advice. During their conversation, we not only see morning light form a halo around Kal-El's head, but as the camera switches angles we see that he is surrounded by bright church glass depicting different stories of Christ's journey and his miracles. Later, as he heads to the military base to turn himself in, the soldiers and MPs all crowd and look up to see Superman levitating in the air almost exactly as in the famous painting of Jesus Christ. While in space, he strikes an exhausted pose clearly channeling the crucifixion (Superman Returns had a similar shot), and depending on you look at, this is either the most subtle or the most obvious analogue, when it is revealed that Clark is 33 years old, the same age that Christ lived to be.

The references to the son of God (it certain doesn't help when he's referred to as the "son of El") was one that never bothered me because, as Zack Snyder said in that interview, the DC characters, Superman in particular, are biblical, mythic. Older countries have devised their own myths, Grecian, Roman, Norse, etc., and America is too new a country to have something as culturally signifcant--outside of the superhero; when you stand back from it, there is an undeniable connection between the mythologies of old and the comic book superheroes that have existed since the 1920s. All of these myths are about larger than life characters that follow either a specific archetypal role that can range from being very basic to very complex. The stories are passed down through generations with alterations to some of those original stories, new ones being added, and tweaked little by little over time to something wholly different but still undeniably identifiable.

Thor, Hercules, Achilles, Samson, Gilgamesh, Enkidu, Othello; Jörmungandr, Hera, Agamemnon, The Philistines, Humbaba, Ishtar, Iago.

Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Robin; Lex Luthor, Apollo, Joker, Deathstroke.

Icons. Myth.

Before I wrap this up, I'd like to make some suggestions for the sequel. (It really is a big mistake to fast track it.)

1-Cast Bryan Cranston as Lex Luthor.
2-Have Lex exist as supporting character; save him as the main villain for the third movie. We should see that he is pulling the strings.
3-Use the movie to premiere who it is that is playing Wonder Woman and Batman. Make them part of the plot, but not a large part.
4-A minor subplot that teases JLA.
5-Make Lois more important.
6-Character first.
7-Primary antagonist: Eastern Express.

Man of Steel: 4 out of 5