Tuesday, June 18, 2013

'Man of Steel' (2013) directed by Zack Snyder

“I'm as American as it gets.” - Superman in Man of Steel
He sure is.  Superman is the quintessential 20th Century American fable.  He's the ultimate immigrant, an orphan blasted across the stars from a literal Old World.  A man trying to reconcile his ethnic heritage with his apple pie Kansas upbringing.  Though it's been 75 years since two working class Jewish high school students put pen to paper and created him, he's never strayed too far from the original conception; that of someone who beats up bullies; be they slumlords, wife-beaters and corrupt politicians in the thirties, to Hitler and the Axis powers, to alien overlords and supergeniuses in the modern day.

But above everything he's steadfastly American.  He practically drapes himself in the colours of the American flag; fighting for "truth, justice and the American way", the ultimate superhero as the ultimate emblem of the inherent morality of the American state.  Any interpretation of Superman has to be examined through this lens.  Man of Steel offers us an aspirational Superman, a marriage of perfect citizen and state.

But Man of Steel's Superman is a flawed character, poisoned both by current events and the thematic elements at play in his film.  Snyder's film is a relatively interesting type of blockbuster, consciously aiming for a majestic, apocalyptic Wagnerian scope.  This is a film about furious gods kicking the crap out of each other, each punch sending out shockwaves that tear down buildings, smash holes in the ground and blasting debris in all directions.  The vast majority of the human beings in the film spend their time silently shitting themselves in the corner, trying desperately to avoid being squashed by buildings or exploded by alien spaceships.

Henry Cavill's Superman cuts an interesting figure in the middle of chaos.  He departs from previous depictions of Supermen in that he has no identity conflict.  The old Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent trinity that provided drama in both the Reeves films and Singer's Superman Returns is entirely absent.  He's all three at once, never displaying any hint of conflict between his human and alien side.  Indeed, when he discovers he's the product of a dead alien civilisation he immediately assimilates it into his identity without too much worry.  

This fluid identity gets a bit silly at times.  Five minutes after he's had a chat with his dead Dad's ghost he's being a touch smug about things.  When asked about the 'S' on his chest he's all "actually Lois, it's not an S, on my world it means hope".  On your world?  You were raised in Kansas!  It's like a guy in Milwaukee insisting on wearing a kilt at formal occasions because his great grandfather is from Edinburgh. 

Anyway, without this well-chewed bit of Superman drama to worry about the film shifts focus.  Rather than spend time puzzling over the internal life of our protagonist we instead examine his impact upon the world.  There's constant dialogue about how much his revealing himself will warp human culture, transforming everything from science to religion in one fell swoop.  This is interesting territory and I briefly wondered if this is going to turn into The Man Who Fell To Earth with capes.

Unfortunately the film answers this question almost as soon as it asks it, showing us exactly what the world's reaction is to Kryptonian superman. Total panic, from the moment General Zod reveals himself on television worldwide the sedate, meditative narrative of the life of Clark Kent takes a back seat to things getting blown the fuck up.

The intellectual meat of the film becomes an examination of the morality of exercising infinite power, and the warlord villain Zod serves as a warning to our protagonist. Zod is a throwback to the past, a man obsessed with resurrecting his dead civilisation at the cost of mankind (and presumably every other living thing on earth).  The film isn't subtle this, in a vision we see him standing triumphantly atop a pile of human skulls.  Both Superman and Zod are immigrants, yet Superman represents the ideal assimilated citizen, acknowledging his culture yet not defining himself by it.  Zod is the flip side, the nightmare illegal asylum seeker out to foist a (literally) alien culture on us by force.  The imposition of a Kryptonian gravity and atmosphere upon the Earth is about equivalent to implementing of Sharia law onto the USA.

The demonisation of the alien Krypton culture, and the promotion of a good old fashioned Apple Pie midwestern mindset as the ultimate in goodness is what gives the Superman mythos much of its power.  He's very much a messiah in Man of Steel (Snyder clumsily compares him to Jesus in a largely extraneous scene with a priest) but importantly, he's the  Americanised ideal of a messiah.

