How (Zach Snyder’s failed imitation of) Alan Moore ruined The Man of Steel

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In 1979, I turned 5 years old, and my mom threw a Superman birthday party: yes, the cups, the plates, the ice cream cake were all Superman. I got a soap-on-a-rope Superman (I can still remember the smell), Superman sheets and bedspread, posters, and even wallpaper for one corner of my room. For several years of my childhood, Superman watched over me, and I thought of myself as an aspiring good guy because of it. Here, as a life-long Superman fan, is my review of Man of Steel (and no, it does not focus on how Superman killing Zod affects his character…the movie was already set up for that):

In 2009, Zach Snyder directed Watchmen, a stylish rendition of Alan Moore’s 1980s series that popularized violence and realism in comic books. Under Snyder’s hand, the movie was obvious fantasy and its choreographed violence was beautiful.  Snyder’s Man of Steel, based on a 75-year-old character who wears his red bloomers outside his pants (which Snyder took away) and often bears the nickname “boy scout,” depicts the superpowered myth as literally as possibly. The sombre, dark and violent film sought to answer the question, “What would our world look like if someone with Superman’s power actually existed?” 

The result was as disturbing as every other attempt to turn a myth into reality.

Despite the title above, I am not claiming that Alan Moore ruined the Man of Steel, although he did kill Superman back in the 1980s to make way for John Byrne’s highly influential reboot. Moore’s effect on Superman came later, in a different project:  in late 1986 and 1987 (coinciding with Byrne’s Man of Steel miniseries debut), Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons released the original twelve-issue maxiseries Watchmen. More than any mainstream comic series before it, Watchmen evoked violent realism, employed biting satire and engendered deep pathos for powerful individuals, calling into question the label “hero.” More than any comic before it, Watchmen imagined a real-world scenario in which superbeings walked among us. The result was terrifying, tapping into the Cold War era fears of government oppression, nuclear winter, environmental devastation. 

The influence of this series was unmistakable, as the 1990s saw the widespread use of these elements throughout the comics industry, mass-produced as paper-thin facsimiles. Every comic now had the “real” elements of extreme violence and destruction, and all characters were full of angst, as if having super powers turned them into selfish, hormonal teens for whom social rules no longer applied. (In my memory, Rick Veitch’s gruesome Maximortal accomplished this more completely than any other). For Superman, this trend culminated in the pivotal Death of Superman series, in which Superman and Doomsday beat one another to death in downtown Metropolis in front of dozens of news cameras and Clark’s loved ones. The gods had stepped out of mythology into reality, and now they were killing one another for mass entertainment.

This popular trend in the 90s focused on the violence and “realism” of Watchmen, and missed Moore’s main point. The pivotal scene is the conversation between Doctor Manhattan and Silk Spectre II on Mars, in which Manhattan (the resident Superman) decides to save humanity because, as a god and a scientist, he is enamored by our unpredictable nature and unlikely success. All of the violence and fear is countered by an understanding of the power of love: especially love between strangers during a crisis and between a god and flawed mortals. In Watchmen, Moore suggests this mysterious power is what gives our lives meaning. Many fanboys who grew up to be comics creators, however, focused on the realistic depiction of violence, destruction and heightened emotions that Moore used as a contrast to important moral and philosophical inquiries into the nature of humanity, embracing pathos while rejecting ethos and logos. One of these fanboys was obviously Snyder.

There was no mistaking Snyder’s Watchmen film for reality. It looked to have been filmed on an elaborate set and his direction turned every scene into a colorful portrait. For instance, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II defied physics and human limitations when breaking Rorschach out of prison, but the scene was beautifully shot, showcasing superhuman feats their comic book counterparts never possessed. Watchmen, the book that brought realism and complex morality to the comic book world, was rendered artistically distant by the director, set in an obvious world of fantasy, a slightly two-dimensional, brightly colored world where the impossible became slightly possible. In essence, then, Snyder brought the comic book to life, rather than placing the Watchmen characters in the real world. That seems to be a strange decision when we remember that the Watchmen series is remembered for its realism. Yet, it works beautifully.  

I was excited when I heard that director of 300 and Watchmen was going to direct The Man of Steel. I thought, “This guy really knows and loves comic books!” However, Snyder abandoned his directorial style for the most comic of all characters, and placed the colorful, eternally good Superman in our real world, an intrusion into our reality. The result was disturbing, and far from fun. Unlike Moore’s series, there is no core philosophy for Superman’s love for humanity. Unlike Snyder’s Watchmen, there is no colorful love for comics that frames the violence as fantasy. After all, if you look at the history of the Superman media, particularly the animated series, you will find Superman slugging it out with many big bad guys and destroying buildings in Metropolis over and over again…but the lines are drawn so thin and the colors painted so brightly, you never have to wonder whether hundreds of people are dying as those buildings fall. Snyder could have made such a movie. 

Superman is supposed to be fun. Superman is supposed to have fun being Superman. The essence of Superman is not mere escapism, but emulation. We want to be Superman, and that dream underlies the long-term success of the character. He is a myth, a half-god like Hercules or Samson. He is never supposed to be real, because dreams and myths are not meant to be touched. Once they are, they turn to sand. 

In the real world, a hero with such power would be forced to do something terrible and unforgivable, as in Watchmen, when Doctor Manhattan kills his ally Rorschach to protect Ozymandias’ secret. That scene had more in common with Greek tragedy, wherein the hubris of heroes has devastating effects on all of society. Such darkness is appropriate for Batman, but Superman is the character of epic poems and legendary trials. Superman does not have to make the tough choices, because he is not real. As he states repeatedly in Grant Morrison’s wonderful All-Star Superman, “There is always a way.” This statement is not true for anyone, in the history of the world, but in the mythic world of Superman, it is true for all of us. That’s an important distinction, and why Superman does not belong in our world, not in a movie or any other medium. He belongs in fantasy, where we place our hope, safe from the reality of experience.  

I am disappointed Snyder did not give us a more joyful, colorful, hopeful comic book movie. It was not inspired, nor inspirational. 

I know this is groundwork for future films, but it seemed too dark, violent and ordinary for a Superman film. And yes, maybe that is nostalgia speaking, but seriously, I found myself thinking throughout the movie, “Who would my five-year-old self feel inspired to be, if this were his hero?” The story is obviously based on  2010’s “Earth One” by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis, but even that story had a turning point wherein Clark was inspired by the bravery of Jimmy Olsen and decided to reveal himself and start saving lives. That is one of the common complaints of Man of Steel, that he helped destroy Metropolis, but never showed compassion for the people who were dying. He wouldn’t have to be a full-blown hero in the first movie, I get that. But a hint of it would’ve gone a long way. Even Nolan’s Dark Knight series repeatedly discussed what it means to be a hero.

Grounding the dark story of Man of Steel firmly in reality made it something like a horror flick by the ending. Snyder tried to ground the comic myth in reality, and it slipped through his fingers like a half-remembered dream… 



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