Let’s talk about Christ allegories.
No, wait, don’t run away. I promise you it won’t be pretentious. Well, no more so than my writing typically is.
And there will be spoilers by the way, both for Man of Steel and a few other Superman stories including The Holy Bible.
So Superman is the story of a man who sends his only son to Earth, that son grows up with incredible abilities beyond the scope of mortal man and when he grows up that son then aims to live his life as an example to others of how to be a better man, to be a Superman, the best that mankind could possibly be.
It actually took a long time for writers to start playing with the Christ similarities inherent in Superman’s set up. Partly this is because his two creators were Jewish, partly it’s because comics in the 40’s and 50’s with a few exceptions just weren’t very sophisticated and partly it’s because in the 50’s the perception of comics as morally degenerate for children meant that D.C. would be in massive trouble if they started implying connections between a guy who flies around wearing his underpants on the outside and the son of God.
But there’s a greater problem with playing with the Christ allegories which is once you’ve pointed them out what do you start doing with them? Well you could have Superman become the figurehead of a church I suppose. You could have him fight the devil, which if you assume Darkseid is the D.C. Universe’s equivalent of the Devil they do frequently. Or you could have him die, to save us.
This last one is the most obvious way to play with Christ allegories of all and they’ve gone to the well with that trick a few times. It appears in two of the best Superman stories ever written, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” and “All Star Superman.” It’s also the key aspect of, “The Death of Superman” unsurprisingly and even appears in Superman Returns.
But there’s an aspect to the death of Christ that I don’t think anyone has touched on in a Superman story. Why Christ is killed. Of course there’s a greater reason Christ is killed, it’s a sacrifice to redeem us all, but there is also a specific reason, because he was preaching he was the Messiah and the people of Judea rejected him as a false messiah with a false message.
The idea that Superman would show up with a message of hope and be treated with skepticism and fear and maybe rejected is something I don’t recall being toyed with in a Superman story before. It’s been told with loose parallels of Superman such as Marvel’s Hyperion or Eclipse’s Miracleman before because it is a fascinating story hook. What if some godlike being came to Earth? Would we accept their help or would we fear their power?
And there is a very good reason it’s not been told with Superman before, it’s because it’s very hard to set up a situation where you fear Superman. He’s Superman, you’ve probably known about this guy since you were 3 years old. He’s on underpants! He’s the ultimate symbol in modern times of a hero. He is the archetypal, the platonic, the Ur Superhero. If you think Superhero you immediately think of Superman. He’s truth, justice and the American way (and not the real American way either but the way America aspires to be full of hope, freedom and the pursuit of happiness for all).
But that’s the really clever thing about Man of Steel. Did you notice the title? Did you notice that it isn’t called Superman. That’s because you can’t realistically fear Superman but The Man of Steel? Some mysterious Man whose name we don’t know, seemingly invincible, unknown and mysterious, Him we could fear.
I walked into Man of Steel fully expecting to hate it. That’s not something that happens to me very often with films. I love terrible and inept cinema and I’m a pretty forgiving critic of most big budget action movie efforts. For me to expect to hate something it generally has to be a sequel, prequel or adaptation of something. There has to be an existing version of these characters and concepts that works and that I love. And obviously there’s 70 years worth of people doing good versions of Superman. And everything I’d heard beforehand made this sound like a very bad version of Superman indeed. He lets his father die? He smashes up Metropolis? He breaks Zod’s neck? This isn’t Superman.
Then I watched it and I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it but it was pretty good nonetheless. There was some great acting, some nice themes, some great action scenes and all the stuff I walked in there expecting to hate didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. I couldn’t work out why until a couple of days later when it all twigged for me. This isn’t a film about Superman, it’s a film about young Clark Kent becoming Superman.
Some people reading this now probably think I’m an idiot, “well duh Adam, it’s his origin story, of course it’s about him becoming Superman.” Well yes it is his origin story but Superman’s story isn’t the same as most super-heroes. Most super-heroes start as ordinary people and get transformed. Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed and in that moment he is transformed into Batman (even if the training stuff comes later). Arrogant military inventor Tony Stark gets kidnapped and wounded and forced to escape, and in that moment gets transformed into Iron Man. Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider, becomes an arrogant tool and then loses his Uncle and in that moment is transformed into Spider-Man. Superman doesn’t have such a transformative moment, he’s always had his powers to a greater or lesser extent and he’s always had the desire to use his powers to help people. When we first meet Clark Kent in this film he’s using his powers to save people from an oil rig explosion, he’s already a super hero, but he isn’t Superman, he’s The Man of Steel. And as the Man of Steel or as the alien Kal-El he’s a mysterious entity that the governments of the world fear.
But he gradually becomes Superman not because of any big change in Clark as a character but because the world gets to realise who he is. He saves Pete Ross’ life as a kid and they become friends. He saves Lois from a Kryptonian robot and she decides to bury the story. He saves the military from Faora and they stop attacking him. He saves the entire world and they realise he represents hope and will always be there to save them in future.
