On ‘Man of Steel’

Screenshot from Man of Steel (2013). Copyright Warner Bros.

“Do you believe a man can fly?”
Lex Luthor to Clark Kent, Smallville Pilot (2001)

Many geeks may pretend to not care about Superman, but after their first introduction to Superman, all geeks want to believe a man can fly. These days, Superman has been accused of being too boring, or too idealistic, or too old fashioned to be exciting. That may or may not be true, but for that first visceral reaction it’s irrelevant. If there is one character that a geek wants to see translated from the imagination to the screen it is Superman. He is invulnerable. He can see through walls. He can shoot lasers from his eyes. He can run faster than a speeding bullet. And of course, he can fly.

We geeks are a demanding bunch. When Superman comes to the screen, we don’t want to suspend disbelief. We don’t want a sort-of, tilt-my-eye-at-the-right-angle rendering of Superman on the screen. We want it to be so damn good that we don’t need to pretend that the shot we are seeing is not a man suspended on wires, or being yanked by pulleys. For that one moment while we are sitting there in the dark by ourselves, in a sea of people, we want, even for a second, to believe that a man can fly.

That’s a tall task. The technology to convincingly depict the impossible in a film is fairly new. More times than not, it gets close, but doesn’t nail it. In 2006, Bryan Singer tried to make us believe that Superman can fly in Superman Returns. He failed. We wanted a great Superman, he gave us a great Christopher Reeve. With the Man of Steel, Zack Snyder got his chance to make us believe that a man can fly.

He succeeded.

As a pure superhero spectacle, the film was a near flawless translation from the comic book page to the film screen. Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) was great, but the set pieces and action sequences were limited by the lack of computer technology at the time. Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) was able to expand the scope of the action sequences based on computer generated imagery (CGI), and although it was quite good the technology wasn’t advanced enough to render photorealistic imagery for some of the more involved action sequences. However, by 2013 the CGI was advanced enough and Zack Snyder was skilled enough to design large set pieces and grand action sequences that demonstrated the full powers of beings as powerful as Superman.

The CGI rendering and choreography of the action scenes is superb from the moment that Superman takes flight in full garb to the last drawn-out fighting scene. The way the environment reacts to these super beings is probably the most realistic depiction of what would happen if men and women of such power walked the Earth. An example would be the fight set in Smallville in the middle of the movie. The scene is mesmerizing. To begin with, there are minimum digital artifacts or flawed CGI that take you out of the scene1. That alone is a commendable accomplishment. Then, the way the super beings go about pounding each other while the humans are treated like putty is exactly how a scenario like that would play out. Lastly, the destruction that they leave behind is exactly what would happen after that kind of a brawl. It was a beautiful rendition of the what beings like that would do if they existed in our world.

To put the quality of that scene into perspective, it can be compared to a similar scene set in a nondescript small town in Marvel’s Thor (2011). That movie was made two years before the Man of Steel, but even after handicapping for the older CGI technology, that scene is tepid and uninteresting in comparison. The scale of the set is smaller (the destruction radius in Smallville is huge compared to that one street in that town). The actual fights are short and interspersed with dialogue to compensate for the lack of action. This only detracts from the already uninspired action scenes.

The rest of the action in the Man of Steel is just as good. The confidence in the CGI, and his own abilities, propels Snyder to shoot some breathtaking—perhaps even excessive—action sequences that keep the audience engaged throughout the movie. All the large scale action sequences were a cut above the normal Marvel fare by far2. It set a new high bar for the quality of the spectacle in superhero movies.

But.

But. Unfortunately, there is a but. A good science fiction/ fantasy (SFF) story needs both the spectacle and the story to work. Despite delivering with the spectacle, and successfully translating the comic book page into a live-action movie, he missed the entire point about what makes Superman special.

Superman is not special anymore as far as his abilities are concerned. There are dozens of superheroes who are just as, or more, powerful than him. What sets Superman apart is his unfailing moral compass. He is the original man who stood for truth, justice, and yes, the American way.

A lot of the current problems with Superman as a character may be succinctly summarized by that motto. That simplistic catchphrase described Superman effectively during World War II with the horrors of Germany making it easy to classify the world in black and white3. Things became murkier after WWII, but at least in the American version of global events, USSR’s actions were still more black than shades of grey, and that motto could still describe Superman, albeit a bit more tentatively. However, after the end of the Cold War, and especially in the post-Snowden era, U.S.’s claims as a global beacon of guiding light became far more tenuous. With that, the motto of truth, justice, and the American way was no longer applicable to an idealistic Superman. The world changed, and seemingly Superman was left behind.

