Movie Reviews
Wednesday , October 18 2017
Man of Steel (2013):  The All-American Jesus, Now More Than Ever … Unfortunately

Man of Steel (2013): The All-American Jesus, Now More Than Ever … Unfortunately

Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?):  4

Make no mistake, Man of Steel, the superhero formerly – and in some circles, still – known as “Superman,” is still the ultimate American Jesus.  There is nothing particularly spoilery about this observation.  This fact should have been obvious, I suppose, from the Terrence-Malick-does-Hallmark teaser trailer.  What is surprising is the degree to which the filmmakers have doubled down on the character’s specific historical appeal.

In the annals of comic book adaptations, director Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) stands as an unabashed classic.  Yet as Warner Bros./DC Comics learned the hard way (to the tune of a mere $120 million profit) that simply transmuting the 1970s-era Superman to the present with the re-sequel Superman Returns (2006) would not work.  They desperately needed a true reboot for the most popular comic book hero of all time.  During the making of the ultimate comic book reboot (The Dark Knight trilogy), screenwriter/story co-writer David Goyer supposedly pitched the Man of Steel idea to producer/story co-writer Christopher Nolan.  Director Snyder had recently adapted the relatively subversive Watchman (2009), which has earned a certain cult status.  The outlook for a different take on the Superman mythology was fairly positive.  Early buzz spoke of a “first contact” story.  But notwithstanding the rebranding, the muted colors, and a ridiculous number of hyper-action sequences, Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) is tied even more tightly to his traditional roots than any prior manifestation on film.

Instead of a virgin birth, Kal-El is the first natural born child of a genetically manufactured society.  And where his biblical counterpart made the ultimate sacrifice at the ripe old age of 33, we find the only son of Krypton emerging from his proverbial 40 days in the desert to make his messianic sacrifice.

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Even this semi-emo’d manifestation of Superman gets his values from his small town ma and pa.  And his biggest enemy-turned-ally?  The U.S. military, of course.  The connection is so obvious that the suits decided to tie in the release of the film with shameless recruiting ads for the U.S. National Guard.  (So ads for the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines would have been over the top?)

Man of Steel

One has to wonder about the timing of a film so devoted to such a pro-U.S./pro-Christian superhero.  As of the release date, fresh on the heels of revelations about the NSA, George Orwell’s ‘1984’ is surging into the bestseller lists.   On the other end of the political spectrum, one has to wonder how the most ardent of the flag-waving, evangelical Americans – most of whom do not believe in human causes to global warming – will respond to a narrative that predicates its origin story on mining a planet into oblivion.  And how will this film perform in the increasingly more significant overseas markets?

To be sure, Snyder and company faced certain disadvantages.  Unlike his only real competition in the popular comic culture (a human being with psychotic drive, high intelligence, and a big pocketbook), Superman is a character who suffers from the fundamental flaw of being flawless.  In the early comics, alien biology allowed Kal-El/Clark Kent to be particularly strong, invulnerable, fast, sensitive, and “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”  But about the same time the U.S.’s sense of importance (and self-importance) in the world began to inflate (circa 1940), so too did Superman’s powers – flying (with no apparent source of propulsion), enhanced intelligence and memory, hypnosis, X-ray and laser vision, and even artic breath.  His only vulnerabilities were meteorites from his home planet and – well, magic.  All of this was effective enough to promote the idea of American exceptionalism and feed the fantasy lives of 8 to 12 year-old boys, but in the process, the character became much less interesting.  That is, how does a storyteller convey stakes – a sense of danger – if the protagonist is a god?  And how is Superman supposed to “provide the people of Earth an idea to strive toward” – as his Krypton father (Russell Crowe) recommends in Man of Steel – when, unlike we lowly humans, Superman faces no real vulnerability?

As in Superman II (1980), Snyder and company do their best to address this problem by matching the Man of Steel up against his own kind – General Zod (Michael Shannon), the fallen angel of Krytpon, and his lethal sidekick, Faora-Ul (Antje Traue).  But Snyder and company cannot even draw these other-wordly villains without overt hat tips to fundamentalist Christian Americana.  From the political side, Zod’s sole intent is to re-establish a communist society – where each person is born to serve a single purpose for “the Greater Good”; from the religious side, as they duke it out in the streets of Smallville, Faora actually mocks Superman with the line “evolution always wins.”  (Did you hear that, Texas Board of Education?)

