A Man of Steel That Sinks Like Lead

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.

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’.

There 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.

Are You There, God? I Mean, Superman? It’s Me, Lois.

First appearing in 1938, Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two young Jewish students, and in the early years of his publication, at a time of global conflict and persecution, much of the subtext of Superman’s identity can be seen to reflect the Jewish American experience. He was an immigrant from a foreign world who had fled a holocaust; he had a strength and fortitude and proud heritage, but felt compelled to hide this identity for fear of repercussion; even his name, ‘Kal-El’, means (roughly) ‘All-God’ or ‘All that God is’ in Hebrew.

Indeed, the story of Superman’s escape from Krypton is a direct echo of the story of Moses, father of the Jewish faith. Instead of a baby set adrift on the Nile by his parents to escape death, who was found and raised by Egyptians, and who eventually rescued his people from enslavement, Superman was a shot into the stars by his parents to escape extinction, found and raised by Americans, and eventually devoted himself to protecting the downtrodden from persecution (in his early days he spent a good deal of time beating up white-collar crooks, abusive husbands, even Hitler).

It’s therefore curious to note how dramatically the symbolism has shifted in subsequent years, with Siegel and Shuster’s colourful re-contextualisation of Moses and Judaism transformed into an allegory for the Christian faith, with Superman himself a cipher for Jesus Christ. In large part this was a consequence of the first Richard Donner film, which played up the notion of Superman as a messianic figure sent down to Earth by his father (Marlon Brando’s sonorous floating head) to help humanity. In Donner’s vision he was selfless, morally righteous, and manifest extraordinary abilities that defied logic – capacities that by the end of the film had grown so exponentially that he could alter the very fabric of time and bring people back from the dead.

Man of Steel takes up this Christian iconography, but director Snyder and writer Goyer are so overt and omnipresent in its application that it becomes somewhat farcical. Here, Kal’s father, while peering at an image of the distant Earth, muses, ‘He’ll be a god to them…’ and later appears to his progeny to task him with becoming humankind’s symbol of salvation. The first image of the grown Kal-El is as a bearded fisherman; it’s repeatedly remarked that he is 33 years old, the age Jesus was said to be put to death; both men wander the land for a time in search of themselves; when he flies we get multiple images of him inexplicably splayed out in the cruciform pose; and we even get to see Kal-El’s moment of ‘doubt’ the night before he is called to ‘sacrifice’ himself; a hesitation assuaged by talking to the voice of God (a priest), while he sits in silhouette, surrounded by an enormous full-frame stained glass window of Jesus. For all of this staggering lack of subtlety, Snyder may as well have given Kal-El’s cape a bumper sticker that read, ‘Honk if you think I’m the Messiah’.

Book: Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — the Creators of Superman

Author: Brad Ricca

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 2013-05

Format: Hardcover

Length: 448 pages

Price: $27.99

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/b/btb-supperboys-cvr-200.jpgIndeed, it’s an expanded metaphor so premeditated that the marketing team for the film went so far as to send out advertising materials and discussion points to churches across America (an act that might be kindly viewed as misguided, though perhaps more accurately as a blatant attempt to exploit people’s faith for ticket sales. These media packets, which included an essay titled, ‘Jesus: The First Superhero’ and a series of suggested sermon topics for ministers, encouraged congregations to use the movie as a teaching tool for their faith, arguing the many ways in which the story of their God was reflected through the conflict of this film’s Superman.

Extraordinarily, even a cursory examination of the film proves this to be fraught with potentially offensive implications. Leaving aside the narrative’s insinuation that human life on Earth was the product of arrogant of Kryptonian genetic engineering and not a divine hand, a premise some Christians might find unappealing, what many others would no doubt find utterly distasteful is the suggestion that their saviour, symbolised by Kal-El, would therefore likewise resort to murder. Because despite what the makers of this film might think, a metaphor operates through equivalency; through the reciprocal relationship of two images. Superman is to Jesus…’ does not flow only in one direction – the likeness being drawn reflects upon both. And since Kal-El’s decision to kill Zod is never treated as a lamentable fall from grace for this character Sure, he histrionically cries out in despair at the loss of a fellow Kryptonian, but moments later is shown shooting the breeze with his mother, praised for his wisdom and heroism while the world regards him a beacon of virtue) the film implies that he has simply carried the teachings of Jesus through to their super-powered conclusion, that Jesus, a figure celebrated by his followers as a pinnacle of self-sacrifice and moral conviction, would similarly kill for peace.

