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A Man of Steel That Sinks Like Lead

Promo image from Man of Steel (2013)

Turning Superman into the übermensch, standing above humanity, espousing a new moral dictum in which 'might makes right', is a contradiction of the film's own logic, and a gross violation of the principles he has traditionally fought to protect.

Because what the world needs more than another superhero movie, is one more nerd complaining about Man of Steel...

On Believing a Man Can Fly...

There is a moment at the end of Man of Steel – after the wanton carnage of the film's latter half has played out, and the last dozen human beings left alive on Earth have dry-cleaned the exploitative 9/11 iconography out of their clothing – that we get a scene of Superman's past and future spliced together in what is intended to be a rousing montage. In the present, Kal-El vows to keep a watchful eye on humanity, and we see him skip several years of tertiary education and qualifications to disguise himself as a Ralph Lauren model with a press pass.

Meanwhile, in the past, a small farm boy named Clark Kent, years before his alien origin has been revealed to him, plays amongst the silhouettes of a burnished Kansas dusk. It's a scene seemingly lifted from one of Michael Bay's signature Americana establishing shots, and shows a young Clark weaving in slow motion through laundry and shards of sunset as he wears a red towel tied around his neck like a cape.

It's an image designed to shoot a jolt of sentiment into the audience before the credits roll, subconsciously inviting them to muse upon how this young boy, still brimming with untapped potential and imagination, reminds us of ourselves at that age. Clark was once filled with the same dreams of freedom and possibility that stirred us with wonder. We are reminded that we too once tied a cape around our necks, because Superman has always meant something to us.

It's a lovely premise. Too bad it doesn't make even the slightest bit of sense.

Snyder may as well have given Kal-El's cape a bumper sticker that read, 'Honk if you think I'm the Messiah.'
Because in this world – a world in which Superman has not yet existed – there is logically no one that Clark can be pretending to be. He has draped a red cape over his shoulders, and is swooping around in order to play at being... some random flying guy in a cape that never was. He is, in effect, emulating nobody. So, instead of being a resonant metatextual tie to our own historical relationship with this cultural icon, it becomes a cheap bit of manipulative pabulum, a symbol that, once you scratch the surface, is completely devoid of subtext. Ironically, for an image that was meant to ring with nostalgic gravitas, this hollowed out facade becomes a fitting representation for the film itself, and it's insubstantial spectacle. For while Man of Steel may be a superficial visual marvel, like this hackneyed image of the boy, it repeatedly reveals itself to be dressed up in borrowed iconography it does not fully comprehend, thrashing about ultimately ignorant of its own meaning.

Although promising an origin story of breadth and scope, Man of Steel offers a thematically discordant and needlessly addled narrative. There are half-baked sci-fi tropes: 'World Machines', flamboyant dream sequences pilfered from Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and people arbitrarily spouting the world 'codex'. There are the innumerable contrivances that artlessly propel the plot forward in lieu of character development: Bus crash! Freak tornado! Massive oil rig fire! Moments after Kal-El is born there is a military coup, his father is murdered, and his planet blows up. At a certain point you have to wonder whether his real superpower is 'hysterically bad luck'.

Film: Man of Steel

Director: Zack Snyder

Studio: Warner

Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe

Year: 2013

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/retroremote-manofsteel-poster-200.jpgThere is the way that great actors have to creak under the weight of gormlessly stilted exposition: everything that comes out of Lois Lane's mouth just thankless scene-setting, from announcing her Pulitzer prize to her own editor, to the deadpan flirtation she offers Kal-El atop the mass grave that was once Metropolis; while whole characters (Lois and Perry included) are rendered utterly redundant by the narrative. There are gaping fissures in the logic of the story: Jor-El defies the regimentation of the Kryptonian, outdated codex, but suddenly decides it is the most important thing in the universe worth saving, going so far as to forcibly imprint it in his son. Meanwhile, Zod is a genetically bred super soldier warrior routinely trained for warfare, who gets resoundingly stomped by a scientist, and who schemes to terraform a planet in order to needlessly strip himself and his fellow Kryptonians of their superpowers. There's the syrupy melodrama of the seemingly suicidal Jonathan Kent, arguing with his adopted son only to moments later wander off to rescue Clark's dog, Cliché, and be swept into an convenient nether.