What's important to note about Man of Steel is that Snyder doesn't paint his Superman as epitomising modern America, but as a figure that America should aspire to emulate.  This is an intelligent decision, allowing a Superman story to critique the flaws of the USA while underlining the exceptional qualities that should be the ambition of the state.  The word echoing throughout this film is control.  We see a young Clark Kent being picked on by bullies at school.  We want him to fight back, yet we also know that if he does so much as bop a guy in the jaw, he'd probably rip his head clean off.  

This works as an metaphor for the power of the US military, who have the ability to cause vast amounts of destruction with very little effort and with horrifying consequences.  So if there is a message here, it's that those with great power should carefully consider how they apply it.  Probably the closest thing to a direct political message in the film is Superman's final action.  He destroys an unmanned drone that's been trying to shadow him.  The fact that Superman, a symbol of all that's good about the USA, is destroying a US drone is an implicit condemnation of the program - a direct textual example of film's idea of the USA abusing the vast power at its disposal.

On the face of it, it's a noble message.  But it's a critically flawed one.  For all Snyder's efforts, his Superman doesn't embody what the US should aspire to, instead he embodies the worst aspects of American imperialism.  The primary example in Man of Steel is the insane amount of carnage that accompanies every single action sequence in the film. This film is a block buster in the most literal sense.  As Superman and the villains bat each other about, buildings collapse into rubble, things go boom every second and skyscrapers tumble sideways down  the streets.  By the final scenes half of Metropolis is a wasteland, a flat dirt blasted clean of everything.  The death toll must be in the hundreds of thousands.

In the excellent animated series Justice League Unlimited Superman explains that he sees himself as "living in a world made of cardboard".  That Superman is desperate to avoid property damage wherever possible.  Snyder's Superman really couldn't give a toss.  Indeed, at one point he even seems to direct a fight from a cornfield into the centre of Smallville.  This collateral damage is the result of the fact that Snyder's Superman can only really affect the world around him through inflicting violence upon others.  He doesn't puzzle his way out of situations, merely smashes them with massive, unrelenting force until things have resolved in his favour.  There's obvious parallels here with indiscriminate bombings throughout the 20th Century; towns and cities across the world left in rubble by everything from drone strikes, to cruise missiles to napalm in Vietnam.  Superman's victory in Man of Steel is just about comparable to the effects of the atom bomb on Hiroshima.  He has to destroy Metropolis in order to save it.

But it's not just the destruction he causes that makes him a parallel for the worst aspects of the USA.  Throughout the film the reach of Superman's senses is graphically illustrated.  The man can hear conversations for miles around and see through walls.  The rush of information leads a young Clark Kent to freak out and hide in a closet with his hands over his ears.  Only when he learns to control his focus can he function normally.  Superman is the NSA's wet dream. The control and precision he has over his super-senses, choosing what sensory information to zero in on is roughly comparable to the PRISM system we're hearing so much about.

So we have a Superman who's an embodiment of the US State that destroys cities with a shrug of his shoulders.  A fully assimilated immigrant consciously erasing the remnants of his culture.  A one man surveillance state able to eavesdrop with a laser focus on his fellow citizens. A handsome ubermensch who dispels any doubts with a flash of his pearly whites. A good ol' boy from the Kansas farmlands applying his gut instinct to world changing events. 

As he cosies up to the US military in the final scenes of the film are we supposed to admire this nobility?  One of overt narrative themes of the film is people being allowed to choose what they become. Snyder's Superman has, despite his protests, become a soldier: a man whose primary communication with the world is through violence.  So the film fails  It wants to show us the best of what America can be, but this is distorted into the embodiment of the worst of America. Man of Steel is a right wing power fantasy. Whatever happened to the man of tomorrow?
“I'm as American as it gets.”
He sure is.

Oh... let's say 

Man of Steel is on general release now.

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