THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for August 2013

Superman, Shakespeare and Cinema Part 2…

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The first part our chat regarding the Bard and Man of Steel can be read here. Shortly following this discussion, a Superman vs Batman film was announced as the sequel to Man of Steel. Given the nature of the timing we were unable to discuss that eventuation before editing this piece. Also, there’s little point in talking about a film that’s nought but a logo, so off we go…

cartoon by James Lincke

cartoon by James Lincke

I don’t want to sound like some fuddy-duddy Silver Age apologist but I’ve noticed a lot recently of people saying… yeah, Superman should kill, he should make the tough moral decisions we all have to make every day. I don’t know about you, but the last moral decision I made didn’t have anything to do with killing people. And I don’t think many of us ever have to make the decision whether or not to kill. In fact, the more you think about it, unless you’re in one of the Armed Forces, killing is illegal and immoral. Why would we want our superheroes to do that? There is a certain demand for it, but I just keep wondering why people insist that this is the sort of thing we’d all do if we were in Superman’s place and had to make the tough decision and we’d kill Zod. Would we? Very few of us have ever killed anything. What is this weird bloodlust in watching our superheroes kill the villains?

– Grant Morrison

B: I’m curious Anthony, where you think Man of Steel ranks in the pantheon of miscalculated comic book movies. Here’s a nerdy question: if you had to rank Man of Steel, Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, Daredevil, Elektra, Catwoman, Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet (hey, we gotta keep tying this back to Shakespeare somehow), how would you rank them?

A: Ask a nerdy question Ben, get a nerdy answer (what about the 80s Captain America film?). I’d say superhero films can miscalculate in their representation of a character or just in their general execution. For instance, in the first category is Lundgren’s Punisher, which barely resembles the comic book character but it’s a fine shoot-em-up action film for its context. In the second category is Superman IV, a mostly decent attempt at representing the kind of ethical dilemma the character might face in 1988, but also a cheap and shoddy film. Superman III is a weird beast, silly plot and no real story, not to mention the Pryor comedy schtick that subverts the entire premise. I’d argue Batman Forever wasn’t a miscalculation at all. For its context, BF was a successful film where the heroes have clear character arcs that were true to the previous films and general mythos, (despite the ‘toyetic’ Schumacher nonsense creeping in). Batman and Robin… dude, where do we start on that? As for Daredevil, Elektra and Catwoman? I’ve not seen them (well, I’ve seen Daredevil, I just remember nothing about it but boredom).

Man of Steel lands in that first category I’d say. It’s a finely crafted film that, in part, misrepresents the character. As a result, it’s already made over half a billion bucks coz most I talk with don’t have a lingering affection for the character to really offend. For the average Joe, this was a good modern Superman film. In that sense, it becomes hard to label it as miscalculated when every member of the cast, FX shot, action beat, orchestral sting and set piece seem to be a fiercely calculated attempt at brand repositioning. Honestly, Man of Steel is a successful film and I enjoyed the aforementioned elements. In the end, it’s just not a great representation of the character. And I think that matters, box office grab not-with-standing. Where would you put it amongst the apples, the oranges and the lemons?

B: Well, I would naturally put Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher at the top of the pile, followed by Catwoman and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I kid of course, though Dolph Lundgren is pretty great. You’re right, there are good films that do their icons injustice, bad films that somehow do their icons justice, and films that are bad AND do their icons injustice. In the Man of Steel‘s case… an apple-orange-lemon juice?

Honestly, I’m like the easiest target for these films. I’ve seen most major comic book films theatrically, with a handful of exceptions. Since 2008 my early May birthday has coincided with the release of a new Marvel movie, and that’s generally how I’ve celebrated. Of those films I rattled off above, my favourite is probably Daredevil. It’s got a lot of charm despite its chintzier attributes, and it’s a comic book character I love – even more than Superman – and enjoy watching on screen even in a film of only moderate quality.

I think it says a lot that I can enjoy and forgive a bad Daredevil film more than a bad Superman film, despite personally preferring the Man without Fear over the Man of Steel. And I think that’s because Superman’s iconography is so huge and, dare I say it, important, that to pervert it rubs me the wrong way. Yes, Superman is important: the character’s been in print for 75 years now, and is a cornerstone of comic book culture, film culture, popular culture, and modern mythology. That carries a lot of weight. And for all its technical credentials and impressive individual elements, Man of Steel represents a massive wasted opportunity.

Another nerdy question: where to from here? Do you want to see more of this incarnation of the character, do you think the films provides fertile soil for building a DC Universe on film, and if Warner Bros read this blog (yeah right) and gave you the keys to the kingdom, how would you move forward? And something something something Shakespeare?

 A: The keys to the kingdom hey? Yeah, we’ll get to that. First, I haven’t forgotten about Shakespeare (the last shred of connection between the original purpose of this blog and our current meanderings). Man of Steel’s references to Hamlet (angsty young hero and a ghost father, imagery of graveside chats and skulls) are not new to Superman. J. Michael Straczynski’s recent graphic novel Superman: Earth One, from which Man of Steel borrowed a lot, does a good job of applying the tragic dynamics of the Prince of Denmark to the Last Son of Krypton. It’s not a bad fit.

