Man of Steel: Why the Story of Superman Still Matters

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I thought Superman’s time had long past. And I didn’t expect to enjoy the new movie as much as I did. How can there be anything interesting left to do with a character who has been around for 75 years and is all powerful? I thought as I headed into a 10:30 AM screening this past weekend (yes, I go to the movies alone in the morning sometimes). I found myself surprised by how much the story resonated with me.

Here’s what I loved about it: It’s a story about having the courage to be who you are. I’m not well versed in Superman lore beyond film and TV, so I realize this theme probably isn’t unique to this film, but it really hit home for me in this moment. Sometimes stories come along at just the right time and resonate with what you’re thinking about at the time.

The crux of the film for me was the father/son relationship between Jonathan and Clark Kent. Clark lives his childhood and early adult life not being able to reveal who he really is because his father taught him that the human race wasn’t ready to learn that that an alien with superpowers lived among them. His father, feared what others might think and how they would react. In fact, he staked his whole life on it.

There is a powerful scene where young Clark saves his schoolmates from a bus crash. (It was in the trailer, so I don’t think of this as a spoiler). Everyone is about to drown, and Clark is given a choice: let them die, or save them and risk showing them who you are. He wisely chooses the latter. But later, his father is upset with him. Clark asks him, “What was I supposed to do, let them die?” And his dad replies, “Maybe.” His dad is so set in his worldview — that people aren’t ready to understand the truth — that he would be willing to let innocent souls perish. It’s pretty cruel, but makes for a great conflict that challenges Clark to decide what he believes in and what kind of person he wants to become.

Even in spite of this, I found myself sympathetic to Jonathan Kent and didn’t find him completely unlikable. His words and actions were his way of protecting his son. But he was misguided. Who made him the one who decides if the world is ready or not to handle the existence of an alien?

The father represents any parent, or institution, or religion, or government that wants to prevent you (or me) from coming into our own and expressing who we truly are. This covers the gamut, from corporations not wanting employees to think outside the box, to a society that still isn’t entirely okay with gay marriage. They (the father figure) thinks they know best. They say they have your best interests at heart and they will protect you. But they are just fearful of what will happen when people are living their best lives. I think this part of the film got under my skin because I absolutely hate when someone assumes they know what is best for me.

There have been some articles written about the Christ symbolism in the film (which I found too heavy-handed). But I did find the movie spiritual in other ways. It encourages us to live an authentic life, one in which we follow our instincts as we struggle to figure out who we want to be and what we want to do.

What did you think of the film? What parts resonated with you?

Legend of Korra Soundtrack: Music as Storyteller

Korra soundtrack

The Legend of Korra soundtrack will be released on July 16th. This marks a huge milestone for the show. Bryan and I (among many others) have been trying to release an Avatar soundtrack since the early days of A:TLA. Dedicated fans even began circulating a couple of online petitions over the years. We knew that people wanted this music, it just took some time (and a lot of patience) to get the juggernaut of Nickelodeon to get behind it. But once they did, things moved very quickly. And as of this writing (a month until release), the soundtrack is already #3 in soundtracks and #24 in all music on Amazon. Pretty amazing.

Jeremy Zuckerman’s score has been such an intergal part of both A:TLA and Legend of Korra so I’m happy and excited that fans will finally be able to listen to the score on its own.

Since the early days of the Avatar world, the music has added a whole level to the storytelling in the show. Although I was certainly aware of soundtracks for movies and TV, I never really understood how vital they are to visual storytelling until I had my own show. The composer has a difficult job of creating music that supports the visuals without overpowering them. When done well, music often blends into a scene and becomes part of the story, so much so that you don’t realize it’s there. This isn’t a negative thing. It’s similar to how the right actor can blend into their animated character. If a character is matched with the wrong voice, it can be very jarring and take you out of the story. The wrong music can have the same story-killing effect.

Listening to Jeremy’s score for an episode is always a treat. By the time he gets his hands on an episode, we’ve lived with it for about 10 months, in all its various incarnations. We know the story inside and out and have scrutinized every shot and drawing. So it’s difficult to see the show with fresh eyes. But every time I watch a music preview or sit in a mix for an episode, I do just that. It’s like watching the show for the first time. Emotions become clearer, drama becomes more intense, and action becomes more exciting. The whole story is augmented and pushed to a new level that the visuals alone can’t accomplish.

Research shows that music affects our brain activity in various ways, but the most intriguing (as it relates to this post) is that music can activate our visual cortex.  I also came across this research that suggests our senses aren’t so compartmentalized — the different senses are more interconnected than scientists first thought.  I think this might help explain why listening to the music for Korra helps me see the show with fresh eyes. I’m hypothesizing here, but it seems to me that after repeated exposure to the same story and visuals over many months, I experience a kind of visual numbness. Add music to the mix, and now my visual cortex is being activated in different ways and I’m able to watch with a sense of newness.

The music for the show is also magical for me because it’s the only part of the process where Bryan or I are not intimately involved. We meet with Jeremy (as well as sound designer Ben Wynn and foley mixer Aran Tanchum) to discuss the episode and what we envision for the music and sound. We only check back a couple weeks later, after they’ve done all the heavy lifting. After working in animation for almost 17 years (yikes!) I have a pretty solid understanding of how the writing, storyboarding, design, and animation all get made, but music composition is completely foreign to me. I appreciate and love listening to music, but I have a limited understanding of how Jeremy goes from an idea for a score, to actually composing it. I see him jot down ideas for musical phrases the same way I might write a note for a story idea or sketch a storyboard panel. We speak different languages, in a sense, but with the same goal — to tell a great story.

While you’re waiting for the soundtrack to be released, you can listen to one of the tracks here. Enjoy the music!