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Is Man of Steel the Year’s Best Sci-Fi Film?

The new Superman excels more as a science fiction film than as a comic book movie.

by
Walter Hudson

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June 21, 2013 - 11:00 am
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In an interview with IGN, director Zack Snyder cheerfully affirms the description of his recently released Man of Steel as “a full-on science fiction film.” Indeed, the comic book movie may prove to be the year’s best science fiction film despite other high-profile efforts which land more overtly within that genre.

Good science fiction uses fantastic but plausible alternative realities to posit profound philosophical questions. What does it mean to be human? Are we alone in the universe? Is there a god and, if so, what’s he like? Bad science fiction telescopes its agenda, attempting to answer its own questions with unearned authority in an attempt to proselytize.

M. Night Shyamalan has offered examples of both. His alien invasion tale Signs, offered from the perspective of a family struggling with faith as they mourn the passing of a mother, artfully asks whether providence exists. A later effort, The Happening, attempts unsuccessfully to make horror monsters out of plants and preaches with such sanctimony that it might as well be a promotional video for the Sierra Club.

There were echoes of The Happening in this year’s science fiction release from Shyamalan starring Will Smith and son Jaden. Essentially a shipwreck story, After Earth takes place in a future where everything on Earth has evolved to kill humans. Because, you know, we’re so destructive that the planet had to immunize itself against us.

The other big science fiction release this year was the Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion, which was apparently so bad that it prompted NPR to call it “the most incoherent piece of storytelling since John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth.” That was until people saw After Earth, which also warranted comparisons to the infamous Scientology-inspired commercial bomb.

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Top Rated Comments   
Completely awful.

-----spoilers follow------

1) They made a Superman movie unsutiable for 10 year olds, so right off the bat this thing is a travesty.
2) Pa Kent advising a young Clark that, gee, in order to make his own life easier he should have considered letting a bus full of children die. That's not Superman.
3) Superman's real power all these decades hasn't been his strength or speed, it's his morality. This movie gives us a Superman completely bereft of that moral core. It gives us a Superman who's petty, self-interested, vindictive, a thief and a killer.
4) It also gives us a Superman that acts with reckless disregard for the people he's supposed to be protecting, and who contributes to what has to be thousands if not tens of thousands of dead innocents.
5) And can we stop with the damned origin stories already? As though there's a single member of the moviegoing public that doesn't know Superman's origin.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Man of Steel was awful. Sorry, it was simply awful.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (15)
All Comments   (15)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
Did anyone else notice the Lex-Corp trailer in the "Smallville" battle? I imagine he will play a major role in the next film and be somewhat more threatening than Spacey was in SM Returns.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
What about Star Trek: Into Darkness?
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Man of Steel was awful. Sorry, it was simply awful.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Completely awful.

-----spoilers follow------

1) They made a Superman movie unsutiable for 10 year olds, so right off the bat this thing is a travesty.
2) Pa Kent advising a young Clark that, gee, in order to make his own life easier he should have considered letting a bus full of children die. That's not Superman.
3) Superman's real power all these decades hasn't been his strength or speed, it's his morality. This movie gives us a Superman completely bereft of that moral core. It gives us a Superman who's petty, self-interested, vindictive, a thief and a killer.
4) It also gives us a Superman that acts with reckless disregard for the people he's supposed to be protecting, and who contributes to what has to be thousands if not tens of thousands of dead innocents.
5) And can we stop with the damned origin stories already? As though there's a single member of the moviegoing public that doesn't know Superman's origin.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
I was thinking of point 4 while I was watching the movie- especially with regard to how the original "Zod Threatens Earth" Superman II movie handled, and made it a central point, the issue of collateral damage. You can even see that moral core in the nearly now forgotten Superman Returns.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'd say the distinction is that the previous films were more fantasy while this one veers more into science fiction. The distinction, as the author Orson Scott Card explained in a "how to" book on the subject is mostly this: if you can do some impossible thing by chanting a spell or rubbing a talisman or praying to a tree, that's fantasy; if you can do the very same impossible thing by throwing a switch or pushing a button or crawling into a machine, that's science fiction.

While extraterrestrials are generally thought to be mainly the domain of science fiction, Superman's origins in the comics and the earlier movies made from them make him out to be more like some immigrant from a fantasy world, complete with quasi-magical crystals that extend his powers by building a fortress of solitude for him where he communes with something awfully similar to dead Kryptonians' spirits. For all the "scientific" explanations of Superman's origins, these stories are about a modernized mythological being not so different from the gods of classical mythology, which makes it feel more like a fantasy.

The new Man of Steel movie simply changes the feel by delving more into those "scientific" explanations for his powers and making everything accompanying them look more technological than magical. The distinction is subtle, but it's there: more about the hi-tech planet Krypton and the civilization there, Superman being treated as more like a powerful space alien than just a Santa-Claus-brought-to-life mythological character, and more about the practical impact on Earth's civilizations.

