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'Man of Steel' and Blood and Iron

Catastrophic violence becomes more central to the Superman mythos than ever before.

Man of Steel

Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Henry Cavill,Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane
Distributor: Warner
Rated: PG-13
Release date: 2013-11-12

Superman has always been the most problematic superhero even while seemingly being the simplest. Created in the '30s by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish kids from Cleveland, Superman embodied sheer, unadulterated power that mirrored the ideologies of blood and iron that rose out of the chaos of two World Wars (including American exceptionalism).

Fascination with Superman is the fascination with unlimited power on the side of the good guys. The controversy that surrounds the ending of Man of Steel has emerged in part because it seems to contradict the generally hopeful reading of the Superman mythos, the idea that the übermensch will decide to act like a Messiah rather than an incarnated apocalypse.

Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel doesn’t waste our time retelling the origin story of Superman, so well known and so often retold that the director can simply evoke it for us. Even many of the foundational elements of the story are told through flashbacks. Moreover, he does an admirable job dealing with about 70 years of mythology that should please fanboys and girls as well as mainstream movie audiences.

This doesn’t mean that many of the standard elements of the superhero genre don’t make an appearance. Clark Kent does plenty of soul searching about his destiny. As in much of the superhero genre, there are more parental issues than Freud himself could ever possibly untangle.

World building plus some excellent casting make up for some deficiencies. Henry Cavill really does become Superman, bringing to the role a needed gravitas hard to pull off in a cape and unitard. Amy Adams doesn’t exactly bring the same panache to the role of Lois Lane as did Margot Kidder, but she proved an excellent choice. Lois needs to deliver some working class ass-kickery, not bring supermodel looks.

Snyder has always been unafraid to show his unabashed love for genre flicks. Man of Steel nods to films as diverse as The Thing to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to, of course, the Superman movie franchise that began in the '70s. Certain elements of this film echo Richard Donner’s excellent Superman II, although Snyder arguably does a superior job with General Zod and his fellow Phantom Zone prisoners, creating with script writer David S. Goyer a more complex and meaningful villain.

Snyder’s a kid in a sandbox when it comes to special effects. This has sometimes had disastrous results, as in his 2011 Sucker Punch that married a truly execrable story with beautifully realized CGI. Some of those problems are present here but Snyder has a far better story to tell and it makes a difference.

All these elements make the first hour of Man of Steel hold together well. Even genre clichés are given a few interesting twists. The Superman mythos gets some remodeling with revisions of minor matters like the Fortress of Solitude and more substantial reimaginings like the nature of his secret identity.

The next hour and a half are less meaningful.This film runs at least half an hour too long and centers so much on gigantic battles that it begins to feel like one long explosion. Nuances disappear amidst the super-powered punches.

The Blu-ray release contains a treasure trove of special features. “Decoding Krypton” explores some elements of the design of Krypton’s destruction and Kryptonian weapons, ships and tech. There are a few great shots in this feature of the concept art.

The same disc contains a featurette that explores past images of Superman. It’s made up of some archival images combined with brief interviews featuring Snyder, DC comic’s Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns and screenwriter David S. Goyer. Snyder makes the interesting comment that the iconography of Superman seems to extend beyond the world of comic books, to be such a powerful icon that he seems to exist beyond his own genre.

A second disc is dedicated to special features. If “Decoding Krypton” didn’t give you enough information about Superman’s home world, you’re going to love “Planet Krypton”. This is a wonderfully put together 20 minute faux documentary that explains how we are uncovering the dead planet’s secrets from clues left behind from Superman’s battle with General Zod. Its excellently put together, an exercise in hyperreality that feels exactly like a documentary we might watch on the Discovery Channel after events like the film’s took place in our world.

The special features disc also contains a really amazing bonus that truly sends every other montage filled “making of” featurette back to school. Snyder has long experimented with new ways to show audiences the work and planning behind his films and he continues that effort here. The disc contains the entire film shown alongside interviews with actors, graphic designers, cinematography and SFX experts and Snyder himself describing what’s happening on screen.

Features like this should really replace the rather pedestrian audio commentary. It allows for a panoramic understanding of what went into the making of a film rather than the often uneven commentary delivered by the director and a couple of his actors. Its truly one of the best “behind the scenes” features I’ve ever watched.

Snyder’s Man of Steel deconstructs the story of Superman without really meaning to. There are, as you know already if you’ve seen the film or heard about its major controversy, more moral equivalences than you would expect in a tale about the invincible Boy Scout. Its interesting that Snyder also directed Watchman, an underrated adaptation of one of the greatest graphic novels of all time that centers on the terrors of absolute power pressed into the service of the good. Man of Steel actually raises some of the same questions but in such a way that the subtext will likely be lost on viewers stunned into silence by the images of destruction that overdetermine everything that happens in the last act.

This is in part because the film never really lets us see what’s a stake. What’s most troubling about the film’s dénouement does not relate to the much-discussed controversy over Superman and Zod as the avalanche of disaster porn it offers up. And yet, we see essentially no human death, no field of corpses, nothing that directly says to us that a single human being dies as super beings reduce an entire cityscape to a hole in the ground.

The summer movie blockbusters of 2013 literally exploded on the screen. In one tent pole flick after another, superheroes, giant robots, and zombie hordes spread a swath of destruction. It would be wrong to conclude that Man of Steel is simply another example of this trend. For one thing, it’s a more cohesive and meaningful story that didn’t really need to blow everything up in the way that it did. More importantly, it’s centered on a figure central to the American mythos. In Man of Steel, catastrophic violence becomes more central to that mythos than it has ever been before.


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