Hamish asked whether I had read Hulk’s break-down of Man of Steel and whether I had comments. I hadn’t, but now that I have, I have some comments and some different perspectives. My general feeling about Hulk is that he has a couple of tools in his critical box, and he pulls them out time and time again to find problems with films, rather than trying to understand what the filmmaker was trying to accomplish. (I should note that this statement was also made about me recently; we all have our hobby-horses I suppose.)
In particular, he is obsessed with “character arcs” in a way that isn’t quite appropriate for certain films. I keep wanting to send him a copy of Robin Laws’ The New Hero and Hamlet’s Hit Points, where Laws explains that there are two different kinds of hero: the Dramatic, who has an arc as Hulk wants, and the Iconic, who doesn’t. Most of Hulk’s problems with Man of Steel vanish if you stop thinking about Dramatic Characters and start thinking about Iconic Characters. As I’ve commented (and others too – again I think Laws deserves the primary credit here) before, the reason we see so many Superhero Origin Stories ™ is precisely because it is the one story where a superhero gets to be a Dramatic Hero that is intelligible to critics and audiences like Hulk. Man of Steel fails, but not because it doesn’t have character arcs – it doesn’t, but only because it shouldn’t.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SUPERMAN / CLARK WHEN HE MAKES HIS FINAL CHOICE TO SAVE THE FAMILY FROM ZOD’S HEAT VISION VERSUS WHO HE WAS WHEN DECIDES TO SAVE THE SCHOOL BUS AS A KID?
In short – nothing. Iconic characters function by “correcting” the world around them by asserting their iconic identity. The right question is: what’s wrong with the world that Superman inhabits that requires his correction. As a child, his foe is innocent – a pure accident. When he saves the schoolbus, he is correcting a mistake, setting right what could have gone wrong. His father suggests that he should have let everyone die instead – contra to Clark’s iconic identity. At the end of the film, there’s nobody putting that perspective: everyone is on board with Superman. If you want to think about that as a dramatic arc, we can think about it as the world expanding from simply Clark’s father into the whole world, and disapproval of superheroism shifting to approval.
When Hulk goes on, after this, to talk about the problems in terms of Krypton’s origin and the political/philosophical problems raised but not addressed, we’re in reasonable agreement. I don’t necessarily disagree with his statements about the film’s problems on a large scale, more his perception of Superman’s place in those problems.
Hulk says that “THERE IS NO CHARACTER ARC BECAUSE THEY WANTED THE EFFECT OF ONE WITHOUT DOING ANY OF THE ACTUAL WORK.” I would reframe this, to say that they fail to create a world that allows full expression of his Iconic identity.
That inversion of perspective helps understand some of the things Hulk doesn’t like, but it does not explain others. For me, he does nail one of the very central problems with the film when he says “MAN OF STEEL IS ALL ABOUT ASSUMED EMPATHY.” That is, in part, the way Iconic characters function… but we are usually then given someone else in the story to connect with, even if that means we identify with the villain’s defeat rather than the hero’s victory.
Similarly, his complaint about the flash-backs, that the “FLASHBACKS TOGETHER ON THEIR OWN THEY CERTAINLY DON’T ADD UP INTO A STORY”, he’s assuming a purpose for them based on his understanding of dramatic arcs, rather than moments intended to reveal the existing Iconic character. I could go on, but I think that horse is fully flogged; except to say, in some areas Hulk is right to ask about a dramatic arc – Lois Lane really is “scotch-taped” to Clark’s story, and that is one area where the Iconic perspective is perhaps not useful; I’ve also said before, Pa Kent is no Uncle Ben; and the whole Daily Planet staff are more irrelevant than they’ve ever been. Hulk is right on the money with many of his critiques of the film around Superman. I literally could not agree more with Hulk’s dismissal of the fight scenes.
I never find myself agreeing too closely with FCH. I’m a contrarian I guess. But I think that he ends this piece with something I feel too – that there are a number of films out there which aren’t really trying. One of my frequent comments about Man of Steel was that they should have gotten a couple of disinterested guys into a room with the script, because the problems I identified and the problems Hulk identified are all obvious. Whatever analytic stance you want to take for this film, it’s got problems. I got the feeling they just didn’t care about story, and Hulk sounds like he feels the same way. And for all those for whom that wasn’t a problem, the truth is, you run something like this through a story diagnostic and you’re going to fix lots of problems without sacrificing all the other stuff.
I’ve got a couple of things on the go, saved in drafts, but I suspect the next serious thing from me is Pacific Rim, and I’m optimistic that del Toro will prove categorically that exact point: you can have a story, and all the surface shiny.