**Contains Spoilers — however, can a bad movie really be spoiled?**
SUPERMAN’S FIRST WORDS
It is night, and a helicopter is spinning out of control just above a thirty story building. It lurches to a halt at the rooftop’s edge and a woman dangles from it, screaming for help as crowds of people clamour below her.
A meek-looking man in a suit and hat picks up a yellow dress hat that has just fallen behind him. He studies it and looks up to where it fell from. Suddenly alert, he rushes away, dashing across the street and into a revolving door which spins faster – faster – and fast until the man emerges again, but now dressed in a bright blue costume and red cape. A fashionably dressed man sitting on a car with scantily-clad women witnesses this transformation. “Say, Jim! Whoa! That’s a bad outfit!”
The costumed man turns to the man and holds up a finger. “Excuse me,” he says, takes a light spring, and shoots up into the sky.
This is how my generation first experienced Superman, in the 1978 Richard Donner movie. I never saw it in the cinema, but I do remember watching it for the first time on TV, perched on a hotel bedroom, at the age of five. It remains to this day the best cinematic portrayal of any superhero, and the reason for it are those first two words that Superman delivered, and which are so descriptive of what made the Christopher Reeve/Richard Donner Superman so perfect.
The Superman of the 70s was endlessly polite. Even people who were outrightly rude to him he treated with patience and respect. He moved at superspeed, but it was rare that he rushed anywhere. The actor Christopher Reeve instilled the character of Superman with absolute confidence. And not only was he was completely aware of his own strength and power, of his surroundings and environment, but he was also completely aware of every other person around him, and not just their physical safety, but their emotional well-being also, as every line of dialogue in Superman’s first full scene portrays:
“Easy, miss,” he says upon catching a plummeting Lois. “I’ve got you.”
“You’ve got me? Who’s got you?”
Superman smirks at this and gives a little chuckle. Of course no one needs to ‘get’ him, but he deigns to laugh at Lois’s rather facile wordplay in order, you get the feeling, to save her embarrassment in a strenuous (for her) circumstance. He continues up the building and meets the helicopter as it makes its journey downwards. He grips it with one hand and flies it back up the building, giving a comforting glance to Lois as a father might give to a two-year-old.
Landing the helicopter back on the rooftop he calls out “Gentlemen, this man needs help!” And gestures to the unconscious pilot. Then he turns to the agog Lois and tries to diffuse the tension of the situation. “Well, I certainly hope this little incident hasn’t put you off flying, miss.” Lois cannot help shaking her head. So long as it’s with him, she’d fly anytime and anywhere. “Statistically speaking, of course, it’s still the safest way to travel.” And then, with one of the largest and most winsome smiles in movie history, he turns away, just about to leap away into the night when…
“Wait!” Lois has called him so he stops and turns. “Who ARE you?”
Superman is more serious now and he says steadily, and without a hint of the irony he has shown through the last three and a half minutes he replies: “A friend.” He leaps into the air calling out an informal “‘Bye!” as he disappears into the night.
This is the pure, distilled essence of what Superman had come to represent in the forty years up to that point. He wasn’t different to us, he was us — a perfect version of humanity, not only physically, but morally. He always knew, unquestionably, what the right thing to do was, in any situation. His alien origin wasn’t an explanation of his nature, it was an excuse — the reason why he wasn’t tainted with the moral corruption in every other human around him.
The only tension to his character, the only uncertain factor, was whether he, even with all his incredible abilities, he had the power to do enforce his vision of perfect justice onto the world around him. This is an important point, and this is what the generation that created Superman, the generation that survived and won World War II, imparted to us with the creation of Superman: the right course of action is never uncertain, it is only extremely hard to achieve — sometimes impossibly hard — but it is never in doubt. That is something that the creators of Superman understood, and it is something that people in the late 70s still remembered.
THE SUPERMAN WE NEED OR DESERVE?
But how much has changed in the thirty-five years since? And what sins have we committed to now be punished with Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan’s vision of Superman in Man of Steel? In the 1978 movie, Superman rescues a cat from a tree and gives it to a young girl with a smile and a “Here you go, miss”.
