Archive for bruce timm

In the Shadow of the Shadow of the Bat: Why Batgirl Rocks

Posted in criticism with tags , , , , , , on October 31, 2016 by drayfish

[Given the recent uproar over the depiction of Batman and Batgirl in the latest animated DC movie adaptation of The Killing Joke, I thought this piece was worth republishing.  A version of this column originally appeared on PopMatters two years ago – hence the dated references.  Remember when we only suspected but didn’t yet know that Batman v Superman: Drawn and Quartered was a sloppy, nihilistic hate screed?  Ah, the innocence of ignorance.]

batgirl-new-costume-pic

The question of who, ultimately, is the ‘best’ superhero has haunted the minds of nerds for generations.

…Well, at least two generations.  Three maybe?  Four?

It’s why we squee in delight watching Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, seeing our heroes smack each other around a little ­before they all team up and order bowling league uniforms.  It’s why Superman and the Flash keep racing each other around the world just for funsies.  It’s why there are still some people inexplicably excited about Zack Snyder’s upcoming cinematic atrocity, Superman v Batman: Drab and Senseless, because at the very least it promises the sight of Supes and the Bat slugging it out – or, more accurately, the opportunity to see Snyder slavishly recreate Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns comic panels without troubling to use any imagination or storytelling craft for himself.

(Speaking of Batman v Superman, if I can just take a brief tangent for a moment: no doubt others have already made this observation, but ‘v’ is actually used to indicate a legal battle, not a physical one.  So unless Bruce Wayne is fronting the money for a class-action reckless endangerment suit against Superman for all that carnage he caused in the last film, the title seems to be yet another sign of how little thought Snyder and his writer Goyer are again putting in their next script.)

In many ways it’s a timeless argument – an ongoing rhetorical debate that delights in colliding our greatest pop cultural loves.  Immediately preceding comic books every gothic monstrosity from Dracula to Mr Hyde to the Mummy was battling it out for popularity in cinemas and fiction (eventually also appearing in crossover films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944); the spirit of which continue to this day with the Alien Vs. Predator franchise).  In fact, I don’t doubt that there were at least two nerds way back in ancient Greece standing about bickering over who would win in a knock out street brawl between Poseidon or Apollo.  (Poseidon.  He’d play dirty.)

But no matter how much fun it is to bandy around  comparisons and swim in hypotheticals, for a lot of people – myself very much included – the question of which superhero wins the day already has a definitive answer.  It’s one of those ‘Who’s the best, not counting…’ kind of inquiries.

Because it’s Batman, right?

That’s certainly the answer I’ve had locked and loaded since I was a child –  before I knew any of the intricacies of the Marvel and DC universes.  Before I could parse the individual influences of figures like Jack Kirby, Alan Moore, and Steve Ditko upon their medium.  Before Christopher Nolan and The Avengers films had rescued the superhero  genre from its sad, cheesy stagnation.  Even before the glorious Bruce Timm Batman Animated Series and its Superman and Justice League sequels.  Before all of that, my mind was already firmly made up.

It’s Batman, y’all.

‘Yeah, but, yeah, but – Green Lantern’s ring can create anything he imagines…’ my invented-purely-for-the-purposes-of-this-example dearest childhood friend would argue.

‘Nope.  It’s Batman,’ I would reply.  ‘Cause he doesn’t need dumb space magic to fight crime, and he’s not allergic to the colour yellow.’

(…Seriously.  He can imagine into being a fully-functioning space ship to travel across the stars, but if someone comes at him with a handful of paint swatches labelled ‘Daffodil’ and ‘Buttercup’ and he crumbles?)

‘Well, what about Superman?  He’s got laser eyes and can fly and stuff…’

‘Nup.  Cause Batman can swing through the city with grappling hooks, and he doesn’t have any lame McGuffin weaknesses.  …Except, you know, for all the crippling psychological despair.’

‘Wolverine’s got claws and fast healing…’

‘Batman’s got a utility belt and a stuffed dinosaur.’

‘What about Spawn?’

‘You’re not even trying anymore, are you?

It should be said that I have heard a stunningly persuasive argument made for Wonder Woman – but still, for me, that same trump card always applied: Batman is ‘best’ precisely because he doesn’t have the powers that the other heroes are gifted with.  He punches well above his weight, a mere mortal amongst gods – not only meeting their gaze, but more often than not staring them down.  The most human of all super-humans, he exemplifies the virtue of using wit and passion and dogged stubbornness to turn his weaknesses into strengths; to do what he knows is right, even if it’s never easy.

