THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for July 2013

Superman, Shakespeare and cinema: Part 1…

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This year saw not only the 75th anniversary of Superman’s first printed appearance in Action Comics 1, but the premiere of the character’s latest cinematic incarnation, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. As the film flew across the world, it drew condemnation and praise from audiences, fans and critics, as it dressed our beloved hero in large-scale urban destruction and time-honoured Shakespearean motifs. Given the fascination Ben and I share for comic books and the Bard, we thought we’d waste some time with a wending rant on all things Superman, Shakespeare and cinema. Let’s go…


A: So there are some Shakespearean elements present in Man of Steel. First off, there’s an obvious Hamlet vibe, Clark Kent moping about and being driven to action by the ghost of his father…

B: There’s also a pair of father figures he’s torn between, ala Hal in Henry IV. You could call Jor-El the Henry IV-ish father figure, regal and grooming his son for duty, and Jonathan Kent the Falstaff figure, built from an earthier timbre and holding his son back from fulfilling his potential.

It might be worth putting our cards on the table and explaining our allegiances going into Man of Steel. I like Superman. A lot. He’s not my favourite superhero or comic book character – that would be Batman, with a grumpy Incredible Hulk a close second – but he’s in the top tier. My favourite version of the character in any form would be the Christopher Reeve films of the 1970s and 80s, the first two of which are great, the latter two of which are horrendous but dignified by the sincere work of Reeve. I like Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns; I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of the Fleischer cartoons, the George Reeves series, Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville, but never watched any of them obsessively; and the comics I’ve read I’ve generally liked, especially stuff like A Superman for All Seasons and All-Star Superman. In the lead-up to Man of Steel, I was primed. Director Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is one of the best comic book adaptations committed to film, and producer Christopher Nolan was responsible for steering the Dark Knight films. While that series promised to be a definitive cinematic take on Batman and ultimately proved to be a more personal idiosyncratic beast, it was nonetheless a fascinating and compelling experiment. All in all, I was pumped for seeing these two auteurs tackle one of the great icons of popular culture.

A: Well, here’s my hand. I am Superman fan. My experiences are much like your own. I grew up with the magical Reeve films and have vague but fond memories of the 50s TV show. I can even remember Superman’s 50th birthday celebrations in 88 (I believe he got a TV special and a TIME cover story). As I got older, I was into the thrilling Fleischer cartoons and even the mediocre Superboy TV show. Superman appeared on TV again, most noteworthy was the pilot for Lois and Clark, Superman: The Animated Series and the first season of Smallville. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was a flawed but reverent sequel to the first Superman film, and packs a bit of nostalgic magic into its rather episodic plot.

First and foremost, the character is a comic book hero. For the uninitiated, I’d recommend the books of Elliot S! Maggin, the Man of Steel mini-series, The Death of Superman, Superman: Peace on Earth, Superman for all Seasons and All Star Superman. In all these instances, the character is a thrilling action adventure hero while representing a unique humanist ethic… you know what, I already did that spiel on my site. Either way, I dig the Man of Steel and no matter how old I get I am still that kid forever leaping off the couch wearing a towel for a cape. Sufficed to say, I was cautiously optimistic about Zack Snyder’s cinematic reboot.

And you’re right about Snyder. He filmed Moore’s “unfilmable” Watchmen and acquitted himself rather well. Same when he shot Miller’s 300 against a green-screen and he’s still praised for his Dawn of the Dead remake. When he’s adapting existing material, he’s adept at turning panels of sequential art into celluloid. Many have noted, however, that when he must create original content as a storyteller, we end up with Sucker Punch and that owl movie.

Consider also Man of Steel’s production team. Producer Chris Nolan is a master of tense blockbuster realism, even if his films about men driven by loss and vengeance are rather incongruous for a character like Superman. Likewise, writer David S. Goyer has more runs on the board than any when it comes to penning superhero flicks. Given this team up, Man of Steel could have been an astounding piece of pop culture myth. More on that later.

Now, to finish my initial Bard-related observations. There are some motifs in Man of Steel, other than the Hamlet-esque relationship between Superman and his ghost-dad, that we could call Shakespearean. For instance, Krypton is the kingdom that falls due to the pride of age, in part reminiscent of King Lear or the Henriad. Also, the motif of the tragic general doomed by his flaws and duty (Coriolanus, Othello) surfaces in the figure of Zod.

