Jun 23, 2013

Some Thoughts On Man of Steel

First things first: I liked it.  Henry Cavill was an excellent Clark, Amy Adams totally got Lois, Laurence Fishburne was an inspired choice for Perry.  Having never been around the comics much for the Zod stuff, I can’t comment on the choices of Michael Shannon and crew for the Phantom Zone criminals.  They were all very good.  Diane Lane and Kevin Costner were great.  Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer  too.  There were no performances I found unconvincing, so let’s just say that Snyder and Nolan found a very good cast.
For amusement’s sake, here’s the summary from IMDB: “A young itinerant worker is forced to confront his secret extraterrestrial heritage when Earth is invaded by members of his race.”
This could probably be replaced with “Superman’s origin and first adventure.”  But maybe I overestimate how many people know who Superman is.
Not sure what else to say about the movie from a technical standpoint.  I saw it in 3D, which was neat sometimes, but confusing others.  The special effects were great.  There were one or two flight sequences, the more understated ones, that I thought were utterly brilliant (Clark floats over to where Zod has landed and then keeps walking.  Great moment, special effects-wise and character-wise).  I’ve already extolled the virtues of the cast.  I am surprised at the utter lack of Lex, aside from the tankers in Metropolis.  Even an introduction of some sort.  He is a vital part of the myth, and myth is certainly what Snyder and company were after.  At one point Faora is battling some army guys in the ruins of Smallville, and the superpowered versus unpowered fight was extremely well done.  Gives me hope for an eventual Flash movie.

Let’s deal with the Christ imagery for a moment, because that’s the thing that stuck out like a sore thumb to me.  Um, overkill.  Too much.  I lost track of the number of times we saw Superman in a crucifixion pose.  Tara pointed out to me that we see Clark up until he’s in his mid-teens and then not again until he’s 33 (Christ’s age at death, for my non-theologically inclined readers).  We can make, and I and others have made, arguments about this.  He’s a newly arisen saviour, sent to Earth to lead us, as Jor-El says, into the sun (son, get it?), but you’ve heard all this before.  Of course the Christ stuff is there, because it’s everywhere, both in the Superman stories and in everything else that Western culture has produced for centuries and centuries.  And with something that is, as I’ve repeatedly argued, a secular myth of how to be a good person, you can’t avoid the Christian stuff.  Or the Judaic.  Or the Greek.  Or the Egyptian.  I would have preferred less, but it did need to be in there, if only to remind us where he came from, and where he wants us to go.  You can’t separate Superman from Christ any more than you can separate English literature from Shakespeare, and why on Earth would you want to?  Just because there are similarities, though, even direct resonances, doesn’t mean that he is Christ.  So tuck those arms back in Clark.  We get it.

As for the controversy, the killing of Zod (which, I will point out, was spoiled for me two days after the film came out, after I had studiously avoided anything to do with this film for 2 years.  Not amused.), I, in theory, don’t have a problem with it.  I mean, in practice, I am intrinsically against killing of any kind, but I think I am in a minority in many cases there.  But look at Clark’s reaction to having to kill Zod.  He didn’t want to do it, and this is an important thing to bear in mind.  Zod would never stop, he’s a trained warrior designed to protect only Kryptonians, and no one knew more than Superman how powerful Zod was.  Had we had some Kryptonite kicking around, then who knows, but the destruction Zod would wreak while we wait for the sequel would be catastrophic.  Hence the neck snap.
We also have to look to Kal-El’s origin, a beautiful sequence on Krypton.  Snyder’s vision of the planet was wonderful.  A nice mesh of the two competing portrayals of Krypton, with a healthy dose of Nolan’s Dark Knight colour scheme.  The story of Zod’s coup and subsequent incarceration (note that the Kryptonians would not execute him) is canon in the comics (or was, before the New 52.  Now?  I have no idea.).  Jor-El’s being ignored by the council is, or was, also canon.  But the two, to my knowledge, have never been intertwined.  In the comics, Kal is a child of disaster.  From this perspective, narratively, there is no intent to violence in his story, only an intent to save.  Here, he is a child of both war and disaster.  It is perhaps a fine line, but his nascence is in war, wilful disaster, rather than natural, and as such, we can expect that killing, a war-like behaviour, is a part of his make-up, perhaps not consciously, but narratively.

I’m sure there’s people who hated this movie.  There’s probably people who hated this movie because the Kryptonian Overpants (bet you didn’t know there was a proper term for those, did ya?) were missing from the costume.  Some, I’m sure, hated it because of the killing at the end.  Some probably didn’t like Cavill (though I agree with the officer at the end, he is kind of hot).  Some would have preferred Lex as villain, and I think there’s something to that.  But the beauty of Superman, the thing I always try to explain to people who say they don’t like him because he’s too powerful, is that he can be everything.  He can be the champion of social justice in the 30s and the patriotic hero of the 40s, the psychedelic quester of the 60s, the yuppie of the 80s.  He can be the Christ figure and he can be the farmboy with superpowers.  He is a myth (though my friend Glen would probably argue that with me), and myths, by their very nature, are mutable.  We cannot say that only one version of Superman is Superman.  He is an idea.  As Wallace Stevens wrote in the 40s (and I’m 99% sure he was actually writing about Superman), he is “abler/In the abstract than in his singular,/More fecund as principle than particle,/.../In being more than an exception, part,/Though an heroic part, of the commonal.”

Perhaps I am too close to him.  People ask me, indeed I was asked at my Master’s defence, if I really believe that Superman is a “myth to live by.”  And I answer “Yes,” unabashedly.  Morrison and Quitely wrap it up quite succinctly in All-Star when they show how we created him to save us.  He wants to save us.  Nowhere in the real world do we see such figures and truly believe that all they want is to save us.  But in a comic, or in this case, in a movie, we do see this.  He will never stop, he will never fail, and he will show us how to be better human beings.

So that’s what I have to say about Man of Steel.  It was well done, it was a good interpretation of the character.  If it was successful enough, I look forward to seeing what they do with the sequel(s), whether they’ll have an eventual Justice League (I’d love to give Ryan Reynolds another shot at Green Lantern).  If they don’t make a sequel, then the film is a welcome addition to the corpus of Superman lore, another interpretation of his origin and his mission.  What’s the cliché about Nolan’s Batman?  He’s not the hero we want, but he’s the hero we deserve.  Perhaps that’s the last question we have to ask about this version of Superman, and the controversy over the killing.  Why is this Man of Steel, one who will kill, the one we got in a big screen treatment?  What in our culture influenced the choices that gave us a Superman who kills in his first major appearance?  If we walk away from this film with any question, it should be that one.

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