THE IMPORTANCE OF DRAMATIZING CHARACTER

July 25, 2013

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AN ESSAY ABOUT MAN OF STEEL AND THE LESSONS WE CAN LEARN ABOUT HOW TO IMPART INFORMATION, GOALS, AND EMOTIONAL RESONANCE THROUGH DRAMA!

http://badassdigest.com/2013/07/03/film-crit-hulk-man-of-steel/

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One Response to “THE IMPORTANCE OF DRAMATIZING CHARACTER”

  1. Panache said

    (Just don’t. Just…fucking skip to the next comment. Really. It’s way down there somewheres.)

    Hulk’s formalist, big-picture issues with “Man of Steel” threw me for a loop. I expected a takedown more in line with that of “The Amazing Spider-Man”. It appears that for Hulk “Man of Steel” represents a culmination–perhaps, more-fittingly–an random amalgamation of the plagues of recent, big-budget filmmaking. The resulting article clearly took much of Hulk’s time and a bit of wind from Hulk’s sails.

    It’s a common refrain among critics that the easiest, most fun reviews come in two groups: the raves and the pans. Perhaps, it’s generally true. Unfortunately, not all eviscerations are created equal, and when a writer feels the need to critique most every implicit and explicit assumption of a film along with many dramatic decisions–well, pointing out each and every one gets to be a bit of a drag.

    It becomes like explaining politics to a young child, “Now, Johnny, where should we start on the ethnography of mainland Europe prior to The Great War?”

    Or when a historic building is found to have termites. Oh, it’s in place and looks fine, but it’s hollowed out, collapse imminent, and we got to go piece-by-everloving-piece to address the issue.

    Or maybe it’s more like when we show up at our parents’ house, but they threw out all their furniture and made a trip to Ikea without us, and neither of them believe in manuals so we have to carefully explain how none of these legs match the others, and there shouldn’t be this much hardware left over, and is that a hammer holding up the dining room table?

    It’s daunting to know where to start (4 intros!), then which colossal pooch-screw to address in turn (pertinent questions!), and when to call it a day (as I understand Hulk nearly did before publishing). I’m just glad Hulk finished up and pushed it out. Thank you, Hulk!

    For me, the problems with “Man of Steel” are actually a bit simpler yet cut me much deeper. My father raised me on a steady diet of Superman. I have never not known the Fleischer shorts, the Kirk Alyn serials, the George Reeves series, or the Christopher Reeve movies. These were simply de rigeur in his household. Along the way, I dabbled in a bit of “Super Friends”, a smidgen of “Superboy”, a goodly amount of “Lois & Clark”, and the entirety of the animated series. Nearly every iteration (particularly Fleischer/Reeves/Reeve) has something to recommend it. There is no one version of Superman, period.

    However, the fact that Superman has no inner limits does not imply that there are no outer limits which the character simply cannot transgress. If Supes crosses some basic thresholds, he deforms and ceases to be The Man of Tomorrow.

    Both recent movies result in a misshapen Superman. After the confounding misfire of “Superman Returns”, I hoped Singer might get a sequel to correct course, but I feared on what distant, unimagined shores he might breach the ship. Time passed, they announced Snyder, and I panicked. I actually like Snyder’s films, but–Holy Jesus–nothing in the man’s oeuvre remotely suggests, or even vaguely hints at, the humanity requisite in realizing Big Blue.

    Gradually–trailer by trailer, interview by interview–the marketing worked on me, and by its release I was hyped. I still worried about Snyder, but how could his movie possibly throw under “Returns” with Superman as a stalker, absentee father? Unluckily, “Man of Steel” crapped out, casting Superman as a father-killing, self-hating xenophobe–which throws well under Singer’s misapprehension.

    Snyder’s misread of Superman is egregiously worse than Singer’s because Superman is kind of the ultimate immigrant, ultimate adopted son. He fits the American ethos better than pretty much any superhero, even though many folks find offense in his “American way”. Superman embodies the construct of American identity: an immigrant who finds a new home and new opportunity in a distant land; a son whose biology has less to do with his parentage than his upbringing. It is the ultimate parable of the American dream: a person defines oneself, not by birthright nor by happenstance but by fulfilling possibility through direct action.