That idealistic Superman from a bygone era doesn’t provide easy answers in today’s murkier world. As such, instead of crafting a narrative that could show an idealistic Superman serving as a beacon of hope in an ever-complex world, Snyder and Goyer chose to make their Superman uncertain to reflect the current world (not to mention, prevalent movie trends).

From the backstory to the laborious finale, their script betrayed that original interpretation of the character for a new, modern Superman story. His parents were not some earnest, unrealistically idealistic parents who taught him to wear the mantle of power responsibly. Instead, his parents told him to consider protecting his own skin over the lives of others. His father even died to protect his secret. Another example about developing this uncertain Superman were the scenes involving Pete Ross. Pete Ross is antagonistic to—or at least wary of—Clark, which forces Clark to deliberate between saving others or keeping his secret. A better approach would have been to allow Clark to address Pete’s contempt, and make it clear to the audience that he chose heroism over secrecy. All these narrative choices were consistent with Synder’s vision, but I think it was the wrong interpretation of the character.

Then there is that last mess of an act. It was fantastic as a spectacle. But as a symbol, it was a wreck. Superman is supposed to save us before we are destroyed, not after the shining city is destroyed. Yes, Superman saved the day, but the way he went about saving it was all wrong. Again, the choices that the character Superman made were narratively consistent. But the narrative and symbolism that Snyder chose to depict were wrong.

Lastly, there was the death of Zod. Snyder had trapped himself in a box with that story, and the only way to get rid of Zod was to kill him, which, in my mind, reinforces the notion that he was telling a fundamentally wrong Superman story. The ending was consistent within Snyder’s narrative framework, but symbolically, for what Superman stands for, it was wrong. Superman is supposed to be better than us. Unfortunately, all these storytelling choices made him just as human as us. He is supposed to be the best of us, not like us.

A counterargument is often made that a story involving the idealistic Superman set in today’s world will make for a boring story centered around a boring protagonist. It certainly is a more challenging task, but unfortunately for DC Comics and Warner Bros., someone already proved them wrong, and by two years to boot. I’m talking about the other guys’ Superman. Yes, Marvel’s Captain America.

“Aren’t the stars and stripes a little… old fashioned?”
“With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.”
Steve Rogers and Phil Coulson, The Avengers (2013)

Marvel took a character that embodies truth, justice and the American way in such a literal sense that he wears the American flag as his costume, and is called Captain America. And yet, they made his story work. Perhaps it’s not something that DC Comics could do, but Marvel wisely chose to introduce him during WWII when the contrast between right and wrong could be simplified to black and white, and a hero with those Superman-like ideals would always be in the right. They made a great origin story in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) that showed the need for a ‘boring’ hero and made it work.

Then, just to add salt to DC Comics’ wounds, they placed that same idealistic Captain America into the twenty-first century in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). They literally dropped him into the twenty-first century after a crysosleep4. They showed a hero that was uncompromising in his ideals, and why those ideals are relevant in a murkier, more confusing world. In fact, it was so well written (and directed), that the movie can be further reduced into the primal conflict between man and society. And yet, at the end of it all, Captain America was the light on top of the hill showing the world the difference between right and wrong.

“S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. And it’s getting damn near past time for you to get with that program, Cap.”
“Don’t hold your breath.”
Nick Fury and Steve Rogers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Marvel took a far less familiar imitation of Superman from the comics and made him the premier Superman on the silver screen. The Captain America movies reflect the symbolism of Superman’s ideals flawlessly. On the contrary, despite being a feast of a comic book spectacle, Man of Steel was a severe disappointment. At the end, it was a decent story about Superman. It just happened to be the wrong Superman.

 
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Notes

There are other things that can be discussed about this film. But I didn’t feel they were necessary for the point I was trying to make. Just for reference, the casting, set design, and costume design were spectacular. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane provided a much needed dose of humor in an otherwise humorless movie. Antje Traue’s Faora-Ul, the second-in-command Kryptonian was a refreshingly unfetishized take on a female soldier. The movie’s color palette itself was un-Superman-like: devoid of color, all muddled and grim, another glaring problem with the movie. If I was to give the movie an IMDB-like score, I’d give it a 7.7/10.

1. Maybe in a few years it will look more obvious as CGI improves, but the only noticeable flaw is when the CGI model of an actor is replaced by the actor, usually after a flying animation. And to be honest, this became noticeable to me only after several repeat viewings. back up ↵

2. This excludes the more grounded works, such as Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or Marvel’s Daredevil, which relied more on practical effects at a smaller scale than large-scale ‘epic’ scenes. back up ↵

3. A brief history of Truth, justice and (fill in the blank) courtesy of the New York Times. back up ↵

4. The non-comic-book-geek in me is amused at the ridiculousness of that sentence even after writing a few hundred words about a man who flies about in a red underwear. back up ↵

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