The influence of producer Christopher Nolan and writer David S. Goyer mean there’s just enough darkness to make Superman interesting – arguably for the first time – director Zack Snyder’s even manages to steer clear of slow motion scenes – however lapses into bad habits from all three mean Man of Steel bears more resemblance to a citizenship test for Superman than an origins tale.
Yes, I know, it’s already been said that Zack Snyder has Neolithic attitudes toward women (Sucker Punch, 2011) along with homophobia and xenophobia (300, 2006), not to mention his stylistic foibles (endless slow-motion). To be fair – that may initially have been because he made a name for himself directing screen-conversions of Frank Miller books, and was simply being faithful to the source material, but despite collaborating heavily with the Bat-duo of Nolan and Goyer, certain old habits unfortunately prevail.
The character of Lois Lane for one still lacks a convincing 21st century reinvention. She is undoubtedly one hell of a journalist, she has the know-how and practical ability to track down a demi-god who does not want to be found – but in a way that makes her role in the second half of the film worse. The Pulitzer Prize winner transforms into a shrieking rag-doll, designed to do little more than provide the big man himself emotional support, signpost plot devices, and regularly fall from high ledges.
Amy Adams, who was last seen giving a hand-job to Phillip Seymour Hoffman in The Master (2013) somehow found a role equally degrading – that of the damsel in distress. It is a rotting corpse of a trope that shambles on as a shameful staple of hero films, despite being well beyond its bury-by-date. And whilst she isn’t clad head to toe in PVC moaning orgasmically as she tells Superman an obvious plot detail, this still doesn’t represent any real progress in terms of Snyder’s representation of women on-screen.
So, that’s sexism covered – and believe me, it’s been covered a few times during Snyder’s career. However, this isn’t just a greatest hits album of right-wing narrative devices! This film adds a new theme in his repertoire, and it is the one I am focusing most of this review on. As in America and the UK, in the wake of Boston and Woolwich, those in power talk about the need for Muslims to denounce and fight terror, there is a distinctly conservative dialogue on immigration present in Man of Steel.
[To avoid spoilers, skip to the section “Our Hero?”]
Kal-El (who is in fact not the son of Nicolas Cage) is born in a galaxy far, far away to Lara and Jor-El (who sounds like he should be a Geordie) on Krypton, which is about to collapse in on itself because of excessively mining its natural resources and a load of other stuff clichéd stuff that would lead to civilisation ending that could happen on earth. Anyway, once the lacklustre sci-fi commentary is out of the way, Jor (Russell Crowe, who we last saw as Inspector Clouseau in Les Miserables) launches his son clear of the planet before being killed horribly by gurning villain Zod (Michael Shannon, who appears to consist of 100% ham).
Kal arrives, alone, in a strange and distant land very different to the place of his birth. His abilities instantly set him apart as somehow ‘Other’, and from the moment he steps into public life in rural Kansas, he is scrutinised and gossiped about. Noticing how Kal (now known as Clark Kent) is eternally taunted by painfully cliché 1980s coming-of-age-film bullies, his adopted father (a leathery-faced Kevin Costner) pleads with him to hide his differences. Many of Clark’s skills would clearly be a boon to the community, but his new Dad still fears Average Joe might reject Clark, and that their responses would be less restrained than simply sneering the word “dingus” at him from the back of a school-bus.
Instead, Kent Senior advises Clark to keep his head down and please God stop rescuing drowning children, for one day his skills will come of real use – and then he can be accepted by society for what he is. So our hero bides his time – following his Step-Dad’s advice to the letter, to the extent that he has to watch him killed by a tornado whilst rescuing a dog. If he had any sense he’d have left the dog, as thanks to films like Volcano (1997) we know natural disasters can’t actually harm animals. Just people.
Years later a tortured and isolated Kal-El re-emerges, to fulfil his Step-Dad’s prophecy. Clothed in his splendid native dress, with a symbol on his chest that means Hope (“It’s not an S”), Kal offers his services to the American military in time to intervene heroically in a time of global crisis. Zod’s band of surviving military traitors have arrived, with a dastardly plot to transform the Earth (where thanks to the atmosphere and lower gravity they can FLY), so it will be just like Krypton (where they are weak and rubbish). Mostly their desire for this transformation seems to be it would wipe out homo-sapiens, who they inexplicably hate more than they love the ability to FLY. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Anyway, the world’s 7 billion people are in mortal danger, a peril represented exclusively by explosions in the wealthy American Metropolis; a city – filled with sharp-suited businessmen, news tycoons and cut-throat billionaires (though we never meet Lex Luthor) – symbolic of western capitalism which becomes an epicentre for the end of the world out of sheer directorial reflex. By protecting this, and by aiding its guardians (the military) Superman can be become worthy of citizenship. This is it – the big test – the moment Superman has been waiting for his whole life – an opportunity to ‘find his place’.