And that all seemed very persuasive for the longest time.  Indeed, for a rabid Batman fan like myself, it offered a wonderfully smug sense of superiority.  All other heroes just seemed lazy by comparison.

What’s that Spider Man?  You want to complain about how the Daily Bugle doesn’t love you enough?  Well why don’t you go cry about your super strength and spidey senses to your supermodel girlfriend.  And how about you, Thor?  Yeah, it must be tough being a magical, immortal, impervious Nordic prince.  Who can fly.  With those pecs.  And you – shiny guy.  What’s your deal?  …Silver Surfer, you sayWhat, you just surf around everywhere?  Through space?  In the indentured service of a psychotic, galaxy-eating god?  …Well, sucks to be you.  At least you got a surfboard anyway.

And put some pants on.

But you know what?  For all my years of confident self-satisfaction, hand-waving away all debate, the truth I’ve now come to realise is: I was wrong.

It’s not Batman – although I was in the right ballpark.  Instead it’s that other hero in the winged-marsupial get up.  The one too often swallowed by the big guy’s brooding, omnipresent shadow.

It’s Batgirl.

I realised because of the zipper.

batgirl-new-version

IMAGE: Batgirl new costume (MTV News)

See, the past few weeks Batgirl has gotten some press due to her new creative team’s decision to update her costume along with some tweaks to the narrative.  For the most part, it appears that the response to the new look has been positive; and personally, although I will always favour the Bruce Timm animated series redesign, I really like the new look too.

Thankfully Batgirl has never been a character over-sexualised in her depiction – no Power Girl cleavage-heavy swimsuits or fishnet anythings – and happily that tradition continues.  The new uniform looks sleek and functional.  Made up of a leather jacket, detachable cape, Doc Martens combo, it has character, it’s not just some new splash of purples and yellows on a cookie-cutter skin-tight spandex, or that weird goth-gimp mute batgirl they went with a few years ago (who, yes, I know, wasn’t Barbara Gordon).

It’s nice to see her outfit reflect more of her personality.  Young, adaptable, stylish and practical.  It’s colourful but not garish; chic but not some instantly-dated stab at being ‘hip’ (just go back and look at the original Superboy ’90s redesigns to see just how archaic trying to manufacture ‘cool’ can be).  The whole ensemble is a piece of functional fashion that she chose to put on to do her job.  And significantly, the Bat-insignia is not some grim shield emblazoning her chest.

It’s got a zip up the middle of it.

And that’s what got me thinking…

It made me realise: perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve overlooked her for so long.  After all, viewed superficially, Batgirl can seem more of an addendum than a protagonist in her own right: she was an addition to an already established franchise; she didn’t invent the whole ‘bat’ motif, she just cribbed it off the other guy.  That bat isn’t a symbol of her operatically memorable origin story.  She just wears it.  She wasn’t even Batman’s first assistant.  To those unfamiliar with the lore it might even seem like she’s meant to be lumped in with all the other ‘bat’-prefixed material – like Bat-Mite and Bat-Hound and the Bat-Cycle – as though she were not only subservient to Bruce Wayne’s tortured tale, but merely an accessory in service of it.  She’s branded with his story, she doesn’t forge one of her own.

This tendency to  disregard Batgirl’s autonomy has always dogged the character, stretching right back to her first ever incarnation.  Some critics, such as Bill Boichel in ‘Batman: Commodity as Myth’ (The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media, eds. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, London: Routledge, 1991, p.13) even argue that the initial version of ‘Bat-Girl’ (Betty Kane, who was the niece of ‘Bat-Woman’ Kathy Kane) was only ever introduced to serve as a lazy heterosexual love interest.  Supposedly, she and her aunt were to be romantic pairings for Batman and Robin, blatant attempts to assuage the Comic Code Authority’s paranoid fears over a ‘homosexual’ agenda in the heart of the mythos.  Sure, she went on colourful romps with the caped crusaders, fighting crooks and aliens and hypnotism and magical genies, but she was ultimately just in it for the chance to win over Robin’s heart – even though he had already pledged his heart to Lady Justice herself (swoon!)

