Saturday, June 22, 2013

Spoiler Saturday--Man Of Steel And The Kobayashi Maru

So, let's discuss Man Of Steel, shall we?

I'm not going to do a full review here. My thoughts have been pretty accurately captured both here and here by smarter folks who are better writers than I.

A quick summary of my feelings is: not to my taste. A lot of what was done was done well, but it was done in service of choices that I find odd or off-putting or unsatisfying, directions that I don't like for Superman. That's not to invalidate anyone else who likes it...different strokes.

But one thing that requires discussion is the elephant in the room...actually, two elephants, and how that brings in James T. Kirk, the Kobayashi Maru, and the Gorn.

So, after the four covers below, spoilers ahoy. If you haven't seen the film, come back later. We'll still be here.

 So the elephant in room, of course, is Superman's killing of Zod at the movie's end. It is, perhaps, one of the most controversial things to ever appear in a super-hero movie, and fan reaction seems to be quite divided, with plenty of vitriol to spice things up.

But snapping Zod's neck is really thematically part of another scene in the movie, Jonathan Kent's suicide. And yes, however you rationalize it, it was a suicide.

But to see how they fit together, we need to take a step back, and look at how Kal-El turning Zod into a Pez dispenser is a poor attempt to bootstrap to a misunderstood Star Trek concept.

A common defense of the scene is that "Superman had no choice." Well, forgive me, but this isn't a documentary. The fictional scene was purposely written that way, when it didn't necessarily have to be. If I wanted to, I could write a story where Mahatma Gandhi kills a roomful of orphans with a chainsaw, with circumstances such that "he had no choice." That doesn't mean it would automatically be a proper and defensible story, though, let alone good.

So when you say "Superman had no choice," you're begging the question: why did the movie makers give him "no choice"? What was their intent, and did the way they accomplished that succeed, or make any damn sense?

Now Zack Snyder has said they wanted to "find a way of making it impossible for [Superman]–like Kobayashi Maru, totally no way out." Yes, he really said that.

Well, he just violated one of Roger Ebert's rules for movies: never compare your film to a better one, because you'll just throw into relief the ways yours falls short.

Most specifically, what Snyder and company seem to have forgotten, is that James T. Kirk BEAT the Kobayashi Maru. He took the "totally no way out" situation, changed the parameters, and found a way to win (as did Spock, in his own way, at the end of STII). And the fact that Snyder doesn't seem to get that shows that he misunderstands both his own analogy and the hero he's making a movie about.

Because, if you've read enough Superman comics, you know that his entire career has been one big Kobayashi Maru:

Virtually every Silver and Bronze Age Superman (and Superboy) story placed Clark firmly in a "no win" situation.

The writers and editors had realized that they made the guy too damn powerful, so except in extreme circumstances, you couldn't really have a physical threat he'd have to punch his way out of. Instead, the average Superman story became a puzzle: let's place Superman in this impossible situation, and watch him think his way out of it, usually by coming up with creative (albeit not at all realistic) applications of his powers. How could Kal-El save friends and family without revealing his secret identity? How could Superman triumph when placed in an unbreakable trap?

Guys, Superman ate Kobayashi Marus for breakfast.

Which brings us to the first Kobayashi Maru of the story, Pa Kent's suicide.

As an aside, let me note what a raving paranoid lunatic Pa Kent comes across as. He is so afraid of what might happen should Clark's powers become known, he suggests that "maybe" Clark should have let a bus full of school children drown rather than risk the truth coming out. And he dies by tornado rather than take a chance that Clark reveal himself. He's so certain of his (unproven, unknowable) fears that he chooses to give up his own life because of this boogeyman. I'm sorry, but that's nuts. Would he have made the same decision if someone else had been stuck out there? Martha? I think so, and that's just plain nuts. Especially as it's pretty clear that any number of people in Smallville already know the secret and aren't blabbing. Hell, Pete Ross transforms from a bully into a nice guy. That alone seems to disprove Pa Kent's obsession.

[A further brief aside. Super powers and secret identities are often used as a metaphor for homosexuality...and after a second viewing I can't help but hear Jonathan's advice sounding like advising his son not to come out of the closet. He'd rather kill himself than have folks know that his son is gay. Kind of plays differently if you think about it that way. Discuss.]

