Since the release of Zack Snyder and David Goyer’s Man of Steel two Fridays ago, there have been approximately 250 trillion blogposts about it, and that’s with the film showing in only half of the available territories. By the time it comes out everywhere there’s a possibility that our civilisation may have to somehow move to a Man-of-Steel-conjecture-blog-based economy, and so for fear of being left too far behind in this new frontier, Shades of Caruso will attempt to grapple with what has seemingly, and surprisingly, become the pressing issue of this modern age: which big machine should Superman have attacked first, and which choice makes him the least worst Kryptonian superhero we’ve ever had?
If you don’t know what I’m talking about then you obviously either follow a lot of different people than I do, or you’re not on Twitter (in which case, congratulations! I envy you). The latest cinematic version of Superman is seemingly the first step in creating a unified cinematic DC universe; The Dark Knight trilogy apparently doesn’t count, and Green Lantern has wisely been thrown into a memory hole, so this is the building block to a new multi-character franchise that will do battle with the currently world-conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is also a betrayal of everything Superman is meant to stand for, according to a lot of fans, who have treated this as an insult to his name and the good that he inspires. Cinematicians and storygineers have also railed against it for being ugly, crass, incomprehensible and “too loud” , but their dismissal of Man of Steel feels less personal, more resigned; “I guess this is what cinema amounts to these days; quelle dommage“. The venom of the fans, however, has flowed across the internet as if a mountain-sized jar of snake poison had cracked open and flooded the world.
And I get that. Regular readers will know that by now I’ve gone from blogging everything that happens to me — from seismic cultural awakenings down to vaguely memorable bus-rides — to only poking my head out when a new superhero film appears, and even then it’s not guaranteed (I ignored Iron Man 3 because all I had to offer was “numerous LOLs”). It’s my favourite genre after sci-fi, and superhero logos account for approximately 85% of the t-shirts I own. There are characters I like more than Superman, but he’s the one who most perfectly represents what I love about superheroes; their selflessness, innate heroism, nobility, and reliability. Superman is decent and good and, when portrayed as a pure ideal, never ever lets us down. At least, that’s how he’s often described by fans and non-fans alike. Technically he’s perfect, and as a vision of inspiration he represents the best that we can be. To tinker with that is to insult ourselves, to say the highest ideals we aspire to are forever out of reach. If I can get bent out of shape about the depiction of a character I like a lot less than Superman, this was always going to be hard going.
The problem with holding fast to an image of Superman as a flawless individual who will always, always save everyone, when this is held as the crucial element that defines him above all other heroes, when one admires a superheroic compassion for humanity so total that the character will literally break the laws of time and narrative logic using mumble mumble something about flying fast in order to avert disaster, protecting this image becomes paramount, and his fans are on watch for deviations. As we get further and further from the moment Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster invented the Man of Steel, back in a time when creating a paragon of virtue was arguably easier, there’s more chance that the character will be radically altered in a way that would contravene one of these essential elements of his nature. Considering how seriously people, including myself, take Superman’s core nature to be sacrosanct , it was only a matter of time before the Kryptonian god was irreparably besmirched.
And we’re not talking about anything on this very funny and accurate list by Charlie Jane Anders, really, even though it’s hard to argue against any of them (okay, I’d give Electric Superman an entry all of his own) . Superman has been “ruined” a million times over and still persists because he is the best of us, even though he’s not one of us. No, what people appear to have been dreading is the “engrittenisation” of Superman, the moment when someone decides that the world needs a Superman that bleeds and kills and is basically a thin moral line away from becoming Lobo. Which is exactly what people feared when they heard that Christopher Nolan, David Goyer and Zack Snyder (NGZ) were rebooting the film franchise. The vast lake of concern over the state of this relatively innocent character was held back by a dam for a long time, and as soon as anything happened to break the dam that lake poured out in a deadly torrent that couldn’t even be saved by a big landslide (Superman – The Movie reference there, folks).
So, as an avowed Superman fan, how did I react when NGZ’s Superman abetted the wholesale demolition of the entirety of Metropolis, causing the death of millions, before wilfully snapping Zod’s neck because he just doesn’t give a crap about moral codes and hey, isn’t everyone just killing villains for the fun of it these days?  Pretty okay, really, mostly because that doesn’t happen, though the first reports from fuming bloggers certainly hinted that the film ended with purposeless, anarchic violence that wouldn’t go amiss in a Punisher sequel directed by Neveldine / Taylor (now that’s a headache of a movie waiting to happen). What does happen sits heavy on my shoulders, of course — I wouldn’t be a fan if this stuff didn’t affect me at all — but as post-release interviews with Goyer and Snyder have shown, the decision to put Superman through this wringer was not made by people who don’t care about Superman and what he stands for. They wrestled with this decision but they consciously chose to do it for a reason, to shine a new light on the character; or at least, to bring a facet of the character into the wider public consciousness, as readers of the comic will already have experienced this debate about Superman’s obligations to the world, and the things he is forced to do to protect us.
The problem seems to be that NGZ don’t care about the character as much as the hardcore fans do, but I bet that no matter how hardcore you think you are, there’s someone out there who’s even more hardcore than you. Just as, in the hierarchy of belief, there will always be someone more fundamentalist in their devotion to a deity than you are (“You eat cereal? Heretic! Toasted sugar-coated grains are the dandruff of Abaddon!”), there will always be someone who is more incensed than you about every single deviation from an upheld ideal, a vision of perfection, an unyielding and impossible-to-write character that can only be one thing; a pristine action figure in its original packaging. For a large percentage of the Superman fanbase Man of Steel has proven to be a deviation too far, a blasphemous insult. If the excessively respectful and dramatically inert Superman Returns  was the Jesus of Nazareth of Superman movies, this is The Last Temptation of SuperChrist.
So why did I react to this film by nearly dislocating my jaw in amazement? Why was I in a state of actual emotional torment and panic during the final apocalyptic scenes? Why have I had Hans Zimmer’s none-more-bombastic score on repeat for nearly two weeks? Why did I go to see Man of Steel again at the first opportunity and seriously consider buying a third ticket right after?  Shouldn’t I have reacted with the fanboy’s traditional ire? After all, the delinquent dad stuff from Superman Returns bothered me a hell of a lot, though not as much as that film’s funereal pace and obsequious emulation of Richard Donner’s Superman — The Movie. Man of Steel is significantly different from the image many of us have, and yet I was mostly fine with it. It’s not like I’m a die-hard fan of either Goyer or Snyder either. Goyer’s only as good as his collaborators (look at how Norrington and Del Toro raised his Blade scripts, and how unfocused and unfinished Blade: Trinity felt in comparison), and I’ve got very mixed feelings about Snyder, so this was by no means a guaranteed hit in my eyes.