As Will Brooker points out in his exceptional analysis, Batman Unmasked: Analysing A Cultural Icon (London, Continuum, 2000, pp.101-70), the truth of Bat-Girl’s introduction and her contribution to the text is far more multifaceted than this, but these marginalisations – whether real or imagined – have continued to occur throughout the character’s history.  She’s considered decorative: a heterosexual disguise; an ingredient for a love triangle; a bone thrown to female readers.  Indeed, sometimes it feels like people only bother noticing Batgirl when she’s got a snazzy new outfit, or the gossip media is making pissy comments about how ‘fat’ Alicia Silverstone looks in her rubber suit.

Indeed, such dismissals are why I have a problematical relationship with one of the most universally acclaimed Batman graphic novels of all time: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland (DC Comics, 1988).

batman-and-joker-laughing

IMAGE: From The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bollard

Wait – was that the sound of angry mob torches being lit?  Hold on.  Hear me out.

I’m not saying that The Killing Joke is a bad story.  It’s rightfully considered one of the great Batman tales: a brief, harrowing glimpse into the perpetual conflict of Batman and the Joker, and the carnage that their entwined obsession leaves in their wake.  For those who haven’t read it, it’s well worth seeking out.  If for no other reason than that it introduces greater depth and complexity to the Joker, a character that had frequently been depicted as little more than a colourful buffoon.  It has indelibly impacted every presentation of the clown prince since, even being directly cited as an inspiration for both Tim Burton and Heath Ledger in their iconic characterisations in cinema.

Briefly, the story concerns the Joker making one final, sociopathic statement about how frail the human psyche can be.  He decides to show Batman how ‘one bad day’ can unhinge a previously moral, upstanding person, hoping to fracture the divide between hero and lunatic.  To do this he decides to destroy Commissioner Gordon – Batman’s ally and the most upstanding man in Gotham – by surprising him in his house and brutally, savagely assaulting his daughter – going on to create a gruesome exhibition of her torture and pain.

And at this point you can probably predict what my issue with the story is.  In order to tell a story such as this there had to be a real casualty – someone to symbolise that the Joker had finally gone too far.  The Joker had to step over the line from killing random strangers (figures we, as readers, we can feel horrified about, but ultimately forget)  to permanently, violently impacting one of the principle characters.  In service of the plot, Moore selects Batgirl, now Barbara Gordon, to become that sacrificial lamb, turning her into another frustratingly familiar example of the ‘woman in a refrigerator’ trope since her suffering is used to cause Commissioner Gordon – and by extension Batman – the most acute possible pain.  She gives them a reason to fight harder, to brood deeper, to feel even more.

Sure, in subsequent stories Barbara transformed into Oracle, rescuing herself from victimhood by proving to be all the more extraordinary – continuing to fight crime in spite of her disability – but for the span of Moore’s narrative, in service of the specific tale he was telling, she was reduced to the role of victim: shot, stripped naked, photographed (and as some have inferred, perhaps even raped).  She’s not even shown being Batgirl.  Her only actions throughout narrative (aside from squirming in agony) are to serve her father a cup of tea and nag him about getting his clothes dirty.  In fact, to make the act even more arbitrary, the Joker doesn’t target Barbara because she’s Batgirl – he knows her only as Gordon’s daughter.  So in a twisted irony she is punished not because of her crime fighting alter ego, but a quirk of fate in her parentage.

It reduces her, even if momentarily, to just another Bruce Wayne loved one to be savaged and tortured, to twist the knife of guilt into Batman’s gut just a little further.  And that’s a shame, because this kind of chance brutality is a story trope that can, and has, been utilised well in the past – in the Batman universe, no less.

In the Batman Animated Series episode ‘Over the Edge’, written by Paul Dini, Batgirl is killed by Scarecrow while on patrol, thrown from a building to land with a sickening crunch onto the roof of Jim Gordon’s car.  But she’s not just arbitrarily slaughtered to make everyone feel bad – it’s shown to be the natural, unfortunate result of this weird, self-destructive campaign that the entire Bat Family are all on.  It sends Bruce and Jim Gordon into a death spiral of mutual annihilation, with Gordon blaming Bruce for his daughter’s death, and Bruce, wracked with guilt, refusing to let his crusade end.  Both men are shown finally broken, both having betrayed the moral fortitude that they maintained for so long in the wake of abject despair.

batgirl-bruce-timm

IMAGE: Batgirl sketch by Bruce Timm

Mercifully, the entire thing is revealed to be a Scarecrow-induced paranoid hallucination – ironically one dreamed by Barbara herself, thus, ultimately making it her story – but the message that the episode explores, and the unspoken bond it reinforces between Barbara, her father, and Bruce, is quite touching, and handled with an elegant subtly that Moore’s more vicious tale, for all its philosophical gesticulating, lacks.

