More on Man of Steel

I am a huge fan of Man of Steel in that it is a flawlessly executed movie. However, there are some thematic elements that I found problematic, and I wanted to go into those.

Put bluntly, the film is fundamentalist. It’s anti-science, anti-progress, and deeply suspicious.

Where in other incarnations of the Superman myth, Krypton fell due to the ills of its society despite its technological achievements, in Man of Steel these technological achievements are implied to be the reason for the societal ills.

Kryptonians developed the technology to reproduce without requiring a woman to endure carrying and birthing a child. Then they went beyond this level to the point of specifically designing each person.

Jor and Lara don’t like chance being taken out of the genetic equation, so they decide to have a child naturally, including 1) not manipulating genes in any way and 2) having Lara undergo pregnancy and labor. Why they didn’t just do 1 and spare Lara 2 isn’t addressed. The issue is treated as black and white: either you choose genetic manipulation/science, or you choose the natural way/tradition.

When you compare and contrast Kal and Zod in this context, the implication is that a large reason why Kal is “good” and Zod is “evil” is because Kal was born naturally. You even see this in Kal’s upbringing as Clark. He seems to be innately good; he doesn’t appear to have learned his goodness from the Kents. The question is never “Should I be good?” but “How should I express my goodness?” Meanwhile, Zod even comes out and says that he is acting as he was designed to act, that he can’t fight his own nature. Zod can’t be redeemed; he must be killed to be stopped.

This, of course, makes the more general, dangerous implication that some people are born “good” and others are born “bad” and that it’s impossible for a person to change.

Man of Steel does some unfortunate things: it treats complex issues as black and white; it rejects progress in favor of tradition; and it paints anyone who diverges from what’s “natural” as irredeemably “bad”. In this way, I’m sure the film is appealing to people who’d prefer a homogenous society. To someone like me who favors diversity, change, and the benefit of the doubt, though, it’s pretty troubling.

Review: Man of Steel

Kal and LoisMan of Steel is one of the best films I have ever seen.

It took me awhile to get around to seeing it. Part of the delay came simply from how busy I’ve been lately, what with travel to Augusta and Rhode Island and getting a new job. Part of it may have been superhero movie fatigue. Sean has also been reluctant to see the movie, likely due to the mixed reviews it’s getting. I finally ended up seeing the movie by myself yesterday afternoon, and I’m so glad I didn’t wait any longer.

I don’t pretend to have extensive Superman comic knowledge, but I do have general Superman origin knowledge. I have also seen all the other Superman movies, Lois & Clark, Smallville, and the various animated series featuring Superman in the Paul Dini DC Animated Universe. Bear this in mind when reading my review.

I didn’t seek out reviews or spoilers beforehand, but with the sheer number of conversations about the movie taking place around me, online and off, there was one spoiler I didn’t manage to avoid. The subject of that spoiler ended up being the only issue I had with the movie. I’ll get to that below.

After seeing all the trailers, I wondered how the Man of Steel could possibly cover so much ground. And indeed, the story is dense…but it is expertly woven, never dragging. No story element is introduced without being addressed. Everything in the movie exists for a purpose. Callbacks abound, but they’re hardly trite. It all fits tightly together in a strong, cohesive whole.

There is so much depth to the story, so much that isn’t explained–but enough is explained that you never feel lost. This is the hallmark of good storytelling: showing only what needs to be shown and implying the rest. The audience doesn’t need to know all the details; they just need to know the details exist, that it is truly a robust world. On this point Man of Steel delivers in spades.

(This is where spoilers begin, so if you haven’t seen Man of Steel and want to be surprised by this new take on Superman, you probably want to stop reading.)

Kal-El’s is the first natural birth in centuries, a fascinating twist on the Superman legend. The conflict that this creates between destiny and desire is ultimately played out between Zod and Kal, between Krypton and Earth. Zod is the embodiment of the warrior he was designed to be; Kal has been allowed and encouraged by both sets of parents to find his own path. Krypton, as Jor-El explains, has lost something vital: chance. The younger Earth still has that chance, and with Kal’s help may be able to find a better fate than Krypton’s. This theme is introduced in the very beginning and executed perfectly throughout the movie.

The resolution of this conflict is Kal-El’s decision to help Earth–his realization that Krypton cannot be saved. The metaphor for this is Kal-El breaking Zod’s neck, killing him.

This is the plot point that was spoiled for me; I’d heard somewhere someone saying that Superman killing Zod doesn’t feel right, that Superman doesn’t kill. I wondered if this moment would be given the standard Western hero cop-out treatment, in which the villain dies due to the fight with the hero but there is no way the hero could save him. This trope has been used to absolve many a hero of guilt. He/she feels guilty, but “There’s nothing you could have done.”