I should point out, too, that superhero stories are no more limited to one genre or one target audience than any other kind of story. Just as a vampire story could be anything from a mushy teen romance (e.g. the Twilight novels) to an adventure in crime (Near Dark), a horror comedy (Lost Boys), or a serious science-fiction story (Daybreakers), so too a superhero story can be anything from the pulpy lowbrow children's entertainment the original Superman comics were to a sophisticated family movie like The Incredibles to a mature grim & gritty dystopian deconstruction like the Watchmen graphic novel and movie. Anyone who insists Superman has to be for kiddies betrays a distinct lack of maturity in himself. As C.S. Lewis put it, when I became a man. I put away childish things... including the desire to seem so very grown-up to others.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
It's a superhero movie, and like all superhero movies it's for the kiddies. Now I know I'm not supposed to say that and let the cat out of the bag, because that would mean acknowledging that America and the West has a 'culture' driven by kiddies entertainment, and bad children's entertainment at that, but it is what it is. What are you going to tell me, 'it's not for children, adolescents go to see it, adults go to see it'. Yeah so? That just tells us how juvenile we are. Just take a deep breath and say out loud with a straight face 'it's not for children, it's a Superman movie'.

And yes pretensions by Batman to the contrary, it's also for children. The fact that Batman fans and the filmmakers themselves take Batman so seriously when it's children's lame entertainment, is almost funny. Except at some level it isn't funny at all.

PJMedia which always gives big review space to superhero crap is clearly part of the problem. At least the loony liberals at AV Club actually review movies that matter. The best American films of the last few years I haven't even seen reviewed here. From 'Take Shelter' to the recent 'The Place beyond the Pines'. The latter for one deserves all its praise. Of course probably too arty and serious for the likes of PJMedia, who we can count on to review all the juvenile superhero films. Even if it's to give them bad reviews, it gives them attention and hence promotion. Part of the problem. Solution - ignore them.

An 'adult society' that devours Harry Potter and Spiderman, Superman blabla cannot survive, nor should it.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Shut up and go watch PBS.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Larry, you don't have one damned clue what you're talking about.

First of all anyone who sees Man of Steel and thinks it's for children needs to have their head examined. Between the confused and contemptible morals at its center to the relentless onscreen murders this isn't a movie I'd be comfortable taking any child to.

Further, your dismissal of anything with superheroes as being for children only shows you to be the worst combination of ignorant, pretentious and narcissistic. Would you dismiss the classical Greek myths as being for children? Probably not. Well, what meaningful difference is there between Hercules and Superman that makes one childish and one not?

You sound like a co-worker of mine who inserts himself into every conversation about TV just so he can remind us that he wouldn't lower himself to watching TV.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
"The Place Beyond the Pines" grossed only $35 million.

That means that either the American theaters were nearly empty or only a few theaters showed the movie.

To me, writing glowing reviews of movies that very few people ever see is elitist. It's the kind of stuff liberals do at Cannes.

I'm with you about superhero movies; Hollywood just can't stop making remakes of Superman and Batman and now they're going to have the Justice League of America. Can't they come up with something else?

But the "something else" has to be popular entertainment, something you don't seem to understand. What's the good of making a great movie that no one sees. It only gratifies the egos of folks like you.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
You didn't see Cloud Atlas did you? Hanks-Berry? Last year?
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
No, it's not science fiction. It's a superhero movie. Oblivion is science fiction.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
it indeed was the best sci-fi movie!
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Essentially a shipwreck story, After Earth takes place in a future where everything on Earth has evolved to kill humans. Because, you know, we’re so destructive that the planet had to immunize itself against us."

If the directors stopped to think about their topic, they would know that the Earth is beyond the scope of man's ability to destroy. But, it has Will Smith so thinking wasn't necessary.

As to whether Man of Steel is a science fiction movie, I'm not convinced. Sure, it starts with a semi-war on a planet far and away and features aliens, but I don't think those things alone are sufficient to qualify the movie as science fiction. If Man of Steel is science fiction then all of the Superman movies and television shows are also science fiction. By definition these other movies and television shows feature aliens and alien technology. I don't think anyone will consider George Reeves' Superman, Christopher Reeves' Superman, and Lois and Clark science fiction.

I think Superman rightly belongs in the genre of "superhero fiction" which is as its name implies: Fiction that focuses on men and beings of extraordinary features that are used for the good of mankind (or whatever floats their fancy).

That all being said, I can certainly see how people can make an argument that Man of Steel is science fiction. I just think that it would be a weak one.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
The distinction is that previous iterations of Superman, certainly on-screen, have treated his alien origin as nothing more than a narrative device for explaining why he can do what he does. "Man of Steel" treated the notion with more respect than that. It took seriously the magnitude of first contact, something previous films never did. To my mind, that lands it further in science fiction territory than a paint-by-numbers superhero story.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
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