There is, of course, no such equivalency to be drawn. In the Bible Jesus is described as sacrificing himself, going so far as to forfeit his own life for his beliefs; in contrast Kal-El surrenders nothing. Despite the script trying to whip gravitas out of his initial hesitation, Kal-El’s submission to his enemies lasts but a moment (only long enough to be strapped down in yet another tedious Cruciform pose), has no lingering impact (save the net benefit of a helpful Bond-villain-style grand scheme exposition dump), and soon enough he is back to punching his way out of captivity and stomping his opponents into the ground, where – rather than exhibiting a willingness to forfeit his own life for others – he scarcely bats an eye at the countless people by the devastation his recklessness helps create. The closest he comes to anything resembling the word ‘sacrifice’ is when he slaughters someone to stop further suffering – but in that moment he is an avenging, not a merciful god.

Just as they do with the imagery of September 11th, the film’s makers mine this imagery to pad out the subtextual void in their own narrative, cynically trying to elevate Kal-El’s decision to kill to the height of nobility – that it is not only a ‘necessary evil’, but an action equivalent with the greatest personal sacrifice that a human being can perform. Narratively, it is a kind of crude self-indulgence that tries to both lament such moral compromise but openly celebrate it too. Hey, he hates that he had to commit murder, the film says, but doesn’t the fact that he feels really bad about it (for literally less than a minute) make him somehow more noble?

Jesus, it’s not.

The ‘S’ Stands for ‘Sorry… My Bad’

In an effort to distance themselves from the Donner films, their progressively inferior sequels, and Singer’s nostalgic throwback, the makers of Superman’s latest cinematic venture chose to title their work after the colloquial description that has followed that character throughout his career. Just as Christopher Nolan’s Batman became The Dark Knight, Superman likewise references the legend, rather than the man himself, becoming Man of Steel. However, while the makers of The Dark Knight trilogy played with the details of the familiar, reworking them for narrative expediency and impact but retaining the fundamental elements of the Batman tale, the makers of Man of Steel (including screenwriter Goyer who co-wrote Dark Knight) get so lost in the incidental trappings that surround the Superman figure – being bulletproof; punching holes in the planet; having laser eyes and supersonic vision – that they let the man at the centre of this power-fantasy, grounding it with pathos, erode. There proves to be nothing under that layer of steel, because above all – over the cheery Americana and the garish messianic misappropriation – the iconography these filmmakers evoke and mishandle most egregiously of all is that of Superman himself.

Created as a symbol to which humanity could aspire, cultivated as a cultural touchstone for three quarters of a century, and proving to be the template from which all subsequent superheroes have sprung, Superman (and by extension the Clark Kent mask that he wears) has himself become an icon. It’s why his story has managed to resonate for so long, to be reinvented and reinterpreted in each new generation. Because icons adapt for each new retelling. They reflect different aspects of cultural and social discourse; and in each of these reinventions some of their traits are favoured while others are downplayed, dependent always upon the targeted audience, and what they symbolise in this new context.

It’s why the details can become so malleable. You can lose the spit curl, fiddle with the powers, change the outfit and do away with the whole underpants-on-the-outside thing. It’s why in some versions of the Superman tale he has been unable to fly (in his first iteration he could leap tall buildings, but gravity still kicked in); why in some versions his adopted parents are still alive, while in others they are already dead (Pa Kent has had several fatal heart attacks; while in this version he can be sucked up into the cliché-a-tron twister while saving man’s-best-plot-contrivance).

