O Superman/O Judge
Spoilers ahead, so tread carefully.
I’ve always liked Superman more than most other superheroes. Certainly more than Batman, whose Christopher Nolan-led rise to domination in the pop-culture-sphere has inevitably led to countless online screeds about how he is so much more cooler than Superman because he’s just a normal dude with a ten-digit net worth and more scientific and engineering resources than the US Government.
Where was I? Ah, yes, Superman, whom I like more than Batman (though the first two films of the Dark Knight trilogy are really splendid and the third is invited to the dinner table with the other two so I talk politely about it) as a general character. But I’m not here to talk Batman, I’m here to talk Superman, and why Man of Steel was such a profoundly miserable waste of someone who inexplicably remains a character of so much unfulfilled cinematic promise.
Much has already been written about the sheer amount of senseless destruction in Man of Steel. Destruction porn is now so par for the course in action films that it seemed revelatory when the Avengers did things like set security perimeters to contain damage and help civilians escape with their lives. And while the wanton demolition of downtown Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel is every bit as miserable as reported, it’s not simply because The Avengers showed us the light and now we can’t have any collateral damage mingling in our action. Hell, the trailer for Pacific Rim still has me pumped from sheer giant monster silhouette at night potential (one of my more specific nightmare inducers) despite its potential for skyscraper dominoes.*
*That and a potentially star-making role for Idris Elba, whom you might know as Stringer Bell from The Wire and whom you should watch in Luther right about now.
And the problem, for me anyways, wasn’t even simply that Superman seemed not to give a flying turd about the fact that his mano-a-mano fight with General Zod was leaving many more people dead than the family he broke Zod’s neck to save from being unduly toasted to death. Or, for that matter, that he broke Zod’s neck, which annoyed many a Superman fan who insist that Superman would do no such thing.*
Look, the debate about whether or not Superman would have/should have killed Zod is actually quite interesting, but it’s also missing the forest for the trees. Yes, Zod was about to kill a family, but Superman had also almost certainly killed, well, hundreds of people when he took the fight to Zod in the heart of Metropolis, laying waste to high-rise after unevacuated high-rise.
The answer, however, is not “Well, that settles it, Superman should have let Zod kill those people because he’s a callous asshole in this movie”. The answer is that Zack Snyder has no clue what the hell he’s doing with Superman.
There was a modicum of comfort when Christopher Nolan was announced as the executive producer of these movies. If you squint hard enough, you might see his influence, perhaps in the more serious tone (compared to Snyder’s usual work) and the film’s legitimately interesting use of quiet and introspection in its first act, but don’t believe it; that’s just phosphenes from all the squinting. Truth be told, any half-decent Superman story is going to be introspective and reflective and, at its best, kind of poetic, especially in its first act. One of the reasons I like Superman so much as a character is that I’m fascinated by God-narratives. Rorschach is the best all-around character from “Watchmen”, yeah, but Dr. Manhattan’s chapters were the most fascinating to me overall. Alan Moore’s depiction of Dr. Manhattan’s view of the universe, of a person who is experiencing every moment of history and every inch of the universe at the same time, is one of the great inventions of the comic book medium.
Superman is less obviously a full-blown deity as Dr. Manhattan, but his mythology is layered deeply with the Jewish diaspora and the American immigrant experience. He is a being with the powers of a god who wants to be a man while still fulfilling his duty as someone capable of so much more than anyone else. This is deeply fascinating stuff to me, and done right (for a stupendous recent take, seek out Grant Morrison’s “All-Star Superman”) it can stir the imagination in the same vein of great mythological sagas (think The Odyssey or Ovid’s Metamorphosis).
Or, for that matter, Laurie Anderson’s famous, eerie song “O Superman”. The song’s title might seem superficially tied to the superhero at best, a bit of art-house irony. But the song’s sense of mystery, of a person trying to find someone to communicate with in the face of deep uncertainty, evokes much of the same feeling of the very best versions of Superman’s story.
And there are moments in the first act of “Man of Steel” that conjure some of that magic. The wildly sloppy depiction of the destruction of Krypton aside (holy hell, that was the worst-edited sequence of a major film I’ve seen in a long time), the depiction of Kal-El’s transformation into Clark Kent, leading into his rediscovering his past, was at times quite (and this is a rare thing to say about a Zack Snyder film) lovely. It was low on over-the-top symbolism and plot-based handholding and heavy on well-done scenes that showed more than told, like Clark’s rescue of the burning oil rig, or his handling of a dickish customer at a diner he works at. These scenes are really solid depictions of Clark Kent’s constant struggle between doing the greater good and weighing the risk of said good. He’d love to punch the guy who sexually harasses a waitress, but that’d kill him. Better to just turn his truck into an electrified sculpture.
There are some less-good scenes in the first act as well. The death of Jonathan Kent was a mind-boggling series of incredibly dumb decisions mixed with totally unbelievable actions and one of the goofiest deaths you’ll see in a superhero film (Kevin Costner looked like he was really looking forward to getting to ride in a tornado before he died). But for the most part, I was impressed with Snyder’s restraint and I was genuinely enjoying myself.
And then the rest of the movie happened.
More appropriately, the film’s extended action climax happened. And in the wake of “The Avengers”, what we got with “Man of Steel” just won’t do.
I really missed the sense of continuity and place that Joss Whedon pulled off in his film. At no point during the final battle of “The Avengers” did I wonder where anyone was or why they were doing what they were doing. Every fight within the larger battle had a point, and every character had a purpose. It was stunningly well-choreographed. In “Man of Steel”, Snyder appeared to decide that Superman’s ability to move very quickly through the air was a get-out-of-jail free card to allow Superman to intervene whenever it was convenient (say, Lois Lane, or a random soldier, needs saving).
But as building after building exploded or collapsed with Superman making no effort to, you know, move to fight where there’d be minimal risk to civilians, I realized that Snyder was just not giving a crap. He was in his element, and unfortunately that element is “FIGHT FIGHT SMASH SMASH HAHAHAHAHAHA”. This worked much better for him in 300, a movie that was much more aware of its own goofiness and based on significantly less loaded, more superficial source material)
I grow weary very quickly when action devolves into movement+destruction. Pretty much the entirety of the ending of Man of Steel was just that. Gone was any attempt to continue to explore the evolution of Superman as a character. Even the killing of Zod was half-assed in that regard at best; He snaps his neck, screams, and that’s all she wrote. That would be forgivable in a movie that was a) more purely action driven and b) had more competently filmed action, but having that scene represent the apex of Superman’s character development is incredibly childish, especially in a movie that had done a decent job in that regard up to that point.
This is just a stupid, stupid movie. It’s dumb. It’s aggressively unpleasant. It’s the kind of movie that decides Superman as Jesus is a cool idea out of absolutely nowhere, spends three scenes hammering that metaphor home with embarrassing literalness (Superman consults a priest who we’ve never seen before and never see again for advice and a stained glass image of Jesus is right there next to his head the entire conversation) and then drop the idea completely for the rest of the movie. It’s the kind of movie that has a “scientist” character whose entire purpose is telegraphed as “the guy who’ll solve an impossible alien algorithm to save the world” and that algorithm is turning a wheel. It’s the kind of movie that will have Superman standing around doing nothing while the spaceship that holds the fate of humanity is under attack, and then snap back to attention only when Lois Lane is about to plummet to her death.
Superman remains one of the most interesting superheroes to me. But if Man of Steel is to be his Dark Knight trilogy, then he’s already hurtling in the wrong direction. Batman Begins was tightly honed film driven by character, tone, and world-building. Man of Steel began with the possibility of that, but devolved into the world’s most expensive game of Jenga.