Man of Steel - *1/2
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Laurence Fisburn, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane
Review: Focus. It’s a factor of human existence. Millions take prescription drugs on a daily basis to ensure we can focus enough just to make it through our lives. It’s a necessity. Based on ‘Man of Steel’ the ability to focus is looked upon as an advantage that our protagonist has because of his upbringing on this planet.
Unfortunately, this is just one of many areas in which the creators of this movie demonstrate a lack of understanding of this character and what makes him interesting. They share this struggle with many others who have tried to bring the American icon to life both in comics and movies. Like Marvel’s ‘Hulk,’ ‘Superman’ may one day find itself as one of the hardest properties to do justice on the big screen.
Think about the original 1978 version. If you take away the wonder it created--”you will believe a man can fly”--you are left with a movie that’s only mildly entertaining. Revisionist history and fortunate timing--as one of the first major comic book movies released--have turned that version of ‘Superman’ into a film that often warms the cockles of many hearts, though not their minds.
There are many ways to approach this character. But few have done it successfully. Many have tried to bring him “down to our level” as just an extension of who we are. The idea that Superman is equal parts “super” and “man.” Someone who we all strive to be, wish we were, and could possibly become. This version hopes to have you come away saying “you know, he’s not that different from us.” While admirable, this ignores the very aspect that makes Superman what he is: his INhumanity.
While aspects of our everyday lives, like focus, are necessary as humans, Superman is not human. The very things that hold us back are forces Superman doesn’t have to reckon with. As a character he is often talked about and referenced as a “walking god.” Like a god of most religions there are elements of his being that we don’t understand and perhaps aren’t meant to. The idea that Clark struggled as a child with his abilities is supposed to convey that he has the same problems we do.
The issue is, when we are presented with a character who is forced down our throat as something different and unique, the inconsistency of bringing him to our level--to relate to--nags at the film for its entire 148 minute length. This is not what creates intrigue in Superman’s world and doesn’t make for compelling film. Even at its most personal level--Clark fighting for his mother or Lois Lane--it is not strengthening anything about the character other than his empathy he has towards the human race. And empathy here could even be construed as pity coming from a god-like being.
Those who have been successful in breathing life into this character do so by focusing on an entirely different area of the character’s ethos. They have embraced his differences from the human race. They have chosen not to ignore the elephant in the room but make it the focus of their attention.
Superman was raised as a human, not by choice, but necessity. Regardless of how he was reared he was never meant to be human. He was intended to be greater symbol for the human race and eventually as a bridge between two cultures--the humans and the Kryptonians. As he was put in the pod and sent to Earth from a dying Krypton his father Jor-El said “he will give them [the humans] something to strive for.”
Unfortunately, he spends most of the movie trying to hide his powers and not reveal himself. Now, there is no way a young baby would have known this was his purpose--especially with his Kansas parents telling him to hide what he truly is--but that becomes a fault of the movie. The tone is set from the open and then they go against that very tone the majority of the rest of the way. The setup is that of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman’ trilogy. Superman is to be a symbol. Something greater. In theory this makes sense. In practice, ‘Man of Steel’ spends more time connecting Superman to the human race than giving them inspiration.
There is a way to tackle this aspect of the character that the movie sorely glosses over. Superman’s greatest asset is obvious--his powers. Everyone knows going in what his powers are. He can fly, he’s “faster than a speeding bullet,” he can shoot heat lasers from his eyes, etc etc etc. This movie treats the realization of these powers as a coming-of-age moment used to make it easier for us to understand. However, where the character really gets interesting isn’t where this divide is conquered, but widened.
Here is a being who can hear a pin drop from a continent away. He can fly around the world like so many of us would take a morning jog. He can hold up an oil rig and the only thing that fails him is the weakness the human race has baked into the world around him. We are constrained by the limitations of our abilities. He is not. As Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben said with this sort of power comes “great responsibility.”
Superman’s struggle is with how that responsibility is defined. In larger population centers people are taught not to yell for “help” in an emergency but to yell “fire” so it’s actually heard. So often pleas for help aren’t received. Superman doesn’t have that excuse. He can hear everything. His conflict resides in what he does with that ability. If he can hear someone hurting from halfway across the world, he can help them.^
Yet, he doesn’t. Coming to grips with your powers is one thing but coming to grips with having the ability to save everyone and choosing who and what gets saved is entirely different--and much more intriguing. The religious context is made painfully obvious by the filmmakers. Superman is dropped on a Kansas farm to childless parents like an immaculate conception. He uses his power as a child, but is stifled. He uses them again later in life, but refuses himself. When he reveals what he is to the world he notes that he is 33 years old--the widely accepted age of Jesus when he died.
However, Superman’s humanity is given to him by birth. It was drilled into his head as a limitation for what he is and what he can become. He embraces it. He clings to it. But only by shedding it can he realize his true potential and become what he needs to be. His limitless power gives him the ability to do whatever he wants and rule the world if he so chose. He does not choose that. With all the problems around the globe he chooses to stay in Metropolis and help only America. He even says “I was born in Kansas. I’m about as American as they come.”
But if his father is to be believed Superman wasn’t meant for America but for all of humanity. At no point in this movie does Superman struggle with this aspect of his nature. He questions his powers and when to use them but does not question how they are used. He does not struggle with tearing down cities while fighting Zod and the thousands that would die from such a street fight. As powerful as he is he could fly to space and fight where no human is around. He could send Zod to the desert where buildings wouldn’t be crushed. This makes for a less spectacular movie, but also doesn’t create inconsistencies.
The last third of the film sees Superman and Zod fighting each other all over Metropolis. Buildings are destroyed and toppled. A city is left in ruins. Countless lives lost. Yet, when Superman is attempting to subdue Zod in a train station and a family is in danger, he commences the ultimate act and compromises every ideal his American-born, Kansas-bred parents taught him. What makes this family so much more important than the thousands he injured or possibly killed by hurling Zod through countless buildings? It is never explained.
If Superman was truly to be a symbol and something for us to “strive for,” then putting thousands upon thousands in danger and killing someone--however vile--is nothing worth being. Our own society reserves this choice to sentence someone to death, its true. But it is not done without deliberation and struggle. If he so chooses Superman is judge, jury, and executioner. What makes him “super” is that he chooses not to be. He fights using his unnatural abilities to help take down unnatural foes. It is not his place to decide the fate of humanity, but to help it decide for itself. Unfortunately, this comes with no struggle. He is perhaps more apt to focus on one thing at a time and hope the rest goes away.
Superman remarks to Zod how being on Earth granted him the ability to “shut everything else out” and focus. That is not what makes Superman. What makes him great is his ability--not to shut everything out--but let it all in. Once consumed, Superman decides what he does with his power. This is the internal conflict that resonates. This is what makes him an intriguing character. We’ll never relate to a Superhuman, so why try? Superman’s focus does not have to be singular. Our focus does not have to be on his non-existent humanity.
^ An even further forgotten storyline is how we deal with the knowledge of Superman’s ability to hear everything. In a world where NSA’s ability to track our phone calls with a few clicks is seen as a huge invasion of privacy, how would America react to knowing a person can hear all they want and there’s no true way to stop him? American’s are only concerned in this movie with whether or not Superman will continue to fight for America. They try to safeguard against him turning on them, as if there’s anything they could do to stop the most powerful being on the planet. As Superman struggles with his incredible power, so too do we struggle with our acceptance of them. It’s another wrinkle and layer to the Superman mythos that is glossed over yet again in favor of making Lois Lane a damsel in distress so Superman falls in love and we can all relate to this super-powered being just a little bit more.