But that’s just personal opinion (and perhaps it’s not fair to compare the two anyway – they are, after all, different narratives, in different mediums, for two different audiences).  I can completely understand why Moore’s tale is such a beloved and respected work; but it’s a bugbear that gnaws at me whenever I return to it.  Batgirl is stripped of agency, made subservient to Bruce’s story.  And I don’t like seeing that, because, as I’ve come to realise, in truth, she transcends him.  She always has.

After all, Batgirl fills the full Batman checklist, but she does far more besides.  The vigilante crime fighting?  Check.  The detective skills?  Check.  The acumen to juggle an impossible double life?  (Without just slapping a pair of cheap glasses on her face and calling it a day – I’m looking at you, Clark Kent.)  Check.  She’s tenacious.  Brave.  She’s a brawler, a gymnast, a thinker.  And she does it all without Bruce Wayne’s Scrooge McDuck pile o’ money, his indentured slave Alfred, or the Martian Manhunter on speed dial.  There’s more than a little bit if that old truism about Ginger Rogers in Batgirl: like Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire, she does everything Batman does – only backwards, and in high heels.

More significantly though: Bruce needs trauma to be Batman.  Even Moore’s story is just piling further pathos onto the narrative’s gloomy foundation.  Having lost his parents to random injustice Bruce needs sorrow and guilt and despair to focus him.  Fighting crime is the only way that he can channel his self-loathing and guilt.  He uses it as a crutch.  Same with Dick Grayson.  Both seething orphans, their devotion to justice is a way to manifest their personal demons as an obstacle they can punch.

Bruce is compelled to become Batman as a form of self-preservation.  Just as Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face, or Oswald Cobblepot becomes the Penguin – because they are all traumatised souls who have to lose themselves in an alternate persona lest they go loose themselves utterly to madness.  Bruce’s false face is a hero, but his is still a disassociation motivated by fear.

In contrast, Barbara Gordon didn’t need her parents to die to spur her into action.  She didn’t need to be personally effected or disenfranchised to feel compelled to serve her fellow citizens.  She doesn’t have to stare into an abyss of despair and horror each night to feel a duty to act.

Maybe that lack of specific motivation is the product of narrative laziness on behalf of her creators.  Maybe her original inclusion was merely a heterosexual romantic distraction.  Maybe there was some patronisingly antiquated design about how a woman couldn’t be burdened with a dark origin story, that she needed to be fun and perky and fresh.  I don’t honestly know.  But whatever the reason she was created, the result is a character far more worthy of regard.

And that’s what brings me back to that new outfit, and that playful new zip-up bat logo…

Because, sure, it would be nice if she didn’t have to wear someone else’s symbol (even Robin got a private visit to the graphic designer for his upper-case R). But that in itself is indicative of how remarkable her character is.  She chose that image.  It wasn’t inflicted upon her by some personal terror or driving tragedy.

She takes that bat insignia – a symbol of one man’s mad, blind crusade – and redeems it, drags it out of the shadows and into the light.  For Bruce, the bat is a dark alcove to hide within, to redirect fear upon those who would inflict fear upon others; Barbara, meanwhile, is leaping around in yellow.  She takes a crusade born from, and mired within, fear, imbuing it with courage and selfless generosity.

Batgirl did something far more remarkable and far more heroic than being ‘chosen’: she chose for herself.  She saw people suffering.  She saw greed and cruelty and injustice.  She saw some weirdo in a cape trying to do something about it, then did the most extraordinary thing of all.  She decided she could help.

She’s Batman – only better.  She does it with style.

batgirl-new-version-2

IMAGE: Batgirl new costume (MTV News)

Advertisements

The Phantom Drone: Prelude To A Rant…

Posted in comics, criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2013 by drayfish

Seriously, I am about to rant in the lead up to another, equally tedious rant.  If you loved Man of Steel, have an understandable hatred for futile whining on the interwebs, or just generally care for your own mental health, I suggest you don’t bother reading the following post. 

The TLDR version is: other people liked Man of Steel – and that’s fine.  I resoundingly did not enjoy it (which is also fine, by the way) – but I foolishly tried to analyse why, and almost lost my mind in the process. 

This is that story…

man of steel general zod

IMAGE: General Zod from Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)

I made a mistake.

