Since at least 1975, when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws became arguably the first summer blockbuster, the summer film season has evolved—some might say devolved—into a kind of paddock in which every snapping, chomping, exploding, shoot-em-upping, CGI-heavy popcorn flick prowls. If it involves killer robots (giant or otherwise), aliens, super-heroes, car chases for the sake of car chases, debauched partying, and/or monsters, you’re more likely to see it on summer movie screens. You won’t see many Prestige Films from May to August. What you will see are the fanboy flicks meant to generate the bulk of the year’s income; these movies are the engines that drive the studios and, sometimes, allow them to fund movies with stronger plots, better characterization and character development, clearer cinematography, better editing, effects that supplement the plot rather than substitute for it.
That is not to say that all summer films are bad—far from it. Many are fun. Many are well-constructed, well-conceived, well-acted. Some might be equally at home in the fall, when Oscar-bait pictures enjoy wide releases and strategic advertising campaigns that are meant to entice the Academy as much as Joe Consumer. But for the most part, summer is the stomping ground for the kind of movie that inspires theme-park rides, action figures, and ComicCon panels.
And, in today’s ever-more-cynical Hollywood, most of these lumbering, clunky, and yes, often exhilarating movies are built not just to make zillions of dollars but also to jumpstart a franchise.
Two recent summer releases follow this pattern. Both were adapted from beloved source material. Both are CGI-heavy action films, though one also utilizes elements of the suspense thriller. Both opt for kinetic thrill over character development and present some troubling moral quandaries for the viewer.
But make no mistake—World War Z is not Man of Steel.
I wanted to like Man of Steel. I really did.
For over twenty years, I was an avid comic collector. My collection easily numbered in the thousands. I was purchasing around sixty titles a month at one point. Eventually, in the mid-1990s, I quit, the reasons for which could fill another column. Suffice it to say that I grew sick of the lazy, marketing-based storytelling. Should the reader be interested, I’ll break it all down sometime.
For now, I will simply say this: even at the apex of my comics-collecting frenzy, I never really followed Superman closely. He never really interested me. In the old days, no villain had a chance against him unless he/she happened to find a piece of kryptonite lying around. Superman was “super” to a fault, with more powers than the combined might of your average super-team, plus near-invulnerability. Moreover, I came of age in the 1970s and 80s, a time when comics were growing darker and ever more adult in tone. “The Big Blue Boy Scout” and his utterly pure ethics were much less interesting than the shades-of-gray morality of, say, the X-Men or the everyman struggles of Peter Parker. On the DC side of things, Batman’s neuroses—perhaps even psychoses—provided fecund grounds for character-based storytelling and action-based plots with real stakes. You always knew that Batman wouldn’t die or get hurt too badly—his name was on the book, right?—but he was vulnerable in ways that Superman could never be.
When Richard Donner’s first Superman film was released, I watched it because it was a super-hero film. Christopher Reeve did an admirable job. Superman II was, to my young eyes, pretty awesome. Terence Stamp made for a willowy, aristocratic Zod, but the triple threat of the Phantom Zone escapees posed real problems for Superman. I dug it. Of course, Superman III was really more of a comedy, and the less said about Superman IV, the better. Much like with the comics version, the filmic Superman interested me enough to keep up with what was happening, but not much more.
I never watched Lois and Clark on TV. I still have not seen Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Do you get what I’m saying? I respected Superman’s place in pop culture history, but I was never really invested in him, either.
Still, for some reason I can’t quite explain, I got really excited when I saw the trailers for Man of Steel. I found myself rooting for the Big Blue Boy Scout. I wanted the film to be good, a box office success and a critical smash. I bought my tickets and sat among the other drooling fanboys and girls, ready to be dazzled.
As I’ve said elsewhere, Man of Steel is really the first of the various Superman films to demonstrate understanding of Superman’s sheer scale. The leveling of Smallville and large sections of Metropolis provide strong, clear images of what would happen if godlike beings threw down, and, viewing the scope of the wreckage, the ticket-holder could be forgiven for his/her relief that such beings don’t exist in our world. Even if we forget about the potential loss of life, can you imagine the sheer economic devastation that would occur in the wake of just one super-battle? Insurance premiums alone would bankrupt your average citizen.