The film is overburdened with enough material to warrant several Mystery Science Theatre 3000 treatments. But rather than nitpick each scene, it's worth respecting the film's invitation to concentrate upon the several overarching metaphors it professes to employ as its thematic spine; because it's through exploring this iconography – both of the Superman mythos, and the loaded religious, political, and philosophical baggage that this film's makers artlessly graft onto their fiction – that one can best see how this curiously joyless movie fails to understand its own imagery, and get the clearest sense of how carelessly such a promising premise devolved into gratuitous nonsense.

Putting the 'Fun' in a Haunting National Tragedy'

Over the span of his almost eight decades of existence, Superman has come to be inextricably linked with the iconography of America. His tag line (originally attributed to him in his radio show) has been that he fights for 'truth, justice, and the American way'; and while this patriotism had fallen somewhat out of favour over the intervening years (in Richard Donner's Superman (1978) Lois mocks the concept as impractical: 'You'll be fighting every elected official in the country'; in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (2006) it is waved aside as an afterthought, with Perry White wondering aloud whether Superman still stands for 'truth, justice, and all that stuff'), it has remained an defining character trait. Clark Kent grew up in the country's heartland; he moved to its industrial urban centre, a composite of New York City called Metropolis (the 'Big Apricot' ...no seriously); and in his fight against injustice chose to adorn himself in the colours of the United States flag (with some yellow thrown in, presumably to make the whole ensemble pop). In fact, it was this very quality of 'Americanism' that director Zack Snyder declared himself eager to reinject back into the character:

'[F]or me I was really interested in – and maybe it’s because Barack Obama’s president now – it’s okay for Superman to be American. He’s quintessentially an American creature and creation. I wanted to pay homage to the superhero as coming from the heartland of America, and the “Why?” of that.' (Zack Snyder Explains Why His Superman Is American Now But Will Be International In The Sequel, by Brendon Connelly, Bleeding Cool, 16 June 2013)

And so, born in the wake of the Great Depression and under the shadow of a looming war in Europe, Superman has consistently confronted the great terrors faced by America: Nazis in World War II; the Ku Klux Klan in his '40s radio plays; nuclear annihilation in the Cold War (ignore the nonsense about 'Nuclear Man', his mullet, cheap Halloween costume and narcolepsy, and there is a kernel of a narrative in Superman 4 about global disarmament and mutually assured destruction); and in every such instance his actions have offered a hopeful counterpoint to the existential fears plaguing a nation that came to feel a burden of responsibility as one of the most prosperous, powerful figures in the international stage.

Looking back upon Man of Steel, it's not surprising that the most overt social threat to America that Kal-El metaphorically confronts is terrorism, specifically acts of terror such as the attack upon New York on September 11th, 2001. The film's antagonists are mysterious zealots from a distant land; they use fear as a weapon, even mailing threatening videos to the world's press; they are literally devoted to the destruction of all life that is not in accordance with their oppressive beliefs. Zod wants to restore the glory of the Kryptonian race, and, as he theatrically declares (no doubt wishing he had kept the moustache part of his goatee to give it a twirl), he will build his new regimented empire atop the bones of the feeble human race, obliterating their pitiful notions of equality and morality and hope.

If the Osama Bin Laden equivalency wasn't clear enough, Snyder also savages the viewer by turning the climactic battle into a fetishistic carnival of disaster that gratuitously references the collapse of the World Trade Centre. People flee from falling skyscrapers and stagger about in shock, smothered in ash. Planes nosedive into buildings. Bystanders are decimated by explosions, flung from falling structures, trammelled, and beaten, and lost. Many of the scenes are almost shot-by-shot remakes of the terrifying camera phone news footage that bled into the social consciousness as New York was numbed with horror.