However, the film’s resolution is frankly unsatisfying on two levels. One, there is painfully little thought put into it. It seems at this point in the story Nolan and Goyer ran out of sci-fi lingo, and so rather than come up with some jargon-filled nonsense to placate the audience (as is traditional in the genre) they instead decided to scrawl “THEN HE FLIES INTO IT” in orange crayon in their first draft. Subsequently, all our hero has to do to stop Zod’s teraforming machine is to fly directly into it, smashing it like it was made of Mechano and blue-tack.
That’s not a spoiler by the way – because it is in no way surprising or inventive. Its tedious predictability spoils itself.
However, on a second level, the creation of this scenario is rather telling about the assumptions and attitudes of Hollywood and western ideology toward immigration in the real world. Superman here could arguably be seen to have taken on the role of the immigrant – particularly the Islamic immigrant. Despite having lived peacefully as part of a community for decades, even when victimised and alienated by bigots who target them for being ‘different’, they are forced to continuously denounce and fight against extremists who fail to accept and conform to the West’s values and military interests.
Superman might have lived his whole life in Kansas, learned and worked amongst Americans, and provided free life-saving services to the public for almost 30 years, but when people start blowing up tall buildings in the city and jeopardising developed capitalist society (and therefore ‘The World’) he has to prove he isn’t just one of them. So he has to save high-ranking military personnel (countless thousands will have died from the attack on Metropolis, but no matter) in order to be declared ‘no enemy of ours’.
As so many fantastic doctors, teachers et al who hail from overseas (particularly those with Muslim roots) have found, simply helping people and living peacefully isn’t enough. The message then, is that acceptance does not come from living alongside each other, or even helping each other, but from complete submission and assimilation. Our differences cannot be strengths, so align yourself completely with our governmental and military policy or leave – you don’t belong here.
Even when SP does that he’s not referred to as ‘one of us’ – the army remain unsure as to whether he supports “American interests”. Kal assures them, somewhat counter-productively to his love of helping people in danger, that he supports them, just on his own terms (presumably that means Superman won’t be preventing a drone strike on a Pakistani wedding party any time soon then.) The way Superman is continuously asked to pledge allegiance to the flag, rather than to people, you get the feeling Norman Tebbit is going to turn up in the sequel to ask Kal-El if he supports the English Cricket Team or the Kryptonians.
The Villains Themselves
Incidentally, I can’t understand why the Kryptonians needed a machine to change the face of Metropolis when Michael Shannon is so accomplished in chewing the scenery. Perhaps it’s not entirely his fault – the character is poorly written, and a shade of the kind of villain that Nolan and Goyer have created for the Dark Knight trilogy. This, I think is where Zack Snyder’s influence really tells – his obsession over slow motion might have been restrained at last, but his love of gratuitous combat scenes remains, and hamstrung a lot of the potential this film had.
As a result, rather than being given time to craft Zod into the antithesis, or another version of Superman gone wrong, as Goyer and Nolan did time and again with Batman, every scene of dialogue seems to be painfully building toward an ‘epic’ skirmish. A lot has been made of Henry Cavill’s performance as being ‘dull and humourless’, so by that standard maybe Shannon’s theatrical snarling makes him the anti-Cavill at least – as he runs on all fours, wolfman-style up a sky-scraper screaming “Where did you learn to fight… a FARM?” Yeah… fuck you mid-America.
That brings me to my final point though – and back to what this says about Hollywood and dominant ideology – because whilst mid-America might be what Superman is fighting for, they are also ultimately villains too. Superman cosies up to the army, to the government to beg for acceptance because it is the belief of the story-tellers that the Hoi Polloi are the true monsters. We are weak and in need of protection, and because of that vulnerability, we are more malleable – more susceptible to being swept up in the politics of fear. It’s a habitual assertion in Goyer/Nolan hero films – the best example being in Batman Begins (2005) when a mob of paupers poisoned by fear (metaphorically) and gas (literally) attempt to kill Batman – their Otherly saviour!
In order to receive protection from the masses they are trying to guard, Batman and more-so Superman, who isn’t a billionaire human, both have to appeal to the state by protecting it (the police and army) so that bigwigs might put in a good word and they would become accepted protectors of the ignorant poor.
It’s a distinctly weird assertion to my mind, as historically it has been the exact opposite. Tolerance has never been won by the oppressed and the downtrodden appealing to the government – in fact it’s usually the government and state that are the down-traders! What has won acceptance in society for those ‘different’ from the majority, members of the community who were forced to hide their true selves away for fear of persecution, has been broad campaigns for liberation, supported by ordinary people – people in turn determined to make a better society for one another.
So, in a hypothetical reality, Superman might be better served sticking with us snivelling pea-brained masses, rather than backing “American interests.” We appreciate our strength is in our diversity, we can use our differences to help each other, not destroy one another – and that’s how we’ve survived centuries of poverty and deprivation. So support which ever cricket team you like – and help us make a better society for everyone.
Hypothetically. I know Superman isn’t real…