On June 14, 2013, Superman returned to theatres with all the impact of an alien vessel crashing to earth, and I have to say I could not be happier–well, almost. Having seen Man of Steel twice now, I can confidently say that I am quite taken with Kal-El’s newest iteration, and I believe that the film will get better upon repeat viewings. Of course, I am on one side of a very polarizing fence; and like the film itself, this development is encouraging, for Man of Steel has divided audiences between its true believers and its bold antagonists, with members of each side bringing their best wits and analyses to a film that they believe warrants further conversation. What’s more, the matters being discussed reflect a very real sense of humanity in its audience, and for that, too, I am excited. Say what you will about Man of Steel: if nothing else, the film has proven itself to be a piece of pop culture art (for whatever that’s worth).
As I sat in my first IMAX screening of the film, I relished the choices made by the production team. They embraced the character’s science fiction origins unapologetically, both in terms of production design as well as narrative structure. Within the first twenty minutes, I knew I was taking a Superman journey that I had not taken previously, one focused as much on the end of Krypton as the emergence of earth’s “Super-man”; thankfully, as the closing credits rolled, this created expectation had been fulfilled, and I left not only feeling like I had seen a textured and interesting “alien invasion” film but also a strong, unique entry into the superhero genre. This is a film that expects to be taken seriously despite its otherworldly visuals and extraordinary events, and it’s a film that believes its stakes and its themes are important. These themes range from ideas of serious science fiction (evolutionary ethics, genetic determinism, and the penchant of sentient beings for destruction) to the timeless subjects of myth (identity, virtue, and sacrifice). While Man of Steel is a grand spectacle, it is also a personal story of one man trying to understand his place in the world; and though the action left me feeling a bit overwhelmed, the final scene brought a smile to my face that did not leave until well after I exited the theatre.
I processed Man of Steel over the next week before catching the film a second time on a regular screen, during which some of its shortcomings began to show themselves. For all of Lois Lane’s pro-active decisions, she gets herself in need of rescuing each time she braves the unknown. Inasmuch as Zod is a good foil for Superman, their mano-a-mano conflict feels superfluous given much of what we have seen, and it is tiresome by the time it ends (though, arguably, it closes with a compelling final moment). Whereas I saw Kal-El acting consistently with others in mind on the IMAX, I now saw him reacting with less regard for those his actions would affect–his emotional immaturity and lack of wisdom becoming far more evident the more I examined his choices. This aspect of his character, however, appears to be an intentional thematic choice, and that, too, became far clearer upon my second viewing–as did the dual meanings layered throughout the film (such as Krypton’s and Earth’s similarly violent and militaristic natures). Some visual cues were jarringly obvious on both viewings, but others I missed the first time were subtly beautiful on the next. And of course, the second time I saw the ending was even more wonderful than the first, because I had more opportunity to digest all that informed and earned that moment.
The movie’s ending is perhaps the best ending in a superhero film since 2005’s Batman Begins, and that film in particular is an excellent point of comparison for Man of Steel. Both films use flashback as a device to not only explain the present emotional condition of their respective protagonists but also inform the next decision they will make. Additionally, both films hit all the beats necessary for an origin story but do so in a way that feels fresh and organic within the context of the world created by the filmmakers. Each film also focuses not on an iconic superhero but on a real and imperfect being with whom we as an audience sympathize, and each film ends with that individual making questionable choices.
While Batman’s questionable choices seemed to be acceptable, Kal-El’s have gotten the filmmakers into a great deal of trouble.
Within 24 hours of Man of Steel’s release, the polarizing conversation began. Veteran comic writer Mark Waid provided his opinion of the film’s failures, and many others, seeing him as both an authority and comrade in their discontent, voiced similar dissatisfaction with the film. People who had concerns over WB’s choice of hiring the arguably excessive Zach Snyder as director and the perceived realist Christopher Nolan as producer now felt vindicated that their fears were realized, and they made sure to sound the alarm for others to avoid this new, failed treatment of one of America’s most beloved icons. Then, of course, the aggregators at Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic began to show the polarization among critics, and the floodgates of disagreement broke open further.