Part of the reason is the fallout from the Prometheus Wars of 2012, which I’ve written about twice before, here and here. Expectations for that were similarly high, with much speculation about whether late-career Sir Ridley and Lost bastard scumbag Damon Lindelof  would honour the revered Alien franchise. The result was a year’s worth of vitriol aimed at the filmmakers, while a few of us dared to claim that perhaps it wasn’t a total waste of time. The pain felt by fans of the original was impossible to ignore, and though I thought much of the criticism aimed at it was unfair and missed what I felt was the point of the movie, it’s hard not to read months of responses that stop just shy of wishing actual bodily harm on the two deemed most guilty without assessing one’s own relationship with beloved characters or films. I’ve been butthurt over redefined characters in the past, but it’s an emotion I just don’t want to feel ever again. Loyalty to some idealised imaginary version of a character or story will only ever make me unhappy because these things are out of my control. As long as filmmakers or storytellers create something of merit, tinkering with an existing property is fine by me.  These are the mutations that can alter the evolution of a character, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
That’s not to say Man of Steel is beyond reproach . Much of the reaction to this has included the terms “gritty” or “Emo” or variations of such, but where many have seen a movie that goes out of its way to be dour and modishly reflective of a more serious era than the incorrectly remembered innocence of a mooted Golden Age that never really existed, what I saw was a film made by three creators who really aren’t very good at comedy. The lack of jokes or light moments in this were either the result of trimming to get the original cut of three hours down to a more “manageable” two hours twenty, or because these guys just aren’t funny. Any laughs in 300 are accidental. Sucker Punch and Watchmen barely even try. Hell, Inception‘s funnier than this. These guys just don’t know how to do funny, or light (oh how this film cried out for an Alfred Pennyworth, or Lucius Fox). They try, but none of the jokes land. I mean, the line in Man of Steel that got the biggest laugh is “RELEASE THE WORLD ENGINE!” and I can guarantee that was not the intention.
It’s also worth questioning the decision to tell the story of Clark’s adolescence in flashback, which gives the film, in its earlier acts, a stop-start flow that distracts from any emotional connection with anyone, especially our hero. Though eschewing a traditional origin format means we get to Adult Clark a lot earlier than usual, we’re still exploring a new non-Superman origin period, so it’s not like we’re jumping into his red boots straight away.  Nevertheless, this pacing pays dividends eventually, with a final forty minutes of incredible, breathless momentum, and this is all in service of the story’s pay-off (more on that in a bit). It also plays a lot better on second viewing because you’re not fretting about which entertaining modern-era scene will suddenly be truncated in order to flash back to him getting another bit of bad advice from Jonathan Kent (more on this as well, coming right up, once I list all of the caveats, seriously, give me a minute. Blogging is very hard work).
In addition, either as a result of the previously mentioned running-time-reduction or because Snyder doesn’t really know how to sculpt living, breathing characters, hardly anyone in this film exists as anything other than plot carriers or exposition announcers. That they work at all is testament to the actors; thankfully Snyder was smart enough to leave enough little emotional moments in to save the movie from being little more than a very expensive animatic. Who knows how much more effective a three-hour version would be, but thanks to Michael Shannon’s shading of the otherwise maniacal Zod, Laurence Fishburne’s addition of conviction and courage to the usually underwritten Perry White, Christopher Meloni’s defiant badass Colonel Hardy, Diane Lane’s quietly noble and brave Martha Kent, or even Antje Traue’s deliciously evil Faora-Ul with her brief moment of agony upon seeing her homeworld shattered into pieces, there was enough there to keep me emotionally invested. 
That’s before we even get to the incredibly significant contribution from Kevin Costner who, with one gesture, sold me 100% on the movie no matter how many times during the preceding hour I’d had wobbles of doubt. Of all the movies made by Snyder thus far, nothing he’s depicted before has even approached the emotional power of Jonathan Kent sacrificing his life to keep his son’s identity a secret. Costner perfectly depicts the nobility of a father, the love he feels for his son and the confidence that he is in the right. It’s a stunning moment, the best and most human scene in the entire movie, and made all the better when you realise that Jonathan is totally, utterly wrong to do it. He’s brave in that moment, but his bravery is borne of a terrible fear that he infects his son with, and this is the (WORLD) engine that powers the movie.
Kal-El, as well as being a Christ symbol of great obviousness , is also a son with three “fathers” , two of whom raise him and the third who comes in at the end to deliver a lesson that shakes Kal from his cocoon of fear and doubt in the most unpleasant way . Krypton is a world that has allowed itself to stagnate due to a eugenics programme that has oppressed its citizens even before birth; the Genesis Chamber within which Kryptonians are born is a direct lift from The Matrix, right down to the spider-like machines that pluck ripe babies from nutrient stems like grapes. No one on the planet is allowed to determine their own fate, which Jor-El and Lara rebel against. They create Kal in the first natural birth on the planet in millennia, and then send him off to one of the Kryptonian Empire’s failed colonies to hopefully save their doomed civilisation.
As explained at length at about the two-thirds point, Jor is adamant that Kal be allowed to find his own way, which, thanks to the shuffled narrative structure, comes not long after we see Jonathan deliver yet another lesson to Clark telling him that he must hide, run away, never fight back, be careful of what humanity might do to him. Both fathers give conflicting advice but each philosophy is rooted in lumping enormous boulders of responsibility onto the young man’s shoulders. Jor says that Kal must become a symbol, an ideal, something for humanity to look up to.
They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders… You can save her. You can save them all.
