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Much Ado About the Man of Steel: What Comic Book Filmmakers Can Learn from Shakespeare

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire June 12, 2013 at 10:05AM

It's definitely better than "Superman Returns." Or it's worse. Or maybe the comparison is besides the point.
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"Man of Steel."
"Man of Steel."
The reviews of "Man of Steel," Zack Synder's eagerly awaited -- and, in some corners, nervously dreaded -- Superman reboot are in, and one thing is clear: It's definitely better than "Superman Returns." Or it's worse. Henry Cavill is the best Superman ever! Or he's not fit to carry Christopher Reeve's jockstrap. Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer have boldly reshaped the Superman mythos for the 21st century, or they and Christopher Nolan (who did the initial legwork on the project before ceding the reins) have turned an iconic do-gooder into a brooding, conflicted mess: Batman in a red and blue suit.

Part of the attraction of superhero movies is that they come from a rich (if not always noble) history; they arrive with a tradition --and, more importantly, an audience -- attached. But in today's fan-dominated culture, that tradition is also a millstone around a filmmaker's neck. "The fans," an amorphous group composed of whoever happens to be yelling the loudest at any given moment, don't want a retread, but they don't want something too new either (sorry, Ang Lee). It's a no-win game, even with critics. Variety's Scott Foundas called "Man of Steel" "strenuously revisionist," while on Twitter, Film.com's David Ehrlich said it was "hopelessly torn between regurgitating a myth & telling a story. [I]nert, dull & terribly timid."

So is Snyder trying too hard or not hard enough? Perhaps he shouldn't be trying at all. In a New York Times editorial, Juliet Lpidos compared movie franchises to classical theatre, where the same stories were told and retold by different playwrights. Aeschylus wrote "The Oresteia," three plays about the Trojan warrior Agammenon; Sophocles wrote a play about Agammenon's daughter, Electra; then Euripides wrote his own Electra play. "That is not so different," she wrote, "from Christopher Nolan's deciding to take on Batman after Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher did."

Leaving aside the implicit equation of Sophocles and Joel Schumacher -- even if Sophocles totally put nipples on Oedipus's toga -- it's worth considering whether we'd be better off treating superhero stories like the received lore they are rather than holding each new version up against the previous one(s). Perhaps we could treat Batman or Spider-Man the way Shakespeare treated the earlier works he based his own plays on, or the histories he liberally reshaped (note: Do not use "Richard III" as a study aid for your English history test). Or, for that matter, we could treat the classic texts -- Steve Ditko's Spider-Man, Bob Kane's (or Frank Miller's) Batman -- as rough clay, to be molded into new and unfamiliar shapes.

The trouble, of course, is that while Aeschylus and Shakespeare were free to rip off whom they willed, the keys to the Batcave and the Fortress of Solitude are held by some of the most powerful and well-funded entities on the planet, and they have no intention of letting their prized properties lapse into the public domain. The comic book creators who revolutionized the industry in the 1980s knew as much, which is why they chose neglected characters like the Sandman and Swamp Thing to make their mark (even Batman had fallen on hard times by the time Miller penned his iconic "The Dark Knight Returns"). One of the breeziest and most successful superhero franchises of recent years is "Iron Man," which approach its subject with the same devil-may-care smirk Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark fixes on a supermodel in a tight dress. 

It's fitting that Joss Whedon used his break between the production and editing of "The Avengers," which hits its genre's sweet spots while winking at its absurdities, to make "Much Ado About Nothing," a loose-limbed Shakespeare production shot in his own house. "Much Ado" serves Shakespeare's words, but Whedon isn't afraid to add his own sensibilities, acknowledging the strain of barely submerged misogyny that marred Kenneth Branagh's more overtly faithful film version. Peter Jackson’s tediously faithful "Hobbit" or the bloated "Harry Potter" movies are the equivalent of an uncut "Hamlet" -- not without their potential charms, but at base, redundant. It's time filmmakers were allowed to approach the canon with an axe instead of a scalpel: They may do some damage, but at least they won't do the same old thing.

Read more of "'Hamlet' Meets 'The Hangover.'"

This article is related to: Joss Whedon, Superman


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