Now, in the movie, Clark has little experience and a fairly limited power set at this point. But there are 42 ways he could have saved his dad, ways he could have "cheated" the Kobayashi Maru--not the least of which is just running out and grabbing him, as people often survive storms like that and it's attributed to "miracles." That's what Superman does, and has always done. But Snyder et al decide to present this as a "totally no win" scenario. That's their choice, and it makes Clark look like less of a hero and Pa Kent look more like messianic nut who will sacrifice any number of lives because he's paranoid. The filmmakers paint the scene this way, even though they didn't have to, and it doesn't play anything at all like they think it does (at least to me). And we're deprived of the chance to see Clark do what heroes do, beat the "impossible" situation.

Which brings us to the end of the film, where Snyder and Goyer would like us to believe that Superman has absolutely no choice but to break Zod's neck--and do it in front of children, no less. [Note--if you guys intend to keep ladling on the Christ metaphors, you might want to remember that Jesus didn't go around snapping bad guys' necks like twigs.]

This first problem is that this fails the most basic criteria of the Kobayashi Maru: of course there are ways out of this for Superman. Just of the top of my head:
*So Superman can't turn Zod's head far enough to divert the heat vision and save the family, but he is strong enough to turn the head even farther to break Zod's neck? Really?
*Earlier, Ursa and Non Faora and Tor-An took a point-blank heat vision blast from Superman and weren't hurt at all. So Superman could have blocked Zod's eye-beams with his own body, right? Put his arm over Zod's face, swung his own body around between Zod and the family, etc.
*Superman can fly, he had Zod in his arms, why not just lift him the hell out of there?
*If Zod's neck can be broken, the Kryptonians in the movie aren't invulnerable in the traditional comic book sense. So Kal-El could have done any number of things: knock him unconscious with a blow to the head? Sleeper hold? Break his arm and beat him when he's distracted by pain? The fact that it seems Zod's neck, and only Zod's neck, is a vulnerable point is just terrible screenwriting to justify the no-win solution.
*Long-term, remember the scout ship that Kal-El found and Zod jacked? Remember that it had an open, empty hibernation pod? Remember how the movie even cut away to focus on that, gave us a close-up? While watching the movie, I would have sworn they were going to use that as at least a short-term prison for Zod. Why else call our attention to it? This fails the most basic Chekov "gun on the mantelpiece" rule...

I could go on, but let's note the second way the situation fails the Kobayashi Maru test: as a test of character. Throughout the entire movie, Jor-El Wan Kenobi tells Kal (again and again AND again) that he must show the humans a better way, and be a guiding example for them, inspire them. Well, I'm sure the children who watched Superman snap Zod's neck were inspired!!

Zod and Faora kill plenty of people in this movie--Faora even snaps a couple of necks--so for Kal-El to resort to killing Zod is surely a failure of his father's goals, right? He hasn't left the old Krytpon behind, he hasn't adopted a better way. And of course, Jonathan was afraid that we would fear and hate his son--well, executing criminals in public is a good way to stoke that fear and hatred. That's why Superman's code against killing is so important--an all-powerful being who takes the law into his own hands is a dictator, not a hero. So, by killing Zod, Clark failed both his fathers.

And not to get all religious, but the filmmakers did invite the comparison: Jesus sacrificed himself to save everyone--he didn't go and snap Herod's neck. So by killing Zod, the movie has Superman fail
the religious allegory they set up for him on the most basic level. (and Spock sacrificed himself, too...). The movie has Kal-El completely and utterly fail every standard the filmmakers themselves have set for Superman by having to resort to killing Zod, even though they don't seem to realize this

Finally, and I'll admit that this comes down to taste, is I prefer heroes not to kill. I'm no Pollyanna. I have a blog dedicated to the adventures of a man with a license to kill, for gosh sakes. I'll cheer when John McLane goes "yippie-ki-yay." There's plenty of room in our fictional worlds for the hero who will cross the line when necessary.

But by the same token, we need some heroes to be heroic, to show that they won't cross the line, that they can inspire us and be better than us--Jor-El was right about that. And there are fewer and fewer of those these days, it seems.

Let's go back to Captain Kirk. In the episode Arena, he faced one of the original no-win situations: omnipotent aliens held his ship hostage. He had to fight and kill the Gorn captain, or his crew would be killed. Well, Kirk wins...and he refuses to kill the Gorn. He's willing to risk his life and crew to do the right thing. THAT is the solution to a Kobayashi Maru--stand for a higher principle even when inconvenient, be prepared to sacrifice yourself. Isn't that what a hero should do? (Yes, you can provide plenty of counter-examples of Kirk killing someone--that merely shows that other Star Trek writers aren't as good). Superman should have Kirked Zod's Gorn.