Cue Superman floating away in a crucifixion pose  and then flying like the veritable wind to save Lois. Jonathan, on the other hand, makes Clark so scared of what he can do, and what his appearance on Earth might do to humanity, that he puts the fear of god into him. Though both talk about having faith in humanity, it’s Jor, who knows no humans, who seems to believe that we can be inspired by Superman’s perfection, while Jonathan, who knows humans, is unconvinced. Kal and Clark are set up for conflict throughout, but while both fathers are telling him this, we still see that his impulse is always to be heroic. Adult Clark’s first scene sees him leave his new identity behind in order to save the otherwise doomed workers on the oil rig with no concern for his secret. He’s intrinsically good and honourable, and Jonathan’s words are a leash on a force for good, and arguably the possibility that the appearance of Superman is the thing that will bring about the improvement in humanity that he hopes for. 
The last third of the film sees Superman become a hero, saving the world but, controversially, not everyone, which is the thing that has caused the most upset among fans. Thousands of people die during the Kryptonian attack on the city, culminating in an epic brawl during which skyscrapers topple and petrol trucks explode . The carnage is immense , and the outcome horrible. Zod, who despises the idea of Jor-El creating a future for Krypton that allows for free will, commits one final act of evil against the man he killed years before; he puts Kal in an impossible quandary by making him choose to break his moral code; the kindness that Faora-Ul says is an evolutionary weakness but is, as we know, less a regrettable deviation from the “rightness” of the eugenics programme and more an evolutionary kink that will lead to the Kryptonian hero’s greatest achievements. Zod’s heat vision will kill a family if Superman doesn’t kill him first, which in this case is no choice at all. Kal kills Zod, the last Kryptonian, and wails in anguish at the crime he has committed, and at the corruption of that code that he wanted to uphold.
Zod wins. This is the key to the entire movie. Jor-El tells him he can save everyone, but this is purely impossible and unrealistic nonsense from an idealistic fool whose naive beliefs doom him and almost lead to the death of his wife and son. Jonathan tells him he must hide his powers until “humanity is ready”. This will never happen; humanity is not getting any kinder or more understanding unless Superman is there to kickstart the process (a throwaway “dammit” from Steve Lombard before trying to save Jenny Jurwich  from the rubble is sadly all that remains of what I suspect was a character arc about the boorish DC Universe character‘s growing compassion). So while Clark/Kal’s impulses are directed towards doing good, Jonathan foolishly tells him that maybe it’s best that the children in the school bus be left to die. Both fathers are wrong. 
The third influence on Kal’s development is Zod, who mocks the hero’s benevolence and forces him to betray everything he holds dear by removing choice from the equation, or at least making him choose between unacceptable outcomes, making visceral Superman’s earlier decision to destroy the Genesis Chamber. Jor’s dream of a man fully in control of his destiny lies in ruins, as it must. Zod’s lesson, which robs Kal of the freedom to live life the way he wants while showing the boundaries of what he is capable of, is paradoxically the one that sets Kal free. He has faced his worst nightmare, the devastation that Jonathan hints at and the inability to always choose his own path, as wished by Jor, if faced with a foe more powerful than he is. But he is then finally free of his fears, free to live his own life.
This is the moment that he truly becomes what he wants to be, what he has always wanted to be; a part of the world. If Nolan and Goyer’s Batman is a man transcending manhood in order to become a symbol, NGZ’s Superman is a symbol trapped between the opposing dreams of two oppressive fathers but who strives to become a man. Jor and Jonathan try to put him into a box, not realising what this would do to him. Whereas Christ is tempted on the cross to become a man, but chooses instead to honour his obligation and his father’s wishes, dying on the cross for the sake of humanity, Kal/Clark elects to become a man, to revoke his godhood, at least temporarily, in order to become one with the people he wishes to protect. The moment of triumph isn’t the murder of Zod: how on earth could it be? It’s when he puts on Clark’s glasses, and finally walks among us, because this is the moment he chooses his own destiny.
This is another choice made by the filmmakers that will likely annoy fans, but if Superman remains a God, the only alternative once he is on this planet is to constantly fly around preventing disasters, bigger and then smaller, smaller, until he becomes a super-powered Mary Poppins, flitting around delivering a Heimlich manouvre in Boston, saving a drowning man in Utrecht, catching a falling woman in Sydney, back and forth, over and over, nothing more than a guardian angel, and where does it end? Slapping junk food from our mouths? Destroying all cigarettes? We might recoil from the idea of a Superman who doesn’t give a damn about the innocent being crushed under tons of falling masonry, but the alternative is a Superman who never stops zooming around righting wrongs and saving lives, but also interfering in the natural order. All the talk of evolution from Zod and Faora-Ul is significant; if Superman does what the ideal of Superman is expected to do, if God doesn’t have enough faith in us to leave us to our own devices, we will stagnate as much as Krypton did.
Intervention means interference with the natural order; saving a baby in Helsinki means a man dies at that moment in a car accident in Cape Town. So the mere existence of an omnipresent hyper-powered individual who intends to save us means that being will always fail, no matter what. We imagine a Superman who never lets anyone die when he’s on watch, but this is a Platonic ideal of what Superman should be, and only occasionally do we sit back and think about what this means. A Superman who never lets anyone down simply cannot exist; to be a Superman means failure must occur, and on a story level to constantly create situations where Superman prevails to the extent that no one is ever hurt means we either get unsatisfactory narrative fudges like time manipulation or amnesia kisses, or the character is never truly challenged, never allowed to evolve, because his writers are unwilling to put him into a situation in which he cannot conquer all. It’s no coincidence that Clark is reading Plato when he is bullied in front of his father; he’s being taught to be that Platonic ideal by his fathers but it is an untenable ambition. And so it is Zod, the despicable and proud villain, who frees him from this stasis at enormous cost.
Some critics have complained that Superman is made to choose this course because of the evil intentions of NGZ, who have cruelly decided that Superman MUST oversee a disaster and a murder for the sake of irrevocably altering and soiling a character of great benevolence, cherished by millions but now sullied because it’s topical to do so, while offering “thrills” that amount to a terrible vision of post-9/11 horror ; indeed they’ve even admitted as much. But at what point is the final fight with Zod actually fun? If you’ve felt anything at all for these characters throughout, this is a terrifying spectacle, a brutal fight that, while admittedly impressive on a technical level, is intentionally creating a conflict within the viewer. This is not meant to be a triumphant and exciting finale; NGZ are putting the audience through the wringer, showing the ultimate outcome of the long-wished-for fight between gods; chaos, misery, and ultimately death.
