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?

Violence and story

Following the Aurora shooting, Gangster Squad’s release was delayed and a scene in which a shooting occurred in a movie theater was altered.

After the Newtown tragedy, Paramount delayed the premiere of Jack Reacher; and Showtime put warnings in front of Dexter and Homeland that warned: “In light of the tragedy that has occurred in Connecticut, the following program contains images that may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”

And now, in the wake of the horrible Boston bombing, NBC cancelled a particularly violent episode of the new show Hannibal.

I find it encouraging, actually, that TV and movie studios are sensitive to the public’s psyche after these kinds of terrible events. But I keep wondering, where is that sensitivity the rest of the time? Why is showing a violent show or movie two weeks after a shooting any better than showing it two days after?

I’m the last person who thinks there should be censorship in media. But sensitivity and restraint is another matter. Clearly, when studios hold back episodes and put up warnings on the most violent of their shows, it proves they are conscious that the material may be upsetting to viewers during the days following a tragedy. But what’s the cutoff? Can they really say that after a week or two, the public is back to normal and ready for a heaping dose of violence?

Because while these three events are among the most extreme and publicized in recent memory, shootings and violence and tragedy occur in our society every day. So shouldn’t the studios be sensitive to our collective psyche year-round?

I’m not advocating for banning violence from TV and the movies. I watch Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, both of which feature plenty of violent imagery which can often be disturbing. And I enjoy a good action movie as much as the next guy.

And I’m not just a consumer, I’m on the other side as well, making shows for TV. And both A:TLA and Korra depict or allude to very violent acts, such as genocide, child abuse, and a murder/suicide. These are heavy themes in an animated kid’s show, but they serve to tell a more uplifting story of love, sacrifice, and overcoming adversity. And in writing and drawing the show we are always sensitive to the fact that kids are watching.

In an interview following Newtown, Time Magazine TV critic James Poniewozik told NPR: “If something is actually inappropriate, then we should treat it as if it’s inappropriate at all times, not just inappropriate for two weeks and then suddenly becomes okay again.”

Absolutely. Of course, that’s where things get a little tricky. Inappropriate for whom? And who deems what is inappropriate and what’s not? My girlfriend is much more sensitive to on screen violence than I am, so I usually watch the more intense shows and movies on my own or with friends. It’s different for everybody. But as I’ve explored in some of my other posts, I do believe that what we read and watch affects our brains, so it can’t hurt to tone down the violence in TV and movies if we want to find a little more peace. At the very least, we can begin to explore how these violent stories affect us as people and as a culture. Just saying that on screen violence doesn’t affect us is no longer a valid argument. And based on the actions of the studios following these tragedies, they know it’s true too.

On a side note, welcome to the readers who have found this blog through the Freshly Pressed link. I’m still new to this whole blogging thing, so having WordPress spotlight the Zuko’s Mom post was a nice surprise. I appreciate everyone’s comments and feedback. Thanks for reading!

Can old stories help us navigate the future?

Sketchnotes for "The Great Cauldron of St...

Sketchnotes for “The Great Cauldron of Story” with Maria Tatar (Photo credit: On Being)

In this fascinating interview with Krista Tippett, Maria Tatar, a professor Germanic languages and literature at Harvard, talks about fairy tales and their influence and impact on our modern culture.  For example, there are the new adaptations of Snow White and shows like Grimm and Once. But she also points out that even the Kardashians and Sex and the City are versions of Cinderella.

Have these old myths and tales always been a large part of the culture, or is this a new trend?  Tatar talks about how we’re all navigating new territory and that there is a comfort in returning to these familiar stories to help us understand our world.

It makes sense to me, though I’m not sure that this is an entirely new trend. Myths and fairytales have always been part of the modern, popular culture, whether it was through Superman and comic books, or Star Wars in the 80’s.

But there are a couple reasons why these “old” stories might be more pervasive now.

First, the types of and platforms for entertainment have grown. Programmers and studios have so many more hours to fill, that numbers-wise, it makes sense that more fairytale-based stories are out there.

Also, with visual effects being so popular and of such a high quality, creatures and locations that a reader could only imagine before are now being pulled off the page and brought to life in a very convincing way. I think that’s why we’re seeing fairytale movies like Alice and Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Oz-related stories being released every few months. Not to mention the numerous superhero movies.

But what are these old tales teaching us about our modern world? And can they really help us navigate our complex, global society? After all, these were tales that were told around campfires within small tribes, that had no concept of cel phones, computers, and space travel.

What if these stories aren’t about decoding our external world, necessarily, but our internal worlds? They offer us ways to understand and deal with fear, heartbreak, and disappointment — emotions that are universal and timeless.

And as Tatar suggests, in a world that is in constant flux, we find comfort in the familiar. We humans are kind of averse to change, so if a story will help moor us during the tumultuous waves of live, it’s not surprising that we welcome it.