    Now mileage varies on how true a vision that is of Americana, but the Jewish teenagers from Cleveland who created Superman–be it consciously or subconsciously–they play with these ideas. When I mention outer limits that Superman cannot violate, I refer to these parameters. He is an immigrant who feels no shame in his origin but embraces his new home. He is an adopted son who yearns for his heritage, but his moral fiber springs from the good people who raise him.

    The final bit that simply must present itself in Superman is his unerring belief in the possibility of mankind, the inevitability of advancement. Superman may right wrongs, but he limits his actions because he believes in man’s potential. He truly believes that we can iron out our wrinkles all on our own. He only acts as protector because, on occasion, we need a helping hand or a correcting nudge. If he loses his faith in humanity, he would fulfill his godhood and enslave us, or he would follow the lead of Dr. Manhattan and abandon us.

    Within this archetype, Superman contains multitudes. There is no single immigrant story, no single adopted son story, no single strain of humanism in the world. Each version of Superman has very different presentations of each aspect. Fleischer raises him in an orphanage, Alyn and Reeves have older Kents who died before Clark moved to Metropolis, and Reeve splits his paycheck at the Planet with Ma. Fleischer, Alyn, and Reeves have no contact with Krypton; Reeve has a fifteen-year, Kryptonian primer on the nature of the universe. Each of these incarnations displays drastically different concepts of when to intervene and when to let mankind run its course.

    Some would argue that the very idea of “core concepts” hems in Superman, stunts the character with strictures that the layman may not hold. I’m happy to roll with any Superman that works, but his character has definitions, foundations that must be present. Once we abandon them, he is a different character altogether so we should call him anything other than Clark or Kal-El.

    Superman’s list of powers and his physical feats are among the least interesting aspects of his character. Near-invincinbility, flying, and an “S” on his chest are actually three things to which Superman is least beholden. The ideas behind the character better represent his spirit than canon-consciousness and pop-cultural misconceptions ever could.

    Which brings us back to Snyder’s atrocity.

    Jonathan Kent deliberately cultivates in Clark a debilitating complex toward his powers. Rather than not letting him waste them on sports or gambling or other frivolities, Jonathan doesn’t even let Clark acknowledge or exercise his powers in appropriate circumstances. He does not promote careful consideration or increased situational awareness. Instead, he entrenches in Clark’s psyche an incapacity to decide for himself when and whom to save.

    This demonstrates perhaps the next most alarming trait of the Kents, second to Pa’s bipolarity: the extreme codependent, enabling style in which the Kents apparently raise Clark. They do a bang up job too as we witness both fathers fully expect and succeed in making Clark do whatever they bid, one from beyond the grave and the other with one foot in it. In short, the Kents raise a meatpuppet, and Jor-El expects no less. It’s no wonder that Clark spends his twenties bouncing between menial jobs.

    Typically, the purpose of parenting is to raise our children to stand on their own two feet and think for themselves. In large part, we do this because we won’t always be here for our kids in the event that, say, an enormous tornado swallows us right up. Who’s going to tell Clark what to do at the next tornado or the tornado after that? “No, Clark! Do save this domestic animal but not that livestock, Clark! Oh, motherfuck Ben Hubbard, son! Let him pass! But get Lana out of there!”

    So then Clark kills his father–not metaphorically as do all young men, not inadvertently as do a good number of literary protagonists. Clark does not run off so that he is absent at the time that his dad most needs him. He’s right there, watching, and he allows his quite mortal father to endanger his life with foolish heroics while Clark leans on the ropes, waiting to tag in or something. We don’t fucking know, and neither do Snyder or Goyer. They have a chit in need of a check: “Pa dies.”

    Clark feels guilty–not to circumscribe the limits of his powers, not to motivate his future vigilance but entirely because he fucking should feel as guilty as any other patricidal shitheel. It isn’t a constructive guilt, it isn’t a lesson for later application. He spends the next decade quietly defying his father’s dying wish before openly flaunting it–which would be fine if he defied his father to become fully his own man and at a time when something that mattered to him was on the line, e.g. the time his pops tosses himself into a tornado.