Sometimes the Fortress of Solitude is a big crystal structure with a Wizard of Oz floaty head inside; sometimes it is a palatial complex with an exotic zoo; here it’s a space ship. Lex Luthor has been a mad scientist; a billionaire; the President of the United States; the head of a colourful super villain cabal working out of a knock-off Darth Vader helmet in a swamp. Does Clark do the fake-timid bumbling? Does Lois know Clark is Superman? Are they already married? Sure you arguably lose the poetry of the love-is-blind two-person love triangle if the secret is out, but it’s by no means fundamental. After all, at certain times in his history Superman has had a flying dog with a cape as a sidekick; he’s had a giant gold key to open the door to his Arctic cubby house; he’s shaved his face with a piece of metal from his Kryptonian baby carriage; met and re-met and re-re-met Batman; had his costume made, or discovered, or gifted to him.

Died and come back to life; had a surviving biological cousin, or not; hooked up with Wonder Woman or never met her; founded the Justice League or served the world alone. None of this stuff is nailed down – nor should it be. These things are all just the trappings that evolve and shift and change with each subsequent retelling.

Despite this, however, there are elements in any mythology that must remain constant, aspects that once you alter them, profoundly and irreversibly change who that character is. Odysseus must remain cunning and long enduring; Achilles must remain hot-headed and bold; Elmo will forever be three-and-a-half years old, inquisitively over-eager, and maddeningly keep referring to himself in the third person. It’s why the fundamental core of these characters matter. Why they have to matter. Why these elements, and the pliable tales they inhabit, resonate. Iconography and myth therefore require creators that can look beyond the surface, artists capable of exploring what makes these tales endure for generations, who are capable of re-energising them for new audiences.

Fundamental to the myth of Superman – and at the heart of why this film fails – is that he is meant to be better than us. Not just more powerful, not just stronger, or able to punch a bad guy into the sun. He’s better. More moral. More hopeful. It’s why he fights. It’s also why he suffers, even when no one is lobbing a chunk of kryptonite at him. Indeed, this enduring love and concern for others is so fundamental that it’s built into the peril that surrounds him. He can’t be killed, so it’s always Jimmy hanging from a cliff, or Lois getting kidnapped by mutant under-dwellers.

His ‘weakness’ (which is, of course, proved ultimately to be his strength) is that he cares for others unwaveringly. Not just their lives, but what those lives represent. He believes in the fundamental goodness in others; that life is sacred, and that people can change. He believes the best of us; and by doing so, makes us believe in ourselves.

Sure, that can make him seem boring to some. He can risk coming off as the naff boyscout, grinning inanely as a twinkle clichés from his eye – but it’s also what makes him grand. It’s why he is. Why he remains an aspirational figure. Something that we like to believe is within us; the alien other that dwells amongst us, mirroring back to us our finest qualities. He doesn’t just protect us from rampant volcanos and villainous demi-gods from Apocalypse; he’s a guiding example for the best that we human beings can be. This film even knows that – or claims to. It’s why the script is so overburdened with pretentious, contradictory lip service to ‘responsibility’ and ‘hope’ and becoming a symbol.

The concluding hour of Man of Steel, however, opts to instead to defile that defining core of his character. By presenting this beacon of hope and selflessness as willfully blind to the pain he himself inflicts on others in his blind aggression, finally having him act as an arbiter and executioner, they obliterate what he was always meant to embody. So the question then becomes: if the makers of this film were not intending to respect the central tenets of the Superman character they repeatedly espouse, then why evoke him at all? If ‘rebooting’ a character means fundamentally altering what defines them, what they stand for and believe, then why bother using them in the first place (if not just to cash in on a known commodity)? Why not just create a new character? Or pick one of the tens of thousands of other available options that would have fit the intended narrative scenario better?