The disconnect between the downbeat ending here and the expectation of the audience (not helped by the relatively upbeat final scenes with Clark being welcomed to the Planet by Lois GEDDIT?) is a perfect example of what I’ve come to think of as the Zero Dark Thirty problem. Much of the criticism leveled at Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s movie about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden has centered on the depiction of torture, which is shown as being instrumental in the search for the terrorist leader. Those who rightly advocate for the end of torture techniques (you won’t see me using weasel words to describe the actions of the characters in this film) understandably objected to scenes which appeared to show that torture softened up a fictional amalgam of real people so that he would then give up precious information once that torture ceased, especially as this was not the true course of events.
However, the problem with this assessment is that it is predicated on the idea that the movie has shown that assassinating Bin Laden is an ultimate good and anything done in the service of this goal is therefore justifiable. We all remember the images of Americans rejoicing at the news, the endless punditry calling this a moment of catharsis that can be built upon, but the death of Bin Laden did nothing to make the world a safe place. Perhaps documents found in his Abbottabad compound were useful, but his death was nothing more than that; another sordid, ignominious death, instead of a capture in order to put him on trial for his crimes. Since the assassination the world has continued to be a dangerous place, and while withdrawals from the Middle East continue, discord reigns, diplomatic relations between the US and Pakistan deteriorate, governments become destabilised and unimaginable numbers of people die as populations are suppressed by vile dictatorships.
Zero Dark Thirty is not a triumphalist movie. The search for Bin Laden leads to death, misery, a loss of America’s heart as shown metaphorically by the arc of Jessica Chastain’s driven but soulless Maya. The finale is an exhausting scene, played without empty patriotic gestures, during which a group of soldiers infiltrates a house, killing men and women and terrorising children. Osama is shot dead but we only see a faceless corpse. Maya herself, standing in for America’s urge for justice, is lost in the final moments, a person hollowed out to make room for this murderous quest that resolves nothing. But to some of the most vehement critics of the film, including Glenn Greenwald and Slavoj Žižek, the movie endorses the use of torture because the end of the film can only possibly be seen as triumphalist because “Hollywood” only ever does that. It eludes them that the ending is not a celebration of Bin Laden’s death; once you realise that there is, in the film’s final scenes, at the very least ambiguity, at most a condemnation of the act of bloody revenge and a depiction of the emptiness that follows such an act of violence, then everything leading up to that cannot be seen as endorsement.
It’s hard to view major motion picture events, especially big summer movies, as being capable of challenging our expectations, especially if you’re political pundits or philosophers who sneer at popular culture with a disdain that wouldn’t look amiss on an aristocrat from the era of Louis XII and so reactions to the depiction of the assassination of Bin Laden or the murder of General Zod are viewed through the lens of what we’ve come to expect from big cathartic entertainment; Zero Dark Thirty is exactly the same as Team America, Man of Steel is identical to Superman II. And hell, when the finale played out, I was in a state of emotional anguish for what I was seeing Superman endure, what he would have to do to save humanity, and how this act would be presented in order to keep the film satisfying. From the moment Zod gives his final speech and commits himself to his destructive acts, I was torn all over the place, hoping that the terrible act wouldn’t be presented as something Superman takes lightly. I don’t blame any Superman fan for reacting the way they have. This was hard to watch for anyone who has grown up with him.
But even Mark Waid , who has famously come out against Man of Steel, admits that we are left in no doubt that Kal hates what he has done, what he has been forced to do , and interviews with Snyder and Goyer suggest that this is a crucial and formative event in his life, something that scars him, something that is meant to scar him, and us, to shake us out of our complacency about what it is to be Superman, and the responsibilities he faces. This isn’t Rambo shooting Steven Berkoff out of the sky with a bazooka, or John McClane dropping Hans Gruber off the thirtieth floor of the Nakatomi building. This is Brad Pitt seeing what’s in the box at the end of Seven and fulfilling John Doe’s nihilistic vision. We’re meant to be upset at what Kal finds out about himself; that he must make hard choices all the time. Finally we’re given a story in which a character ossified by the undaunted belief of his fans is allowed to fail and change and learn. A movie in which he prevails and nothing bad happens would have been nice, but those movies already exist, and to make them consistency had to be thrown out of the window. Perhaps that’s what has made people so angry; that we’re being presented with a scenario arguing that the perfection we aspire to emulate cannot exist. Who can blame people for being mad? It fucking sucks.
This would, of course, be more clear if we had a bit of space between Zod’s death and the chirpily conducted chat with Martha about getting a job, and then the cut to the Daily Planet offices, apparently still standing despite a neighbouring building falling onto it, where Steve Lombard is trying to get any woman to go to a game with him in what looks like the culmination of a running gag that got cut for time (the staff of the Planet really get short shrift in this edit). It would also seem clearer if Superman was shown to be concerned about the citizens of Metropolis like he does in Smallville. Perhaps his “get indoors” line in his home town is meant to be a catch-all, that this shows his concern and it doesn’t need to be shown again. Or maybe “faith in humanity” covers bystanders’ ability to get out of the way of falling debris; Superman thinks his actions won’t cause death or injury because it’s up to us to take responsibility for our safety in a world now populated by beings of such might; the ultimate expression of Superman focusing his attention on the greatest dangers and leaving us to our own devices in other respects, which I know will assuage no one’s doubts.
Of course none of these complications — or poor directorial choices — help my thesis, and considering how critical I’ve been of Snyder in the past  perhaps I should be more circumspect here. Nevertheless, the death of Zod is thematically satisfying in that it matches up with the death of Jonathan. Having seen what happens when he lets people die in order to maintain the purity of someone’s beliefs, Kal/Clark/Superman is unwilling to let this happen again. He kills this threat that cannot be reasoned with, and with that act the Platonic ideal steps out of the higher realms of imagination into a world of flesh and blood, but also compromise and failure. This is a Superman who lives and breathes, a Superman who truly walks among us, a Superman who watches football and drinks beer (yes, you see Clark drinking a beer BUT OMG SUPERMAN WOULD NEVER DRINK A BEER BECAUSE HE’S PERFECT I MEAN HE EVEN HATES SMOKING AS MENTIONED ABOUT FIVE THOUSAND WORDS AGO etc.).