Once I had seen the film myself, I entered into the fray and quickly found that Man of Steelsimply did not work for some viewers on any level, inasmuch as it struck resounding chords with me. Where some saw a stilted, incoherent screenplay, I saw an integrated narrative (both on the thematic as well as structural levels). Where some saw clunky camera work, I saw a consistent, genre-specific style. Some lamented the performance of Michael Shannon, whereas I valued the creation of an interesting though limited character. I felt that the shot composition was strong throughout the movie, and the CG elements–while always cartoonish in these types of films–were acceptable. In the end, I felt that the film’s choices, though unexpected in many instances, were earned.
Of course, the main issue on the minds of most folks was not the style but the substance, specifically the violence and collateral damage in the final sequences, which felt unbecoming to a Superman picture. On this front, I found myself more troubled but still siding with the filmmakers, to whom I will attribute sincere thematic intentions rather than exploitation. The destruction in the last hour feels like overkill, and Superman’s perceived lack of concern for this dilemma is disconcerting, depending on your take of the character. For some viewers, such as myself, this shows the audience a very imperfect Kal-El, the remnant of a violent breed, now brought down to his brutal nature through a contest with his peoples’ most brutal members. Given this, it is only at the moment that Superman takes his eyes off his relentless opponents and actually sees the humans near him in jeopardy that he refocuses his priority on the man he wants to be, not the amoral Kryptonian warrior that lives in his blood (who is similar to the very one against whom he is fighting). The invasion in this film is treated as the first real “battle” that Superman fights, and I accept that his attentions were focused, albeit incorrectly, solely on his foes rather than their victims (though in the Smallville sequence, we see him dividing attention from fighting the villains to rescuing the soldiers from time to time). The whole movie reflects on the consequences of Superman’s appearance to humanity, and we see that his doing so is costly. These are narrative choices I accept.
Others don’t. They see this disregard for those in jeopardy as a complete departure from Superman to the point that this alien hero is only an echo of the actual Kal-El they claim to know and love. Given their reading of the motion picture, I cannot convince them otherwise; I can explain only why I feel the choices of both the characters as well as the filmmakers are legitimate.
But so, too, are the concerns brought by the movie’s detractors. Frankly, the fact that Man of Steel is causing audiences to examine the destruction of cities as inappropriate entertainment is a good thing. The loss of human life in film, implied or onscreen, should give us pause. We should lament the high cost of freedom, salvation, and security in motion pictures, particularly when we are asked to invest in the people and the planet who pay that price. When we watch films without this concern, it cheapens human life, and we should rally against that. So, too, should we question our heroes’ actions. Thanks to a number of influences over the last several decades–Hollywood being a central one–we seem to have embraced foul-mouthed, adulterous killers as our heroes, but when Superman fails in one of these three areas, many people call foul–which in principle is wonderful. They should. Our heroes should be different than us—they should be better; they should be pictures of what we can be, not reflections of how foolish we tend to be. If a hero kills, we should question if it was necessary, if it was just, and if it was heroic. They should be held to a higher standard than anyone else, given their great power and abilities and position as role models. What makes their taking life more honorable or acceptable than the villains’? Is it because they act in service of saving it? Is that enough?
We should consider these things. And we are doing so when it comes to Man of Steel because of Superman, because of who he is and who we believe him to be. We have always held Kal-El to a higher standard. He is the Blue Boy Scout. He is the symbol of hope–the best mankind can be. Superman shares a great number of parallels to Jesus; and as such, many people find that he should be as faultless as Jesus. For this reason, some resent him for being too good, but they become equally as angry when he is not good enough. This film, perhaps more than any other before it, challenges the audiences expectations of Superman rather than fulfilling them, and some members of that audience have responded by rejecting the film in full, which is their right. Superman is, after all, bigger than any one film or iteration, and if this does not square with the character insofar as they see him, they are free to dismiss this film entirely.