Faced with the same situation, 2013’s Man of Steel would agonize internally about the girl’s plight for a few moments before experiencing a vivid flashback where a random parent figure expressed disappointment. Returning to the present, the brooding superhero would eventually slinking off into the shadows, self-disgust visibly weighing on his shoulders, leaving the little girl to weep after her still-imperiled pet.
All of the important elements of Superman’s character, his personality, have been excised. His confidence is gone, his self-awareness has vanished, and his moral certainty is a raw, gaping maw of absence which he suffers the lack of through the entire movie. For some reason, the right thing to do is not clear to Superman/Clark Kent. It takes Kal-El thirty-three years to become Superman. And even then it seems that rescuing people isn’t a moral imperative to him, but merely a novel concept worth exploring. He is completely untethered by any moral sense, and no character in the movie is able to help him. The floundering Clark Kent even goes into a church at one point and asks a minister of the church what to do. The priest, in complete contradiction to two thousand years of unwaveringly insistent Christian theology, says to him “What does your gut tell you?”
God help us.
“DOOM’D FOR A CERTAIN TERM TO WALK THE NIGHT”
An elderly woman stands at a bus station, saying an emotional goodbye to her son who is moving to the big city after the death of his father.
“You’ve got a responsibility to the world, Clark,” she says to the young man who towers above her. “You’ve got to accept it. Make use of your great powers.”
This scene is actually from the first episode of The Adventures of Superman TV show from 1952. And a more accurate antithesis of the themes surrounding Man of Steel could not be stated so precisely. The modern Clark has altruistic instincts, but they are brow-beaten out of him at a very young age. He is unable to accept who he is because he is emotionally blackmailed into not using his powers at all.
All of this is due to his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent who, early in the story, berates a young Clark for saving a school bus full of children. Nearly the exact same scene appears in Superman: The Movie and ends with children cheering the departing superhero. In Man of Steel, the young Clark is practically punished by his father for taking such a thoughtless action. The reasoning is thus: if people discover what Clark can do, then they will turn against him, and try to destroy him. The message to the young Superboy is clear: think of yourself before others — you are more important than they are, even the lives of thirty children are not as important as the comfort of your privacy.
It is rare to come across a soul as warped as Pa Kent’s is in Man of Steel. “People are afraid of what they don’t understand,” Pa tells young Clark at one time. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s nearly word-for-word what one of the villains of another Christopher Nolan movie says. Carmine Falcone to Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins tells him “You always fear what you don’t understand.” Bruce’s father, which is repeated by his moral mentor Alfred, says to Bruce “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Conversely, Pa commends his son for staying down in the dirt when he is bullied, echoing an earlier scene in the movie where Clark walks away from a situation where a drunken trucker sexually assaults a waitress, apparently quiting his job rather than stand up to the woman’s attacker. Witness the teachings of Pa Kent.
In a final scene of overwhelming senselessness, Pa Kent actually runs into a tornado to rescue his own dog and then orders his son not to save him; martyring himself to selfishness.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet also had a ghostly father who appeared to badger and bully his emotionally sensitive son. The modern Superman has two ghosts of his father which appear interchangeably throughout. Whereas Hamlet’s father criticizes his son for what he isn’t, both of Clark’s dead fathers praise him for what he isn’t allowed to be right now, but will be, one day. No wonder Clark is confused. Both fathers, apparently gifted with the ability to see the future, tell Clark — repeatedly — that one day he will be able to be who he truly is… but not yet. What has to happen first before humanity is worthy to be saved is never explicitly stated, but it becomes clear that what had to happen was for aliens to invade earth and demand that their the member of their own race who has been hiding on earth be returned to them.
No biggie, it would seem. Better for Clark to indulge his tortured soul on board an alien spacecraft than on the planet earth if the Kryptonians are really going to cause such a fuss. And all wold be well and good except that they want to transform earth into a New Krypton, tweaking it’s environment so as to make it hostile to humans — apparently missing the upside of the fact that if they kept it as it was then they could all live there as super-powered beings. Or perhaps send their terraforming device to Venus and set up shop there.
But if this movie tells us anything about Kryptonians, it’s that their intolerant impatience is exceeded only by their relentless violence. Even their top scientific minds — Superman’s father Jor-El, for instance — are able and willing without hesitation to disarm a squadron of guards with their bare hands, leap onto flying dragons in the middle of a fiercely raging mid-air coup d’etat and don suits of armor to battle rebellious generals. Lives are cheap on Krypton, and the desire for rampant destruction is evidently genetic as we arrive at what is the most profoundly disturbing aspect of Man of Steel, and that is how much destruction Superman himself participates in.
