Comic Book vs. Film: Man of Steel vs. Superman Unchained
Let's start with a disclaimer. This is not a "traditional" book vs. film piece. Because not only are we looking at a comic book, we are comparing it to a film that is not an adaptation of a specific work, a film that draws from many different ongoing works. Still, I believe it's a worthy comparison to make because two major Superman efforts were delivered last week: Zack Snyder's Man of Steel film and Scott Snyder and Jim Lee's Superman Unchained comic book.
Before we begin the analysis, let's just acknowledge what a smart move it was on DC's part to create a new Superman comic book to coincide with the release of Man of Steel, allowing anyone that liked the film to go out and pick up a #1 issue, or buy it digitally (even on Amazon, for the Kindle). Very smart move, exhibiting some of the savvy marketing and forward thinking I'd like to see DC and Marvel utilize more, especially as these film properties continue to grow.
With that out of the way, let us begin!
Beware of film only spoilers from here on out!
So, in short, Man of Steel is a terrible movie on almost every level, from the point of view of a Superman fan, a comics lover, and a lover of film. It is tragically flawed in every possible way. There are a few great moments in the film, moments when you get that "happy chill" of superhero awesomeness (for me there were like...one and a half, your mileage may vary), but in general it falls flat in every category — tone, pacing, balance, stakes, and basic storytelling. You can read my detailed thoughts about all those things here if you like, but I think the root of the problem can be traced back to the story that Zack Snyder, David S. Goyer, and Christopher Nolan have opted to tell, which is what I want to discuss today. Conversely, while Superman Unchained is not a perfect comic book by any stretch, the story it chooses to tell is not a weakness, but a strength.
The story in Man of Steel focuses heavily on Krypton and Superman's general origin, both as a function of "teaching" audiences about Kal/Clark/Superman, and as a plot delivery system. The big problem is that the plot hinges on the origin, and the plot itself is terrible, but we'll circle back around to that.
Let's start at the beginning, shall we? We get nothing of "Clark Kent" as we know him until the last two minutes of the film. Instead, we get a 30 minute opening set on Krytpon that delves into the politics of Kryptonian society, as well as the rebellion of General Zod and the adversarial relationship betwen Zod and Jor-El (Superman's father). It's all poorly written and overly earnest and feels like a necessary setup for a "cool action set piece" showing the destruction of Krypton. Of course, it's hard to care about the destruction of Krypton because the stakes are so low. Even the most casual Superman fan already knows how this plays out. We already know Kal-El's fate (hint: he's going to make it out and land on Earth and become Clark Kent/Superman), we already know Krypton will be destroyed, and we already know from previous movies, comics, etc. that a few other Kryptonians will escape (like General Zod and Supergirl). We also aren't attached to anyone else on Krytpon (including Kal's family — I'm sorry, but there's nothing here to engage us other than the weakest and most saccharine of parent/child cliches). Additionally, Krytpon, as portrayed here, kind of seems like a terrible place that is reaping what it has sewn. That may be Earth's fate as well someday, and sure, there's a parallel there, but Krytpon seems light years ahead of us in every way (including douchebaggery). In case the opening 30 minutes of painstaking detail leaves you foggy, don't worry, because when Clark gets to talk to "holographic" Jor-El, he lays it all out for us again. Seriously. We are given all of this expositional crap not once, but twice, which for most of us is really the hundredth time, since we already knew it all anyway. All this to say it's painfully boring. Like, I can't remember the last time I was this bored in a movie boring.
Clark is raised in Kansas with some extremely odd values (courtesy of Pa Kent) that will certainly offend any diehard Superman fan. These twisted values appear designed primarily to force Superman to hide out for 33 years so that he can be Jesus's age when he emerges as the freaking "New Jesus/Superman." It's bad storytelling because it's horribly convenient. You can feel the writer(s) in a room going, How do we get him to stay hidden for that much time?! Cause we REALLY want that super-subtle Jesus analogy. The answer, apparently, is that they forcibly tweak Superman's well-established childhood in Kansas in a way that fundamentally destroys a character (hint: Pa Kent got the short straw). So, with Clark exiling himself (which is actually the best and most interesting part of the movie) and Zod on his way to destroy Earth, we are headed into the second half of the film, and wall to wall action scenes for the last 40+ minutes. Hooray.
Ironically, the ONLY reason we need any of the Krypton stuff or any of the origin stuff is because of the plot we're going to be fed in the second half of the film. Had the creators chosen a different (better) first story to tell about Superman, they could have jettisoned all of this, because it's already something the population knows by heart. Even those barely familiar with the Superman mythos know enough that you don't have to spoon feed them every detail. In fact, though I was with the herd in not liking Superman Returns, it was bold in its story choices. It wasn't successful, for many reasons, but the IDEA was good. This idea is not good. In fact, there barely IS an idea.