One might well respond to such a question by again pointing out that that these characters endure precisely because they have the capacity to be re-invented, to be fluctuated and viewed through new perspectives – Batman is still Batman if he’s fleeing through a dystopian Nolan streetscape, fight-dancing in ’60s counter-culture pop art, or over-emoting in an ’80s splash-panel about a hot-button social issue (insert: Drugs! Punk music! AIDS! Reganomics! Emulating-the-walking-style-of-Egyptians!) – so claiming that such a figure cannot be ‘changed’ is tantamount to saying, ‘This thing is mine, and you’re not allowed to share it!’

However, that argument becomes specious when what is being altered is a principle component of the thing that you are trying to reinterpret, At that point you have fundamentally destroyed what you were supposedly trying to evolve ‘re-interpreting’ it into something else entirely. It would be like having Batman pick up a gun and start blasting away at fools, because it’s easier on his back than all the training and sneaking around. Or having Hamlet decide in Act 1 that he’s cool with murder, and that revenge is pretty badass after all. Or having Garfield decide that, sure, Lasagne is ‘okay’, but maybe it’s not for him. And really, what’s so bad about Mondays?

If the message of the Superman legend is no longer that he is a creature of untold power and potential who remains beholden to his moral code because it’s something worth preserving, but rather that great power tasks you with the responsibility to single-handedly arbitrate and apply your own morality upon the world, then that inspirational/aspirational quality of the character is irreversible altered. Now, we no longer want to be powerful like Superman – physically and morally – so that we too can do good; now we want to be powerful like Superman so that we can decide what the meaning of ‘good’ actually is. Given that Snyder’s version of the guy in the red and blue has been inextricably bound to ‘Americanism’, the staggeringly un-subtle metaphor of Kal-El/America’s ‘rights’ and obligations as a global superpower become even more problematical. It devolves into little more than recursive self-justification, anaemically asserting that the country with the biggest guns gets to dictate the rules.

What’s saddest of all is that there is clearly a worthwhile film here buried beneath all the contrived dialogue and gratuitous, tone-deaf directing choices. The makers of Man of Steel were intent on making Superman dreary and emo and soulfully alien (despite the fact that we are not really shown much reason for him to be so listless and melancholy), but that did have the potential to be great; a unique spin on a familiar tale with a valid theme to explore. After all, aren’t we all a bit isolated and wandering in the modern age? Aren’t we all tasked with great social responsibility, but struggling to live up to our obligations? Shouldn’t we in the western world be called upon to provide an example for selfless justice, and extend a helping hand to those in need? Those are questions worth teasing out, worth making manifest in the hyperbole of superheroics.

However, turning Superman into the übermensch, having him espouse a new moral code in which he stands above humanity as its judge and executioner, literally embodying the dictum that ‘might makes right’, is a gross violation of the principles that have always defined him, and that, as an adopted son of Earth, he has traditionally cherished and fought to protect.

The name ‘Man of Steel’ therefore becomes wholly prophetic, a fitting encapsulation of this film’s vision of the character. The phrase is no longer merely a reference to his impenetrable skin, but emblematic of the way in which Kal-El is encouraged by the narrative to switch off his moral code in order to pragmatically ‘do what needs to be done’. He essentially becomes a robot – a man of steel – no longer chewing himself up with doubt when challenged, but instead validating easy solutions like resorting to your enemy’s tactics, but relabeling them ‘heroism’, abandoning the harder path of maintaining your principles when they are needed most.

Once You Pop

In an interview with Empire magazine, director Zack Snyder defended the decision to have Superman exterminate Zod (an act that producer Christopher Nolan opposed) by explaining:

‘And the why of it was, for me, that if it’s truly an origin story, his aversion to killing is unexplained. It’s just in his DNA. I felt like we needed him to do something, just like him putting on the glasses or going to the Daily Planet or any of the other things that you’re sort of seeing for the first time that you realize will then become his thing.’ (Nolan Opposed Man of Steel’s Controversial Ending (Spoilers!), by Kevin Melrose, 18 June 2013)

Leaving aside Snyder’s rather depressing belief that a strong moral upbringing and altruistic disposition aren’t enough to convince someone that killing is wrong, he believes that narratively Kal-El has to murder someone once; that way will he learn that killing people isn’t like opening a packet of Pringles – once he’s popped he will stop. Of course, the movie provides no evidence that Kal-El has indeed learned any such lesson, nor that respecting life is now ‘his thing.’ Rather, it suggests very much the opposite. Killing Zod is dismissed as necessary, Superman is celebrated for ridding the world of an inhuman despot, and Kal-El even vows to continue acting outside jurisdiction and unbound by any law, seemingly with the American army’s cautious approval (‘This man is not our enemy’). What he discovers is that such quaint moral compunctions would only have held him back from doing what ‘needs’ to be done.