Now we've had lots of people blathering that, "No, you see, Superman doesn't kill after this!! This is the incident that causes him to adopt the no killing code!!' Well, first of all, that's all complete post hoc rationalization, because there's not one scintilla of that in the movie. Secondly, that's a very nice moral universe you've constructed--your first kill is free, as long as you promise not to do it again.

Snyder and Goyer and Nolan didn't have to present that scene the way they did. They most certainly did not have to put Superman in a situation where he has "no choice but to kill" (even though there were choices aplenty). In doing so they made their hero less heroic, made him fail the lessons preached by both his fathers, and destroyed any pretensions of the religious allegory they pounded so hard. They completely misunderstand the concept of the Kobayashi Maru and what it's supposed to accomplish on a fictional level. It's not good film making, and not good shepherding of a moral fictional universe.

It's trite to say "that's not my Superman." But in this case, yes, I would prefer my well-nigh omnipotent heroes not to resort to snapping neck in front of children. And I would prefer my movie makers to understand why that matters.


Mr. Whiskas said...

This is such a superb post, full of well expressed truth from someone who obviously knows Superman's long history, but this is the best line in here:

"Superman ate Kobayashi Marus for breakfast."

Great post.

SallyP said...


notintheface said...

Or Supes could have just stuck his hands over Zod's eyes (ala the TAS Darkseid fight).

Gary said...

With you all the way, there; as notintheface says, why not just cover Zod's eyes with his hand?

Martin Gray said...

I have nothing to say, sir, but 'bravo'.

Martin Gray said...

Forgot to say, my favourite phrase was: 'look at how Kal-El turning Zod into a Pez dispenser...'

CalvinPitt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
B.J. Johnson said...

The killing of Zod was obnoxious angst wanking and dreadfully missing the point of Superman, but it didn't bug me half as much as the gigantic swaths of collateral damage the screenwriters tossed in there as Supes flailed helplessly away against the Kryptonians.

Smallville got smushed, soldiers were casually murdered, and Metropolis got cored like a frikkin' apple, but it's okay I guess 'cos Lois and the handful of Daily Planet staffers made it out okay. Nobody we "cared about" died, so it's all smiles and meet cutes in the aftermath.

I thought Superman was supposed to save the day. He never got a chance in this cinematic pile o' craptonite.

Excellent points on this post, tho.

This is a bad movie, and an even worse Superman story.

CalvinPitt said...

I could almost, sorta excuse Superman killing someone, if you played it up that the person in question had tormented and hurt Superman to the point he just lost it.

That's sort of what they did with him and Darkseid in the cartoons, where between killing Turpin and turning Supes against Earth for a time, Darkseid wounded the Big S enough he'd be out for blood.

Even then, he still didn't kill Darkseid. It's the same way I feel about Spider-Man, extreme emotional pain might bring them to that point, but it's far from a sure thing they'd actually do it.

googum said...

Superman killing is worth discussing, but wasn't this like Superman's second day? The cover you show, would have been an experienced veteran Supes with years of practice.

I liked the movie, but kind of like the Nolan Batmans, I like multiple interpretations of the characters. The movies aren't my favorite version, but still enjoyable for me.

notintheface said...

Basically, Pa died because he didn't trust Clark to do something Tom Welling's Clark did on "Smallville" at least once every show.

notintheface said...

Other than Lois and Zod's heat vision targets, did Supes actually rescue ANY Metropolis citizens?

Thomas Fummo said...

I agree, superb post. And these are only a few of the issues the film has! The amount of fans it has garnered so far astounds me...

notintheface said...

In fairness, Thomas, there still were a lot of strong positives in this film (all the actors, for example). But it was in kind of a "Well, Ford's Theatre DID have a good show" kind of way.

-3- said...

Nobody talks about the brute stupidity of the "kill Zod" scene - treating heat vision like a mechanically mounted weapon that can only shoot straight ahead from Zod's face. It's a vision power - it can be directed wherever he looks. If he can see the people - they're dead. The whole don't let him turn his head when he only has to shift his gaze makes no damn sense at all.

Okay, that's consistent to the film maker's vision, at least.

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