I have one simple rule as it applies to every review of any work of art. It goes like this:
All reviews must be placed in a cultural context, or they are inherently worthless. Tell me what this album, this book, this movie, this gallery display says about us as a society. Illuminate something about myself that I don’t even know yet. Tell me what makes this important. Tell me why this is art.
I’m happy to report that “Man of Steel” got many people thinking in that direction. If you use Twitter — which some might define as a cleverly disguised movie review generation-machine — you probably saw a kabillion 140-character reviews of the flick before you even plopped cheeks-down into an uncomfortable seat and started wrestling over the armrest with a stranger next to you. And many of these reviews — more blurbs, correctly — addressed the “world” that “Man of Steel” (a title, interestingly enough, absent the word “Superman”) took place in. What kind of a world was it? What did it tell us about our own world, our own lives, and our own outlook?
I was intrigued enough that on Wednesday, June 26, 2013, I finally went to Yon Local Cineplex, and plopped down $9.50 to see “Man of Steel” myself. And I was struck by an inescapable notion: That the world that the Marvel Comics character films take place in is an ultimately optimistic one, and the world that the DC Comics character films take place in is ultimately bleak.
This tells us a tremendous amount about ourselves. Most importantly, it tells us that there are at least two constructions of reality from which we can choose. More absolutely, it tells us that one is right, and one is wrong.
“Man of Steel” gives us a world in which a father is willing to commit tornado-aided suicide because he fears the worst in humanity. It presents to us a world in which Superman sinks into a sea of skulls. It shows us that, driven by fear, the very essence and personification of bucolic innocence, Smallville, Kansas, can be blasted to holy hell by the U.S. Air Force.
Conversely, over on the Marvel side of the street, even in a movie that took place in the midst of the horrors of World War II — “Captain America: The First Avenger” — Steve Rogers can emerge into a shining and sparkling Times Square. The good guys in “The Avengers” go out for shawarma after saving the world. At the end of “Man of Steel,” even after proving his mettle and making indescribable sacrifices, Superman remains an outcast, mistrusted by humanity.
Now, I’ve spoken to a fair amount of people who work for Marvel Comics, Marvel Studios, in Marvel’s licensing department and so on. And I know this much to be true: The effort to make all the Marvel movies take place in a world that you want to be a part of is a very conscious one. They do it on purpose. I don’t know if there’s a similar guiding philosophy behind the DC flicks, an opposing one, or any at all. All I know is that the feeling I get between the two is 180 degrees opposed.
A friend of mine recently hit me with the notion that, if indeed DC/Warners was looking to create a more dangerous, edgy, gritty world, well, they were doing it with the notion of “that’s what the kids want,” that eternal grab for the coveted 18-to-34 market. I don’t know if that’s the thought at 4000 Warner Blvd. or not. But I do know that if this is indeed the case, the notion is incorrect.
I actually deal with 18-to-34s on a daily basis. I’m going back to college to finish an ancient degree I abandoned back in 1988, so I’m up to my armpits in 22-year-olds more often than I’d care to admit. One day, I walked into the student newspaper offices at the college I’m at, and two students called me over excitedly. They were standing in front of a computer, and that day, the new trailer for “The Dark Knight Rises” had just hit. They played it again, and looked at me. They knew I worked in the comics field, and they wanted…validation? An opinion? They just wanted to know what I thought.
“Lemme ask you this instead,” I said. “Do you want to live in the Gotham City you just saw there?”
The answer came back quickly: “Oh, fuck no!” they said.
“Now let me ask you this — would you want to live in a Marvel movie universe? Say, the L.A. you see in the Iron Man flicks?”
They both agreed that yeah, that seemed like a pretty cool place. And that Gotham City was downright scary and bleak.
We don’t live in a world that’s perfect. Far from it, in fact. But the difference between the Marvel movie universe and the DC movie universe is the difference between optimism and pessimism. And thank God, today’s 22-year-old is actually optimistic.
It’s interesting that on Wednesday, June 26, 2013, the same day I plopped into a movie theater seat in Van Nuys, the Supreme Court put a giant, Constitution-sized dent into the Defense of Marriage Act, validating same-sex marriages on the federal level. The issue, for whatever reasons, resonates hugely among the college-age crowd. Today’s 22-year-old lives in a world where they can reasonably expect that when enough people get together and say something like, “We want gay marriage,” they get gay marriage.
They have a reasonable expectation that their future is malleable, and that a large enough will of the masses stands a very good chance of affecting change. It’s largely an optimistic view to expect that, and it’s redoubled by the let’s-call-it-a-fact that such changes are possible, or even imminent. They don’t live in a 1980, Reagan-on-a-punk-rock-poster here-and-now, followed by an uncertain future. They live in a different world; one in which they expect — and some could argue already have — a measure of control.
They live in a world that is optimistic.
Superman is supposed to be The Man of Tomorrow; Metropolis is The City of Tomorrow. Superman could, many would argue should, be the best of us. He should represent the best of all possible tomorrows. But the tomorrow represented here is false, and out of synch with what today’s 22-year-old will show us is indeed better. When the most fantastic of fictions fall well short of our mundane realities, something is wrong. What’s wrong is the outlook of “Man of Steel” and all the DC character movies. In the final analysis, perhaps it’s best the name “Superman” is absent from the title.
This isn’t a review of “Man of Steel.” It is, perhaps, a cultural analysis of our view of the future, filtered through the thin lens of comic book movies. But it still can inform us about the world we live in. It can still influence the decisions we make. I, for one, will trust the 22-year-olds of today to create a future much better than the one Superman unfortunately inhabits. After all, if you’re the most powerful man in a world no one wants to live in, what’s so super about that?
Jim McLauchlin, a professional writer and editor for over two decades, is the president of Hero Initiative and helped found the organization in 2000. You can, should you so desire, “follow Jim on Twitter,” as the kids say. It’s @McLauchlin