Mystifyingly though, this conclusion, and the violent abandon it celebrates, not only undermine the Superman archetypes, it equally ignores the film’s own thematic journey. Throughout the narrative, Kal-El is inundated with pleas and warnings to show restraint. Pa Kent (Kevin Costner, providing the cinematic equivalence of a Norman Rockwell painting by evoking Field of Dreams) wants Kal-El to know how to show moderation: help people, sure, but don’t endanger what is most important. Don’t harm anyone (unless you want to leave a bus full of kids to die, apparently), and don’t jeopardise yourself and those you love.

The young Clark Kent is at one point shown reading Plato, a philosopher who wrote expansive treatises, including, most famously The Republic, a dialogue that advocated the need for self-control, of never allowing either emotion, desire, or cold rationality overwhelm the human disposition. Even the message left behind by Krypton’s destruction warns of the need to learn moderation. Like the Romans before them (technically after them, I guess), the Kryptonians had expanded too far, let their empire run too wild, and it had eroded from within. In another staggeringly unsubtle metaphor (this time environmental) they had frac-mined and oil-drilled their planet into oblivion; and although they tried to overcompensate in the end with their draconian birth policies (and with what appears to be a strictly-mandated fashion policy on sleek snakeskin bodysuits), the lesson of Krypton’s societal implosion was to never surrender oneself and one’s state to unchecked, self-destructive excess.

And yet the film gleefully falls into this exact same trap…

In pursuit of the most bombastic, visceral action sequences ever wrangled onto screen, the film’s concluding hour shows countless lives indiscriminately wiped away in a glut of extravagant carnage, with Superman – rather than seeking to minimise casualties – wilfully blind to his own collateral damage. Nowhere do we get the sense that he feels the pain of these losses, or is even actively trying to prevent the massacre. Indeed, there are moments in which he personally plunges himself and his enemy – two indestructible beings – through buildings filled with casualties, down streets crammed with terrified civilians fleeing the chaos, all of whom are no doubt crushed to death by the maelstrom he leaves in his path; moments where rather than fight his enemies in unpopulated areas he instead personally delivers them right into the heart of towns. He shows no restraint, no self-control, and in his final murderous act, not even the moral fortitude to maintain his beliefs.

The point is not that he should have stopped fighting the genocidal lunatic to help an old lady across the street, but rather that he should have shown even the slightest regard for his own reckless spree, or been shown taking any action at all to contain the brutality. He saves one guy falling from a helicopter (while his cohort are left to die) and tells people to get inside their houses (where they will therefore be unable to escape once he hurls his enemy through their wall), but aside from his tunnel vision obsession with the wellbeing of Lois Lane and his mother, humanity appears to be little more than Lego pieces to be swatted aside or ignored. Meanwhile, his enemy is reduced to a mad dog that needs to be put down. Superman is not tasked with testing his morality and empathy – he is encouraged to ignore them. After all, what’s a few million lives when the whole planet is at stake? You can’t save everyone, so don’t sweat the small stuff.

But not only is this kind of thinking redundantly self-justifying in general, it’s a kind of lazy relativism that that sucks all of the dramatic conflict out of the Superman character, and robs film itself of any genuine emotional stakes. Because of course Superman can kill a guy. That’s always been true. He’s Superman. At any moment he could take the law into his own hands, decide who needs to die and who to ignore. No one could stop him; no one is going to nitpick about a decimated city when all human life was at stake. There won’t be any Team-Zod fans sending Superman hurtful emails or signing petitions. No one can, or will, hold Superman accountable in such a way.