The problems with the film as a film have already been covered by other critics—the lack of chemistry between the leads, the over-dependence on CGI, the relentless battles that bleed into one another as if good scriptwriting were only a matter of moving from one near-incomprehensible set piece to another (I honestly wonder if the script might have been only 30 pages long), and so forth. To these concerns, I have added my own distaste for the fetishistic destruction of New York-substitute Metropolis, especially the scenes in which the Daily Planet staff wanders about a landscape that looks suspiciously like Ground Zero on 9/11. In fact, why did we even meet Perry White et al. in this film? They never really did anything substantive.
I also don’t like the typical Snyder-film acting style of SHOUTING EVERY LINE AT THE TOP OF ONE’S LUNGS, ESPECIALLY TO SUPERMAN, WHO HAS FRICKIN’ SUPER-HEARING. Michael Shannon’s a fine actor, but he chews too much scenery here.
A sidebar: at one point, Zod says to Superman, “I was bred for this! I was trained all my life to be a warrior! Where did you train, A FARM?” Um, dude, you were the one who got your ass kicked by a scientist in hand-to-hand combat.
Were it not for strong performances by Henry Cavill and Russell Crowe, the oft-dazzling visuals (Snyder’s greatest strength thus far), and the early scenes that ground Clark’s humanity in a typical “Who am I, really?” search, I would have hated the film. Still, I thought it was okay at best, C- material.
Back to the subject of this column, my main problems with the film lie with its ending and how that ending demonstrates the filmmakers’ fundamental misunderstanding of Superman’s character, as well as their own failure to construct a clear sense of ethics for Clark/Superman.
SPOILER ALERT: if you don’t know how the film ends, stop reading and come back after you’ve seen the movie. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
If you’re still with me, then I can tell you that I am firmly in the camp that believes Superman should never kill. Certainly the actions of the cinematic Superman have no bearing on the source material. But as I said to a friend recently, if you’re coming to an adaptation of a beloved character, you expect some level of faithfulness to what made you a fan of that character in the first place. Superman is not Wolverine, or the Punisher, or Deathstroke, or Deadshot. He always finds a way not to kill. Having Superman kill Zod without even trying anything else (why not zoom up in the air with him? Put your super hand over his eyes? Pull him backward? Bop him on top of the head really hard?) is like a Harry Potter adaptation in which Harry is a heroin-addicted sexual pervert. It is, at best, a fundamental misunderstanding of your source material, one that cannot be whitewashed with creative license. At worse, it’s a betrayal of your audience. You can surprise them without insulting them.
Of course, all that assumes that cinematic Superman believes in the same ethical code as comic-book Superman, and the audience is likely to assume he does because the film does not construct a clear set of moral codes for Clark in his early years. I find this flaw within the film even more troubling than the alteration of the source texts.
As portrayed in the film, Jonathan and Martha Kent seem to exemplify the worst parenting tendencies of the contemporary age, specifically the propensity to teach our children that they are special to the point of exceptionalism. I’m all for building our kids’ confidence and showing them that, as individuals, they are valuable and strong and wonderful. But as an educator, I have seen how many parents take this too far. Children of these parents grow up believing that they are perfect, that anything they do should be unconditionally praised, that success in every endeavor is both a given and their right as human beings, that they are truly and unequivocally the center of the universe.
Jonathan and Martha Kent teach Clark that his safety, his life, is more important than anyone else’s. When Clark saves a busload of children but exposes his powers in doing so, Jonathan implies that letting all those kids die would have been a preferable solution. When Jonathan is about to die in the big tornado and Clark wants to save him, Jonathan waves him off. He is literally willing to die for his son, and I’m wondering why none of the Superman-as-Christ commentaries seem to be parsing this particular scene. So Clark grows up having been told that his own safety is paramount, even if others have to suffer and die.
To his credit, Clark rejects that idea, risking exposure several times in order to help others. Given his upbringing, we might wonder where these morals come from; surely there is an academic nature-vs-nurture article here. In any case, though, he seems to be rebelling against the teachings of his parents and following his own conscience.
Therefore, when he is forced to kill Zod (or isn’t imaginative enough to figure out another way) and subsequently screams in teary-eyed—what? Anger? Frustration? Guilt?—we hope that this will be the start of a contemporary take on Superman’s morality. What effects will this action have on him? How will he ever get over it? Is he becoming more like his Earth father, in spite of his intentions? How much sleep will he lose? How long will he have to wander the Earth doing penance? How will such penance affect his burgeoning relationship with Lois and, more importantly, his ability to help the world become a better place?