Perhaps if there is a resurgence in the popularity of fantasy and fairytales, it speaks less to economics and special effects, and more to the fact that people are looking for meaning and a “happily ever after.” For a while now, there has been a backlash to the “hollywood ending” and the “happily ever after” because it’s too easy or too saccharine. But the opposite hasn’t helped stories thrive or find larger audiences. In recent years I’ve noticed a lot of shows and movies with cynical endings, hopeless outcomes, and characters who seems to have learned nothing and are no better off than at the start of their tale.

I am definitely suspicious of stories that are tied up too neatly at the end, but I also like to see a glimmer of hope and to feel that things can get better. That people can change.

I don’t need every one of the stories I read to have a totally happy ending, but I do like to see a character who has gone through tests and trials come out the other end in one piece, a little happier and healthier.

Because isn’t that what we want in our own lives?

Argo: Story saves the day

Quick disclaimer — if you have adverse reactions to spoilers, then you might not want to read on.

I finally watched Argo this weekend. Ever since I heard about this film, the concept really intrigued me. I used to really love old, campy B-movies, and the idea of a CIA agent pretending to make one as a cover to rescue hostages from Iran was very intriguing.

The short review: terrific cast, great direction, and even though you knew the hostages were going to make it out okay, the tension was palpable throughout.

But the part that still sticks with me two days later, is the climactic scene at the airport. Ben Affleck’s character, Tony Mendez, has successfully shepherded the hostages to the airport under the guise of being the producer of a sci-fi film. They are about to get on the plane, when the Revolutionary Guards pull them aside for questioning. It’s like getting pulled out of line by the TSA, but instead of being a minor inconvenience, these people could be killed.

And how do they get out of it? By telling a story. The screenplay of Argo, to be exact.

And it’s not a particularly memorable story. I think there were some aliens, a hero who saves a woman, and a laser gun battle.

But what made the moment work so well in the film, was that the person who told the story wasn’t CIA operative Tony Mendez, a guy who had dealt with situations like this before. No, the guy who stepped up was Joe Stafford, a character who, up until this point in the story, was scared. He didn’t believe in the plan and thought it was suicide to leave the country pretending to be a fake movie crew. But when confronted by the enemy, this guy told the story of Argo to the guards in their native language and didn’t miss a beat.

From a storytelling perspective, it was a smart choice to have Stafford, not Mendez tell the story. Mendez knew the cover story inside and out and he believed in it. Stafford, not so much. So there was more dramatic tension created by giving the moment to Stafford.

At first, the guards were dubious. But Stafford committed to the story, describing the characters and plot, and even showing them some storyboards. The guards were hooked. They lost themselves in the story. They let their guard down for that moment.

This event, coupled with the head guard confirming their cover story, allowed them to board the plane and escape.

Even after the group left, there’s a shot of the guards looking at the storyboard drawings and making laser gun sounds, playacting the story.

Although that scene with the guards apparently did not happen in the real-life events of the story on which Argo is based, it didn’t diminish the meaning:

Story has the power to save us.

That’s what resonated with me. I think there are other messages to be gleaned from the film for sure, but that’s the one that really stuck out to me.

The whole mission hinged on whether this group could plausibly pretend to be a film crew scouting locations for a fictional story. Thematically, it made perfect sense that story saved the day.

Resonating Stories

How is a story able to draw you in, capture your imagination, and keep you coming back for more? Why do we get addicted to marathoning episodes of shows like Lost, or Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones?

And why do some stories resonate with us, while others leave us feeling unsatisfied or angry or feeling nothing at all?

I began to wonder if there is a story frequency, at which a story resonates not only with our minds, but with our bodies as well. Similar to how a particular radio station comes in perfectly clear when you’re on it, but dial the tuner up or down just a bit and you get static, or a whole other station completely.

Stories are delicate machines that need to be fined tuned to get the perfect resonance. And if a story resonates with us, we tend to like it, remember it, and possibly learn from it.

And just because a story doesn’t resonate with you, doesn’t necessarily make it a bad story. That’s why there are millions of stories in the world — all meant for different groups of people in all different cultures.

A South American film might not resonate with me, but it will for millions of people in South America. A Russian folk tale might not have any meaning for me, but it will for people who grew up hearing it. I’m just not tuned to those stations, but millions of others are.

I think it’s an interesting point to consider, because often people say (myself included) “That story sucked” or “I hated that story.” And we are all entitled to our opinion. But just as often, a story which we revile is someone else’s all-time favorite. It resonates with them.

And I think that might be why we return to our favorite movies and books multiple times. If a story resonated with us in the past, we want to feel those euphoric feelings again in the present.

How else to explain why, even though I’ve seen them at least a dozen times, I’ll watch Star Wars or Empire Strikes Back if they’re on TV? After the first time watching or reading a story, you know the plot so any sense of mystery or “what happens next” is gone. So why do we keep coming back for more?

My guess is that the pleasure center of our brain is activated when we experience a story that resonates with us. Stories that resonate with us make us feel good. And as humans, we seek out things that make us feel good.

In writing this, I came across an article about a study of video-gamers which found that the pleasure centers of the brain were larger in teenagers who played video games.

It might help explain why we need to get through that next installment of our new favorite book or TV show.

What are the books or movies that resonate with you? Which ones do you return to over and over?