Even more objectionably, Snyder sensationalises this butchery while hiding behind a PG rating of implied, rather than graphically depicted, violence. We do not see gore-spattered streets, do not view corpses being dragged from the wreckage and mourned – although at almost every available opportunity the camera lingers on distant, dehumanised death as bodies are swallowed by rubble, infrastructure collapsing down on the stampeding civilians below. He effectively creates a global snuff film, perversely glorying in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, laying waste to cities (and one mystifyingly ill-conceived product-placement IHOP: 'Would you like the jaws of life with your side of bacon, sir?'). It's a tonal contradiction that results in a work so lacking in self awareness that it simultaneously exploits and belittles the price of human life. Instead, the (conveniently off-screen) bloodshed ends with the film's principle lovers standing amid the smouldering crater of a dead and dying populace, happily snuggling as they lament that you really never can recreate that first magical kiss...

Aside from the self-evident shamefulness of goosing a national tragedy for cinematic spice, however, the darker consequence of blatantly evoking the spectre of Al Qaeda and terrorism to politicise these villains is that it reveals a particularly ugly ideological statement in the film's climactic resolution, when Kal-El's decides to kill Zod. Given that Snyder has not only continued the tradition of viewing Superman as a symbol of America, but actually accentuated this aspect further (Kal-El declares himself to be 'as American as you can get') his actions therefore become a litmus test for America's moral fortitude.

Born as the first biologically natural child in generations and sent from his home planet as a beacon for a new Kryptonian freedom, Kal-El was raised in the heartland of the United States to become, in contrast to his Kryptonian brethren, a symbol of liberty. As Jor-El declares, his child is 'Krypton's first natural birth in centuries, and he will be free, free to forge his own destiny.' It's an ideal that is even emblazoned upon his chest:

The people of Earth .... won't necessarily make the same mistakes we did, but if you guide them, Kal, if you give them hope, that's what this symbol means. The symbol of the House of El means hope. Embodied within that hope is the fundamental belief the potential of every person to be a force for good. That's what you can bring them.

And yet despite all this talk of hope, when faced with the conflict of terrorism, when confronting a belief system that uses fear and hate to crush dissent, the film has no other answer but to respond with equal aggression. Rather than make good on proving the self-evident virtues of valuing the sanctity of life and freedom, the best this narrative comes up with is to beat back such violence with violence.

In the midst of his battle with Zod's second-in-command, Faora, the script itself calls out the ideological battle being waged on this grand metaphorical stage. As she pounds Kal-El into submission, Faora belittles his 'American' ideals as a weakness, praising the grim amorality of Kryptonian hostility as a virtue: 'You have a sense of morality and we do not. And that gives us an Evolutionary Advantage. And if there's one thing that History teaches us it's that Evolution always wins.'

He's not willing to end life to achieve his goals, she believes. But rather than prove Faora, Zod, and their archaic thinking wrong, Kal-El gives in to his adversary's taunts. His enemies are willing to blindly kill innocents in order to achieve their goals, so Kal-El ignores bystander too (he lets gunfire and debris decimate whole crowds, and flies off to smash a robot in the middle of the ocean, ignoring the one tearing up downtown). They are willing to commit murder, so Kal-El proves he can too, snapping Zod's neck and proving he's just as 'evolved' as they. 'Freedom' and the 'sanctity of life' are quaint dreams, the film argues, but when it comes down to it, savagery wins out. Superman, symbol of America and beacon of hope, rather than remaining resolute when faced with the easier solution of abandoning his principles, simply reinforces a moral relativity in which might makes right, and violence is the final arbiter of truth.

In a vulgar irony, Snyder uses the motif of terrorism in order to perform an act of emotional terrorism himself. He pummels his audience with the spectre of Al Qaeda and images of metropolitan slaughter, shouting '9/11! 9/11! 9/11!' so loudly and incessantly that his audience eventually breathes a sigh of relief when Superman – their one-time symbol of optimism – reduces himself to his enemy's level, and lashes out in desperation just to make the fear end. Snyder uses an ugly manipulative dread, cultivated by lasciviously exploiting the most psychologically traumatic experience in America's recent history, to debase one of the country's most potent symbols of hope. In another circumstance it might have offered a sobering (if controversial) statement on the way in which terrorism can make all of us – even the best amongst us – betray our principles; but that would require at least some indication amongst the film's rousing celebratory dénouement that Snyder was at all aware of what he had done.

Enjoy J.C. Maçek's series on the history of Superman, "Evolution of the Superman", in the PopMatters comics blog, Graphic Novelties.

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