“I’m as American as it gets.” Superman, as played by British actor Henry Cavill, says to the African American General Swanwick, towards the end of Man of Steel (2013). It’s not the best line in the movie; that line is saved, appropriately, for Lois Lane and delivered perfectly by Amy Adams. As casting choices go, casting Adams is the master stroke for this movie, brunette or not. One could credit Christopher Nolan for the strong casting, his filmography tends to reflect more successful casting choices than does Zack Snyder, who missed a few opportunities with WATCHMEN and Sucker Punch.
With Man of Steel, Snyder reestablishes himself as the go-to guy for cool. Nolan and comics/screenwriter David S. Goyer, provide a narrative structure and visual aesthetic fans of The Dark Knight trilogy will instantly recognize. There were those who considered a darker, grittier adaptation an inappropriate choice, yet Superman has time and again proven his durability over more than 70 years of publishing history, radio shows, matinee serials, cartoons, and cinema. The character is larger than any one story, or version, each on as American as the times in which they were created, and these are dark times.
Action Comics the Movie
Richard Donner‘s 1978 classic Superman envisioned a Krypton composed of frozen plains and crystalline structures. A powerful work of design which found a place on the printed comic page until returning to the screen for Bryan Singer‘s Superman Returns (2006). At this same time, Donner was began writing for Action Comics, the series where Superman first appeared. His story featuring a more up to date General Zod, and later the series featured a Superman, drawn by Gary Frank, to look distinctly like Christopher Reeves. By that point, however, Donner was no longer writing the comic.
Snyder steps away from this design work completely, giving Krypton the appearance of a world crafted from burnished steel providing a visual link to the movie’s title. With a significant opening sequence set on the alien planet, Man of Steel initially seems more like a monochromatic version of James Cameron’s Avatar than it does your typical superhero movie. It’s the emphasis on these science fiction elements which make some of the more generic action-movie tropes forgivable. Why do guns always looks the same no matter the planet or era?
When the movie slows down to reintroduce the viewer to Smallville, and the Kents, similarities to Batman Begins surface. But the quiet moments don’t last long and the camera is almost in constant motion. Snyder creates the sense that anyone could be filming these events. The camera pans and zooms almost erratically; as though it was being recorded by an amateur videographer attempting to capture images as they happen, but not quite sure when or if the figures will stay in frame or move in a predictable manner. The effect can be jarring, particularly in 3D, but it works to bring the viewer into the world on a visceral level.
Man of Steel fits into a post 9/11 mythology alongside the Dark Knight trilogy replacing concerns of a survailance state and urban terrorism with shock and awe. The astute comic book readers might recall Adventures of Superman issue #596 published on September 12th 2001; it’s depiction of the collapsing Lex-Towers (the DC comics version of the World Trade Center) attracted the attention of the conspiracy minded. With images of falling building a dozen years into our collective history, their depiction throughout Metropolis seems gratuitous when not educing vertigo, but worse, they also seem cliché. In some cases they bring to mind scenes from the Katsuhiro Otomo‘s animated film AKIRA (1988), but one could argue the massive loss of life and property would nessessarily increase the stakes; a job for Superman.
There are worse instances of action movie laziness. The showdown on main street not only echoed the similar scene from Superman II (1980), but was also seen in THOR (2011) and just about any western commited to film. While the U.S. Army had valid in story reasons for their significant presence, the hardware combined with the action and FX create the unfortunate, but perhaps intended, experience of watching a cutscene from some future release of Medal of Honor. It’s no secret that the military wants to look good on film and Snyder does his best impression of Michael Bay when doing just that.
It’s this ongoing military presence which causes one to consider that a 33 year old Clark Kent would have been 21 when the events of 9/11 occurred; an age ripe for recruitment into the war on terror. One must assume Clark was abroad, finding himeself or opted not to join for fear of what he could do. As Kal is educated on the history of Krypton, first by his father Jor-El (portrayed as a science-action-hero by Russel Crow) then by General Zod (Michael Shannon), the similarties do not end with the military occupation.
Krypton was an ancient and advanced civilization which sought to bring its own form of enlightenment to neighboring planets. This expansion became the primary motivation for a society which stopped evolving while the rest of the universe proceeded. Centuries later, Zod and his band of militants come to earth seeing it as the baston of a form of freedom, evolutionary or gentic, which is intolerable to their zealous view of Kryptonian life. Earth must be destroyed utterly to make way for his new fundimentalist regime. Kypton, as a once great culture dangerously out of touch with present day ideals and under a leadership eager to commit genocide, is a reading right out of a Bush era press-release; they hate us for our freedom.
Zod’s mission to build a new Krypton on the ashes of humanity includes an environmental dimension which calls to mind recent industrial catastrophes and effectively redefines kryptonite. Combined with access to the world’s communication networks greater than any NSA project could hope to achieve, General Zod is established as a villain of global proportions; a threat to the world. Marvel’s The Avengers faced an alien invasion just last year, but its scale seems merely municipal comparatively. Zod’s threat is an existential one, it corrupts even the valiant hero to would stop him, casting Superman as a warrior, a savior and, in a way, a martyr as well. His primal scream and crucified silhouette were met with mixed reactions from an audience who would only be half convince to applaud the cathartic moment which brought Zod’s terror to an end. This dark victory for the man of now-tarnished-steel leaves the character identifiable to the 2.5 million veterans still coping with actions taken in the heat of battle.
Like the polished steel which depicted the movie’s earlier scenes and history, Man of Steel offered a dim reflection of a country waging wars so long their origins blur. We’ll just have to trust him as he flys around the world like some un-maned drone, doing the right thing. A question asked by Lois Lane midway through the movie takes on different implications upon reflection. “What does the S stand for?” Perhaps it stands for P.T.S.D.
Changing Jimmy Olsen to Jenny Olsen seemed like a feeble attempt to include more women in the cast. While it freed Lois Lane to play a more heroic role, the stereotype of damsel-in-distress was unfortunately moved over to Jenny Olsen. The scene meant to convey the everyday heroics achievable by non super-powered people would have been stronger without chivalrous men saving the helpless woman. Wouldn’t it have been more heroic if they risked their lives to save the often annoying or at least geeky Jimmy rather than a cute Jenny played by Rebecca Buller?
The question of red underwear and it absence had been a point of speculation and satire since images of the new costume were released. Snyder side steps the issue with subtle shifts of the camera angle which make the lack of red underwear rarely obvious (Look for the magic belt buckle glimpsed in a flashback of Clarks chiledhood). More troublesome is the chain-mail quality to the costume, suitable for reinforcing the warrior archetype, but quickly becoming too safe a costume design choice after four Spiderman movies, Green Lantern and Thor. A liquid metal costume, something in blue steel, would have been ben both appropriately alien and suitable for the title.
Zod should have worn a Z on his chest, it could stand for order or zealous.