"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Comic Books, Film
The Kent farm, that is.
All week long, I’ve been fielding questions– mostly from non-fan types– about how excited I must be about the new Batman vs. Superman blockbuster now in theaters. And over and over, I see them walk away vaguely disappointed when I confess that I’m not.
But really, well, I’m just… not. Not feeling it, guys. Sorry.
I wish I was. I would love nothing more than to have a big DC hit movie that I was really excited about. The DC heroes were my gateway to comics in the first place, and especially Superman. I grew up on Superman Giants. I probably am more familiar with the geography of Krypton than I am with the geography of Earth. And a couple of weeks back I wrote about what I loved about the seventies version of Superman. I should be thrilled that AT LAST we are getting a ‘serious’ Superman in the movies. But I’m not.
When fans ask me about the movie I get an even weirder response– a great many of them act as though I am letting the side down by admitting that I am not interested. As though I am failing in my task as an ambassador for comics in general and DC in particular. And when I explain that this version of Superman just leaves me cold, the vitriol ramps up. What the hell did I EXPECT of the Super-battles in Man of Steel? Of course there would be broken buildings and mass casualties! Of course Superman had to kill Zod! And anyway that moral ambiguity is what drives the new movie, Batman’s worried about those same things, I should give it a chance!
But, see… none of that is my problem.
Adam-Troy Castro, a very fine superhero writer in his own right (If you haven’t read his Spider-Man prose novels, you are missing a treat) said it online a few days ago, and it hit me right between the eyes. Yeah, that’s it. That was the problem.
All the other things– the destruction, the weird motivations, the fact of Superman killing an adversary– all those things I can forgive or excuse. There’s even precedent in the comics. (Whether or not you think they’re GOOD comics is a different argument. They’re there, they’re part of Superman lore.)
No, Adam’s and my issue with Henry Cavill’s Superman is really simple, but it makes pretty much everything else in Man of Steel invalid. That version ruined Jonathan and Martha Kent. Jonathan, especially.
Look, here is MY Jonathan Kent. From Elliott Maggin’s brilliant novel Miracle Monday:
Jonathan was a strong man, Martha knew. Underneath his glasses, his mild manners, his sheepish grin was the boy who had spirited her off in his buggy to a justice of the peace when he couldn’t convince her father he could support a wife; the man who had taken a hundred twenty acres of the rockiest thicket in Kansas and twisted it into a wheatfield and a home; the husband in whose face she found love and prayer and hope when she had despaired over being unable to give birth. Middle-aged and childless, Martha Clark Kent grew to want no more from life than to grow old in the company of this unshakably good man. Then, as happened to Abraham’s aged wife Sarah, the Heavens gave her a son.
Someday soon she would learn the origin of her son, the toddler she and Jonathan had found in an object she thought was a falling star one afternoon when they were on their way to look over a used tractor. She would learn of his flight from a dying planet, cast off into space by his parents. She would even learn the name of the planet—Krypton—and the names of the parents – Jor-El and Lara. But for most of the time she knew her adopted son, Martha Kent would know no more about him than that the boy had had, when she first saw him, the most angelic face she had ever seen. She wondered if all angels rode falling stars when they came to Earth.
Before Jonathan closed the gate of the picket fence, Martha had already flown out the door and into his arms with a “Jonathan! Jonathan!”
“Now what’s all this about the boy being sick?” he asked as he fairly carried her back through the door.
“He won’t talk to me. He may be delirious. He made his way home all right, he’s just shivering and his face is so hot you could scramble an egg on his forehead. I’m scared for him, Jonathan.”
“Now now dear, he’s got a tougher skin than we do. Why don’t you fix us a cup of tea and I’ll see what the boy looks like?”
“All right.” He was the kind of man—and they were scarce indeed—who quietly watched life most of the time, but when those he was watching seemed unable to handle things, he stepped in and shone with confidence.
Jonathan was in Clark’s room for three or four minutes, not long enough even for the water in the kettle to think about boiling, before he came out. He wasn’t smiling, but the confidence was still there.
“Growing pains, I warrant,” he told her.
“Growing pains? With a fever and the shivers?
“That’s what I’d call it. Nothing a good man-to-man talk won’t cure.”
“Jonathan, the boy’s ill. I never had growing pains like that.”
“First time I came calling on you. I was so worried I’d made a bad impression I had to stay home from school for two days.”
Martha thought a moment. Then her eyes widened and she said, “Sakes alive, Jonathan. It’s not little Lana. Not at their age, is it?”
