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Pondering Superman: “Man of Steel”

June 21, 2013

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Like pretty much every other carbon-based life-form, I saw Man of Steel last week (and to the few who didn’t: you really should check it out—don’t worry, He Who Walks Behind the Rows won’t mind), and I walked out deeply conflicted about it. Of course I wanted to love it. It’s Superman fer crissakes! Who doesn’t love Superman? Who hasn’t spent the bulk of their childhood years running around with a dishtowel fastened around their neck with a clothespin, their arms stretched out in front of them, pretending to fly? We all did that, right? Some of us as recently as last week. And after the disappointment of Superman Returns—itself not a bad film, just a deeply stagnant one—I think we all wanted this movie to do the same as Richard Donner’s 1978 original: use modern-day filmmaking techniques and effects to make the comic-book hero real again. So, did Zack Snyder succeed or fail? In a word, yes.

So, let’s start out with what this film gets right—and it’s a considerable amount. First off, the storytelling is pretty brisk and mostly clear. Snyder, working off a script by David Goyer, takes a good twenty minutes or so setting up Kryptonian society, and since the movie will dwell on the prospect of recreating Krypton, it’s a wise narrative move. As his father, Russell Crowe is appropriately regal and commanding, and it gives a good context for the motivations of the villains when they show up. On top of that the art design is truly remarkable, creating one of the first palpably alien worlds since the original Star Wars trilogy that didn’t look like a screensaver ginned up by ILM.

Likewise, Clark’s life—told in non-linear style with flashbacks seems credible and is anchored by great performances by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner—he, in particular, is a great casting choice, because if there’s any actor today who better embodies basic, Midwestern decency, I can’t think of who it is.

Unlike Donner’s version, MoS doesn’t spend a huge amount of time with young Clark flailing about, trying to understand his powers or with his eventual decision to become Superman. He finds a spaceship, virtual Russell Crowe shows up, gives him a suit, and we’re off to races. Again, so far so good. Snyder and Goyer are canny enough not to spend too much time getting us to where we know we’ll get.

Finally, when Kryptonian meanies General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his fellow arrive, it sets up a showdown which basically forces Superman to choose between his adopted civilization, and his native one. This is a very, very good idea, since it cuts to one of the most primal elements of the Superman character—the immigrant story. Not for nothing, was Superman created by two young, first-generation Jewish immigrants, who, along with a healthy dollop of the Moses story, created an uber-immigrant.

Superman isn’t simply not American, but also not human, and yet he embraces his new home with the zeal that characterized the first three great waves of immigration. Like those people, Superman left his alien home behind and adopted the culture of his new home with such force and zeal that he literaly wears its colors on his body at all times. By forcing Superman to confront the possibility of trading this world for Krypton, MoS places that element of the Superman story front and center.

And yet…

Okay, this is why Man of Steel doesn’t completely work for me—Superman doesn’t rescue enough people. He has some epic superbrawls with the bad guys—a nice corrective to Superman Returns, in which Superman never seems to come into conflict with anyone except Lois Lane over their Superkid—but catching criminals is only a small part of Superman’s character. Batman is the superhero who clobbers the muggers that try to take your wallet when you’ve stumbled into the wrong alley. Superman is the superhero who soft-lands your plane when the wings fall off. And that is the most vital part of Superman’s appeal.  He’s the corrective for an uncaring universe. He’s guy who prevents the disasters that have no human agency at their root. He puts out forest fires, plugs up volcanoes, keeps the San Andreas fault from wrecking California, and basically saves people from all sorts of disasters, except maybe credit-default swaps.

And yet, when Metropolis is being pwned by an alien terraforming machine—a disaster that some estimate would have killed hundreds of thousands of people—he’s fixing things on the other side of the world. The destruction of Metropolis gives Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White a great moment of action—as pointed out by the dudes at Overthinking It Podcast, it’s one of the movie’s emotional climaxes—but, dammit, Superman should have been witness to it. After all, it gives the most compelling reason why he would chose Earth over Krypton.

Which begs the question: why should Superman protect us? A key part of his upbringing, we are told, is Pa Kent’s insistence that if people know what he is they’ll be terrified of him. So, if he’s lived his whole life with that fear, why does he feel such a connection to us? Sure, he was raised among the basic decency of Midwestern America, but when do we actually see him come to understand and value that decency? In the flashbacks to his youth we see him regularly taunted by damn near everyone, but never actually having a fulfilling relationship with anyone other than his parents. Hell, even when he dons the suit the military greets him with a blast of 30mm cannon-fire from a couple A-10 Thunderbolts. Why doesn’t he just say, “Hey, screw you, cockbags! I was gonna protect you from Michael Shannon, but you can just take your chances now!”

At the end of the day, Superman is the hero we make the most emotional connection with, because he makes us into children–hell, he made the Iron Giant into a child (yeah, watch that last scene and try not to get misty-eyed). When we cheer on Superman as he rescues an airliner or puts out a forest fire, we’re indulging in the fantasy that someone–some superhuman–is there to protect us from the indifference of fate. More than that, we ta directly into the base, child-like vulnerability we feel in the face of all the terrible things that can routinely happen. Haven’t we all watched some disaster unfold on TV–9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Thailand–and wondered why there wasn’t a Superman to push against the horror of those disasters? That’s why we needed those scenes in this movie–so we could have a moment when we could pretend he existed.

In stripping these elements out of the story, they’ve made Superman, well, a bit less super.

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