I went to see Man of Steel, the new Superman movie, today, on the Fourth of July. On purpose. I mean, Superman really is the All-American superhero, isn’t he? Truth, Justice and the American Way, right? The red, white and blue costume? In the 40s, didn’t Superman fight Hitler? In the 50s, wasn’t it communism? Isn’t Superman an American patriot?
I put it off forever, actually, because as superheroes go, Superman kind of sucks. My opinion, but the fact is, he’s unbeatable. No weaknesses, no vulnerabilities. Give me Iron Man, give me Batman, give me a superhero who survives by intelligence and technology! (Or even super-but-limited powers guys like Spidey). Kryptonite is Superman’s one weakness, which of course makes for some preposterous plot points. Where on Earth is anyone going to find shards of a destroyed planet thousands of light years away? Not that stops a super-villain as dedicated as Lex Luthor.
Lex Luthor isn’t in this one, though, and neither is the idiotic conceit that ‘Clark Kent’ works at the ‘Daily Planet’ as a ‘newspaper reporter.’ And all he has to do is put on some glasses, and nobody can tell he’s Superman. The classic Christopher Reeves Superman films played with all those tropes without taking any of them all that seriously–they worked, because Reeves was so charming, and had such supreme comic timing, and the films didn’t strive beyond popcorn films. But this film hasn’t any humor, and not much charm, yet it still works. The kid sitting next to me hardly ate his popcorn, so riveted was he, and I was too.
It’s portentous, solemn, even rather tragic, without necessarily becoming pretentious or dull. I thought it was splendid. I’ll explain why in a second, but first, let me take a moment and talk about another really good Superman movie.
I quite liked the 2006 Superman Returns, the Bryan Singer film starring Brandon Routh. But the problem with that film was that it took the Superman story so seriously, it deconstructed the myth entirely, rendered it absurd in an existential sense. Let me try that in English. If we take Superman seriously, if we think of him existing, then he becomes a kind of God figure, but the kind of God who really, genuinely tries to answer everyone’s prayers, but can’t due to his semi-human limitations. If Superman’s role in the world is to fly around rescuing people from burning buildings, well, at any given time in the world, there are always buildings catching fire. That’s all he’d do, all day long. His masquerading as Clark Kent, intrepid reporter, and his romantic mooning over Lois Lane strike us as the most arrant selfishness. How dare he pretend to be a reporter? There’s probably a building on fire somewhere!
If God exists, and if He answers prayers, then why does He only answer some of them? Why rescue those folks from those buildings? Why not all folks, in all burning buildings? I know people who believe, theologically, that God really does show His love for humanity by answering prayers, not just by miraculously healing cancer patients or something, but literally by helping us find our car keys or remember that we left the stove on. I also believe in God, and believe that He can and does answer prayers. But if we believe in a simplistic, Superman-like God, then God’s interventions start to feel really disturbingly arbitrary. After all, lots of people die of cancer, lose their car keys, leave stoves on. So if Superman represents selfless good, selfless service, God-like flying-about-helping-people service, then it’s distressing that he has any weaknesses at all. And a movie about him reveals not only the deconstruction of his own myth, but the fallacies of our own most naive theologies. It’s not an accident that Brandon Routh (a wonderful actor, and a charismatic and exciting Superman), only got to play the role once.
Back to Man of Steel, then, this Zack Snyder/Christopher Nolan collaboration, which manages to sort of raise and side-step similar theological concerns. (Nolan co-wrote and produced, and Snyder directed). As I said, it’s a very serious sort of Superman movie, a big humorless, in fact. Henry Cavill, a fine British actor (I know, sacrilege, a Brit playing Superman!) is quite good in the role, but I wouldn’t say comic timing is his strength. It’s an origin-myth movie, about where Superman came from and, above all, what he means. And one interpretive possibility is that Superman is Jesus.
The movie drops Superman=Jesus hints all the time. For example, the movie makes explicit the fact that he deliberately chooses to begin his ‘ministry’ at the age of 33. He makes that decision in a pivotal conversation with a minister, in a Church, the shot framed so a stained glass picture of Jesus is just off his right shoulder. He is the son of Jor-El (and of course, ‘El’ means God in the Biblical tradition). He’s not just Jor-El’s son, he’s his only begotten son. On Krypton, people are cloned, raised and trained for specific jobs. But Jor-El and his wife Faora-Ul (the incomparable German actress Antje Traue) have a child biologically, the first Krypton child born in centuries. Literally, ‘only-begotten.’ As Krypton is destroyed, Kal-El, the baby is sent to earth, where he is raised by Joseph and Mary, which is to say, Jonathan and Martha Kent, (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) and named Clark. Grown Clark is even blue-collar, not a carpenter per se, but also not a white collar reporter for the hoity-toity Daily Planet, a common laborer, working on oil rigs (and rescuing oil rig workers from a fire).
I was particularly fascinated with the film’s villain, General Zod, superbly played by Michael Shannon. He is the General of all Krypton armies, sworn to protect Krypton at all costs, no matter what. Raised, in fact, without a conscience or sense of morality, but with only a sense of duty. As such, he’s kind of weirdly honorable. And what he wants to restore is Krypton. Clark/Kal-El’s DNA includes the genetic codes needed to restore the entire civilization of Krypton, right here on Earth, though doing so would also require the complete eradication of all those pesky homo sapiens. That’s what Superman is trying to prevent–he’s literally the savior of all mankind. But it’s also interesting, is it not, that what Zod wants is a world where no people ever have choices. At all, ever. Where everyone is genetically pre-programmed with a specific task and destiny. Satan’s plan, anyone? What makes Kal-El unique is precisely the fact that he wasn’t programmed at all. He was just born. He can become anything. He can decide to do anything.
So what we have in this film is a Superman who doesn’t actually seem particularly affected by Kryptonite, and who doesn’t, until the film’s final moments, work at a newspaper. Most of the film is his fight for the future of mankind, but it’s a fight dependent on the virtues of the human species. Is humanity good? Worth fighting for? Is Superman going to decide to be ‘good,’ and if so, what will that mean? So if Superman=Jesus, it’s a Jesus who has the capacity to save mankind, but has to decide first if mankind is worth saving.
Late in the film, there’s an odd moment. Superman and Zod are having this big ol’ fight in downtown Manhattan, and every punch drives the other guy with such force that buildings are getting wrecked right and left. One building has collapsed, and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) is busy getting the Daily Planet staff to safety. A secretary, ‘Jenny’ (Rebecca Buller) is trapped in the rubble, and a reporter, ‘Steve’ (Michael Kelly) wants to leave her there. But Perry stops him, and the two of him find a metal rod and try to lever her out. It’s an odd scene, involving extremely minor characters, but I liked it a lot. Aren’t we human beings at our best in emergencies? Don’t really ordinary people become extraordinary heroes sometimes? If we’re making a case for humanity, two guys risking their lives rescuing a co-worker they don’t know very well really works. And although Superman finally does have to kill (has to decide to kill, a tough call, we can tell), it’s to save threatened strangers.
In part, it’s a film about the wisdom of parents, and particularly, the wisdom of fathers. Jor-El’s spirit/soul/consciousness/essence keeps coming back and offering Kal-El sage advice. And the film is structured around a series of flashbacks in which Joseph/Jonathan Kent/Kevin Costner does the same–key moments of advice from ol’ Dad. And Costner’s Dad is a realist. He warns Clark against revealing his identity too soon, because he’s all too aware of the dangers of human paranoia and human mean-spiritedness born of fear. And during much of a big threeway fight between Superman and two Krypton villains, the US military is busy shooting missiles at all three combatants. It’s takes awhile for our armed forces to figure out that Superman’s not a threat to anyone.And in the end, Superman is still trying to convince them. I loved this touch: Superman flies around destroying NSA surveillance drones. ‘Cause, you know, (he tells a general) you guys need to get over that kind of fear. This new Superman is going to represent Good, yes. But he’s going to go about it with some subtlety. At the end of the film, he decides to be a reporter, as a cover for surveillance. He’s not going to be a Superman who rescues people (unless it’s Lois). He’s going to be working quietly to, I suspect, nudge things in the right direction. I haven’t even mentioned Amy Adams, the best Lois Lane ever. Or the splendid Richard Schiff, (yay Toby Ziegler!) as a mad scientist type who sort of accidentally saves the day. I just thought the film was smart and thoughtful and theologically sophisticated. And a really solid Superman pic.