The Dystopian "Man of Steel"

Recently, science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, author of encyclopedic novels like "Snow Crash" and "Cryptonomicon," issued what amounts to a manifesto, calling on writers (presumably in assorted media) to abandon dystopias & return science fiction to its initial role as a positive influence on the world.

I have a natural antipathy to manifestos. They're almost always intended to inflame right-thinkers (AKA those who agree) to revolutionary action and antagonize philistines and sycophants who might have a different perspective. They are almost always narrow-minded and doctrinaire, and their appeal, while commonly framed in logic, is mostly emotional and divisive, with the generally unfortunate result of separating the "proactive" wheat from the "recalcitrant" chaff of greater humanity and urging the wheat to hopefully history-making action; the main use of manifestos is as recipes and recruiting posters for cults. More mild-mannered than most manifestos, and reluctant to travel under that flag, what Stephenson proposed is effectively that, a manifesto.

Roughly put, Stephenson's shaky premise is that classic science fiction, with its positivist/humanist emphasis on technological advancement, inspired both the grand scale science and technology that transformed our world in the latter half of the 20th century and the scientists and inventors that discovered and developed it. The genre's subsequent broad decline into dystopian fiction has undercut the inspirational foundations of science fiction, resulting in our current drab, paranoid civilization where everyone thinks the worst of everyone and there's nothing new under the sun, making it the moral and social responsibility of science fiction writers everywhere to return to upbeat positivist-humanist science fiction in order to further the grand technological evolution of the world.

I could waste a lot of copy picking Stephenson's argument apart -- dystopian fiction has been prominent in science fiction at least as far back as "The War of the Worlds" (in fact, the first sf novel I read, maybe the first novel, was "classic sf" icon Isaac Asimov's "Pebble in the Sky," also his first novel, set in a dystopian future where the elderly are automatically put to death for the crime of growing too old), the fondly-remembered "classic" sf often had as little to actually do with science as "The Lord of the Rings," what currently passes for the public's perception of sf is little more than pure fantasy run amok, etc. -- but it would be like trying to shoot holes in a particularly gigantic, porous sieve. The fact is that (like most manifestos) at the argument's core, Stephenson has a solid point.

Dystopias are tedious, and have outlived their usefulness. They used to be considered edgy, but any guy who ever shaved can tell you the more you use the same edge, the duller it gets. Dystopias, whether antiseptic future societies where human emotion has been culturally negated or ravaged post-apocalyptic worlds where what remains of humanity exists in a permanent declining state of inhumane quasi-savagery, are pretty damn played out. While they used to have thematic applications, now they're almost always used, let's face it, for bread and circuses. But "Mad Max" dystopias remain more popular, at least among writers, editors and producers than "1984" sterile mechanical dystopias (interestingly, the architecture is often indistinguishable from most utopias save the pastoral ones that never seem to take bacteria into account) for one cruel reason: chaos is simply* much more fun than order.

So, the call for more... utopian fictions. Dreaming bold dreams of bold futures where humanity bands together for great causes, to inspire humanity toward the same in real life. Because by showing them the best they can be, people become the best they can be. If Alexander Graham Bell hadn't had H.G. Wells to inspire him* (look it up!) who knows where civilization would be today?

This sounds oddly like the periodic cry in the comics business for a return to Silver Age values AKA "making comics fun again." The Silver Age, when good guys were good guys, bad guys were bad guys (but, in the minds of the Funagainers, not too bad, no murder or impure thoughts, despite Captain Boomerang occasionally hurling The Flash into the icy depths of space to die, or Captain Cold freezing cops and civilians alike in sub-sub-zero chunks) and heroes could unrepentantly be heroes, with no dilemmas unsolvable via quick wits and a good right hook. A subtopic is about how comic books (generally meaning superhero comics) should be accessible to children as well as adults.

There's nothing wrong with (superhero) comics being accessible to kids -- though most aren't really accessible to kids or adults, they're accessible to superhero comics fans, and if sales are indicative many aren't even especially accessible to them (or, at least, they show little interest in accessing them) -- the main problem is that when things that are "accessible to kids" in our culture end up mainly accessible to kids. Even if such comics remained tolerable to "making comics fun again" advocates (and I'd guess the vast majority of them are pushing 50, if they haven't already crossed that rubicon) the Silver Age died around 40 years ago, and its cultural milieu petered out before that, which is why most attempts at "making comics fun again" have accomplished nothing since. There's just no cultural ground left where those seeds can take root. We've moved on.