Apparently, his reaction to breaking his own moral code—of not just letting someone die for the first time but actually taking that life himself—is to say, “Oh, well.” In the subsequent scenes, Superman trades one-liners with a general. He has a frank talk with his mother about his future, and his solution to his deep and scarring ethical breach is to smile and basically say, “I think I’ll get a job.” How has his relationship with humanity in general, and with Lois specifically, changed? Apparently not at all. He is the smiling, slightly horny, newest member of the Daily Planet staff. Wow. That’s some deep stuff right there.
In Man of Steel, this ultimate breach of Superman’s canonical ethos and the rupturing of the film’s own ethical continuity (or, rather, the movie’s last revision of its own shaky construction of Clark’s ethics) have no visible consequences whatsoever. In this world, Superman kills, and he’s momentarily sorry, and that’s about it. On to the next one. One wonders how Lex Luthor will die in the inevitable sequel and whether Superman will even bat an eyelash.
In this origin story, Clark never comes close to reconciling the varied sets of ethics with which he is presented, so the viewer is left wondering just what kind of Man of Steel we have been given. This kind of egregious and, thus far, purposeless dismissal of the source and the audience’s history with the character is unforgivable. And it undermines Man of Steel as a stand-alone story.
So why is World War Z, a film that radically departs from its source text, any better?
For one reason, World War Z does not carry so much historical weight. Superman’s first appearance, in Action Comics #1, occurred in 1938. Along with Action Comics, Superman appeared in his own eponymous book, various incarnations of Justice League of America, spin-offs, team-ups, and special issues, not to mention the various television shows, cartoons, and films that featured the character. Whole generations grew up with Superman, who, my own tastes notwithstanding, is still the most iconic super-hero of them all.
World War Z appeared, if I am not mistaken, in 2006. Though it enjoys a devoted following, particularly among zombie culture aficionados (among which I count myself), it has not enjoyed the kind of generational, wide-ranging cultural saturation that Superman has. If nothing else, its very recent appearance on the cultural stage assures us that a comparative iconography with Superman is, as of this moment, impossible.
Because World War Z does not and, at this point in time, cannot mean as much to as many people as Superman, the filmic version’s alterations of the source text seem less problematic.
World War Z the novel also eschews typical narrative conventions like point of view. As an “oral history of the zombie war,” its goal is to present as broad a view as possible of how a zombie apocalypse might evolve, as well as its effects on the global community. Instead of reading about the zombocalypse from the perspective of one central intelligence or one set of core characters, we jump from country to country, character to character. In doing so, we see how the zombie apocalypse affects various strata of humanity: men, women, and animals; the rich and the poor; first-world countries and undeveloped nations; religious and secular communities.
We don’t get much depth in terms of character development or setting, but the tradeoff is that we finally see the apocalypse for the world-wide cataclysm it should, by definition, be. It’s a different kind of story-telling that some love and some aren’t so crazy about; I find myself somewhere in the middle, liking the book but wishing that it were longer or the scope smaller so that the elements that make stories worth telling could have more time to develop. Still, the book does what it does well.
In terms of the film adaptation, it could not possibly tell the story in the same way. The book’s structure tries some audience members’ patience but still succeeds because it can fill a few hundred pages with vignettes. In the movies, though, telling the story that way would completely deconstruct any narrative through-line. You would have to spend only a minute or two at most with each vignette, leading to an experience that would be fragmented to a fault, or you would have to focus on just a handful, meaning that you’re leaving out most of the text anyway and would have little time to do more than establish the basic narrative situation of each before you cut to the next one.
Now…films like Cloud Atlas remind us that it is possible to utilize a fragmented narrative with shorter narrative arcs set in varied locales and time periods. In that film, the arcs focused on different characters and their interconnected plotlines; it used careful scripting and masterful editing to create a narrative that makes sense. However, Cloud Atlas concentrated on five or six locales and character sets; World War Z the novel covered many more. Therefore, the same problems mentioned above would still arise. What do you keep, and what do you leave out? Any omission would limit your devotion to the source text. Filmmakers are limited by budgets, running times, and actors’ schedules, among other things, none of which a novelist has to consider. So Marc Forster and his producers would, in adapting World War Z, have to leave out most of the novel or cover everything at far too fast a pace and in far too jumbled a way. You could, perhaps, faithfully adapt World War Z into an ongoing television series, but there seems to be no way to do so in a two-hour film.
