So Man of Steel made $125 million this past weekend. Not a shock by any standard, but the film has nonetheless inspired a passionate online debate among the geek community and several critics – some catering to the geeks, some to a more traditional film audience – over its overall quality worthiness as well as specific plot elements. Points of discussion include: whether or not Superman would or would not take certain moral steps, whether he’d make an effort to avoid the amount of devastation caused by his battles with the film’s villain, Zod (Michael Shannon), whether the film itself is too dour for a comic book movie, and so forth.
I skipped the Zack Snyder-directed, Christopher Nolan-produced picture last weekend and probably won’t get to it in theaters, partially because, yes, some of the early negativity moved it down my must-see list, but primarily because I just felt like my time was better spent catching up with something smaller and more personal (it turned out that this was a good call because the film I saw, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, was sublime). So while I don’t rightly feel qualified to comment on any of the arguments being bandied about, I do have to say I find all of the sturm und drang over this stuff to be, at best, numbing and, at worst, depressing.
I understand that comic book movies are pretty much a way of life for the movie business these days, and that some have transcended the form (Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, for example), so complaining about their box office dominance feels futile. But at what point did these things start to dominate our cinematic discourse too? And why have so many critics, whose time must surely be better spent arguing over more worthwhile pictures, taken the bait and devoted so much ink to this overspent genre?
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is the likely touchstone for all of this, as it stands as the most commercially successful attempt at legitimizing the form – which is to say, it was comprised of comic book movies that tried hard not to look or feel like comic book movies (Ang Lee had attempted something similar with his Hulk picture in 2003, but the film was a box-office disaster). Nolan has made no secret of his disdain for traditional superhero stories, and whether or not you believe that the movies themselves succeeded in their goal (I don’t), there’s no arguing that since The Dark Knight critics have devoted more attention and discussion to them. The fact that Superman was produced by Nolan probably helps explains the level of intensity at which debate around it is pitched.
That said, I can’t help but wish that writers devoted half the ink to some of the smaller pictures in theaters as they have to Man of Steel, as I have to think they’re at least as worthy of discussion, if not more so. This has been an amazing summer for smaller independent films, and there are a dearth of more eclectic pictures out there that could certainly use the publicity more than Snyder’s pre-sold blowout – Before Midnight, Frances Ha, Much Ado About Nothing, Stories We Tell and Mud, to name a few. Is it too much to ask that those critics who so love to make a habit of complaining about the lack of quality pictures in theaters actually do their part in supporting them?
Listen, I have no problem with superhero pictures. I even love a few of them (the aforementioned Spider-Man 2, for example, as well as The Avengers and The Incredibles). But that doesn’t mean I have any interest in engaging in lengthy debate over whether Superman would do this or that. Geeks are going to argue over this stuff because, well, that’s what they do, and they’re usually so dug in that there’s really no point in arguing with them if you disagree. If we’re ever going to stem the tide of superhero domination at the box office – and that’s probably not realistic at this point – then it has to start somewhere. This feels likes as good a time as any.