Man of Steel also toys with the notion of free will, where baddie Zod and other Kryptonians are genetically predisposed to certain motivations and roles within society. As a protagonist, Superman has no genetic predisposition and must face choices regarding his place in the world, even to which world he holds his allegiance. Regardless of the film’s success in executing these ideas, it does posit the broad idea that free will creates heroes and predestination makes villains.

Shakespeare of course, dealt with the dogma of Calvinist predestination, the idea that some are chosen for glory and some for damnation. In fact, many of his richer patrons would have thought that we each hold a station in society by the will of the divine. We can be sure that Shakespeare was not a Calvinist as the Puritan cause is mocked frequently in his plays, particularly Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure. In a more pagan sense, Shakespeare is also aware of the powers of ‘fate’ and that plays a big part in the tragic downfall of Macbeth.

Given these vague connections, I still wouldn’t suggest Man of Steel is particularly Shakespearean, rather it invokes the broad strokes of traditional tragedy, much like The Dark Knight trilogy or Skyfall (previously discussed here). Today, many blockbusters often borrow the largess of traditional drama to add weight to the popcorn and Man of Steel is no different.

B: And therein lies one of its chief problems. Batman lends himself to tragic pathos, given his dark origin and brooding disposition. So does James Bond: the Bond films tend to mirror the popular aesthetics of their time, so it’s fitting that Skyfall cribs from the Nolan Batman films (the death of Bond’s parents that left him orphaned; a calculating villain who’s a distorted mirror version of the hero and lets himself get caught to deal his deadliest blows; even the burning of a childhood mansion). But Superman’s an alien in blue lycra with a red cape who punches and lifts big things. That’s not to say there can’t be darker takes on Superman (just as there are lighter takes on Batman and Bond: see the Adam West and Roger Moore eras respectively). But to reinvent Superman in the Dark Knight’s image is the first of a number of major miscalculations.

Sadly, the combination of Snyder and Nolan that I originally thought was a winning team proved wrong for the material. As individual filmmakers, they’re terrific. But united on this particular property, it’s a poisonous combination. Snyder’s got an aptitude for stylish devastation and violence. Nolan’s all about serious, realistic takes on his superheroes. As a consequence, in the final third of the film we’re shown what would happen to Earth if super-powered beings ever let rip… at great, tedious length. So much time is spent depicting buildings being destroyed either due to alien terra-forming or superhero fisticuffs, with an invisible death toll presumably adding up to hundreds of thousands. Basically, 9/11 happens thirty times over in Metropolis. The message is clear: this is what would happen if superheroes really existed. But is that the message audiences want from a Superman film: that Superman’s presence, not to put too fine a point on it, would completely fuck up planet Earth? While that message is suited to the darker tone of the Dark Knight films, given that the cause & effect of vigilantism is a central theme in the modern Batman mythos, it does not really belong here.

What’s more, all this destruction and devastation becomes deadly boring and numbing. There’s little sense of fun or charm in Man of Steel. While again this stems from Nolan’s mandate on realism and Snyder’s over-emphasis on spectacle, I also have to lay some blame at the doorstep of Goyer. There’s no denying he’s one hell of a plotter, but his dialogue’s mechanical and there’s a flatness to a lot of the more performance-based scenes that the actors, despite their best efforts (and some are really, really good) can’t quite overcome…

A: I agree there. The Nolan/Goyer team deal in superhero realism where Snyder crafts action violence. Together, it looks like a job for Superman, though they posit the Man of Steel as the cause of the chaos as well as the cure. It misses the mark for the character. Plus, you could hardly describe any of those storytellers as optimistic in tone.

Mario Puzo did describe Superman as a “Greek tragedy”, but that never obscured the wit or charm in Donner’s first film. I can’t help but feel that Superman requires that more traditional touch, more of a Spielberg or Zemeckis approach. I’d have suggested Abrams had he not previously been attached to direct one of the aborted attempts at this film (and written a truly odd script for it). Hell, if the script was strong and polished and the studio had a real tight leash, Michael Bay might have come closer to the right tone for a Superman film. I know that sounds odd, but you should feel good at the end of a Superman film, not numb from all the 3D 9/11 imagery. At least Bay would have shot it with some colour and fun.

