Man of Steel: A comic fan’s perspective

man-of-steel-logoMuch like Dark Knight Rises last year, rather than just review of Man of Steel, I want to look at how it represents the characters in relation to their counterparts in both comic books and pop culture in general.

Fair warning, this article is going to have spoilers for Man of Steel, consider yourself warned.

Since Man of Steel is a reboot of the Superman movie franchise, we find ourselves with yet another telling of Superman’s origin.

The first part of the movie I like because it gives one of the best takes on why Krypton is doomed; the planet’s core was drained to provide energy, and lead to the planet imploding. This is of course topical, but also has a feeling of realism, compared to what is normally just a hand wave.

Of course this part also has some downfalls. The first is that amidst the end of the world, the military decides to stage a coup. I know this was done to provide an introduction for Zod and set up him for later, but it just comes off as odd.

You also have a bit with the genetic codex of Krypton. This I am more forgiving of. It harkens back to the post-crisis relaunch of Superman with Krypton being dependent on clone technology, and gives added motivation for Zod to come after Superman. Other than that, it is basically a McGuffin to drive the plot.

As for the characters, it is an interesting mix.

Or course we have to start with Henry Cavills’ performance as Clark. Right off the bat, you’ll notice that I called him Clark instead of Superman on purpose. While they do call him Superman in the film, it is treated initially as a nickname. The character is treated as a man on a journey to find himself and his place in the world. A lot of people complain that he is not the Superman they grew up with, and that is a fair but incomplete take on the character. This is Clark Kent figuring out who he is and where he fits in the world; so no, he is not the Superman you know, at least not yet. If this film is about anything, it is the events that shape Clark into Superman. He already has the instincts to do the right thing, but is not necessarily sure how to go about it.

Amy Adams as Lois Lane is on a completely different front. This is one of the best representations of Lois outside of the comics ever. She is smart, competent, brave, and a bit of a daredevil. There are two factors that put this Lois above the rest. One is that they show her investigating the mysterious figure that is Clark, and she figures out who he is. I think this is a first in any version of Superman, in which Lois knows Clark’s secret even before the public at large knows about him. The benefit is that there is never a need for her to be played as clueless in not being able to figure out that Clark is Superman. She knows from the onset and is an active partner. This leads to the other factor – Lois is as important to the resolution of the story as Clark. She has information he needs in order to defeat the bad guys. Trusting that she knows what she is doing, he never once tells her to go to safety. And of course Adams’s performance is perhaps the best in the entire film.

Michael Shannon as General Zod is another interesting study. I have been a fan of Shannon for a while and was happy to hear he was cast in the movie. I was also happy to hear that he was in no way even going to attempt to copy anything from Terrance Stamp’s performance from Superman II.  The role of Zod in the movie is very consistent with his recent portrayal in comics. He is devoted to Krypton above all else, and if he must destroy Earth to recreate Krypton, so be it. I like the inference in the film that this is a result of how Krypton bred and raised children to fill a specific role in their society, and so Zod had no idea how to do anything else, but it could have been done better if this was made clearer earlier as I mentioned with the issues with the prologue.

My biggest issue with the film is the portrayal of Jonathan Kent. I think this is one of Kevin Costner’s better performances in the last few years, but I do not like how he was written. In the comics, it is Jonathan that instills the values into Clark that will lead him to be Superman. The movie tries to say this is what happened, but it is not what they showed us. Every time we see Jonathan mentor Clark, he is more concerned with keeping the secret than he is with doing what is right.

Russell Crowe as Jor-El is pretty straight forward. He is playing Jor-El just as he has been portrayed in the comics since 1985. Honestly, it is a solid performance and does more to move Clark towards Superman than Jonathan does.

For the rest of the performances, they are generally well done, but brief. Laurence Fishburne as Perry White is good casting, because he provides a shorthand to the character, which is needed as there is not much on the page.

Diane Lane gets about the same as Martha Kent. She doesn’t have much to do in the flashback scenes with Costner, and in the present, she is the tough widow who believes in her son and isn’t going to let an alien invasion phase her.

Real quick I want to call back to an earlier article and talk about the character Jenny, played by Rebecca Buller. It is never made clear if she is supposed to be a female version of Jimmy Olsen, or just a Planet staffer who Perry looks out for. Either way the character is too minor for it to make much difference.

So let’s talk about the scene that has all the fans in an uproar.  Again, spoilers ahead.

After all the destruction that has been visited on Metropolis by the Kryptonian invaders, after said invasion force has been destroyed, after Superman and Zod have had a battle that has caused untold damage, the final show down occurs.

With Zod threatening to just keep killing humans and actively trying to kill a family, Clark breaks his neck, killing him.

This rubs most fans the wrong way as one of Superman’s big rules is that he does not kill.

Except in the comics he has, and it was Zod he killed.