Two months ago, the granddaddy of all super heroes, the original man-in-the-tri-colour-onesie – Superman – returned to cinemas.  It had been decades since the Richard Donner vision of the prototypical comic book champion was so watered down by his progressively inferior sequels that the franchise had faded into a mockery of itself.  A new millennium had come upon us since the (thankfully) stalled Kevin Smith/Tim Burton/Nick Cage ‘dark’ re-visioning of Krypton’s son, Superman Lives, was jettisoned into the whispers of movie studio lore.  And it has been years since Bryan Singer (leaving the X-Men franchise to collapse in on itself under Brett Ratner’s profoundly mediocre directing*) had seen his resurrection of the saga stalled with a lukewarm (to hostile) audience response.

Superman had certainly lived on in comics (been killed and reborn, had his powers altered and gotten married), and he had thrived in the phenomenal animated Superman and Justice League programs (executive produced by Bruce Timm who likewise helmed the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series**), but it took until this year for Kal-El to return to the silver screen in Man of Steel, a big budget spectacle designed to reintroduce the Superman tale to a whole new audience, restarting the narrative from the beginning.

I was warned ahead of time that this version of the tale would probably not appeal to me – that I might, in fact, get quite angry at this depiction of the character.

I didn’t listen.

But that’s not the mistake bit.  Not yet.  The mistake comes later.

‘Pish-posh,’ cried I, when I heard their cautions.  ‘Why, adaptation is the lifeblood of all mythologies that seek to remain valid!  It is the responsibility of each new generation to re-contextualise the elements of these adventures to speak to their own experience!  Ergo, the details will change, the tone will fluctuate, and the familiar will be remade anew!  Forsooth!  Egads!  Harrumph!’

Flinging my martini into the fireplace, I then repositioned my monocle, bid everyone a good day (‘I said, Good Day, sir!’), and clambered up onto my penny-farthing, to pedal as swiftly as I could to the nearest moving-pictures show and pay for a ticket – keen to discover for myself how this new-fangled Superman was rejuvenating the stuffy and old with a fresh perspective.

…Okay, to be honest I wasn’t quite so philosophical.  While I desperately hoped that the film would deliver a rollicking, triumphant and introspective journey (Superman is a character that can frequently be dismissed as cheesy or old-fashioned, but I legitimately believe him to be more important in our current cultural climate than he ever has been) there had been some major warning signs hanging over the production that gave me pause.

Namely, Jack Snyder.

To put it mildly, I am not a fan of Zack Snyder’s work.  To me it has consistently been the very definition of cinematic style over substance – and considering that I’m not really a big fan of his perpetually washed-out-metallic-sheen aesthetic either, there really is really very little to endear me to his canon.  I know many loved the film (and I am glad for them) but beyond its faithfulness to the source material’s bold visuals (and near-fetishistic masculinity), I saw little to love in 300.  The Watchmen likewise perfectly recreated the page layouts of the comic, but its characters and symbolism fell flat (again, just my opinion).  And the less said about what I consider to be his grotesquely misguided (and mystifyingly tone-deaf) ‘feminist’ treatise Suckerpunch, the better.  So far his filmography has seemed to me to be stylistically thumping but narratively scattershot; emotionless, inhuman, and lacking anything that even vaguely resembles subtlety, character depth, cohesive narrative, or the capacity to linger in a moment of meaningful quietude.

Having said all that, however, I legitimately went in to Man of Steel hoping to be surprised.  Under the presumably watchful eye of producer Christopher Nolan, the man who rescued the Batman franchise from Joel Schumacher’s neon fever dream, and the screenwriting potential of David Goyer, who (sure, while he also wrote Ghost Rider) collaborated with Nolan in the Dark Knight trilogy to turn it into one of the most diverse, multifaceted explorations of terrorism yet committed to film, there was every reason to believe that this could be the project that would give Snyder the guidance he needed to finally evolve as a storyteller.

