I write a lot about movies and comics. They’re, objectively, some of the best things. So when something like Man of Steel comes along, I get pretty excited because I can talk about both of those things, plus some other stuff, all in the same post.
I have to say that when Man of Steel was first announced, I was skeptical. Superman Returns, the previous Superman movie, was poorly executed (though, like every other time they’ve done Superman in live action for the last forty years, the casting of Big Blue was impeccable). The first promotional photo, which featured Henry Cavill posing in front of a smashed bank vault in a costume that brimmed with subdued colors and a texture that looked a far cry from the standard blue tights, left me wondering if this film was going to have the right feel for Superman. Hearing that Zack Snyder, whose films I can say I’m generally ambivalent towards, was directing left me nervous. I loved 300, because it captured the spirit of an epic poem with the gross exaggeration of feats and the reveling in the physical prowess of impossibly perfect figures, but I felt apathetic towards Watchmen because Snyder had stayed too faithful to the book. Regardless of the quality of those films, I also thought it was a far stretch to go from the grim and gritty material of Frank Miller and the unapologetically pessimistic work of Alan Moore to something so idealized as Superman.
Before you can start talking about Superman, you have to throw in the caveat that he holds a very special place in superhero mythos. He was the first modern superhero, and over the course of three quarters of a century, fans have come to a general consensus that Superman stands in a place above the cynicism that crept into comics in the ’80s and ’90s, set apart from the deconstructions that the genre has gone through, beloved because he’s antiquated, not in spite of it.
Attempts to revamp the character have been generally unsuccessful. We don’t speak of the period when he traded in his cape for electricity powers. At one point, yes, he did sport a mullet, but it was a poor fashion choice for everyone, and we eventually realized that that way lies madness. Superman doesn’t need to be modernized, because he’s idealized.
So yeah, I heard Zack Snyder was going to direct, and I feared that he’d go in the wrong direction. Pretty much right out the gate, I decided that I wasn’t going to expect anything from Man of Steel. At one point when I was talking with some friends about this year’s blockbuster season, we discussed which movie was going to be an unexpected flop. I said without reservation, Man of Steel. Of course, then just before it was released I read that Warner Bros. had already greenlit a sequel before they had any opening weekend numbers to judge it on. Well, maybe it wouldn’t be a flop. I still doubted it would be a very good movie.
I’ll say it now: I was wrong.
I can say wholeheartedly that I thought this film did everything a Superman movie should do. It made him seem larger than life in comparison to the humans that he’s saving. It rejected out of hand the idea of genetic determinism in favor of optimistic possibility. It had Clark struggling with his otherness while embracing his adopted home, and then somehow managing to find the balance between them. It had Kevin Costner as a farmer in Kansas (let the Field of Dreams/Man of Steel mash-ups begin!). It had bang-you-over-the-head-with-it-Superman-is-Jesus imagery.
Something should probably be said about that last one. Man of Steel is rife with parallels between Superman and Christ. He’s supposed to lead the world to a better way, but he has to wait until they’re ready. He’s 33 when he begins his important work on Earth. His adopted father drops out of the story before he becomes a man, and his actual father reappears to guide him towards his greater purpose. He descends into the grave and then rises again to smash the world engine.
Okay, that last one’s not exactly a parallel.
The point is, this was not a subtle feature of the movie. I’m actually not sure Snyder knows how to do subtle, but that’s beside the point. Superman-as-Jesus has a long, rich history going all the way back to his creation. Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster wove into Superman’s mythos a plethora of messianic elements, ranging from his escape from the destruction of his people a la Moses to his alien name, Kal-El (which bears a strong resemblance to the Hebrew word for “voice of God”). Of course, those are messianic characteristics in the Jewish tradition. Later writers and artists incorporated more Christian elements into the character. It makes sense, given the history, that there would be tons of Jesus references thrown into Man of Steel.
And I loved every single one!
Though I’m generally more of a Marvel Comics fan, I love what DC does with their flagship characters. Where Marvel’s about people with cool powers trying to be normal, DC is all about people with cool powers being larger than life. There’s a reason that the great pop culture icons of the superhero pantheon come primarily from DC. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, they’re supposed to be the absolute best imaginable. Each one embodies a specific ideal to its fullest. For Superman, that’s hope.
He’s the embodiment of all humanity’s hope, because he cares about them no matter what, and he wants to show them a better way, but he will never force it on them. He just waits patiently for them to come around, winning through persuasion rather than power.
Okay, moving on.
All of this is not to say that Man of Steel was a perfect film. There were definitely some missteps. General Zod was a little strange, with his bizarrely flat affect. Even when he was raging, I didn’t get a sense of any emotion from him. I think the point of him is supposed to be the problem with the genetic caste system that Krypton builds its society on. He was born to protect the interests of Krypton no matter what, and his inability to choose a different purpose makes it impossible for him to stop. I think his flatness is supposed to be an indicator that he’s actually subhuman because he lacks free will. Clark, by contrast, was intended from the start to choose his own purpose, and this allows him to be not only human, but superhuman.
Still, Zod was definitely not what I was expecting.
Though overall I thought the movie was rather positive in its feminist themes (Lois pretty much never ends up needing Clark to save her just because she’s a woman, though he does save her several times just because falling from great heights will kill any human, man or woman; throughout the film women are portrayed as operating in positions equal to men, especially in military settings), I have one nitpick. I read a while back that the decision had been made to cast Jimmy Olsen as a woman. At the time I thought it wasn’t a big deal. Then I saw the character Jenny, who ends up in a classic damsel in distress situation during the film’s climax. To be fair, the credits don’t list her last name as Olsen, so the gender swap may have been an idea that was scrapped for the end of the film. But even if this isn’t supposed to be Jenny Olsen, why didn’t they have Jimmy in this situation instead? A person trapped under rubble is harrowing no matter what, so why make it a woman at all instead of just nodding toward the fact that Superman’s pal gets into tight spots all the time? It’s not like the character was important at any other point in the movie!
And that leads me to my biggest gripe, which is only a gripe because of how thematically well done I thought the movie was. The final fight between Clark and Zod is an impressive piece of action cinema. It’s truly spectacular. But the whole time it was happening I couldn’t help thinking, “Why isn’t Clark trying to get Zod away from the city? There are still people down there getting crushed by all their collateral damage!” And it lost me. Everything in this film was orchestrated to make me believe that Clark’s the kind of guy who cares about every person he meets, who will protect everyone that he can. Then the final fight breaks out, and he makes absolutely no effort to get away from all the squishy humans. It broke the illusion. I think it’s the film’s largest flaw, hands down.
That’s not to say that it isn’t worth seeing. I’m actually quite glad that I went to a theater for Man of Steel. As far as Superman movies go, it’s probably the best we’re going to get. And I’m okay with that.
Have you guys seen Man of Steel yet? If so, what did you think of it? Where might the series go in the sequel?