Conceivably, a filmmaker could recast the Superman myth as the story about the ultimate outsider, but the most psychological or philosophical depth to Man of Steel can be reduced to the comic moral-ism, with great power comes great responsibility.  (In other words, don’t pummel the school bully, Clark, and when the time comes, step up to the plate and do your duty to your count- … I mean, the Earth.)  Indeed, when Kal-El/Clark Kent faces his most difficult decision in the film, where does he go to seek advice?  Yep, the Smallville church.  After he laments his predicament, with a stained glass window of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemanae just over his shoulder, a priest offers the following sage advice: “Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith, and trust will follow.”  Amen.

In the world of Man of Steel, the superhero need not grapple with the reality that he himself might be part of the problem in contributing to the perpetuation of war (Iron Man (2008)) or that stopping a monster might mean becoming a monster (The Dark Knight (2008)).  In Man of Steel, Superman is – more than ever – built for an audience that sees the world as a series of simple dichotomies – right and wrong, black and white.  In the final analysis, the fundamental problem is not that Snyder and company aim to make Superman inspirational – it’s that they are directing the character to a very specific ideology.  And for us non-believers, the net result of a heavy-handed, narrow interpretation that comes across more like Meh of Steel.

That said, we live in an era of commercial filmmaking that values franchises more than individual films.  Warner Bros./DC Comics may be less arrant than Paramount/Marvel about peddling their next product (hint: you don’t have to wait for teasers after the credits here), but Snyder has planted Lexcorp and Wayne Enterprises logos for the fanboys.  Suffice to say, this origin story is just a taste.  As with Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, odds are that the most popular villain has been saved for the second film.  Let’s just hope they don’t reduce Lex Luthor to an overly ambitious real estate tycoon (for a third time).  And who knows, maybe Snyder and company can resurrect Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman as an interesting character.

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Grade: C+

About Steven

Expressing an appreciation (or lack thereof) for all sorts of films for over 25 years.

8 comments

  1. Nice write-up – I love the ’78 Superman, but I think I’ll be giving this one a miss. Did you see this piece? http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/06/14/superman-coming-to-a-church-near-you/ Marketing for the film is apparently targeting Christian churches directly.

    • Thanks. I knew of the pro-military marketing, but I had no idea (at the time I wrote it) that the evangelical Christian connection was so explicit.

      I watched the 1978 ‘Superman’ a few days ago, and even with the 1970s era special effects, what struck me was how elegant that movie was compared to ‘Man of Steel’ – particularly the sequences on Krypton. In 30 years from now, ‘Man of Steel’ will look more dated than the definitive ‘Superman’ (1978).

      And it is a shame. Henry Cavill and Amy Adams are really well cast. And there were some really well-done individual moments in ‘Man of Steel’ (e.g., the sequence where Clark’s adoptive father dies; the sequence in the schoolhouse with his mother). That said, it is difficult enough to present a Superman that we can care about (given his physical and psychological flawlessness), and Warner Bros. opted to use the character to advance a specific agenda. I don’t know about you, but when a film wears specific agenda prominently on its sleeve (no matter what that agenda is), I have a harder time connecting with it – probably because concerns for developing a compelling plot and multi-dimensional characters end up being sublimated for the sake of that agenda.

      Query: If you hear about ‘Man of Steel’ from the pulpit, is there an implied assumption that it is a family film appropriate for all ages? There is some real violence implied here. Whole skyscrapers come toppling down with people in them who are, of course, never shown. There are lots of explosions in obviously populated areas, but not a whole lot of bodies shown. Is this all part of explosions-are-neat aspect of using the film as a military recruiting tool?

      • Totally agree about the ’78 Superman – elegant is the perfect word for it. I wondered if it held up, having such fond childhood memories of it, but I re-watched with my kids a couple of years ago, and it really does hold up beautifully on so many levels, even the special effects, as you say.

        It is really too bad that this new version is such a disappointment – the casting seems right. (Do you think it most needed a different director or a different script – or both at once?) I agree that Superman can be a hard person to care about; the ’78 version achieved that – perhaps because of Christopher Reeve but the relationships work there, too; they make Superman vulnerable in some sense. He had a sense of humor, too.

        Ugh. Films with an agenda. The worst. And yeah, it doesn’t matter what the agenda is, whether I agree with it or not, an agenda film always seems to sacrifice art (character, story, aesthetics, etc.) for that agenda, and I am left thinking, why see a movie? Just give me a haranguing pamphlet – we’d all be better off.