Similarly, I am not some slavish fanboy of the old films (so however the following criticisms may sound, they truly do not come from a ‘They did it better back when…’ place).  I know that to many this will sound like heresy, but aside from Christopher Reeves’ masterful shape-shifting double-duty playing both a mythic god and a bumbling country boy, I find little in the original films worth salvaging.  Superman’s 4 and 3 are cheap (really, really cheap) goofy kitsch; film 2 (no doubt due to its drama behind the scenes) feels slightly schizophrenic in tone (and what was with that cellophane symbol Superman Frisbees about?); and even the original (admittedly the best of the bunch) is at times plodding, contains that mystifying anti-musical number when Lois sing-speaks ‘Can you read my mind?’ in her head, and most egregiously of all, is marred by possibly the laziest piece of deus ex machina drivel ever committed to film in the narrative’s climax, as Superman spins the earth around the other way  to turn back time (!!?!!).***

And while I’m not a pure hater of the Superman Returns – it did attempt to recapture some of the wonder of Donner’s original – Singer’s soft-reboot never quite carved out an individual identity beyond its almost-plagiarising homage.  …Not to mention that, when looked at objectively, Snyder’s vision of Superman was both a dead-beat dad, and something of a creeper.  I’m almost certain these two lines of Lois Lane’s dialogue were cut, last minute, from the theatrical release:

‘Wait, is that someone floating outside my window x-ray visioning into my most private family moments?  Oh, no. It’s just the guy I used to date – a dude who dumped me, ran off, and was leading a double life so elaborate it was like he was two different people…’

‘Hold on, has someone sneaked into my house so that they can leer over my sleeping child like a psychopath?  …Oh no, it’s just an omnipotent, moody alien with boundary issues wearing skin tight lycra.  It’s fine.’

So while it may not sound like it, when the house lights of the cinema went down, I truly was eager to believe – given the subject matter of the narrative and the pedigree of its actors and producers – that perhaps both Man of Steel and its director could ultimately soar…

…I was wrong.

But again: this too is not the mistake of which I speak.  That’s still to come…

No doubt many others did and continue to enjoy Snyder’s take on Superman a great deal (in fact, I know they have; I scarcely remember a time I’ve seen such vitriol directed by supporters of a film back at those who criticise it), but for me it was a resounding miss.  Indeed, a completely baffling miss.

Illogical, over-wrought, weirdly tonally jarring; the makers of the film seemed to hit every cliché in the narrative with over-earnest pretention, but simultaneously remained almost belligerently ignorant of the subtext they themselves were ordering the audience to embrace.  Between the incongruous religious allegories, the hackneyed terrorism analogies, the completely nonsensical way it cannibalised its own mythos rather than communicate a coherent plot, the whole thing seemed to thrash about wildly, a cluster bomb of clichés.  Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Even the action, which I have heard many people celebrate, struck me cold – eventually leaving me utterly, stupefyingly numb.  Sure, there was spectacle (after all, aside from Singer’s more restrained vision, this is the first time special-effects technology has been at a state where the guy in the cape can really let fly with the ‘splosions and feats of strength), but after about fifty unbroken minutes of it, the carnage tipped over from breathtaking epic clash to indulgent, meaningless noise.  I do recall involuntarily shaking my head as the film gormlessly telegraphed Superman’s decision to slaughter his enemy, but even then, I felt almost nothing.  The whole thing seemed like little more than a CGI tech demo, with cardboard cut-outs of beautiful people danced in front of the screen, and dialogue so stilted it was like placeholder notations for a second draft that never came to be.

And so, when I left the cinema I was surprised to find that I wasn’t, as my friends had warned me, angry.

In truth, I was mostly just bemused.  Sure, part of that was probably just a product of being stunned by the film’s aimless sensory overload.  That final hour really does wear you down.  Indeed, through some kind of unnerving magic, it becomes a hyperactive tantrum of punching and crunching so monotonous that the countless deaths it depicts actually transmogrify from horrifying to utterly boring.  But overall, between the hysterically rampant product placement, the creaking script, and the asinine allusions the film was ham-fistedly trying to employ, it was all far more humorous than aggravating.

Yes, there was the immediate vulgarity (that many others have already cited) of Superman arbitrarily killing his enemy and having the narrative implicitly celebrate it – but even this was handled in such a clumsy way as to become absurdly comedic, an act of scriptwriting laziness more than any kind of moral statement.  After all, Superman had, until that point, been nonplussed to watch countless people crushed and blown up and stomped on (often as a direct consequence of his own blind fury) – but suddenly, in the final ten minutes, Zod threatens a family escaped from an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue and he is so tortured that he both snaps Zod’s neck (mortal damage that he has magically been unable to do before that very second) and rears back to unleash a Darth Vader-style ‘Nooooooooo!!!’ scream to the heavens?