    Enter the hologram. Once Jonathan ain’t around to dictate precisely what heroics Clark ought and ought not engage, Jor-El boots up and further choreographs his son’s every deed. (“Ought I save them, father?” “Fucking yes! Why even ask this? Want to know anything about Krypton?”) Instead of Pa, who is human with a stake in this world and a family to live for (and apparently a lot of neighbors and strangers to fear to the point of paralysis), it is left to Jor-El to extol humanity’s potential. How Jor-El has any opinion of a people on a planet which he never visited will be a question for the ages (or for, like, last month).

    Both dads make many random assertions, but they do not actually reveal any thought processes or assumptions behind said assertions. What Glenn Ford lays out in a single, non-confrontational stroll up the driveway, Kevin Costner ain’t permitted to do in three very confusing, conflicting confrontations. Ford’s Pa didn’t have all the answers either so he didn’t fucking pretend to. Meanwhile, Jor-El has every answer from, um, the observations of his distant, terraforming ancestors who observed our cavemen ancestors…I guess.

    The inversion of the fathers and their roles demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes Big Blue tick. In “Man of Steel”, Jonathan Kent is a backwards, xenophobic man concerned for the fate of his son at the hands of a frightened populace and bureaucracy whereas Jor-El believes in predestination and the inherent of goodness of man. It’s as though Snyder and Goyer picked up a comic that had the names flopped.

    Jor-El fights hopelessly against a government and fearful people who refuse to believe their planet is at an end so, in an act of near-madness, he blasts his infant son off-planet. Jonathan Kent encounters an extraterrestrial, gobstopping and extraordinary, then devotes the rest of his days to making his adopted son feel loved, to imparting an understanding and adoration the ordinary while striving for the exemplary. Snyder and Goyer got it ass-backwards.

    In addition to the patriphasia and patricide, Goyer and Snyder hit the xenophobia button hard. Not only does Pa Kent display little but contempt and paternalism toward the outside world, but Perry White–editor of a major metropolitan newspaper–identifies the underlying concern as though to validate and entrench it. This wonderful character–embodied by a fantastic, black actor–delivers one of his few lines in sympathy with Bizarro Kent and son. Three fearless archetypes turn fearful alarmists in a single movie.

    The xenophobia is particularly painful when it comes to such an iconic identification figure among the disenfranchised, both immigrant and minority. Again, Supes was dreamed up by Jewish Clevelanders, and it is not a particularly Jewish town. In fact, its heritage is largely Eastern European, a region whose perception of the Semitic may be less than enlightened. Hulk mentioned elsewhere that Superman continues to be more popular than Batman in the inner city which would seem odd except when we remember that kids don’t need fictitious representations of the decay in which they survive day-to-day.

    When my roommate really enjoyed “Man of Steel”, I was shocked. He is Boricua, and he grew up in foster care. (He’s an immigrant, adopted son.) I objected to the line “Krypton had its shot!” and he immediately chimed in, “Yeah, that was bullshit. I don’t care what the situation is, you don’t give up on your peoples.”

    We do not give up on our people, Superman least of all. He is stuck in a shitty situation where his surviving people are kind of rotten dicks, but he’s goddamned Superman. If anything, his clear-eyed idealism and unwavering belief annoys them more than us–including a refusal to never give up on an entire race of intelligent, galaxy-hopping beings. “Krypton had its shot!” Fuck. That.

    Compare “Krypton had its shot!” to when Reeve rejects his heritage. (I hate to come back to Donner again because I really don’t want another retread of Donner’s vision. I’m comparing to the most recent predecessor that works.) Clark reaches a point where he cannot pursue both identities, terran and Krytonian, with equal vigor. He’s ready to give up Krypton to embrace humanity, one lady in particular. It’s beautiful and heart-wrenching (and bullshit for the character of Superman, but–for the story Donner’s telling–it works).

    Then Clark has his very first, fully-human conflict, and he immediately returns to get back his Kryptonian.

    This is a story of an immigrant. His very identity is a constant negotiation, a back-and-forth, and when he tilts too far in one direction, it upsets the balance entirely. Superman ain’t human enough for Earth, ain’t Kryptonian enough for Krypton. He is everything we want and aspire to be, and he wants nothing more than to be like us. It’s almost as though he’s some sort of tragic, dramatic figure.