So, the central plot the first hour has set up centers on General Zod's escape from the destruction of Kyrpton, because he and his cronies had been sent away to "prison" in The Phantom Zone (which remains an awesome name for anything, even in the worst of movies). They naturally make their way to Earth and try to take it over and turn it into an all-new Krypton. Their plan mostly consists of changing the Earth's environment to be more suitable to Kryptonian physiology (in a ridiculous sci-fi-y way that seems designed only to look cool), and then, of course, killing Superman, for kicks and because he has some complicated shit inside him (thanks Jor-El!) that will allow them to begin cloning Krytponians.
A hinging plot point early on is "will Superman give himself up to save Earth?" It's a stupid plot point, because "of course he will."
He's goddamn Superman.
Again, literally no stakes. In the fight sequences to come (and they are stacked one on top of another for literally 40+ minutes) Superman really doesn't seem that thrown. He's not injured or defeated. At no time do we feel that he is at risk — to die or to lose. He expresses no concern for the people of Metropolis as a battle that surely takes hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives rages on. He is only concerned when confronted directly with the potential death of a family in front of him, which leads to another decision that will break the heart of Superfans everywhere. And for that broken heart we get what? There are still no stakes. We know that he will save the day, if only because we know he's Superman and that DC cannot and will not kill Superman (can't really blame them). When your audience is that savvy you absolutely HAVE to find a new way to make us care. You can not just rely on "People love Superman" and "Superman is cool," therefore we don't need things that actual stories need.
Since Earth cannot be destroyed as Krypton was (because then where will we set a sequel?) and since Superman cannot die (because then who will star in the sequel?), why should we care? Unless we're just there for action/effects porn? The stakes seem to be... will Superman allow Zod to kill Earth and remake Krypton on Earth? Will Superman save his new home and people at the risk of condemning his old one (that he never knew)?
Well, duh. I mean, again, he's Superman. Of course he is not going to kill an entire world of innocent people so it can be stripped of its resources and a flawed society rebuilt on its ashes.
Why is this even a question the film poses? Because not even the film takes this question seriously. We know what Superman is going to do before he does it. When you add to this the joyless, humorless, charmless tone, and scenes so unintentionally ridiculous that I laughed out loud, you have utterly failed at creating a good superhero movie. Period.
By contrast, while writer Scott Snyder and artist Jim Lee were saddled with all the same constraints as Man of Steel — i.e. you can't kill Superman, you can't destroy Earth, and the story has been told so many times before — they still managed to do something new and interesting. And they managed it without going super edgy and dark, or trying to turn Superman into Batman, who he's not and never can be, and for good reason. Consequently, where Man of Steel stumbles, Superman Unchained soars.
Snyder, as he has done so well with the Batman mythos, goes into Superman's past to draw forward new ideas and challenges. It's tough to make the villain of the week/month/whatever compelling, because we all known that in the end Superman will triumph, and even when he dies, it doesn't (and can't) last. But what Snyder has done in the final pages of Superman Unchained is thrown down a potential game changer of a plot element. Something that will be fascinating to see pursued, and could very well become one of the great Superman stories of our time (even if it someday gets retconned to all hell).
Superman Unchained, until the end reveal, is a typical Superman story. It is slightly dark, as Scott Snyder is a writer who loves horror, but it doesn't feel too dark to still be Superman. It is Clark Kent striking out on his own as a reporter, writing up stories of Superman's adventures (he and Peter Parker should get coffee sometime); it is Lois Lane doing her reporting bigger and badder, multitasking to the hilt and calling "Smallville" out, but in a way that cares, a way that wants, expects, and needs him to be his best; it is Superman being Superman, saving the world as regularly as eating breakfast in the morning — and in all those ways it is superior to Man of Steel. But it's in the final pages where it becomes something more and really proves its superiority — because it actually has an idea at its center. An idea to be explored, rather than a fake question that we all already know the answer to. Something a bit darker than usual for Superman, but far more interesting than all the citywide destruction of Metropolis and millions of casualties that Man of Steel has to offer. Something that feels a bit inspired by the best elements of the excellent Supreme Power (before it got ridiculous and terrible) and makes SENSE for the Superman story, both generally and specifically. Something that will mean a lot to both the world and to Superman personally.
In other words, something that raises the stakes.
And that is why, despite the few things the film gets right, and the few things the comic in question gets wrong, Man of Steel fails and Superman Unchained succeeds.
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