Knowing that material would have to be left out anyway, the filmmakers decided—rightly, I believe—to focus the narrative on Gerry Lane and his family. Gerry still nation-hops, much like the correspondent does in the novel, only now we are seeing the apocalypse as it happens, rather than hearing about it second-hand. Forster and company might have chosen to shoot the film documentary-style and hewed closer to the book, but this approach allows for more action and less talking about the action—more showing and less telling. And while showing rather than telling is always good narrative advice, it is crucial in the visual medium of film.
There is also no discernible breach in the source text’s established ethos. In zombie texts, the undead are monsters, no longer human. There is no moral compunction to consider; you cannot feel guilty for protecting yourself against something that is already dead. So when Gerry kills zombies, he echoes what the various characters of the novel do.
We see the Lane family act in the midst of the zombie outbreaks: they steal a vehicle; they run away from the zombies, leaving other people to die; they protect themselves at the expense of others. When possible, as seen with the family in the apartment building, they help their fellow survivors. When no hope for help exists, they save themselves.
You can argue the moral relativity of their actions from now until the zombies bash in your own door; such arguments have and will probably continue to provide fodder for academic and cultural studies of zombie texts. Here, though, the point is that the Lanes act no differently than your average survivor in the novel. Sometimes they are selfless, risking their lives for others. Sometimes they flee in terror, probably glad that they can outrun their slower brethren. They fight on the side of humanity but exhibit human fears and the realistic tendency to break social and ethical codes when the society built upon those codes breaks down. They are no better or worse than the characters in Brooks’ novel. Therefore, while some readers might take issue with the altered structure and the focus on Lane, it is likely that fewer would find themselves deeply offended by Lane’s actions or how they fit within the framework of the narrative’s world.
In terms of how it functions as a film, World War Z is above average, but not perfect. It is very well-acted, especially for a genre film. Brad Pitt is particularly good; I forgot that I was watching Brad frickin’ Pitt in a zombie movie and found myself invested in the character’s survival (which, really, isn’t much a concern until the film’s final scenes; he’s the main character, after all). The action scenes were mostly well-done. The final scenes in the WHO labs positively drip with suspense; even if you can see what’s coming, as I did, you still want to know how it happens and who will survive. Like the character played by Christopher Meloni in Man of Steel, World War Z’s female Israeli soldier (whose name, like Meloni’s character’s, I cannot recall) was compelling. She endures physical and emotional trauma and still comes off like a badass.
If we are left wondering who Superman/Clark Kent really is, we know Gerry Lane well enough. He is a former U.N. operative with strong family ties. He is highly competent. He values his family more than other people but never abandons anyone when the possibility for saving them still exists.
Does World War Z leave questions unanswered? Yes, and it admits to doing so. We don’t know how the plague started or where it originated. We don’t know how well the solution will work. We don’t know exactly how it will be implemented. Yes, it’s that cynical Hollywood machine in action again, setting up a potential franchise at the expense of the stand-alone story. Yet this story does stand alone. The first stage is over. Some fans may feel cheated that the whole story was not covered, but at least they should not feel as cheated as Man of Steel viewers might. Marc Forster and company didn’t create a race of zombies that kill humans but raise puppies and daffodils or something equally insulting to the source mythology.
Even if you ignore the novel, World War Z isn’t flawless. I would like to see more development of Gerry’s backstory. The subplot with his daughter’s asthma fizzles out. Thomas the orphan boy seems to have little place in the film. Mireille Enos has very little to do other than look concerned. And, as my wife rightly pointed out, two of the major screw-ups in the film happen because a woman does exactly what she should not do at exactly the wrong time—not exactly gender-progressive.
While all these issues are troubling, though, they aren’t film-killers. World War Z is better acted, more coherent, and much less insulting than Man of Steel. I would grade this one in the B+/B range, significantly higher than Man of Steel’s C-. If these two films do indeed jumpstart franchises, which is clearly Hollywood’s hope—and the jury is still out, as both opened very strongly, but Man of Steel suffered a 71% dropoff in its second weekend—I hope that the second Z film (World War Z II? World War II-Z?) is even better than the first. And I hope that the Man of Steel team finds a way to redeem Superman. He deserves it, and so do we.
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