    But Snyder doesn’t depict that. “Krypton had its shot!” Superman rejects his origin, reflecting an odd self-hatred. Shuster and Siegel might have known a few men like that, but they damned sure didn’t model Superman after them.

    Of course, the cherry atop this whipped shit–what may have pulled through a recognizable character (doubtful)–would be if Superman holds mankind in such regard that all the rest of it proves worth it. Again, as self-hating xenophobe, it’s difficult to trust and believe in others. As Hulk points out, Snyder does not even bother to demonstrate whence Clark earns his humanist stripes. Actually, Hulk tackles this whole point better than I can, but it abuts an important, related issue.

    There is a philosophic problem with a Superman who performs acts of heroism then mopes about his rightness in performing them. In “Man of Steel”, he voices vague doubts then acts in direct, definite contradiction to his hesitations. Traditionally, Superman spends most of his time trying to convince others to do the right thing (or, at least, not do the wrong). If he cannot decide for himself what is right and wrong, then he can hardly convince anyone else either.

    A friend of mine recently claimed that Superman’s game plan is “to punch things until they stop being a dick.” It may prove true more often than not, but Supes’ initial plan of action is always to try to talk things out of being a dick. Talk to them at length and ad nauseum. Talk to them until they decide it’s not worth the trouble of listening. Talk to them until bystanders wish he would just shut up and punch something.

    Superman is the great monologuist of comicdom. We have now made it through nearly five hours of Superman movie this century without a single speech regarding rectitude and decency. It seems impossible. Superman is always going on about the possibility of man, the ability of man to save himself, no matter how evil he has acted or is acting. No one who holds and reads a Superman comic would conclude that he is taciturn and semi-articulate instead of voluble and unfaltering.

    In the twenty-first century, we are stuck with a Superman who cannot think past two utterances and a Batman who speaks in a stupid voice and will not shut the fuck up. “This city just showed you“–okay, five or six syllables, you get maybe two more–“that it’s full“–now, shut up–“of people“–please, shut up–“ready to believe“–God, shut up–“in good!“–fucking finally, now punch him.

    Truly, we’re getting the heroes we deserve from the makers who manifestly do not give a shit about them. At their basics, it’s real easy–Batman: terse, self-righteous; Superman: verbose, actually righteous. Granted, the latter is trickier than the former (‘cuz ‘Murica), but it isn’t all that difficult. It may not be very cool to have a Superman who is always right, but he should be like a good priest or psychiatrist: predictable and a bit square yet insightful and infuriatingly correct, at all times.

    Anyway, those are my objections. I agree with much of Hulk’s argument, but it’s the perfidies of core character that infuriate me. Even if Snyder dramatizes what he says, he’s saying all the wrong damned things. (Or he’s saying the right thing then contravening it the next scene then crossing up the contravention the scene after–he just clearly does not know what he means to say.)

    On a side note, I’m more and more convinced that David S. Goyer probably stood by while an infant drowned or something. Perhaps, he totally would have pushed that baby carriage out of the path of the bus had he not been in the middle of an important text message. Seriously, his obsession–his full-on stiffy–for turning active, heroic characters into passive manslaughterers disturbs me.

    “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you!” Yes, you do. You’re the goddamn Batman. Who told you that you don’t have to do that? Did I miss a scene with Thomas Wayne: “And, son, always remember–fuck these haters, for real. Gotham 4 life, dun.” You have to save his bitch ass, Bruce, happy about it or not.

    And Clark, when Pa shakes you off, you just go ahead and swoop right in behind the goddamned tornado and save his bitch ass too. Check with your mom right next to you. Get her opinion on whether or not you should save her husband’s bitch ass, even against his incredibly selfish wishes. She will not need to flip a coin. “*checks back of palm* Mmm, no. I’m sorry, son, not this time. Bye bye, Jon-Jon! *blows tearful kiss*”

    Okay, I’m done now. See, all that and not a word on how Brad Bird and The Iron Giant–great as they are–abso-fucking-lutely are not anywhere near any kind of Superman that works.

    Aw, dammit…so close.

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