This is a Superman I can accept. I like the other Superman too, the perfect one that can only really exist either as a narrative dead-end or a philosophical paradox. He’s great. But this is something new and interesting too; the alien who has to step cautiously into a world after years of avoiding it. Considering the repeated critique of the superhero genre as some kind of celebration of a fascist worldview — most recently shown in Joe Queenan’s Guardian article futilely calling for the genre to be shuttered — I hesitate to argue for a more human Superman for fear of seeming to be endorsing such a popular criticism, especially as it might only be the most dismissive of genre critics who would take pleasure in seeing the most Übermenschian of Übermensches brought down to earth; I’m certainly not on the side of anyone who says such a thing about superheroes. But Superman has been linked to Neitzsche, and thus by association to fascism, for too long . It’s a complaint that’s reductive, not to mention offensively glib and thoughtless, considering Superman was the creation of two Jewish men in response to their emotional reactions to the growth of National Socialism in Germany. Neitzsche wrote:
Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss… I love those who do not first seek a reason beyond the stars for going down and being sacrifices, but sacrifice themselves to the earth, that the earth of the Superman may hereafter arrive.
To Zarathustra humans are merely the potential to be better; when interpreted through the compassionate Superman myth that’s fine, but nevertheless we’re merely a disappointment, mere potential until the higher being arrives to deliver us. But now we have a Superman who we don’t have to climb towards. Superman is not in Plato’s higher realms, or at the end of a rope. I don’t think that there’s any weight to the argument that superheroes represent a kind of fascism, and so don’t think of Man of Steel as a rebuttal of this viewpoint. But there is something appealing in seeing the idea of a God turning his back on Godhood to experience the world we are in, to give us a chance to find our own path without stepping in all the time; an idea that has long existed at the core of the Clark Kent identity but so brilliantly shown here as a choice that frees our hero from the chains created by his misguided fathers, and will lead to a better Superman with a greater capacity for compassion and empathy. He’s a guy who wants to do right. He’s imperfect. He’s striving to get better, and he will stumble, and he will fall. And I like that Superman. I will follow in his footsteps, and join him in the sun, and hold onto the thought that for every mistake I make I can do something good and useful, and maybe even accomplish wonders.
Oh, and as for the question of which terraforming machine he should go after first? It’s explained in the film that the Metropolis machine cannot be sent into the Phantom Zone using the capsule’s Gravity Drive until the World Engine has been neutralised, so if he’s going to save everyone in the city he eventually adopts as his home he first has to travel to the other side of the world, to destroy a machine with whipping tentacles of death that no one on this planet has a hope in hell of stopping; an act which will also deactivate the gravity wave, preventing it from killing anyone in Metropolis. Staying in Metropolis to try to save everyone would be a futile exercise in damage control while the Earth’s mass increases and causes worldwide devastation and the extinction of humanity. So that’s that settled, right? ::is instantly crushed under the weight of opprobrium and hair-splitting from experts in Kryptonian technology::
Return 1. Nowadays I wholeheartedly welcome movies loud enough to drown out the rustling of popcorn, the beeping of text alerts, or the crinkling of Werther’s Originals wrappers, all of which are anathema to the joy of immersing oneself in a film experience. Though it would do nothing to deter the ushers with infrared cameras who insert themselves between the audience and the screen at inopportune moments during a film, as I found during one of the few exciting scenes in World War Z last week.
Return 2. Of course everyone knows that Superman is made up of a Yellow-Sun-powered apple-pie-filling wrapped in American flags. This is canon.
Return 3. I’m seriously pissed off about the Superman / Wonder Woman romance for a number of the reasons listed in this passionately argued Tumblr post, but also because Joe Kelly once wrote a story that was meant to settle this issue once and for all, and to do it he had to create a scenario so ridiculous and continuity-garbling that it was hard work just to get through it without laughing. Seriously, Superman and Wonder Woman are trapped in Valhalla fighting demons for one thousand years, and at the end of the battle they look into each other’s eyes and then Superman says, nuh-uh, Wondy, I love Lois the mostest, and Wonder Woman goes, totes, no sweat, I’m glad we got that settled DEFINITIVELY AND FOREVER and in my own comic in a few weeks I’ll be sure to let Lois know because you know how women be all jealous and shit. And now we have not only that stupidity, but we also get Supes dumping Lois for Wonder Woman, who until a couple of years ago was flirting with Bruce Wayne? The crimes of Man of Steel pale in comparison with this nonsense.
Return 4. I remember once saying to Daisyhellcakes — back in the earliest days of our courting period, when she wasn’t quite prepared for the depths of my humourless obsession with nerd minutiae — that superheroes never kill, and she was alarmed, which regrettably for her started me off on a tangential lecture about prisons in comics like The Phantom Zone and Arkham Asylum and The Science Cells of Oa and Negative Zone Prison Alpha and you get my point. But if you were to watch superhero movies you’d be able to quite easily call bullshit on that. If you count acts of omission or defensive acts that are deadly, Batman kills Harvey Dent and both Talia and Ra’s al Ghul in contravention of a commonly-held belief about the character that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny anyway, Spider-Man dodges Norman Osborn’s glider, causing his death, and Iron Man’s actions lead to the deaths of Obediah Stane, Ivan Vanko and Aldrich Killian. Hell, Green Lantern ends with numerous Coast City citizens being killed by Parallax, but no one seemed to complain about that, though any conversations by fans attempting to show how much more they cared about Green Lantern than everyone else were probably defused by the usual arguments about who is the best Green Lantern (answer: John Stewart. Case closed).
Beyond that we also have Daredevil actually letting a guy die right in front of him within the first ten minutes of the Ben Affleck epic. Daredevil, the grim and gritty executioner! Admittedly this is part of a poorly defined character arc in which he learns not to be such a harsh vigilante but to start from that point anyway? I call all sorts of eye-blasting radioactive bullshit on that. By the time Superman kills Zod in this one I was completely inured to this movie trope, and only surprised that he actually felt bad about it. Most of the other guys are like, “Whevs, job done,” and then off they swoop. At least NGZ’s Superman notes that this is bad form for a paragon of virtue, with a memorable Super-NOOOOOOOOOOOOO of regret.