And we also see the effect he has on the world as he gradually becomes Superman. The best example of this is probably Perry White and Pete Lombard saving Jenny the Intern from the rubble in Metropolis. There’s a moment where Perry calls to Pete to help him save Jenny and we think for a moment that he’s going to leave Perry, but he looks up at Superman fighting and turns right back around. Superman inspires us all to do our best and do what’s right and that’s something the movie gets entirely correct.
This also helps excuse many of the more problematic elements of the film. Killing Zod for example. I have no problem with The Man of Steel killing Zod, especially because it becomes clear in that moment that Superman has finished being created. After killing Zod the last thing missing from Superman, his code against killing, has been born. You can see and feel the anguish on his face and you know, without a word being said, that Superman will never kill.
It doesn’t excuse all the problematic aspects though. As I say I am fine with killing Zod but the way he dies is a bit too graphic and over the top for me. Similarly I’m not too bothered with the destruction in the final fight scene in principle since, again, this isn’t Superman yet, but in practise there is too much of it and it’s pretty distressing to watch.
And on a completely different topic all the stuff with Krypton at the start is terrible. Just flat out terrible. The action scenes are incomprehensible and too shaky, the setting and ideas are far too over the top and everything is just hilariously over designed. Hey why have a door with two moving parts when it could have seventeen! Why use monitors to communicate when we could have faces made of bits of moving metal! What!? Seriously what?! Even the acting seems poorer here. Michael Shannon does a fine job with Zod in the later scenes simmering with barely controlled rage and menace but here he’s hammier than a pig farm. And his character makes perfect sense later in the film, he wants to recreate Krypton and doesn’t care who he needs to kill to do it. That’s a fine clear villainous motivation but in the opening he’s some kind of eugenicist? Who wants to preserve some bloodlines but not others? Nothing about that is ever explained it’s just kind of thrown out so we’ll go, oh Zod’s a racist he must be a bad guy despite him showing no evidence of this later on. Similarly Russell Crowe makes a fine Jor-El later on but seems monumentally bored during all the Kryptonian scenes. And his suit makes him look silly, there’s no getting around that.
Honestly the Krypton stuff is so bad compared to the rest of the film it seems like it was done by an entirely different writer and director. You could easily cut it all out and if anything the film would make slightly more sense.
There’s a lot more general stuff on the positive side though. For starters the acting is uniformly excellent. Amy Adams might be my favourite Lois Lane since Terri Hatcher*, Laurence Fishbourne is my favourite Perry White and as for Henry Cavill. Well, it’s hard to say really since he only gets one scene in the whole film where he’s Superman and he’s, okay in that. In every other scene he’s young Clark Kent or The Man of Steel but in both roles he excels. There are two moments in the film, the death of Zod and the death of Pa Kent where he conveys so much meaning and thought without saying a word.
Oh and Antje Traue’s Faora is just incredibly bad ass. Love her!
The story is well paced and largely free from puzzle box plotting and techno babble, and what is there is harmless enough. I loved the structure of the flashbacks, I thought it really helped the film keep moving whilst delivering the necessary back story and exposition.
I also liked the Hans Zimmer score a lot, although the original John Williams theme is sorely missed.
And then we come to the director, Zack Snyder. Snyder has something of a bad reputation being accused of being a misogynist, a homophobe and a hack. I’ve now seen every film he’s made except Sucker Punch (from where most of the misogyny comments come) and some movie about armoured owls that I’ll probably pass on and I’m starting to think that he’s being really under-estimated. The Dawn of the Dead re-make was a ton of fun even if it wasn’t as smart as the original. 300 similarly is tons of fun and a very efficient film and also demonstrates some real artistic thought in the use of ramping to re-create a sense of comic story telling. Watchmen was about as good as you could feasibly make an adaptation of Watchmen which is basically an un-filmable story and now Man of Steel. Like 300, Man of Steel has really made some effort to try and translate the storytelling language of comics into film. It’s much more subtle than 300 but there are several moments that borrow cleverly from comics. The one that comes to mind is a scene when Faora uses her super-speed against some soldiers. Super-speed is usually really hard to represent in cinema and looks really fake and terrible but there is a long history of representing it in comics using numerous tricks. one of those tricks is to draw a character multiple times in the same panel to show that they’re moving so fast they appear to be in different places. Snyder re-creates this trick by holding a shot completely still and showing for split seconds at a time multiple Faora’s on screen before the slower Faora fades. It looks great and is an example of Snyder really leading the way in innovating how to translate comic book ideas into cinema.
Also that final fight with Zod is amazing. As a super-hero fan a decent fight between two flying opponents is something I’ve been looking forward to for years and it has never happened until now. Snyder delivers an amazing gravity defying spectacle and doesn’t clutter it up with shaky cam or too fast editing.**
So Man of Steel. Most films these days I watch and like but the more I think about them the more I dislike them. Man of Steel completely reverses this. The more I think about it the more I want to see it again, or see a sequel where Henry Cavill actually gets to step up and be Superman. You could watch a lot worse.
* as a total aside I like that Lois figures out that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person straight away in this. Although you lose out on the love triangle aspect you can’t really do justice to that in a non-serialised story telling medium anyway. And it always hurt the character of Lois that she’s supposed to be an amazing journalist but could never work out that Clark and Superman were the same person.
** although the flying scenes on Kyrpton are atrocious and absolutely riddled with shaky cam.