In 1988 John Byrne wrote a story where Superman faced a Zod from another universe. In his universe, Zod had destroyed Earth, even with our Superman trying to save it. Superman defeats Zod, who then claims he will find a way to the main DC universe and destroy that Earth. Superman believes him and finds the only way to make sure this does not happen is to kill him.

But that is not the end of the story. The next years’ worth of stories are based around Superman struggling with that decision and ultimately declaring that he will always find a better way in the future.

In the movie, immediately after killing Zod, Clark is overcome with grief over having done it, and is comforted by Lois. Clearly this was not a light decision and weighs on him. If we do get a sequel, my hope is the writers build on this just as the comics did.

In the end I did enjoy Man of Steel, but I also think it was not a perfect film. I think it made the mistake of being too much of a disaster film to be a completely satisfying superhero film.

Hopefully Warner Bros. can learn from this film and any sequel can be the Superman film that all fans can get behind.


Gender change in a remake


Superman’s New Pal?

It’s geek debate time again.

This debate is brought to us by the upcoming Superman movie Man of Steel. And it is the time-honored debate of how they are altering a character. In this case the alteration appears to be happing to none other than Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen, and the change looks like a big one. Fans were noting that nowhere in the cast list was there any mention of anyone playing Jimmy. This is surprising as there has never been a live action Superman project that did not include Jimmy. He even appeared in the Supergirl movie. Minor character Emil Hamilton is appearing in the Man of Steel, so where is Jimmy?

Then someone reading the IMDB listing for the movie noticed that there is a character named Jenny Olsen, listed to be played by actress Rebecca Buller. Jimmy and Jenny are similar names. So the speculation has started that Jenny is a gender swapped Jimmy. And of course the moment that fans got wind of the story the debates began.

This is not the first variation on traditional casting that Man of Steel has done. Laurence Fishburne was announced early on as playing Perry White, thus changing the character’s ethnicity.  There was not really any noise about that casting, however this could be due to the fact that Fishburne is an actor well known to geek fans and well respected, so news of his casting was more along the lines of “they got a good actor to play Perry”. Buller on the other hand is a newcomer, having only one other acting credit listed on IMDB.

I think we as a society are at a point where altering ethnicity of a character is not as big of a deal. It happened to Pete Ross on Smallville and no one made any noise about it. Gender swapping tends to get more reaction as it can more significantly alter a character’s interactions with other characters. Also there can be a certain amount of homophobia or misogyny. Fans not dealing well due to identifying with the original character and not dealing well with the change or the old “a girl can’t do that.”

The best example of this is Battlestar Galactica.  In the original series, one of the main characters was Lt. Starbuck, a dashing rogue who was clearly meant to remind viewers of Han Solo from Star Wars. Starbuck was a ladies man, gambler, and smoked cigars. For the late ‘70s these traits all said lovable rascal. He was the best friend of our designated hero, Captain Apollo. Like Han Solo, Starbuck became the fan favorite character.

Also in the main cast was Lt. Boomer, who was a more level-headed counterpart. He was the intellectual, and more likely to act as a voice of reason.

In the 2003 remake both Starbuck and Boomer were recast as females. Most of the attention when this was announced was focused on the change to Starbuck. As the fan favorite character from the original show, the fans were outraged that such a change was taking place. All through the run of the remake there were some fans who could not get past this, even though once people saw the show it was clear that all the characters were different from their 70s counterparts.

In reality a lot of Starbucks characteristics were retained in the switch. Both were the best pilot in the fleet, both were brash and challenged authority, both gambled, drank, and smoked, and both really liked sex. In fact outside of the gender change, the biggest difference in the characters was that male Starbuck was always well groomed and female Starbuck was always looking rough and tumble, and that change probably has more to do with era difference than gender.  They were both the fans’ favorite character on the show.

In the end, changing Starbuck’s gender opened up storytelling possibilities that the writers took full advantage of.

Honestly, with the number of changes they did with the character of Boomer, the gender change is almost incidental.

Although it does seem that Grace Park, the actress who played Boomer, seems to have a habit of this. On her current show, the remake of Hawaii 5-0, her character is Kono, who was a male character on the original show. In this case the change was clearly an attempt to get a female character in the show where the original was exclusively male.

Another recent example comes from the CBS show Elementary, which is their answer to the British show Sherlock, placing Sherlock Holmes in a modern day setting. On Elementary, Holmes’ partner John Watson has been recast as Joan Watson and is being played by Lucy Liu. In this case, there are several elements of the traditional Holmes story that have been altered, and ultimately the gender change seems more in line with the Hawaii 5-0 one of providing more cast diversity than anything about the character.

So where does that leave us with poor Jenny Olsen? At this point it is hard to tell, since everything we know about this situation is based purely on speculation. Is she just an attempt to put another female on the cast, like Watson or Kono, or is she a way to open up story avenues not available with Jimmy, like Starbuck?

I for one will be interested to find out. Until then I will keep my nerd rage and knee jerk reaction in check.