It’s tough, because Nolan, Goyer and Snyder are all accomplished and skilled creators whose work I have enjoyed. As a writer, I particularly hold Goyer in high esteem for his ability to make geeky characters work for broad audiences. But we’re not the only ones suggesting something’s gone awry here. When it comes to the technical elements of the character dramatisation, Film Crit Hulk truly autopsied Man of Steel already. If we’re gonna lay the blame at anyone’s feet first and foremost, then we need to talk about Snyder, coz we’re gonna have to talk about the suicide-by-cop moment. As a fan, I was disappointed, even momentarily angered, by that decision. Did you care as much?

B: I did, though I think that is a question of decision rather than direction. Objectively speaking, I think Man of Steel is a well-directed film. While the set pieces do become numbing, I can’t deny Snyder’s knack for striking imagery. The stuff on Krypton early in the film is a particularly funky and nerdy (in the best sense) vision of Superman’s birth planet that we’ve never really encountered before, like Doctor Who’s Gallifrey imagined by Edgar Rice Burroughs. And smaller moments work well too, like the scene where Jor-El recites the history of Krypton to his son and background imagery illustrates the story. Details and touches like this which other filmmakers might have skipped over or skimped on attest to Snyder’s directorial and visual acumen.

And like I said above, some of the performers are really great. Henry Cavill makes a good impression as the titular character, as does Amy Adams, a great actress who’s often a little bland, as Lois Lane. I think Russell Crowe is entering the ‘Fat Brando’ stage of his career playing larger than life characters and making big choices (see also his work in The Man with the Iron Fists and Les Miserables, as well as the upcoming Noah) so he’s well suited to the role of Jor-El. And I love Kevin Costner in pretty much everything and he invests the role of Jonathan Kent with appropriate Americana.

All these elements, taken individually, are fine. But again, it’s the bigger creative decisions which glue them together (or don’t, to be more precise) that really hamper the film. It’s not just an issue of tone, but basic character choices. The treatment of Jonathan Kent is a great example of that. As Film Crit Hulk noted, the filmmakers gave Kent a tangled mess of motivations and confusing messages to impart (don’t save people or be a hero now, because you need to save people and be a hero later) which undermines the gravity of Costner’s work in those scenes. There’s no better actor equipped to have played that part, and it’s disappointing that his performance is hobbled by that clumsy writing and a rather miscalculated death scene.

A: Yeah, that bit of visual exposition in the ‘fortress’ is a highlight, as is the opening on Krypton and even those touches of Malick in the Smallville scenes. Let’s not forget his deft hand with uber-powered showdowns. No one can doubt Snyder’s ability to craft an image or an action beat, and his direction there is fine, but it’s his decisions as a storyteller that left so many scratching their heads. That’s why I connect him with the now infamous Superman-kills-Zod decision. That precious little moment was originally Snyder’s idea. A recent interview with Empire revealed that Nolan and Goyer were suitably confused at the notion when Snyder suggested it. Clearly, anyone with a functional knowledge of the character understands that Superman does not kill his enemies, not just as a moral code, but as an expression of his heightened compassion. It’s what makes him different from the countless anti-heroes in pop culture who gun down baddies for breakfast. Superman is meant to be better than that.

I’m just about done fan-hating on that decision, but I will add this: many have said of that scene that Superman had no choice but to kill Zod, but more precisely, the writer and director offered him none. So what else was Superman supposed to do? Well, Superman could have blocked Zod’s heat vision, injuring himself rather than killing. Maybe he could have used a burst of strength or flight to move Zod to the side. Hell, if you have enough grip to twist a man’s neck you can certainly turn him 180 so he’s unable to immolate innocent bystanders. First off, Superman could have spent at least a few breaths trying to appeal to Zod’s genetic predisposition and offered to work alongside him in rebuilding Krypton elsewhere. There’s a crapload of things Superman could have done rather than kill. Just ask a comic writer. And I say that not as some expert comic author, but as a dude who’s read a bazillion Superman comics over the years. Man of Steel’s ending was unimaginative, sad, yet dramatically inert.

Finally, we see how silly this games gets, here I am trying to mend the plot of a popcorn superhero film. I would, however, argue that this highlights the issue: Superman can do whatever he wishes. He’s freaking Superman! For what purpose do we create the impossible and good man if not to do impossibly good things? That’s the point of an aspirational mythic character. To be better than us.

B: I did not know that moment derived entirely from Snyder, so I stand educated. Still, it says something about that particular combination of talent and the particular tone they were going for that such a choice was not only feasible but perversely organic to the storytelling.

To be continued next week, in Part 2…



July 28, 2013 at 6:10 am

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