To give Snyder the benefit of the doubt for a moment, he may well have been thinking of Superman’s reckless and willingness to resort to murder in his first outing as a hero in the terms of an origin tale such as Spiderman, where Peter Parker had to start by being irresponsible (let the mugger go) so that he could learn to be responsible in future (to stop other innocents like Uncle Ben dying as a result of his apathy).  Sure, it would still be the laziest of possible resolutions (aside from spinning the Earth back around the other way, of course), but Snyder might have been thinking that by indulging such extremes you can later cobble together a tale of heroism and moral fortitude out of remorse and redemption.  You know – like Spiderman’s guilt…  Except, of course, that Spiderman didn’t personally gun Ben down.  He didn’t plunge his hand through his chest and shout, ‘Responsibility!!!’ into the sky as lightning crackled overhead.****

But I digress…

No, ultimately the whole of Man of Steel felt too tacky and self-indulgent to get mad about.  From the derivatively mopey emo tone they tried to slather over every scene (even though there was never any specific reason offered for why being superhuman, good-looking, popular with the ladies, and awesome, should be such an onerous drag); to the endless expositional pontificating by poor Kevin Costner’s (apparently suicidal) Pa Kent;  to the embarrassingly insincere attempt to manufacture pathos by ripping off the origin stories of other heroes.  The whole thing seemed to be so desperately trying distinguish itself – to shout ‘This isn’t your grandma’s Superman!‘ – that it collapsed over into a weirdly joyless farce.

Nonetheless, when I got home from the cinema, I decided that the whole experience should not be for nothing.  There had to be something worth talking about in the shambolic mess I had just witnessed…  The film certainly seemed to want to say something, even if it kept contradicting itself and indulging all of its laziest impulses.

And here comes the mistake bit…

Hmm, I thought.  That messiah stuff was kind of weird.

That fundamental contradiction between the sacrificial analogy the filmmakers were ponderously trying to draw and their character’s own behaviour, seemed so preposterous, so juvenile, that I decided to write a short, playful response to it.

And that was it.  That was the mistake.  The white rabbit had scampered by, and the moment that my fingers touched the keyboard to start unpacking that obnoxiously irrelevant Jesus imagery I was tumbling down a nonsensical hole that felt like it stole weeks from my life.

man of steel dream sequence

IMAGE: Dream sequence from Terminator 2 Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)

Suddenly, all those once-humorous contradictions started piling up.  The aimless, artless, facile equivalencies the film tried to evoke, all while belligerently ignoring the implications of its own message, steadily began overtaking me, started rubbing me raw.  Now it wasn’t just the Kal-El-is-Jesus comparison (which, to be fair, was stolen from Donner’s film, Donner just handled it far more elegantly), it was the clumsy endorsement of Nietzsche’s notion of the ubermensch; the exploitatively cowardly sensationalising of 9/11; the terrorism analogies that ironically embrace rather than discredit the use of ideological horror; the pretentious hypocrisy of all the film’s rote philosophising about ‘restraint’ (they even throw in a Plato reference, despite going on to wholesale contradict everything Plato was arguing); the way that the empty rhetoric of ‘hope’ and moral fortitude that gets vomited up in stilted dialogue but never validated by the plot; the complete nonsense of having characters drone on and on about what Superman is ‘meant’ to represent, only to then show him embodying the complete opposite of these qualities at every significant moment…

I tried to remain rational, tried to stay as detached, and objective and analytically unbiased as I could manage – but a strange gravity kept pulling me in.  Perhaps it was the realisation that, despite what people who scoff at comic books might think, super heroes have a substance, have an inspirational mythos that they carry with them; and to see it so callously maligned kind of stung.  Perhaps it was irritation at the film’s faux-philosophical self-satisfaction, despite the fact that even it didn’t seem to know what it was saying.  Whatever it was, I found myself spewing out a tedious analytical screed so lengthy it felt at times that it would never end (I literally checked the word count at one point to find, with horror, that I was already over eight thousand words in) all while trying to comprehend a film that I had previously sloughed off as inordinately expensive B-movie cheese.  (Not to mention that here I am doing it all over again…)  At times, when I allowed myself the egotism of such hyperbole it felt like I had spent more time thinking about the plot and its themes than the film’s creators ever had – and then that thought (petty as it was) got on my nerves too.

There is a Phantom Zone in this film (though they don’t call it that), where time and space are immaterial, where the void swallows you whole, where logic and physics are meaningless.  It is a prison, one that Zod gets thrown into for being arrogant enough to question the social order – the Kryptonian council who want to pretend that things are great, and that no one need worry about any of it.  In scratching the surface of Man of Steel’s themes I shared Zod’s fate; I felt I had stared into that same abyss.  It was an impossible, immaterial vacuum, where images at first appeared to have substance, but remained disturbingly, nonsensically one dimensional.  Where words like ‘honour’ and ‘hope’ and ‘sacrifice’ were hollowed out and stripped of context, but still flaunted in a vain display.  It was an act of analysis that, of I’m honest, left me feeling peculiarly grim – something that I most recently remember feeling when trying to discern the ‘feminist’ message of Snyder’s repugnant Sucker Punch.

