Things I Learned From… Man Of Steel

I freely admit that I’m not a Superman fan. He’s too goody-goody, too socially compliant for my liking. All that “truth, justice and the American way” is off-putting in the morally complex 21st century.

Not that there’s much of “the American way”, however you define it, in Man Of Steel. To my mind, it’s a movie heavy on the steel – the strength, the power, the unbending mindset of the superhuman – and pretty light on the man. This Clark Kent decimates Metropolis and Smallville without batting an eyelid. The human beings he lives among are constantly cited as being the motivation for his actions, but his connection to them is arbitrary and intermittent. Some are saved, many are left to die at the hands of the bad guys. Many more, though we never see their faces, must surely have died as a direct result of his actions…

Given that title, it’s interesting that David Goyer and Christopher Nolan, who take joint story credit on the movie, seem a lot more interested in creating a god than a man. Clark spends the first act of the story appearing from nowhere, wreathed in fire or defying icy water, to rescue helpless, faceless mortals from apocalyptic fates. Later he levels cities, destroys vast machines, and fights an unstoppable opponent. He’s a modern Hercules, roaming the world arbitrarily intervening in human affairs, leaving legends of himself in his wake.

That divine identification reaches its zenith when a Clark in crisis, contemplating self-sacrifice, enters a church in search of guidance  – and spends the scene outlined against the painfully obvious metaphor of stained glass depicting Christ praying before his crucifixion…

Okay. Superhero movies are heroic narratives, and it’s in the nature of a heroic narrative to create a protagonist who has to save the helpless. If he didn’t, how would we know he was the protagonist?

(“He”? Yes, usually. Interestingly, female protagonists tend to inhabit genres like horror and thrillers, where their task is to save themselves, not others. But that’s a discussion for another post.)

And there’s nothing wrong with superhumans. Aliens, vampires, cyborgs, mutants, genetically engineered warriors; all superhumans reflect our own humanity back to us by inhabiting the border between human and non-human. It’s in exploring the boundary that we learn what lies on either side of it.

But there’s a reason people tell stories not about gods, but about men (and I’m using ‘men’ in the spirit of the original meaning of the word: humans of any gender). Because men, human or superhuman, embody our hopes and fears and passions and dreams. Because they are us.

Does this Clark Kent embody anything that we can empathise with, any human hope or fear? Not that I can see. He doesn’t even appear to want to. This Clark is not a man of steel but a god of steel – cautiously worshipped from a distance, occasionally entering the human world to rescue or to kill, yet still beyond our empathy and our understanding. The last truly human moment in the movie, to my mind, is the last appearance of Pa Kent. There’s no humanity in the child he raised as his son.

And thus, as a hero, the God Of Steel has nothing to offer me.

Irony in Character

Many simple narratives, such as Lethal Weapon, take two characters with entirely different, opposing views and qualities and pair them up to create fireworks.  However, we can do better than that.  What if we combine those opposing qualities into one character?  Then we have internal conflict – and character irony.

Many of the most memorable characters have a deep vein of irony at their core.  This is a technique that comic book writers have been using for the best part of a century to create instantly recognizable characters with clear characteristics, who’ll stand out in the convoluted, soapy plotlines of a long-running story.

So, Superman, protector of the human race, is in fact an alien who feels emotionally distanced from humanity.  Batman is the face of justice who also happens to be borderline psychotic – and just for good measure, Bruce Wayne is the ultimate ‘poor little rich kid’, the man who has everything in the world except the one thing he needs, his tragically deceased parents.

You could write entire essays on the use of irony in The New X-Men.  HankBeast” McCoy, the sophisticated, erudite intellectual trapped in the body of a hairy ape.  Charles Xavier, a telepath so powerful that he can make contact with telepaths on other planets, yet has been confined to a wheelchair for much of his adult life.  And, perhaps one of the cruelest – and most realistic – ironies in fiction, Erik “Magneto” Lensherr, the concentration camp survivor who ends up embracing a policy of genetic purity and superiority that would have made Hitler proud.

So next time you’re thinking about using two opposing characters to illustrate the theme of your narrative, ask yourself – could I combine those opposing ideas into one character instead?