Except himself.

For over seven decades, the source of Superman’s real strength – his true power, underneath all the shifting plot details – comes from knowing that even given all of his untold capacity, and all of the terrible temptation (or even justification) to discard his morality, he doesn’t. He’s literally unstoppable, and yet he sees the value of self-control – the need to be better than those that he would fight. But for all of this movie’s overt preaching about such self-governance – with the shadows of Krypton, Pa Kent, and Plato all pressing in on him – Kal-El ultimately reveals that he didn’t learn anything at all.

To use Snyder’s example: like the glasses he chooses to wear as a cheap disguise, an ‘aversion to killing’ becomes ‘his thing’ because it is a pointless accessory he decides to put on, but is more than willing to whip off whenever he deems it ‘necessary’. After all, now that he has gone to this extreme and been applauded for it, why wouldn’t he just do the same again to the next guy? If there is one thing that every incarnation of Lex Luthor promises it’s that he’ll never stop either. Like Zod, he is driven, and merciless, and convinced he’s right. So we might as well skip to the endpoint and do away with him too. It’s not like Superman needs to waste time squabbling about semantics.

And it is on that level – the ideological, inspirational level – that Man of Steel fails utterly, and why the vagaries of ‘hope’ and becoming a ‘symbol’ that the film bleats on about are revealed to be no more than hollow rhetoric. Because anyone, given omnipotence, could dictate their own moral code – could decide who is to live and who is to die. The true greatness of Superman (both in his classic depictions and in the framework that this film verbalises but thoughtlessly abandons) is that he has this freedom, but he knows its danger.

By realising the greater strength of upholding his ideals he becomes a symbol of hope that we human beings can do better – that there’s value in such empathetic morality, even if we too were granted such might. Snyder and Goyer pay lip service to this premise, but at no point does their vision of Superman actually demonstrate this quality himself, thereby inspiring others to do the same. In contrast, his actions celebrate self-indulgent, self-justifying excess, even manufacturing a counterfeit moment of pathos in order to try retroactively turning brutality into heroism.

A Giant’s Robes Upon a Dwarfish Thief

There’s a line in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when the title character, having murdered his way to the crown and lost himself down an ethical rabbit hole, is described by fellow nobleman, Angus, as an absurd imitator:

Now does he feel his title

Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe

Upon a dwarfish thief. (V.iii.20-2)

Devoid of all the qualities of kingship and grace of his predecessor, alienated from his responsibilities and utterly compromised, Macbeth is rendered almost pitiable, a ridiculous figure in spite of his fearsome tyranny, one farcically subsumed by a role that he neither understands, nor can hope to fulfill. It’s an image that is echoed by Man of Steel’s final maladroit attempt at imagistic sleight of hand: that boy in the home-made cape swooping through the American heartland.

The film is attempting to trade on our youthful propensity to emulate the figures we most admired – the heroes who defied the odds, who stood for something grand, and who, in doing so, inspired us to greatness. But by trying to fold our hopeful nostalgia into their clumsy fiction, the film’s makers reveal the superficiality of their own relationship to this icon. Just as Clark, weaving through his slow-motion laundry with a towel around his neck, is logically not emulating anyone, the film itself, all dressed up in the accoutrements of the Superman franchise, similarly stumbles about, with no idea what any of the imagery it has strapped to itself actually means. Jesus! Terrorism! Plato! Environmentalism! Hope! Yes We Can! Superman! The film is a collision of unresolved signs that signify nothing, a gormless mess of likenesses playacting at poetic resonance.

Like Macbeth, director Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer have fundamentally missed the nuance of the character they were meant to be inhabiting, mistaking super powers for strength, and a lack of restraint for freedom. With the sprawling toy box of a blockbuster Hollywood film to play with they misunderstood what the child inside all of us instinctively understands: although Superman can do anything, what makes him a hero is that he does the thing that matters most, he cares.