I saw Man of Steel a second time (this time in 3D) on Sunday night, a brief respite from what's become a busy work schedule. I like it even more a second time, and despite the 3D being a postconversion job it's remarkably well-done.
And in the couple of weeks since the film's release, the divisiveness over the movie — mostly in fandom circles — has only become all the more pronounced. It's not just negative reviews or even thoughtful criticism of the film's flaws, it's articles like "Put the hero back in superhero movies" that attack the very premise behind the movie: that a hero is most interesting when he's flawed and in conflict.
No, say the fans. Please let us have some genuine escapism. Please let us have some heroic pop mythology we can call our own. Enough with making everything into grimdarkery!
And believe me, I agree. I wouldn't pound on Game of Thrones so much if I didn't agree.
But I only agree only up to a point.
For one, we've had plenty of sunny escapism in comics for decades. It's still there if you look for it: Kurt Busiek's Astro City is a great source for that sort of thing (along with some more thoughtful material).
But I'd also wager that's the exception rather than the rule for such work. Over time it becomes far harder to take an approach that has its roots in a prior age and bring it to a current audience without irony or winking. The audience for such a thing becomes that much smaller and more self-selecting — and, in time, that much more insular and unwilling to be adventurous. That, I'm learning, is the problem with exclusively addressing any small, self-selecting audience: they have a tendency to get stuck in amber of their own making, and you end up getting stuck along with them.
Escapism is only part of why something on the scope and scale of Man of Steel would be worth doing. It was someone else who said that we go to the movies not to forget ourselves, but to rediscover ourselves — to see what we are with the noise and the distractions pared down thanks to the knife of drama. We can have some escapism, to be sure, but it has to be leavened with other things lest it become entirely forgettable. (Do you remember every piece of gum you've ever chewed?) Sometimes that leavening happens across the course of a longer period of time — generations, even — than it does within the context of a single work, or a single genre.
Here is my theory. We are, as a culture, waking up to something on a gut level: that when you get down to it, there is no such thing as a hero in the abstract. There are simply people — troubled and problematic — who have heroic qualities that they do their best to do justice to. To the degree they are able to fulfill that potential, they become more or less heroic. It's become all but impossible to talk about heroes, at least to any audience over the age of six, without recognizing this fact.
It's not kneejerk grimdarkery. It's a sign that we're maturing as a society — that even the things we call bubblegum or throwaway entertainments are becoming that much more thoroughly informed by life.