So I’ve finally watched Man of Steel all the way through, and I’m puzzled at all the visceral dislike I’ve read and seen in the past year. I thought there were parts of it that were just beautifully done, and parts that were a bit eye-rolly (though no more eye-rolly than your average superhero movie, that’s for sure.)
I am most puzzled by two criticisms I’ve heard leveled at the film: a) Clark would never let his father die like that, and b) Clark would never kill somebody. I confess I’m stumped as to why people grimace at those perfectly reasonable actions — actions which the script actually underpinned and provided answers for — and yet are okay with bizarre editing choices like, now we shall suddenly be standing in the middle of a field holding hands.
First off, Clark didn’t let his father die. He obeyed his father’s wishes, even at the price of his own grief and agony. Every instinct in him demanded that he rush to his father and save him, but what stopped him? His father’s single raised hand. The most powerful being on the planet, and a middle-aged farmer stopped him—froze him to the spot, actually—with a single gesture. And that, as Mako Mori has reminded us, is called respect.
Secondly, what? What the hell is up with the “Superman doesn’t kill” bullshit? Oh, okay, I guess since Batman doesn’t use guns, he doesn’t glorify violence at all, either. Come on. In any realistic narrative, that kind of absolutist pacifism allows the main character to preserve his cherished principles at the expense of actual human lives. He tried to avoid killing Zod. He begged him to stop. And it wasn’t until Zod’s own avowal of “Never" that Clark grasped the reality of what Zod’s resistance meant: an all-powerful homicidal maniac who would never stop until he had killed as many as possible. And even then—even then—Clark does not take the action in cold blood, on some sort of vague principle, but in order to save these four specific human lives. It’s the triumph of specificity over abstraction, of flesh and blood over thought and brain. And it’s an agonizing choice, one that he realizes may well damn him, and he screams at having to do it.
I think this characterization is entirely in keeping with the Superman of the reboot I have come to enjoy—a vastly more complex character, in many ways, than pre-boot Supes. I think the re-worked origin story, the one of hiding and lurking, is brilliant. It allows us to see a Clark who grows into the knowledge and use of his powers, who slowly acquires comfort with them, who begins with the small and the specific — I will save this one person, defend this one woman — and eventually comes to see the full scope of his responsibility. I can believe in that Clark, and trust him more. His own distrust of himself, his own wariness, makes me trust him. So yeah, I think the Clark who hides was a brilliant re-write, and a way of adding fascinating depth and complexity to a character whose chief problem has always been his relative lack of complexity.
Undoing the narrative about the necessity of lying to women, that was another good thing. Hurray for a Lois Lane who did not require a gasp-inducing reveal, but who figured things out on her own and tracked him to his home turf, and hurray for a Superman who does not find it necessary to build his love life on a deception. I’m still never going to be a Lois Lane fan, because I’m always going to be profoundly bothered by a character who was created for the sole and only purpose of being a love object for the male main character. But this Lois made an engaging point-of-view character, and Amy Adams overcame more than a few awkward lines (“I’m a Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter!”) to deliver a likable performance. I did not hate this Lois, let’s put it that way, and that’s progress, for me.
What could I have lived without? The cynical decision to market this movie to American evangelical Christians, who were frequently pandered to. I wasn’t that bothered by the cruciform Clark floating in the water (that is kind of how people float, after all, and to the degree that the shot evoked anything it successfully evoked death, surrender, and suffering) but I was bothered by the ham-handed Gethsemane moment, when Clark, uncertain what to do, stumbles into a church and bares his soul to a priest while backgrounded by a stained glass window of Gethsemane. Yes, we get it. On this earth for thirty-three years. Yes, we got that too. You said it twice.
(As a side note, I’m fascinated that the religious landscape in this country has shifted so dramatically that evangelicals can watch and sympathize with a scene where a Catholic church stands for American religion — just more evidence of the growing coziness between evangelicals and Catholics, both politically and theologically. But that’s just my particular interest showing.)
I could also have lived without the flags snapping in the distance. That’s another reason I enjoy the rebooted Superman, and not just because nobody looks good in red granny panties. If Superman is being re-imagined as a hero for the entire planet, and if the days of “truth, justice, and the American way” are truly behind us, then maybe a little less with the flag-waving as Clark and the Colonel finally make their peace. It was another example of a pandering visual that this story did not need, and the background image-wedding of religion and patriotism is one that any American alive to what is going on in our country right now ought to cringe at.
But finally, there are too many things to love about this movie to be off-put by the minor visual irritants. Laurence Fishburne, for cryin out Christmas. Richard Schiff! Christopher Meloni! I have no idea who should actually orchestrate our defense in the event of a galactic supervillain invasion, but I say we could do worse than elect Toby Zeigler and Detective Stabler. Stabler can hold him down and cuff the son of a bitch while Toby rants at him in an impassioned speech about how we can do better, dammit. (I would totally watch that movie, so read this review bearing that in mind.)
But in all honesty, I was sold on the movie in the first fifteen minutes when RUSSELL CROWE RODE A FUCKING DRAGON. I’m serious, what the hell else are you looking for in a cinematic experience? You tell me what you are fucking looking for, you tell me what your goddamn needs are that are not fulfilled by that.