Return 5. I say that about Superman Returns while also recognising that there is a lot to love in it. For fans of the character and the first two Salkind-produced movies, it’s heartening to see someone spend so much of Warner Bros.’ money to recreate the feel and pace of them, or rather the feel and pace of some well-loved sequences from them. Brandon Routh is great at projecting nobility and does a good job of being the bumbling Clark Kent too. It looks terrific, Kevin Spacey gives good value as Lex Luthor, and the Superman shown here cares a hell of a lot more for the people of Metropolis than the latest cinematic incarnation, though Lois “Left Behind” Lane gets the rough end of the stick. Nevertheless, there has never, ever, been a film that has disappointed me as thoroughly as Superman Returns, not even Matrix Revolutions or The Phantom Menace. Daisyhellcakes can attest to the struggle I had after seeing it to rationalise my response, which was to feel hollowed out and annoyed at what was given to us; a statue instead of a story, a shrine to Bryan Singer’s affection for Richard Donner’s first Superman movie instead of a film about Superman himself. For all its virtues, it’s a movie I find very hard to sit through without hoping Richard Pryor will suddenly appear and then ski off a building, just for WTF + LULZ value.
Return 6. Okay, I’m going to level with you, dear reader. The bulk of this enormous post is going to be taken up with a circular and potentially deadly-boring debate with myself about the rights and wrongs of Superman as seen in the last act of this movie, and as a result I’m going to go on about Plato and Zero Dark Thirty and Nietzsche and all sorts of pretentious guff. So, as a service to you all, I shall here give my unvarnished, non-intellectualised, relatively unpompous opinion about the movie: OMG ALL OF THE BITS THAT WERE IN IT WERE AMAZING except for a number of things I talk about about above. But hell, as soon as Russ Le Roq leapt onto a four-winged lizard-horse to outrun spaceships so he can steal a bit of magic skull from an underwater grotto, I was inevitably going to side with it unless something disastrous happened at some point. I even warmed to the new knickerless Superman outfit (which, apparently, is either a Kryptonian wetsuit or a set of longjohns), despite the fact that his gauntlets look like they’re made of duct tape.
Pacing problems aside, the incredible nail-biting final 40 minutes had me freaking out on a number of emotional levels, but the first superfight in Smallville, the escalation in threat, the inevitability that Superman would have to make choices that would have a huge impact on his psyche; it was all gold. I cried, I bit my knuckles, I practically cheered, and a second viewing confirmed it. It helped that I couldn’t tell who directed it; none of Snyder’s old tricks surfaced, though some of his weaknesses did near the end (more on that later in the post). But for committing to this immense space opera vision, for creating such a visually inventive take on something as familiar and oft-told as the Superman origin, for creating a rich and glowing palette (with the help of ace cinematographer Amir Mokri) that makes a mockery of the comparatively flatly-shot (but still beloved) Avengers, for giving us interesting female characters (Faora-Ul is as compelling as Zod, and just as terrifying), for giving us a visualisation of superpowers that is as exciting as it is frightening, I am so so grateful. Although, at the risk of being put in an Internet Gulag for going too far, I’d argue that this is a better “learning to fly” setpiece simply because you can better see what’s going on; the inevitable casualty of filming everything with such urgency is that subtlety or grace is an impossibility, which is fine during the action scenes but problematic in other moments.
Return 7. Anyone who has read this blog before will know that I have no problems with Mr. Lindelof, and indeed am very grateful to him and Carlton Cuse for Lost; still possibly my favourite TV show of all time. In fact, even though I’m not about to defend Star Trek Into Darkness (which, of course, ended at the same moment “John Harrison” got clonked on the head on the big ship and there was nothing else after that and anyone who says otherwise is just being intentionally weird), I will say the small-scale finale Lindelof wrote for World War Z alongside Drew Goddard was the only part of the film that got my pulse going, but that might be because finally Marc Forster (or whichever second/third-unit director handled that 30-or-so minute sequence) actually held ground and didn’t keep cutting away just as the tension started to build. Because seriously, the rest of that malfunctioning, flavourless film was possibly the least exciting zombie movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen all of the Resident Evil films. And Star Trek Into Darkness? Remember my decision not to get bent out of shape if beloved characters get disrespected in a film? I’ll just blame that nigh-unwatchable fourth act on Bob Orci and call it a dastardly conspiracy to create embolisms in Trekkers. It’s what he’d want.
Return 8. The key thing here is “making a film of some worth”. If you fuck with a character because you have no idea what his or her value is, and then slot this maladjusted interpretation into a film/book/comic that doesn’t merit the botched revision, then I’ll smite the shit out of you, as I did a few months ago after enduring the utterly worthless A Good Day To Die Hard. Man of Steel is certainly not in the same league as that.
Return 9. I should probably add one of my trademark caveats here: this vast post isn’t my attempt to convince any of the film’s naysayers that they’re wrong, and if you do make it to the end of this without having your mind changed, a) congrats on your stamina, seriously, this is way longer than it has any right to be and I admire your ability to absorb my waffle, so to speak, and b) no harm, no foul. If I’ve learned anything from The Prometheus Wars of 2012, there is nothing anyone can do to change a mind about a controversial nerd project after the first week of release. No one made me think any worse of Prometheus after I’d seen it, no matter how many complaints were made, and I know I did nothing to make anyone see it in a better light even though all of my points were absolutely brilliant and undeniably accurate. The same applies here; this post will not make anyone feel better about a character they love being turned inside out, and I don’t expect it to. If you have a connection that profound with Superman, it’s not something you started experiencing last week, and even 10000 words of guff from me isn’t going to change that relationship or make you feel better about any betrayal of such. Which begs the question, why the hell did I write the damn thing? IF ONLY I KNEW, MY FRIEND!
Return 10. Amazing how much of a draw The Smallville Years are to filmmakers; those wide, rippling fields of grain, the earthy goodness and innocence of the Midwest — as ever, lazily held by critics of this film and many others to be the home of nothing but good old-fashioned values, a fertile land for crops but a place where no liberal sentiment can possibly flourish — the thought of a boy growing up here, secretly exceptional and built of honest, uncomplicated goodness. Even Singer inserted flashbacks to this period into Superman Returns, which wasn’t even an origin story. This is either because he thought this was an important part of the Superman myth, or because he just liked those bits in Superman – The Movie and thought his mimicry would seem incomplete without those beautiful blue skies. And none of this is a complaint; without Man of Steel visiting this period, we’d have no Kevin Costner, and as he’s the film’s MVP, I’m chuffed it happened.