But returning to the Silver Age became a topic again (if subtextually) last week in response to "Man of Steel." [SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU'VE BEEN SOMEHOW AVOIDING ALL INFORMATION ABOUT THE MOVIE, CLICK HERE. YOU WON'T WANT TO READ THE NEXT SECTION.]

Let me first confess I haven't seen the film yet. At this point, probably won't until it arrives on DVD; it's going to be a very busy summer for me. But it's hard to miss the heated controversy that has left many Superman hardcore -- yes, there still are some -- fuming over how Their Hero has been "betrayed" by Zack Snyder and David Goyer.

From what I've heard of the trigger moment -- following a heated battle that pretty much annihilates Metropolis (and, apparently, a large chunk of the population) Superman snaps General Zod's neck and kills him to prevent even greater destruction, and I'd still like to hear how even an invulnerable man can snap the neck of another invulnerable man -- it sounds like a brilliant move on Snyder and Goyer's part.


I explained to a producer friend a couple weeks back that Superman, call him "iconic" etc. etc. all you want, is not a popular character. He's a well-known character. There's a difference. One sells, the other is just well-known, but Warners/DC isn't the only organization that's been a longtime problem for. Many publishers the last few years have scrambled to snatch up moribund licenses on well-known characters in the hopes they're really popular, though many weren't especially popular in the first place. If they were genuinely popular, it's unlikely those licenses would've been moribund enough to snatch up. Superman, if not iconic, has for a long time been the quintessential vanilla superhero, widely perceived as a Big Blue Boy Scout, and while DC has managed to periodically pump up the franchise via electroshock (ironically, publicly executing the character in 1993 remains the best example of this) it has long had trouble maintaining the character's sales levels for any period of time. The traditional Superman is what most hardcore Superman fans were eager to see -- effectively a remake of 1978's Superman -- but Warners, Legendary, Christopher Nolan, Snyder and Goyer seem to have calculated from early on that a wide audience would be most attracted by a totally different take. But how do you de-vanilla Superman?

The first trailer didn't especially move me. It looked like Clark Kent wandering through outtakes from "The Road" -- a deserted, rusted sepia tone Earth littered with dried, half-barren dandelions and butterfly carcasses -- until he finally got fed up and flew off to see if there was a better world somewhere else in the cosmos. Obviously, that wasn't the film, but that was how the trailer played. The mood of the film doesn't appear to be all that removed from that, though. Snyder & Co. seem to have taken as their inspiration not Jerry & Joe's Superman, but one of their (alleged) prime sources, Philip Wylie's science fiction novel "Gladiator." ("Gladiator," it turns out, is in spirit one of the most dystopian sf novels ever.) Comics' Pa Kent taught Clark the virtue of selflessness and public service; MoS' Pa Kent teaches Clark the virtue of self-preserving paranoia and intentional obscurity until events conspire to force him out of hiding.

If they wanted to raise huge banners stating This Is Not Your Great-Grandfather's Superman, they couldn't have done any better. To generate and sustain interest and controversy, Superman The Killer seems to have worked pretty well. The film seems to want to bury the living embodiment of all things heroic the comics Superman was (at least after 1939, before which he routinely destroyed property, dropped dictators from a mile up, and mocked authority figures and the rich and was pretty smug about it) and turning him into a killer appears put the last nail into the coffin (though some might suggest it was the epitome of real world heroism as opposed to comic book heroism).

Bringing us back to the utopian and the dystopian. If the Superman of the comics is the utopian version, existing as the pinnacle of human potential to inspire us all to strive for that pinnacle, the Superman of "Man Of Steel" is the dystopian version, existing outside humanity, having little genuine affection for or relation to it, functioning without much concern for morality, other life or anything around him. I think it's right to recognize that this is not a hero.

If that's how they leave it, it's no more than sound and fury, an arresting variation, momentarily, but it's hard to see where such a vision can sustain interest for long, without making Superman the villain of the films. (Maybe Mark Waid's Irredeemable will be their inspiration from here on out, so Mark's full circle story can become a Mobius strip.)

That's the thing about utopias and dystopias. Most people think they're opposites. They're the same thing. Utopias and dystopias are both by nature shallow, didactic, simplistic. Rigged games looking not for viewers or readers but for The Faithful, designed to generate not introspection or appreciation but obedience and repetition: comfort food masquerading as social commentary. And that's only when they have some genuine content instead of boldly going where many have gone before. At worst they're empty recitals of cliches dressed up in the latest drag. Dystopias now abound in pop culture, but they're usually less dystopic than dyspeptic.