Of course it works, it’s Shakespeare. Hamlet is a great template for discussing loss and being and purpose and duty in any genre or medium. Man of Steel touches on these timeless themes, and even if people argue about the quality of the execution, it is a better film for it. As the nerd revolution turns the stuff of video games and comic books into mainstream blockbusters, filmmakers will need to be more conscious of traditional drama, at least as quality control. After all, in a culture where comic book characters are rebooted every decade, Shakespeare’s plays still persist after half a millennium.

If WB, particularly Dianne Nelson who manages the superhero brands, were to ask me ‘where to from here’? – and wisely, she does not consult the fanbase– first, I know nothing about anything really, but I’d respond as pragmatically as possible. For the purposes of repositioning Superman as a successful publishing brand and film franchise, Man of Steel worked just fine. If they want to make money from the character at the movies, just keep doing what they’re doing.

However, we’re not the only ones suggesting this film could have been so much more. It was needlessly dark and divisive. Remember, when Snyder shoots existing material he makes 300, but when he creates original content he makes Sucker Punch. Many now argue that Snyder can’t influence story again. Keep Goyer, but enlist some journeymen script doctors to get the character arcs and pacing tighter. WB actually hired Geoff Johns to consult on these DC films. Bring him to the table, he’s written some Superman stories (some of the best bits of Man of Steel came from his Secret Origins series).

Man of Steel made money, but if WB want to make The Dark Knight or Avengers levels of cash with this franchise, then they’ll need a stronger product offering more than action/spectacle. The film must unite the film-going public with broad appeal, not divide the fan base, frighten children and bore mums. At this point, what a Man of Steel sequel needs is more warmth, humour and a stronger connection between protagonist and audience. That means building real romance with Lois, making Smallville feel like home and the Daily Planet a smart and witty place (and dare I say it, Jimmy Olsen should be there. Just cast Rupert Grint). That means pulling back on the spectacle and action a wee bit to fit in a clear and sympathetic character arc for Superman.

Man of Steel was cool, but Superman is not just an action hero. Superman is a big character that represents big things, a campfire myth at which popular culture has often gathered. Superman is Jesus. Superman is America. Superman is every orphan and immigrant and every kid from a small town. He is the everyman who feels mundane on the outside but suspects they are capable of much more within. Superman is us. Make that film. Make a Superman film.

So yes, I want to see more. I like Snyder and Goyer and Zimmer. Cavill is just Superman incarnate. While it’d be nice to address the misrepresentation of the character, I don’t want a sequel trying to correct the previous film’s sins. Still, I believe they can make a strong sequel. It’s Superman. I’m hopeful. 😉

BTW, I can’t seem to care about any Justice League tie-ins. It just sounds goofy, but apparently someone wants this movie so whatever. I’d love a Superman/Batman film, though I’d struggle with a rebooted caped crusader so soon if Bale doesn’t want the fat paycheck. Dunno. What do you think?

B: Yeah, I’m indifferent to Justice League, both as a prospective cinematic property and as a comic book property in general. I like all those individual characters – Flash, Wonder Woman etc – but don’t particularly care for them as a group. And while I love what Marvel’s done with The Avengers on film, I can’t muster any enthusiasm for seeing Nolan’s Batman, Snyder’s Superman, Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern, or any variations in the same room.

Having said that, I’d kill for a retro comic book pulp team-up with Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, Billy Campbell’s The Rocketeer, Alec Baldwin’s The Shadow and Billy Zane’s The Phantom. But I digress…

I actually think a sequel to Man of Steel has been set up nicely in a couple of key ways. With Lois knowing that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same, that’s a very different dynamic from previous Superman films and neatly does away with one of their more contrived dramatic tropes. I think the devastation of Metropolis could be used as just cause and viable spin for Lex Luthor’s crusade against Superman, should they go in that direction (the LexCorp truck I spotted towards film’s end makes me think they will). I’d like to see Superman grapple with his decision to kill Zod at the end of Man of Steel, though at the same time I don’t want a brooding Superman ala the Dark Knight films. Not sure where the balance lies there…

But I’m not chomping at the bit for more; I’m open to it certainly, but not craving it. And while the film’s made sufficient mint to spawn a sequel, it hasn’t really become a cultural conversation piece in the same way as The Dark Knight, Iron Man or The Avengers. And given Superman is the precursor and gold standard to this whole damn cycle, that’s genuinely disappointing.

A: And that’s where we finish up. After 75 years of Superman, when pop culture is flooded with his imitators, the character still has the ability to inspire, disappoint and make loads of cash. Here’s to wishing the Man of Steel a happy birthday, and many happy sequels…

B: Finally, to tie things back to Shakespeare, the definitive take on Superman as Hamlet. You’re welcome…




August 4, 2013 at 2:33 am

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