Return 11. I would have included Amy Adams in this list but I think my gratitude that her Lois Lane is not either a neglected wallflower or ill-judged caricature of Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy is enough to disguise the fact that I’ve never really been a big fan of the actress, except in Enchanted, in which she was aaaaaaaaaamazing and I love her in it. With Man of Steel she doesn’t get as much screentime as I would have liked (though she was a far more proactive and useful character than expected, as pointed out here in a characteristically excellent review by Alyssa Rosenberg), but more than that, on second watch, I became utterly distracted by the amount of looping going on. Almost all of her lines are ADR’d; it sounds like someone whispering through a loudhailer while everyone else’s lines are fine. It made me feel a disconnect from her; I have no idea what happened here but it was enough to make me mark down her work even though that’s not really her problem — unless she’s incapable of projecting her voice properly — and therefore I am a bad man and you can judge me accordingly. If anyone knows what was going on with her dialogue I’d love to know.
Return 12. Though David Goyer has made a case for him also being a Moses analogue; certainly the decision by Jor-El to send him away from the cruel rulers of his home has that resonance, made even more potent here by matching Jor-El’s decision with Zod’s fascistic pro-eugenics philosophy, which I’m sure would evoke some terribly powerful emotions; remember that Siegel and Shuster were partially inspired to create the character as a response to news of anti-Semitic atrocities occurring in Germany. Church leaders have been targeted by marketing firms in order to promote the movie; perhaps synagogues and rabbis should have been approached too.
Return 13. The idea of the three fathers was bubbling around my head in a malformed version, but a Twitter chat with Mr. @CoryMacRae helped bring these ideas into focus, and his contribution to this post must be noted. Many other tweeters helped me crystallise my thoughts — whether they realised it or not — including @dan_spaceman, @lindywasp, @Beggar_So, @jamieandaston, @Han_So, @AADowd, @SamuelAAdams, and of course @Daisyhellcakes.
Return 14. It’s worth noting that one of the advantages he has over his enemies from Krypton is the byproduct of Martha’s ingenuity and empathy. While his fathers give him conflicting advice that leads to him almost losing sight of who he is, it’s Martha who allows him to even exist on our planet without losing his mind. And how perfect that the image that allows Clark to focus his out-of-control powers, as given to him by his intuitive and kind mother, is an island in the middle of the ocean, a place of solitude just like his famous Fortress, while Zod only learns to tune out the sensory madness by directing all of his super-senses onto a clenched, gloved fist.
Return 15. The post-movie discussion between Daisyhellcakes and myself eventually turned to the number of Christ references in the movie, and a debate about which Superman movie had the most. Daisyhellcakes maintained Man of Steel wins, though all I could spot were the aforementioned crucifixion pose after the “You can save them all” speech, the depiction of Jor-El as God (though he would be Amram in a Moses retelling, you do see Jor-El here literally opening doors for Lois, just like God does for anyone who believes in him, sing hosannahs), and the hilariously laboured “Hey, by the way, I’m 33!” line during Superman’s interrogation scene. Nevertheless, Superman Returns features a Superman who is stabbed in the side and crucified (the scene where he throws Lex’s continent into space shows him in a crucifixion pose with “nails” of Kryptonite appearing near his hands), who then dies and comes back to life three days later. I declare Superman Returns the winner NO COMEBACKS YE HEATHENS.
Return 16. Nice to see Superman’s allies being represented by a military that ends up trusting him to do the right thing, and Dr. Emil Hamilton; a team-up of military might and science that evokes memories of the 50s sci-fi B-movies that inspired the alien invasion genre this movie half belongs to. Nevertheless, what a terrible shame that Hamilton gets killed / sucked into the Phantom Zone at the end; as I said earlier, it would have been nice to have a Lucius Fox around, and the good (and occasionally bad) doctor would have proven to be an interesting addition to the secondary tier of characters in future installments.
Return 17. Batman Begins had Jim Gordon handing the Dark Knight the calling card of his arch-nemesis The Joker, while Man of Steel shows a few LexCorp trucks and ads throughout. Pretty nifty Easter Egg. Here’s hoping evil businessman Lex Luthor’s motivation in Man Of Steel 2 is revenge for Superman skipping over one of his trucks in the big finale of this film. Or, even better, because he really hates hitchhikers.
Return 18. Okay, fanwank time. Yes, it’s undeniable that the loss of life in Metropolis is huge, but on second viewing I kept my eye open for instances of Superman thoughtlessly bringing the fight to heavily populated areas, as many have contended. While the gravity drive’s activation does indeed kill Metropolicians (Metropolitans?), it’s fair to say that at the moment this happens pretty much everyone who is capable of getting the fuck out of the area will immediately get the fuck out of the area. Whenever we see Superman and Zod burst through buildings they are always deserted; seriously, if I was in New York and a gigantic spaceship appeared a day or so after a mysterious alien had threatened to attack the Earth, and then saw a devastating gravity wave blast a hole in the city, three seconds later I’d be halfway across the Hudson river with a mouthful of sewage-tainted water. Yes, you see citizens standing around in several scenes, but seriously, these are very very silly people who should be doing everything in their power to get the hell out of Dodge. The city is being destroyed over a reasonably large period of time, enough for some kind of evacuation to take place. As for Superman not actively helping anyone, he actually does try to keep Zod off the ground, with little result, and pulls the fight back to the already-devastated section of the city (much of which is actually untouched by the carnage; the damage is enormous but localised to a few blocks).
Additionally, during the Smallville fight he saves people, warns people, and tries to fly his two enemies out of the area but his efforts are constantly stymied by their attacks. One critic complained about the bombing run down the main street and asked where Superman is in that moment; he’s under a train, which is bound to be an obstacle even for the best of us. This is a Superman who is horribly outmatched. Does any of this deluge of fanwank (sorry) excuse the film entirely? Not at all; there is obviously a vast and discomfiting amount of collateral damage on a scale that previous Superman movies have never shown before, and it’s certainly a contrast from Superman Returns‘ best moments with our hero protecting the citizens of Metropolis from the effects of an earthquake, or Superman pleading “DON’T DO IT! THE PEOPLE!” in Superman II. He also does fail, numerous times, to mitigate the violence done by Zod, and at times the fight gets close to citizens, which can be additionally fanwanked away as the result of facing a more dangerous opponent, lacking the soldier gene that Zod brags about, or as Goyer and Snyder’s attempts to up the dramatic stakes. But as I argue in the above post, it’s crucial to this new interpretation — and to the decision to remove Superman from a narrative box that has restricted him — that we’re presented with an imperfect Superman, for better or worse.