“Oh no, Martha. Nothing like that. That’ll come too, soon enough, but not yet. There’s a lot of hurting a boy goes through if he wants to be a man. And when a boy wants to be a special kind of man like Clark’ll be—well, that’s a lot of hurting. I left the store open and there were three robberies in town last year. You run off now and tend to that and don’t worry. I’ll tell you all about it later.”
“Oh men!” And she left, no longer the least bit worried.
Jonathan Kent is the guy Superman respects more than any other man on Earth, living or dead. That’s the whole point of his character.
And yeah, Man of Steel held true to that. (Even to the point that the kid with super-speed let his father die rather than pull off a simple rescue that… oh well, I’m not going to get into litigating that again.)
But here’s the thing. Kevin Costner played that role to the best of his ability and both he and Cavill did their best to sell it– but that version of Jonathan Kent is a self-centered coward. He’s willing to sacrifice the lives of strangers to protect his own home and family.
To put it the nicest possible way, that is emphatically not the guy I grew up reading about.
Nor is it the guy I’ve seen in any interpretation over the years. Silver Age, groovy seventies, TV, movies, whatever. No version of Jonathan Kent EVER advised Clark Kent to duck and cover rather than help people who needed him. Period the end. It’s wrong.
My idea of Jonathan Kent is that he is the guy who gave Superman his values. Truth and justice and decency. There were lots of things I disagreed with during John Byrne’s tenure on Superman but he nailed it when he said Superman was raised as a midwestern American and that’s how he sees himself. Yeah.
And he learned all that from his folks. From Jonathan and Martha Kent.
It was what I loved about the early seasons of Smallville and why I hung in there with that show far longer than I should have… because John Schneider’s portrayal of Jonathan Kent was exactly how I saw him.
From the moment in the pilot where Clark explains that young Lex Luthor has sent over a new truck as thanks for saving him from drowning and Schneider snaps, “What, so you get a prize?” I was completely on board with his Jonathan.
Same with most of the other ones I’ve seen over the years. They all understand the idea that being helpful and altruistic is something that decent people are. It’s baked into Jonathan and Martha’s DNA.
Whichever version is yours– most people identify with one or another– that’s been a constant.
Even shows like Lois & Clark got that. That particular Jonathan worried about Clark getting captured by the government or something, but never to the point where he flat-out said, “No, don’t help people, Clark.” That was never on the table.
The newer versions have been pretty consistent about their portrayal of the Kents. Some worry more than others but they all are on board with the idea that Clark’s special abilities must be used to help people. Must. Be. To the point where maybe Clark himself has to make sacrifices.
That is, until Man of Steel. That version of Jonathan Kent, where he argues against any kind of personal sacrifice, where he encourages Clark to hide his abilities no matter what and even berates him for saving a school bus full of drowning children, is frankly reprehensible.
You can argue and justify it all you want. But I don’t care what the in-story logic is for the choice. It’s a bad choice. It is a case of not just missing the point but missing it SPECTACULARLY. By miles and miles.
I don’t trust any moviemakers that think that’s a valid portrayal of Jonathan Kent. I especially don’t like the idea of a version of Superman that is raised to NOT trust humanity, to ASSUME THE WORST UNTIL PROVEN OTHERWISE. That simply is not who Superman should be. Anyone who thinks it is, well, they shouldn’t be making Superman movies.
You know what’s really kind of frustrating about the whole thing? Ben Affleck has gotten a raft of shit for being Batman but honestly, I kind of like what is shown in the clips I’ve seen. The version of Batman I’m seeing is valid. Batman probably would worry about the potential for danger to humanity, he’d work out a contingency plan in case Superman went bad, he’d have paranoid nightmares about it. All solid choices. That idea of Batman seems defensible to me.
But this version of Superman simply is not. The mistakes Man of Steel made persuaded me that this new effort is not a movie I need to rush out to catch in theaters. At all. I’m happy to settle in with the two dozen other versions I have here in the house, in prose and comics and film. It’s not like there’s a shortage. But this new one… sorry. They lost me with the Kents, and I don’t trust any studio with that bad a grasp on the characters to make a movie I want to see. I’m certainly not spending money to see if they figured it out.
Look, I get that you can have multiple versions and updates and all of that stuff. But I think you owe something to the established history of the character, no matter how ‘corny’ or ‘outdated’ you think it might be. I believe that Chris Evans has shown us with his Captain America that it’s possible to make a good-guy hero interesting and relatable to modern moviegoers. I never get the feeling that Marvel Studios, in its secret heart of hearts, doesn’t like Cap or believe in him. But I get that feeling with DC and Superman a lot, especially with these new movies.
Shame really. But at least all of us ‘corny,’ ‘old-school’ Super-fans have Supergirl on television.
I’m perfectly happy to settle for that while the rest of you are at the movies.
See you next week.
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