I’ve been a reader of Superman comics for about twenty years now and in my own collection I could find, at a conservative estimate, probably about a hundred panels of Superman standing over rampaging villain thinking “I have to get them away from the city, to where they can’t do any damage!” This consideration does not even seem to flit across the Man of Steel’s face as the totality of Smallville is reduced to rubble in a three-way battle between Superman, Zod’s militia, and the U.S. Army and Airforce. The battle then very quickly moves to Metropolis (Manhattan) where Superman viciously beats down a pointlessly wrathful Zod, throwing each other into buildings, scrabbling for chunks of masonry that they can smack each other with — anything that they haven’t already pulverized. Finally, Superman places Zod in a headlock before he is, we are given to understand, “forced” to snap Zod’s neck, thus saving a mixed-race family from dying by his flaming heat vision.
This act of killing — whether you see it as justified or not — is the final meaningful action of the movie and the inference is that Zod’s death leads to every problem in the story being solved. Superman is angry at this idea, and he should be. What this movie is telling us, or rather, what it is begging us to validate, is that any extreme action is justified — even the destruction of our own homes and cities — so long as we kill the bad guy.
“A good death is its own reward,” not one, but two characters say in this movie, and this is the Hollywood screenwriter’s current mantra. Consider how much creative energy is directed by writers in trying to find a new way to kill, and a new way to blow things up.
What is really scary is what this movie says about the filmmakers, and what it says about us if we applaud it — and remember, by simply paying to see these movies of destruction, like Man of Steel, Pacific Rim and World War Z, we are applauding them. In the Hollywood economy, critical acclaim (such as this blog) count for nothing: every ticket is a vote for more of the same and so far Man of Steel has taken in 620 USD worldwide, and a sequel has just been announced on the MTV website. “We almost destroyed the world last time,” director Zack Snyder says. “Now what!?” The main creative mind behind the Superman movie franchise is completely predicated on the potentiality for destruction as he looks ahead to what will come next.
IMAGINE A BOOT
While I was watching the fight scenes, I was reminded of a famous quote in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four — the one about the boot. I went back and looked it up and was surprised at how accurate Orwell’s vision of the future, once again, proves to be. In it the character of O’Brien describes the future:
“There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
The makers of Man of Steel are not curious about life, nor do they display any enjoyment of it, as the makers of Superman: The Movie obviously did. Instead, they are intoxicated by a power which always increases (except this one does not grow subtler). The response it demands of us is the thrill of victory and the vilification of a two-dimensional enemy in a two hour long “Two Minute Hate.”
For that is what Man of Steel is — a metaphorical boot unremittingly stamping on the face of all that is good in humanity. If the movie is a syllogism, the last scene is its conclusion and every scene before that is a proposition. That means that every contrivance of character and event that the filmmakers made served only to create a situation where Superman could create maximum destruction and the killing with intent of an enemy.
This is the core message of Man of Steel: no temple is sacred in the pursuit of the destruction of our enemies. Unlike my generation, this one will grow up with a Superman who kills.
The Man of Tomorrow welcomes you to the future.
It doesn’t have to be as bad as that. Superman comics are still very good, often very moral, and I encourage you to read them, especially Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman, undoubtedly the most intelligent Superman stories, and also Superman: Birthright, the best of the modern retellings of Superman’s origins.
People also seem very ready to forget how good the first few seasons of the Smallville TV show were. For moral rectitude, John Schneider’s Pa Kent is pitch-perfect, and Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex Luthor is delightfully ambiguous.
This summer’s blockbuster movies haven’t been all bad — although they have all been violent. The best scene of them all was the “barrel of monkeys” sequence in Iron Man 3, which was an action scene that didn’t show Iron Man against a bad guy, but only Iron Man against the laws of physics. Also, Star Trek: Into Darkness was a movie premised on the idea that killing our enemies may not solve all our problems.
But seriously, if you haven’t done so, buy a copy of Superman: The Movie. It’s a complete delight from start to finish. It is full of emotion, tension, and humour, and not once does Superman inflict violence on anyone or anything.