        Yes, I think those films referenced in the pulpit would be assumed to be those that are “family-friendly” and appropriate for all ages. And I think, generally, those who might like the film for its “Christian” message, would be just fine with the violence, bizarre as that seems – evangelical Christians (as far as I can make a generalization, based on my own knowledge) and Americans in general are not at all squeamish about violence. And for conservatives, who are often pro-gun anyway, if the the film seems pro-military, it’s just a part of the package. A violent film that’s sort of Christian and endorses the military – hurrah! Blech. It’s utterly maddening to me that “Christianity” in this country has been so coupled with guns and military, specifically U.S. military, of course.

  2. Good review. It’s not an amazing movie, but still a fine flick. The sequels will probably make it a lot better however.

  3. Not sure if anyone is still checking this board but I found this article just the other day and really enjoyed it. I actually happen to be a Greek Orthodox priest and simultaneously a HUGE comic book/Superman fan, so this is right up my alley, thanks!

    I gotta say I really wasn’t a huge fan of this film and thought it could have been a lot better. Snyder did what he could but neither he, Goyer, or WB really have much of a clue about how to build a DC superheroes movie universe. I’ve long said that a “DC Studios” should be formed for just this purpose, in order for Hollywood and comic book creators can mesh together and create a nice, tight cinematic universe for these characters, as has been done at Marvel across the street.

    That said, while I got the Christ metaphors for sure (which was not the original intent of Superman’s creators and a bit too heavy-handed in this film and the last for my taste), I didn’t get a really pro-military vibe from this movie, given that they were bad guys through most of the film, and even at the end of the film still don’t trust Superman. Maybe that’s just me, though, who admittedly is not a part of an evangelical branch of Christianity (no knock on them intended, btw).

    If anyone’s interested, I have a blog on WordPress called “Christ, Coffee, and Comics” (christcoffeecomics.wordpress.com), and I talk about this and other aspects of the character in my five part “Man of Steel, Man of Faith?” series. #shamelessplug

    Looking forward to reading more reviews, Steve! Thanks again!

    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to reply. I will have to check out your blog.

      I agree that by the end of the film, the top brass military want to be able to control Superman, but the middle management and rank-and-file seem to be with him all the way (e.g., “This man is not our enemy”; “I think he’s hot”).

      So what do you think about the Dawn of Justice trailer (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WWzgGyAH6Y), and with particular respect to the military, the images at 2:06 and 2:36)?

  4. I don’t get how this film is christian agenda. If it’s have any massege than it is “even right things may have bad backlash”.
    Yes, it’s mirrors Superman as a religious feguire, but christan imagery is more bait, than actual implification.
    Yes Superman same as Jesus sent by his space (heaven) father, but he was given birth by natural sex between man and woman, instead or sterile creaton (opposed to Zod).
    Many atheists bash religions for going against free-thinking, and free-will. What massege we have in Man of Steel? “What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended?”.
    Jesus is a skinny-body-hobo-man with godly wisdom inside. Superman/Clark Kent/Kal El is extaordinary individual, perfect muscles and look overall, but an ordinary human being inside, because he was raised on Earth (as a non-native citizen it’s most understandable point of his character) instead of some utopian society like Krypton. For Jesus walking on water is performong miracles, for Superman same type of thing natural. Remeber how Clark destroyed truck because guy was mean to him? Was he acting like a dick in that momen? Yes, but so do ordinary people sometimes, he still has much to learn. Opposed to Jesus who after a couple of time meditating in the desert (that’s actually more like Donner’s Superman who spent decade in Fortress of Solitude before fuguring it out, opposed to Snyder’s Superman who lived like an ordinary man before accidentally finding out another space ship, and even after that he had very bad expirience with his powers and made many mistakes) he knows everything about everything including himself, he sees his own destiny and steadly wait it, MoS’s scene where Clark challenging in contest where he designed to fail (destorying that gravity machine Black Zero) overcome odds because of his strong will it is direct opposite to the meaning of the word “destiny”.
    Yes, before coming out to Zod he is went to bishop, so what he is christian himself, that’s how he is. If you want superheroes-atheist Iron Man or Batman is your pick, Superman and Captain America were always “your ordinary joe” underneath their flashy costumes.

    Marketing is marketing, film itself is film itself.

    P.S.
    Dwelling planet’s core isn’t the same as “carbon emmisions create shift in climate”, also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkdbSxyXftc .

    P.P.S. English isn’t my native language so grammar mistakes here and there will occure. Sorry for it.

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