rothwell.im

by Jonathan Rothwell

Super Duper

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I was never much of a fan of Superman. As far as comic books went, I always preferred the dark and rarely-kitsch1 Batman, a less jingoistic, more rounded anti-hero who regularly does questionable (and even downright nasty) things in the name of justice.

I wasn’t expecting to like Man of Steel as much as I did. I liked Richard Dorner’s 1978 Superman, of course, but on its own merits: it is, indisputably, just a plain good movie, as genre-defining flicks tend to be.

Of course, Man of Steel has its flaws. Overt product placement for Nikon and Nokia (complete with awful technobabble dialogue as justification) stuck out like a sore thumb. The fight scenes, whilst sumptuous as one would expect from Snyder, are simply too long. The plot is regularly nonsensical: for instance, why terraform Earth to mimic Krypton’s environment when, after a short acclimatisation period, the natural conditions will turn a Kryptonian into a nominal god?

Many of the peripheral characters and subplots are awful. The tropey Captain Hardy, whose sole purpose is to turn back the baddie’s line on her before a pyrrhic death, was unnecessary, if competently played by Chris Meloni. The thoroughly rushed romance with Lois Lane was, despite excellent performances from Cavill and Adams, cringeworthy. Even worse was the apparently-nameless female army captain, solely there to clumsily ask, “what’s terraforming?” and to say in the film’s denouement that she finds Superman “hot.”2

These flaws are a shame, because I really enjoyed Man of Steel. Yes, the fight scenes are too long. Yes, with the amount of crashing through buildings, overturning heavy vehicles and toppling skyscrapers, people probably did die.

And then we come to the ending. The final battle (SPOILER ALERT!) culminates with Superman killing a vengeful General Zod, intent on murdering every human in his sight.

Putting aside the “Superman does not kill” mantra for a while,3 in any normal circumstances, I would consider this moral dilemma to be pretty cut-and-dry. If there is no choice, take a life to save many more. Easy. Forcing Superman to outright kill for the first time on screen puts him in an uncomfortable position, but that’s the point of any meaningful kind of drama. I want to be shocked, surprised, and upset. I want to have my perceptions challenged.

After seeing the movie, however, I felt disappointed by the lack of commentary I found on the very final scene. Specifically, I feel like no-one else noticed what I think I saw. I’m happy to be corrected, but this is a rough diagram of what I remember from the final scene:

"Superman has Zod in a headlock."

As you can see, Superman had, briefly, managed to gain the upper hand. He had Zod, with laser-death vision in full glare, in a head-lock, and could, quite easily, snap his neck.

The only way to do this, though, would be to twist his neck to the right. Unfortunately, for the young family Zod has pinned in a corner of the atrium (seemingly a railroad terminal), this means that Zod’s line of sight will cleanly cross them.

"All aboard the Ashes Express for these unfortunate bystanders."

This was where I felt Man of Steel excelled, because this is a positively brutal moral quandary.4 What choice does Superman have here? Kill Zod, and kill the innocent bystanders in the process, or continue fighting (running the extreme risk Zod will kill the innocents anyway, and almost certainly kill more?)

Superman took the former option. The following silence (which I believe backs up my point that those bystanders were killed) was broken by his scream of despair. He has killed for the first time, and it is clearly not portrayed as a glorious victory.

At the risk of sounding exceptionally pretentious, here is my take on it. To some extent, we should all have expected “post-9/11 Superman” from Man of Steel. From executive producer Christopher Nolan, I would’ve expected nothing less—for the film to be jingoistic and kitsch would have left this American icon stuck in 1978.

I think Man of Steel is a story about collateral damage. It is a story in which a good man is pressured into doing bad things. He kills for the first time (maybe the last—that remains to be seen.) He puts countless others at risk with his relentless and careless pursuit of Zod. I think it’s fair to put this clumsy, large-scale violence and endangerment down to inexperience, but it is still sad.

Innocents probably died in the fight scenes. Innocents were almost certainly killed when Superman finished Zod. These people died because Superman failed. Ending a film with the hero’s failure is a bold move, particularly for a summer blockbuster starring a classic American hero, but I think it worked remarkably well.

Maybe a comparison can be drawn with seemingly every war the USA chooses to involve itself in: Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq. I’d be sceptical of bringing it down to this level, though. A film with Nolan involved in the story is not political so much as it is world-weary, and observant of human behaviour.

This old cynic loved it. The cast were uniformly good to excellent, and Hans Zimmer’s score is a work of sheer brilliance. It takes an echo of John Williams’s march, and turns those two notes into a percussive fanfare that instantly evokes Superman. Visually, even with the protracted action scenes, the film is beautiful. As an origin story, it is nothing short of exceptional: Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, with the younger Clarks as they came to terms with their alien heritage, lent an emotional depth that was sorely missing from the kistchy earlier incarnations of Superman.

Man of Steel’s real strength, though, comes in its moral dilemmas. This is Superman as we have never seen him before on film. He’s inexperienced, clumsy, and, most shockingly, at the end, he is forced to kill. Many will find that thought disturbing. As someone who has never had much invested in the idea of Superman as a squeaky-clean boy scout, I find this new take thrilling.

(With thanks to Andrew West, who cleared up a few of the aspects regarding to the storylines borrowed from the comics.)

  1. For the purpose of this review, let’s pretend Adam West, Val Kilmer and George Clooney as Batman was never a thing.

  2. This is a Hollywood movie, virtually everyone is going to look attractive in some regard. We don’t need a cut-out female character to tell us that Superman is handsome.

  3. Let us not forget that in the comics, Superman (well, his allies) have killed Zod before. There is no hard-and-fast “Superman does not kill” rule; much like Batman, he does not like it, and will avoid killing if he can.

  4. Of course, if I re-watch the film and it turns out that my spatial awareness was simply off, I’m going to look like a massive, pretentious fool.