I won’t, and I don’t want to either. I view all films through the Christ ethic, and Man of Steel’s particularly poignant connections to the Jesus narrative make the film all the more fascinating to me. Seeing the faults and failures of Kal-El, a Christ figure, reminds me of why I treasure and love the actual Jesus Christ to the degree that I do. Kal-El’s struggles gives me a hint–perhaps even an echo–of Christ’s own testing at the hands of the human race, whether to save or abandon them; but for all of his strengths, Kal-El is still only a mortal creature, not immortal creator incarnate; and as such, he is still open to making all the mistakes that we created beings do, even making choices with which we disagree. Watching Man of Steel borrow pieces of the Christ narrative directs me back to the true Christ narrative, and when a film does that for me, well, it strikes deeper places in my soul. For others, however, the very fact that Man of Steel’s protagonist’s falls short in the way he does discounts his similarities to Christ, altogether. If Kal-El is so divorced from saving the countless injured and dying of the invaded Metropolis, how could this Superman even remotely compare to the loving Christ?
And it is these conflicts–the responsibility of a hero, the nature of an icon, and the essence of a character that have made this film so ripe for discussion. I feel the filmmaker’s asked themselves all of these questions before a single draft of the screenplay was completed. Certainly they seem to be wrestling with Superman’s identity as much as Kal-El himself. And all of these questions surrounding Man of Steel are good questions to ask. While my interaction with the film was different than those who have heavily criticized it, I can only applaud them for such concerns. When a director places the audience into a cinematic realism, he or she creates in said audience the expectations of realism. The reason that the ludicrous destruction in G.I. Joe, Transformers, and the movies of Roland Emmerich do not enrage us (at least, not in the same way) is because these films ask nothing of us other than to be experience arresting imagery and the occasional bad joke. Man of Steel is not like them. It asks the audience to treat it seriously, and the audience did—and they are right to criticize it when they feel an apparent disregard for human life in its final act, in which losses would have been catastrophic but go seemingly forgotten. Does this failure destroy everything that came before? I don’t think so (particularly because of thematic reasons for it). But the fact that this topic has become a catalyst for an ongoing dialogue shows that the audience is sophisticated, and when you make demands of it, it will, in turn, make demands of you, which is a wonderful sign that we are not checking our brains at the door. The unseen dead of Metropolis found a voice in audiences, which tells me that the unseen wounded in reality can also. And this, too, fills me with hope, that if people will raise awareness for the fictionally forgotten or ill-used, that they will not remain silent when they encounter the same persons in reality. The film is also showing us that we still care about heroes, about the nature of heroism, and about Superman as a symbol. The discussion surrounding this film tells us that our heroes’ morality is open to criticism, and it should be, because if we cannot look to them to show us a better way, how are they heroes at all?
As much as I have delighted in the film itself, I think my experience with Man of Steel has been amplified by the effect I have seen it have culturally. The fact that people are standing up and saying, “This imagery is irresponsible” or “Superman wouldn’t do that” are moral statements, and it is good that so many audience members of genre films are taking umbrage when they feel violence is treated inappropriately in otherwise seriously-minded motion pictures. Even if I disagree with their particular criticism, I think it is wonderful that the film has people discussing these issues. As much as I loved the Avengers–and I did love the Avengers (my first viewing of it was my single most enjoyable theatrical experience since Speed Racer in 2008)–that film did not raise these types of moral questions in its audience. Even the Dark Knight Rises, last year’s most serious comic book outing, did not seem to raise this level of awareness about cultural iconography, characterization, and storytelling responsibility—people were too busy debating the amount of time it would take Bruce Wayne to travel across the globe at the act three turning point.
Man of Steel is forcing many people to engage the film beyond “liking it” and “not liking it”, it is demanding audience participation in regard to moral and, dare I say, spiritual issues. I have been truly spoiled by the bulk of the conversations I’ve had, because I have been able to engage with individuals on a number of these issues, and while we disagreed (vehemently in some instances), our discussions focused on the merit of argument rather than the all-too-common attacks on intelligence, taste, virility, or other fallacious currencies in which internet comment sections deal. The discussion was not only civil but also deeply personal, and I think that nearly everyone involved had a more nuanced view of not only one another but the film itself as a result (even those who did not like it seemed to appreciate that it spoke to others). I can only hope other discussions across the web (and in the real world) have been as fruitful as mine, for these are good conversations to have.