The result of this foray into critical madness – following Snyder’s Kurtz into a superhuman heart of darkness – can be found on the PopMatters journal website: ‘A Man of Steel That Sinks Like Lead’.  If you are particularly self-loathing, you can inflict it upon yourself there (although I will probably republish it here sometime in the future).  Upon its publication it was immediately torn to shreds by fans of the film as being needlessly nitpicking and of taking the film too seriously.  ‘It was just a film’, seemed to be the overwhelming catch-cry.

And although I did (and do) say to those commentators that my experience is in no way meant to discredit their interpretation – that I am glad for them that they enjoyed Man of Steel, I just did not share their point of view – perhaps there is some truth in what they say.  After all, it was long, and exhausting, and frankly I feel only worse having written it; and like the film itself, there is an inescapable stench of futility hanging over the entire enterprise.  The people who love the film will continue to love it no matter what (and they are more than welcome to it); meanwhile the people who hate Snyder’s vision will no doubt find nothing within my screed they have not already noticed themselves.

As I look back on this little purge of mine, I realise that the word that keeps resurfacing is ‘Indulgent’ – and I think that’s where I personally land on Man of Steel.  To me, it is the exemplar of lazy and indulgent filmmaking, in all of its gaudy excess.  It gratifies only the most fleeting of superficial desires for bombast and spectacle; its characters are no more than mouthpieces to advance the most flimsy of plotlines; it wallows in adolescent nihilism; it affects subtext in order to ape significance but follows through on nothing it evokes; and it shamelessly trades on the good will of its predecessors, offering nothing new to an audience itself.

But there was one further indulgence that I hadn’t considered: that of my own unwillingness to just walk away.

After all, I don’t like writing long, boring, tracts of criticism that dig for meaning and come up empty.  It’s a chore that, believe me, is even less fun to write than it is to read.  So why – when there have been plenty of other shallow action spectacles that have pilfered iconography they didn’t understand to ape gravitas they didn’t earn – why was I unable to shake loose of this one when I saw that analytical Phantom Zone open before me?

Perhaps it was some selfish affection for the Superman character, who I felt was being twisted into something unrecognisable; perhaps it was some personal contempt for Snyder himself, and his hackneyed, empty symbolism; perhaps it was just sanctimonious reprisal, petty revenge for feeling that I had been tricked into digging for substance where there was only exploitation.

In any case, whatever it was, it was a mistake.  One that I vow I shall never make again.  I free myself both of the burden of hoping for something better in Snyder’s work, and of tilting at his windmills in critical analysis.  Superman has weathered worse than him, and there are far more substantive texts still out there to explore…

You have no more power over me, Man of Steel.  Do whatever you wish, because I won’t let you plague me any more.

All right.  Good.  Now that all of that is out of the way, let me move on with my life and get back to checking the internet blog-o-sphere to see what’s going on in the world.

Let me just click on this first link here and –

Hmm?  What’s this?  The next Superman film is going to have Batman in it?!

Wait.

…Snyder is going to do Batman?!

And played by Ben Affleck!?!?

Oh, gods no…

No…

Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.

Sigh.

All right.  Fine.  You win.

Just let me kneel down on the ground here and…

NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!

man of steel scream 600x338

IMAGE: Emotions from Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)

* Who used his extraordinary reverse-Midas powers to turn one of comic books fiction’s most celebrated  dramatic arcs (and the gathering propulsion of the preceding films) into a muddled, affected soap-opera, sprinkled with poorly-staged CGI explosions.

** Truly, his smack down with Captain Marvel alone nails every epic note that Man of Steel failed to hit, and the debate over his political and social responsibilities in the Cadmus story arc make a joke of the clumsy military posturing in Snyder’s tale.

*** …Also: ?!??!!!?!!?!!

**** Not to mention that I think it’s fair to say that in superhero terms, committing an act of murder is usually considered to be in the wheelhouse of ‘letting the toddler  touch the stove top’.  It’s enough to just tell them no, and let them figure out for themselves why it was the right thing to avoid.

%d bloggers like this: