A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman

Summary:  Today we have another guest post by film critic Locke Peterseim, reviewing Man of Steel. He shows how our myths change to meet the new needs of a 21st C America. We meet a Wartime Superman — the Bourne Kryptonian — fighting a morally ambiguous bad guy in a complicated, paranoid world. Cynical or deep? Post your comments about the film — and this review!

Amy Adams & Henry Cavill
Amy Adams & Henry Cavill

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Whose Man of Steel is This, Anyway?

By Locke Peterseim

Posted at the film blog of Open Letters Monthly
21 June 2013
Reposted here with his generous permission

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It took until mid-June, but this movie season finally has what every summer needs. After a May filled with passable-but-uninspiring fare like Iron Man and Star Trek, dumb-fun stuff like Fast and Furious 6, and universally-agreed-upon whipping boy After Earth, in The Man of Steel we finally have a blockbuster everyone — fans, critics, geeks, and mainstream popcorn munchers — can angrily argue over.

Man of Steel producer Christopher Nolan and director Zack Snyder’s reboot of Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment’s Superman film franchise smashed up the box office last weekend and earned a very respectable “A-“ CinemaScore from moviegoers, even as critics weighed in with much-caveated approval numbers in the luke-warm 50s.

And while audiences ate up the new film’s action-heavy symphony of brute destruction (offset by ephemeral, existential flashbacks — Smallville, it seems, is just down the road from Malick-town), online the fanboys and –girls cried out in despair over this more somber and morally dicey take on a character oft-considered to be the modern-day ur-superhero.

It’s not unusual for paying viewers, critics, and hard-core fans to disagree over a cinematic interpretation of a beloved (or reviled) creative property — see the spleen-venting comment-board swamps spawned by the Transformers and Twilight series. But the sturm und drang over Man of Steel’s, well, sturm und drang feels different; more impassioned than the outrage over urinating robots and sparkling vampires. All the wailing and gnashing and rending of red replica capes this week seems fueled by a more primal sense of ownership over “What Superman Means.”

Rounding the corner on his 75th year, Superman holds an iconic position in modern American (and international) pop culture rivaled only by Mickey Mouse. No small amount of ink has been spilled over the years about the many Christ-figure parallels in the Superman mythos, and Nolan, Snyder, and screenwriter David S. Goyer don’t spare the cross when hauling them out once again for Man of Steel. But it’s worth noting that, like the Biblical Jesus, Superman’s popularity hinges on a simple, positive ethos embodied by a not-quite-human figure who’s attendant life and personality details are vaguely admirable enough to be adapted and embraced by all.

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Amy Adams plays Lois Lane
Amy Adams plays Lois Lane

Those cultural icons that achieve the biggest and most lasting power are usually uncomplicated blank slates on which the broadest demographic swath of humans can, over the years, decades, and even centuries, hang hopes, beliefs, and aspirations that cannot help but shift and change over time. Because it’s easily projected onto, the same blandness of character that makes it tricky to write compelling stories around Superman in this day and age ironically also makes people feel so proprietary toward the character and get so upset when they feel their idea of Superman has been compromised or tarnished.

Heady stuff for a summer movie about Kryptonian strongmen (and women) punching the beans out of each other (and much of Smallville and Metropolis). But it gets at why you’ll find such wildly disparate reactions to The Man of Steel, ranging from viewers who enjoyed a slam-bang, visually stunning action film; to critics who find the film to be a mixed bag of cinematic strengths and weaknesses; to those upset by a new Superman film in which [VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD] the hero not only accidentally destroys much of Metropolis in a building-toppling orgy of shameless 9/11 imagery but — and this is the biggest “no-no” — reluctantly takes a life when all is said and done.

It speaks highly of Superman—often written off in the Post-Watchmen Age as an irrelevant, goody-two-shoes-dull “Big Blue Boy Scout”—that his image still carries enough cultural weight to invoke such passionate outrage over perceived slights to it. And while its detractors may be loath to admit it, it also speaks to the impressive (if often uneven) cinematic power of The Man of Steel. After all, if the new film had turned out to be a shoddy, ineffectual, un-engaging bit of summer fluff, no one would bother raising their voice about it.

(For example, no one anywhere is still or was ever arguing from the center of their soul over how the Green Lantern movie blasphemed and tarnished the character. … Okay, someone somewhere online probably is, but still…)

The Man of Steel is not shoddy. It is many things, including sometimes narratively and thematically muddled (as nearly all superhero movies are), but for all its flaws, it’s never weak-willed, never wavering — it pounds itself home with not just the usual dazzling CGI visuals, but — fan outcry be damned — with a sturdy and impressive sense of itself.

Man Of Steel: Metropolis burning
Metropolis burning. Watching megadeaths without concern

I’m not an overly effusive fan of Nolan’s Batman films (Heath Ledger single-handedly does the heavy lifting for The Dark Knight, the best of the bunch), and with the exception of his nervy debut with the Dawn of the Dead remake, I’ve had nothing but mixed annoyed-baffled-frustrated-disgusted responses to Zack Snyder’s Might for Right films like 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, and yes even the Great Guardian Owls of Googly-Moogly or whatever.

And David S. Goyer (Blade, Batman Begins, Jumper) is no one’s idea of a super-nuanced, original, and effective scribe.

And in recent years, I’ve become increasingly put off by the growing presentation of comic-book violence in supposedly PG action films (superhero and otherwise) with a casual self-justification; where punching/shooting/blowing someone up is not a necessity, but a “good thing” unto itself.

But while I can’t embrace Man of Steel as a fully “successful” movie, let alone “love” it, I don’t dislike it, and certainly am not filled with the overwhelming, sputtering hatred for it many fellow comic-book fans seem to harbor.

No, there is none of the gentle fantasy charm of the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve movies. (Nor the noble beauty of the unfairly maligned Superman Returns 2006 misfire by Bryan Singer — a film that in its elegiac love for the Donner-Reeve canon is far too long and overly-reverent, but by no means deserving of the dismissive snark it garners today.) There are no rousing marches and few rousing rescues and acts of heroic daring do in Man of Steel. No cats are plucked down from trees. No crime is fought. No Lois and Clark Daily Planet flirtation and frustration. And the four-color geo-cheesey names Smallville and Metropolis are barely uttered — even the term “Superman” is only mentioned once in a toss away.

For the most part, however, from the all-CGI Kryptonian opening (where, because this is still a summer blockbuster, we have to wade through far too many minutes of Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Man of Action) to the full-blown alien invasion of the third act, with its massive Emmerich-esque CGI space ships, this is a cold, hard science-fiction flick. It’s not about Superman of Metropolis, but Kal-El of Krypton.

Supergirl, in a future Man of Steel
Supergirl, in a future Man of Steel

Yes the film is muted and humorless, both visually and tonally — it’s a darker vision of heroism. Those who feared that Nolan and Goyer would try to turn Superman into Batman were half right: Yes, Man of Steel shares the heavier tone of their Dark Knight trilogy, but the Batman films are about a man trying to make himself into a myth — Man of Steel is about a god figuring out how to be human.

Snyder tends to pepper his films with Survival of the Toughest philosophies and then drive them home with his hammer-handed, graphic-novel-and-video-games inspire violent iconography. (As an old college pal would say of someone overly enamored of the military life and its accruements, “I think he’s a bit of a fay-shist.)

Man of Steel is quite often a visually stunning film, but sometimes overbearingly so. And Snyder’s Superman doesn’t fuss around cleverly solving problems with cutesy powers like freeze breath or spinning the Earth backwards — he’s more about raw strength and punching things. The hero seems to destroy more than he saves. Meet the Wartime Superman — the Bourne Kryptonian.

Even the flying is downplayed as a given. The first Superman film promised “You’ll believe a man can fly,” but in the post-Matrix, post-Avatar CGI age, onscreen flight is no big whoop. There’s a thrilling scene of Clark learning to fly, but when he does, it’s more roaring missile than soaring bird. Mostly stripped of wonder (we often see Clark flying not from a distance, but over his shoulder) and replaced with grim purpose, it’s a high-speed form of utilitarian transportation. No time for joyful wheeling and gamboling; this Superman has places to be, things to hit.

Such heavy handed purpose also means deemphasizing the mushy boy-girl stuff. Amy Adams does a decent job as a more hands-on Lois, but her chemistry with Cavill’s Clark is frozen solid as the Arctic ice cave in which they meet. Snyder et al have little time for love and tack it on with dismissive resignation — Lois and Clark’s first kiss amid the smoldering rubble of Metropolis is laughably perfunctory.

Still, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner are wonderful as Ma and Pa Kent, carrying the “Human Clark” theme. Costner’s especially effective here, helping sell a hesitant Jonathan Kent who’s trying to help his adopted son face a complicated, paranoid world. Together, he and Cavill ground and make work an emotionally climactic and controversial scene that could easily have played shockingly wrong.

(Crowe’s Jor-El is a little dicier — trying too hard to fill Brando’s big Kryptonian shoes, at times Crowe feels stuck in stick-up-butt mode from Les Miz. At least here he doesn’t try to belt out his lines with Oliver Reed bombast.)

As for Cavill’s Clark/Kal, aside from looking stunningly buff and chiseled both in and out of Superman’s costume (sorry, Kryptonian battle armor!), most of his time is spent trying to keep his head above all the Big CGI Action. Cavill is winning in the film’s first act, doing the whole wandering seeker bit; an anonymous drifter roaming the country and taking odd jobs while he tries to find himself. But too often in Man of Steel, the man himself feels like a reactive pawn in his own story.

The British actor does with assured ease what he can with what he’s given, but if Clark had been more deftly written, better fleshed out as a protagonist struggling to find his identity and do the right thing, there may have been less uproar over the character’s perceived “coldness” (most of which is only in relative, somewhat unfair comparison to Reeve’s version).

Cavill’s not a grim or stony screen presence, and he certainly fills out the suit and the jutting jawline. There’s plenty in his restrained performance to suggest warmth and depth, but for the most part the actor and character are buffeted about at the mercy of the film’s Big Themes and Big Events.

Michael Shannon as General Zod
Michael Shannon as General Zod

Most of those Big Themes and Big Events come at the iron fists of Michael Shannon’s Kryptonian General Zod — not only is he the film’s ostensive “bad guy,” but his eventual arrival on Earth drives Kal-El’s conflicts over identity and heritage. Shannon is one of our best and certainly most intense actors working today, but there’s a case to be made that he lets the “comic-book super-villain” trope run away with him a bit in Man of Steel.

Still, for all the borderline overkill as Shannon serves up Zod’s eye-popping, seething, glaring frustration, the character is saved by a rare (for superhero films) amount of moral complexity: He’s trying to save his entire species and culture (personified both by Kal-El and a cosmic Kryptonian McGuffin called the Codex), albeit at the expense of humankind. Not since Ian McKellan’s Magneto in the X-Men films have we been treated to a mature, nuanced antagonist whose villainy is clearly, even elegantly born of genuine, even sympathetic beliefs.

For sure, this is all Serious Space Opera stuff — the superhero (and villain) once again echoing back to their epic Greek roots. But The Man of Steel is also a 21st-century, post-9/11 superhero film in nearly every respect, and there are those that argue that this is a form of pandering, of diluting the heroic ideals of the Superman mythos for a more cynical new culture.

While I can’t defend everything in the film’s style and content, I disagree that those ideals, that compassion, that notion of heroism are absent. They’re absolutely there — what’s gone is the notion that someone can be good and right and heroic just by wanting to be; what’s gone is the idea of Superman as an infallible, living, definitive icon of heroism.

The Man of Steel is not giving up on or abandoning hope and idealism and heroism and the better angels of our nature — it’s just carving a harder, more human, more flawed path toward it. Superman is not cold or uncompassionate in the film, but we see him – like all of us – fighting to do the right thing instead of, as in the old days, just being the right thing personified.

This generation can relate to a lonely, struggling, and searching protagonist who’s filled with self-doubt and wants to see its heroes learn their heroism the hard way, not just have it slapped on their chests at birth. I get the appeal of that sort of Norman Rockwell romanticized worldview, but we’ve had that Superman. As counterbalance and simply as artistic exploration, I find Man of Steel — cinematic flaws and all — much more interesting than the “perfect” Superman movie about a “perfect” Superman.

A future Girl of Steel
A future Girl of Steel

I understand fans’ frustration this is not the Superman they thought they knew. I get the complaints that Supes, of all heroes, should be an unwavering paragon of heroism, the standard to which all others are measured. I completely empathize with concerns over how this Superman seems oblivious to the super-havoc he and his enemies unleash on cities and towns and the innocents within.

I know studios like Warners Brothers rarely have the purest artistic motivations when making yet another big-budget summer superhero movie. (In this case it was a a combination of Warners wanting to keep Nolan’s Batman box-office momentum going, DC wanting to set up their own theatrical super-verse and eventual Justice League super-team flick to match rival Marvel’s Avengers, and both Warner and DC’s legal imperative to get a new Superman film in production in order to stave off further lawsuits from the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel.)

I get that the majority of folks buying tickets this past week don’t care about all this philosophical hand-wringing over right and wrong. They just want some popcorn and air conditioning and to see CGI shit get busted up.

And while I grew up on and still buy and read superhero comics, like many these days, I’m wearying of superhero movies, tired of the genre’s formulas, non-stop origin stories, inherent fascism, and seeming inability to let female characters — caped or not — into the club. There are legitimate complaints to be made and heeded about the crushing, unstoppable power of superhero movies these days and how effects-thick, giant-budgeted smash-fests and forever-rebooted franchises suck up all the oxygen from the filmscape, leaving smaller, more thoughtful films about real human beings acting like real humans, (not adolescent power fantasies) gasping for air.

But nudging all those things aside is my fascination with this version of Superman and the somewhat compelling issues it approaches. I don’t think The Man of Steel does a perfect job at all these things, but I like the idea of examining heroism and hope in a more realistic modern arena. And the fact the film is raising such impassioned, legitimate reactions makes it more intriguing to me as a cultural touch point.

So I’ll take this Superman for now, and I’m genuinely curious to see more from him in this vein; to see the character grow into the upright hero we already know. For a film that gives so much lip service to the idea of “Hope,” with all its stunted aspirations, stylistic burdens, and thematic failings, there’s enough going right in Man of Steel to fill me with hope for that ever-shining beacon in the world of big-budget tent-pole franchises: that the sequel might be better.

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(2) About the author

Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves–and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.

Some of his other reviews:

  1. Ender’s Game: Playing at Shock and Awe
  2. The Hunger Games: How a Real Film Emerged from the Deadly Arena of Young-Adult Movie Franchises
  3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – You Say You Want a Revolution?
  4. Transformers 4 is the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America
  5. 300: Rise of an Empire: The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War
  6. The Wolf of Wall Street: What’s So Funny About Greed, Ludes, and Unchecked Capitalism?

(3)  For More Information

(a)  See all posts about:

  1. Book and film reviews
  2. Art, myth, and literature

(b)  Posts about films:

  1. Does the Tea Party movement remind you of the movie “Meet John Doe”? , 27 January 2010
  2. About the movie “Fight Club”, 28 March 2010
  3. Robocop is not a good role model for the youth of Detroit, 12 March 2011
  4. We want heroes, not leaders. When that changes it will become possible to reform America., 11 January 2013
  5. Loki helps us to see our true selves, 15 May 2013
  6. My movie recommendation for 2010: Vitual JFK (the book is also great), 30 June 2013
  7. Hollywood’s dream machine gives us the Leader we yearn for, 30 June 2013
  8. Rollerball shows us one aspect of America, and a possible future, 13 August 2013
  9. In “Network”, Howard Beale asks us to get mad and do something. He’s still waiting., 19 October 2013
  10. Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?, 28 October 2013
  11. “Ender’s Game” is a horror movie, showing us our dark side. No worries; we’ll forget faster than we eat the popcorn., 2 November 2013
  12. Shut the Robo-whining: The Robocop Remake Has Something on its Mind, 31 August 2014

(4)  The Trailer

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(5) Another perspective on Man Steel

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6 thoughts on “A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman

  1. “online the fanboys and –girls cried out in despair over this more somber and morally dicey take on a character oft-considered to be the modern-day ur-superhero.”

    “All the wailing and gnashing and rending of red replica capes this week seems fueled by a more primal sense of ownership over “What Superman Means.”

    As Howe notes in his Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, the evolution of fan favorite superheroes is problematic. On the one hand, there’s the need to tell new stories and have meaningful adventures and occasionally to update aspects of them; on the other hand, there’s the need to keep characters recognizable enough so that they stay fan favorites. This leads to a peculiar set of circumstances where characters are frozen in the time and place where we first grew to revere them. But then big story line events happen and they end up getting retconned. The solution has been to create multiple continuities in a multiverse of possible Marvel and DC worlds. Which leads me to an idea for the most awful, fearsome villain of all: Retcon (assuming Grant Morrison hasn’t already come up with some variation of it), a being who can move through parallel universes threatening to make all heroic actions meaningless by altering events in ways that never existed like via time travel, or by elaborately tricking the other characters.

    Liked by 1 person

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