But it occurs to me those now writing off "Man of Steel" as an, uh, irredeemable betrayal of all Superman stands for may be jumping the gun. Should the film be, as "Green Lantern" was, the last of its kind, the events and characterizations in "Man of Steel" can be dismissed as, let's be kind, a bizarre, ill-considered twist. (If you didn't like it. If you did, call it anything you like.) Consider, though, it's likely intended to be part one of a (at least) a trilogy, like "Batman Begins," "Iron Man," "Kick-Ass" and pretty much every other superhero film of recent days. A huge problem inherent in the classic Superman, in most Silver Age heroes, especially from DC, was a steady-state heroism that might occasionally be tested by seemingly impossible quandries, but there was never any moment where the hero's innate nobility and natural (hence "steady state") heroism was ever remotely in question, unless it was some clever ruse. There was never any question of moral choices; their choices were all pre-made. It was one of those things comics were forced to slowly grow out of once the Silver Age came to a tremorous, nearly apocalyptic (for the business, anyway) end.

Even today, the idea that heroism is an ingrained, natural state of being remains a running comfortably simple and straightforward shibboleth in superhero comics that also conveniently excuses lack of heroism in the daily lives of its readers. We may in the perfect world inside our heads aspire to be Superman, but none of us are. Heroism is relatively easy to define in real life -- we generally know it when we see it, though that too is susceptible to hoaxes, cons and manipulations -- but "heroes" aren't. The man who rushes into a burning building to save a dog one day might mug an old lady for her purse the next. We can shake our heads and wonder how someone could sink so low -- these days, we apparently not only love to see our heroes fall low, we eagerly look forward to it -- but truth is really that people are complicated. Life is complicated. It's the one thing almost no one wants to buy into, unless you're talking about them and their life, always a special circumstance that deserves special consideration.

I have no idea if this is the Nolan-Snyder-Goyer plan for a Superman trilogy but it's now easy to imagine a three-film arc is about a being with powers beyond those of mortal men who is alienated from the world around him, who has no innate, kneejerk sense of heroism but once forced out of his self-imposed obscurity learns the true meaning of heroism and how to be genuinely heroic. (Rather than, say, just being able to chuck skyscapers around like origami swans.) That's a classic Hollywood tale of redemption right there, considerably more inspiring and inspiring than the original version; we have been around long enough to know the character who chooses to do the right thing is far more interesting than the character who could never conceive of not doing it, and if that constitutes loss of innocence, it's time it was lost.**

The whole "innocence" thing, the demand that innocence must be protected at all costs, is about more than simply ensuring things aren't unfit for consumption by small children (rendering it fit only for consumption by small children, or treating the rest of us as small children) it's about keeping things as simplistic as possible in an increasingly complex world. For some reason complexity scares the hell out of people, but life is complex. People are complex. The world is complex. Trying to approach any of that simplistically really hasn't worked well for us; it has only worked well for the con artists. We don't need fictions that "inspire" us (because there's no way to predict what will or won't inspire someone else, or what it will inspire them too), or that show us The Way. (I can pretty well guarandamntee that whatever they think of themselves the author does not know The Way.) We don't need fictions that promote either steady-state heroism or lowest common-denominator humanity.

Right now, we need fictions that embrace complexities of all kinds, and encourage readers/viewers to embrace and grow comfortable with complexity. Because we exist in an ocean of complexities and we're drowning, our whole culture is drowning, and all we're ever told is that learning to swim is wrong-headed and pretentious. We need fictions that deal with every facet of what it means to be human today, both good and bad, and both utopian and dystopian scenarios are simplistic distractions from that. We need fictions that make complexity entertaining, and let people inspire themselves. If you want to start a movement among fiction writers, start that one.

* Alexander Graham Bell, arguably the most prolific and influential inventor in history, predated H.G. Wells by some years. Bell was most likely inspired by practical considerations, not science fiction.

** Then again, for all I know the "Man of Steel" team has no such plans and just wanted to prove they have the biggest superhero pyrotechnics in town.

Replies, mash notes, hate mail, etc. can be sent to temporarymadness@outlook.com. Anyone who wants face time can find me at the San Diego Comic-Con, July 18-21 (try the Boom! Studios booth) & WizardWorld Chicago August 8-11 (I'll have my own table).

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