Things are not so clear-cut in this case. Kal screams at Zod to stop, and Zod shouts, “Never!” This is not simply a conversation about what Zod is doing at the time. If Kal had wanted to stop Zod from killing people with his heat vision in that particular moment, he could have blasted off into the sky with Zod, forcing him to aim his eyes elsewhere. But this is a conversation with deeper implications. It is telling us, and Kal, that Zod is not going to stop trying to destroy humanity. He will keep killing people.

At this point we don’t know about Kryptonite. With the phantom drives gone, there’s no means of sending Zod away. We know he could be contained in an environment that replicates that of Krypton, but how to stop him until one is developed and he can be contained there? How to ensure that he never escapes?

And so Kal kills Zod.

This is the point that sticks with me, though perhaps not as strongly as if I’d been unprepared for it. The message seems to be that sometimes there is no choice but to kill. It’s not a message I really like seeing out of a Superman movie.

It’s not a message Kal likes either. His howl of frustration, of anger at himself and the situation, lets us know just how strongly he did not want to kill. I think perhaps this moment salvages him as Superman. He’s not a grim general, sacrificing anything and everything to achieve his goals. He’s not Zod, at least not yet. And as long as he has this reaction, he won’t be.

That said, I hope future movies will feature Superman’s no-killing rule rather than its exception.

One cardinal Superman rule that I was delighted to see broken was the Lois rule. Man of Steel‘s Lois, brilliantly portrayed by Amy Adams, is everything Lois Lane should be: smart, brave, dedicated. It only makes sense that she uncovers before anyone else not only that there is an alien among us, but who he is and where he’s been hiding. There are strong echoes of Smallville in Lois’ dogged pursuit of super-saves that ultimately leads her to the Kent farm and Jonathan’s grave. And then there is her willingness to give up the story for the sake of humanity itself. I’d say Lois is my favorite part of the movie, but honestly, the movie is amazing on so many levels.

The score is fantastic. I was not sorry to see John Williams’ classic theme go. Williams’ score is wonderful, no doubt, but it comes with so much baggage. I was excited to hear a new take, and Hans Zimmer does not disappoint. More than that, he captures every mood of the movie, from Clark’s fears and longing to Kal’s determination and strength. The main theme builds, laying a foundation that echoes the love inherent in Kal’s birth and Clark’s adoption and then rising into the new power that emerges from both: Superman, product of two worlds, last bastion of one and savior of the other, surging forth to forge a better destiny.

The casting is also spot-on. As I’ve already mentioned, Amy Adams is brilliant as Lois. And Henry Cavill is Clark, is Kal, is Superman. There is so much in his performance that feels…right. And the two of them together are fabulous, especially in the very last scene, which made me grin from ear to ear. “Welcome to the Planet,” indeed!

As far as I’m concerned, get Lois and Clark right and you’ve won me over, but the rest of the cast are perfect as well. Zod and Faora. Perry. Dr. Hamilton. Col. Hardy. I absolutely loved Russell Crowe as Jor-El and Kevin Costner as Jonathan. Diane Lane’s Martha is a new spin on the character that feels familiar and true. She’s not into abstract art like Lois & Clark‘s Martha or a savvy businesswoman like Smallville‘s. She’s a strong Midwestern woman. “It’s just stuff, Clark.” Meanwhile,¬†Ayelet Zurer’s Lara is a woman who chose to go through the pain of natural childbirth in the hopes of changing the future of her race, who moves with grace and dignity yet strength and purpose. With the exception of Lois, the women of the Superman mythos have traditionally been plot facilitators more than anything else. Here, they shine and even occasionally eclipse that role (though not nearly as much as the women of Smallville did).

The visual effects are extraordinary. For the first time, I truly felt what it would be like to have a Superman on Earth. The destruction in Smallville, Metropolis, and beyond was unflinchingly rendered. People very obviously died. And Superman’s powers themselves were so realistic. The ground breaks beneath him; he starts floating instinctively in response. Trying to fly forward out of his enemy’s reach, he’s caught by the cape, leaving him stuck briefly in midair before the Kryptonian soldier flings him backward. Even little things like having young Clark scrunch a fence post…it all makes Superman real.

There are other touches that I was thrilled to see as a Superman fan: Kal, weary, reaching out toward the light of the sun. LexCorp trucks. The Smallville High letterman jackets.

Krypton doesn’t look the way I expected it to, but rather than disappointed, I was intrigued. There are more curved lines and warm colors. Jor-El has a large flying creature for a pet. There’s an organic feel to the technology that speaks to the Kryptonians’ mastery of genetic manipulation. Metropolis is perfect; as I watched the fight range around the sprawling city I imagined that someone, somewhere had designed the whole place, and how neat it would be to look at a map.

Everything–the story, the casting, the music, the effects–comes together in a film that is expertly crafted and beautifully rendered. I was mesmerized from start to finish. I knew that the film was extraordinary almost from the very beginning, and that impression never wavered as I watched, nor faded afterward.

Man of Steel is our generation’s Superman.