Return 19. How disappointing that we didn’t get the rumoured Jenny Olsen. Here’s me thinking that the most easily offended nerds were finally behaving by not kicking up a fuss about a black Perry White or a female Jimmy Olsen, aiming their humourlessly aggrieved complaints at the Brunette Lana / Redhead Lois switch, but now I see there was no female Jimmy to complain about. And I’m not going to look to see if I’m wrong about the black Perry thing, because seriously, if you can’t see that casting Laurence Fishburne in your movie is a massive, massive plus point, then the opinion-generating mechanisms in your head are badly malfunctioning and you need to get them fixed before something bad happens to you, i.e. I pummel you lots and lots with my fists for the crime of heresy and meatheadedness and what the hell racism as well you little jerk.
Return 20. Jonathan Kent has long been depicted as the moral centre of the Superman myth, the man who teaches Clark how to be a noble saviour, but holding onto that notion inevitably leads to the idea that everything Jonathan says in Man of Steel is inevitably right, and is voicing the film’s philosophy on what it is to be good. AV Club film editor AA Dowd made this same case recently, and from there argued that the central philosophy of the film was pro-fascism (scroll up and down to see the entire conversation). But if Jonathan’s arguing that Clark leaves the kids to die, he is — let me stress this yet again — DEAD WRONG. We know he’s wrong. Depiction isn’t endorsement! Jonathan’s lessons prevent Clark from doing anything stupid when he is younger, but terrifying the man into letting his father die, or criticising him for doing what he instinctively wants to do (i.e. save the helpless), is not the way to go. This isn’t just a new interpretation of Superman, it’s a new interpretation of ALL of the characters, except maybe Martha, though her attitude to the teachings of Jonathan often seem to be in conflict with his stricter attitude of fear and paranoia. Here we see a naive Jor-El and a frightened Jonathan. They’re not thinking clearly at all.
Return 21. Perhaps the depiction of the carnage is intentional, even with the bizarre tone-shift at the end. The fanboys and critics have railed against that finale as a callous evocation of terrible real-life events, a display of terrible might in which buildings are destroyed in inarguable mimicry of 9/11, followed by the champion of the West flying to the other side of the world — to battle a force depicted as a swarming amorphous mass of tentacles that elude his Supergrasp — which has been interpreted by some as a poor use of his might, before that Champion of the West gets into a terrifying, out-of-control conflict that causes huge destruction and collateral damage, culminating in that ultimate American hero dropping a drone practically into the lap of a black man. It’s as if NGZ are trying to say something about America.
Return 22. Online discussions of Mr. Waid’s post were the first inkling I had that there was a terribly troubling and dark scene at the end of Man of Steel, and I was deeply perturbed by this. However, while I disagree with him about the ramifications for the character over all — certainly there are enough interpretations of Superman, and enough historical deviations and Elseworlds depictions in the past, that we can be certain that this won’t ever be considered the definitive Superman — I would like to stress that I have the greatest respect for the famed comic writer, the man who gave me my favourite run of Fantastic Four comics with the help of the much-missed Mike Wieringo. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to hear it!
Return 23. I haven’t said anything about Henry Cavill yet, which is a bit unfair seeing as how this is his entrance into the big leagues, as long as the usual post-Superman career arc doesn’t affect him. It’s an appealing performance, from a man with an incredibly appealing face (seriously, he’s so handsome I’m almost incapable of looking at him without laughing in incredulity). I’ve heard some say he’s too reserved, but that’s a consequence of this Clark being too scared to enter our world completely. It doesn’t help that the construction of this movie, with the adoption of the classic Clark Kent persona being the culmination of his battle to find his own path, means we don’t yet get to see him bumbling away being a dork; Christopher Reeve so perfectly captured both sides of the character that losing a new depiction of that means this interpretation of the character is sadly found wanting. But we have that to look forward to, and besides, the most important thing is that we got a Superman who, when necessary, can make an entire room full of baffled people take him seriously simply by turning on a bit of charm and shining that superconfidence on them. He’s no Christopher Reeve, but then no one could ever be that heroic again. Cavill done good, and he’ll rock the sequel. ::sigh:: What a dreamboat.
Return 24. As I said in my Sucker Punch review, I had a strong feeling while watching it that Snyder was really furious about the treatment of women in nerd culture, both in their depiction and their exclusion from the wider conversation by precious and unpleasant misogynists who don’t want icky girls in their playhouse. This is understandable; it pisses me off too. Nevertheless, his points were unclearly depicted in the film, leading to a long online debate among pundits about what the movie was trying to accomplish. It was a noble effort, undone by the way he went about it. The same could apply with Man of Steel as well. Any point I make about this film having a deeper purpose could be instantly parried by one of its many detractors by pointing at the finale and arguing that it is meant to be an entertaining spectacle, especially as we see almost nothing of an emotional aftermath that I have argued for. Snyder doesn’t wait to get to the arrival of ace reporter Clark Kent, so the downbeat failure of Superman is still in our mind’s eye as Hans Zimmer’s score goes into its super-inspirational final theme. I’m not the only person troubled by this. Nevertheless, though I can’t deny that anyone arguing this point could well be on the right tracks, I will use the Sucker Punch defense as possible proof that I’m onto something; Snyder wants to make serious points in his films but doesn’t have the impulse control, the conviction, or the ability to nix DC notes, to really pound his point into the ground. If he had, there’s a good chance this wouldn’t have made as much money, but it might not have inspired as many blogposts. Swings and roundabouts…
Return 25. It’s tempting also to interpret the politics of Man of Steel as a right-wing apologia; those good ol’ Midwestern views so often considered to be pure Red State with no exceptions, the uncomplicated moral viewpoint of rural townsfolk leading to a distrust of elite, urban thinking. Hell, this Superman is a church-going man who loves the military: game set and match! But I agree with much in this review of the film by Connor Kilpatrick, even if we differ in interpretation of The Dark Knight Rises. For a start, Superman hates drones, which were first used by the Bush administration! And then used by Obama… erm… give me a minute…. (Look, he might have grown up in a Red State, but he also wants to get out of there and work in the city with the liberal elite, so that’s good enough for me. I’m not a political analyst, for fuck’s sake.)