Thanks to Christopher Nolan, I now know what it feels like to be a precog. It’s not much fun, even if you get to keep your hair, wardrobe and aren’t kept in a pool of water.
From the moment I read that Nolan was going to produce the new Superman movie, even before I’d seen the first trailer, I knew what the film was going to be like: super serious and mostly grey in terms of the colour palette. Superman would be a tormented chap, grappling with some past trauma that he’d have to resolve in the course of this film which would do its best to convince us that Superman is not only a saviour but also a tragic hero. Nolan is that predictable. This is not to suggest he’s a bad filmmaker. He’s made some wonderful films. The man just has no notion of fun. A friend had coined a fabulous phrase for people who are entirely humourless and it applies perfectly to Nolan the director: he’s the black hole of fun.
SPOILERS AHEAD. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Man of Steel is precisely what I’d predicted. It gives Superman a new wardrobe, which does not include wear-em-on-top red underwear and it tells us to take him seriously. The man’s sacrificing himself to save the planet, people. He’s held on to his love for humanity even though so many have been so mean to him, ever since he was a little boy. This is no laughing matter. It also has a few Nolan tropes, like the tormented hero who must discover himself, the father who loves his kids but can’t be there for them because of circumstances and a leader whose devotion to his principles is too literal and consequently turns him into a villain (which, if you think about it, is pretty much what transforms Lucifer into Satan). However, the story is far from solid. The characters, from Clark (Henry Cavill) to Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and the military dudes, are all half-baked. The motivations are all weak. For instance, Clark’s earthling daddy’s (Kevin Costner) death is ridiculous and it makes no sense that the fact that Clark’s father was a paranoid idiot would convince Lois to not go public with Clark’s alien identity. Also, why on earth does Zod (Michael Shannon) want Kal-El’s blood when he’s already killed Jor-El? It makes no sense, particularly if you keep in mind that theory that Kryptonians were artificially birthed with particular roles embedded in their brains. Zod tells Kal-El that he was born to protect Krypton and its people. That’s his only purpose in life. Well, if that’s the case, he should be shoulder to shoulder with Kal-El instead of trying to kill him. Kal-El is, after all, the last surviving Kryptonian who, incidentally, has the DNA of all future Kryptonians in his blood. It just doesn’t make sense.
Zach Snyder is credited as the director and though Man of Steel has some impressive CGI explosions, it’s visually far from interesting. Snyder may not be the best of storytellers and certainly not one who will get the feminist vote, but in both 300 and The Watchmen, he did fun visual stuff that drew upon the comics and graphic novels that were the films’ starting points. The opening credits for The Watchmen is one of the most elegant credits sequences I’ve seen. Man of Steel has no arresting visual moments. Its look and cinematography are as predictable as the plot. The most startling visual moment in the film for me was realising how well Michael Shannon fits Zod’s skin-tight suit. Someone should give Snyder an award for reducing good actors like Snyder and Adams into bland automatons.
Come to think of it, I was wrong earlier. The film wasn’t exactly what I’d predicted. I hadn’t foreseen my reaction to seeing Henry Cavill in the new Superman suit, which was, “What does that button at his navel do?” I can’t believe no one was tempted to press it. To be fair, I also hadn’t anticipated how blatantly the film establishes Kal-El/Superman as a modern-day Jesus Christ. He is sent to Earth, has a loving stepfather who treats him like his own; he’s very close to his mum. As a kid, he isn’t taken seriously. As a young man who isn’t publicly acknowledged as a messiah, he travels all over the place, doing God’s work in the sense of looking out for the weak and the wretched of the Earth. Then, at the age of 33 — and the screenplay somewhat unnecessarily stresses the point that Kal-El is 33 when he sets out to save the planet — he becomes a saviour. Selflessly, he offers himself as sacrifice in order to save Earth and its ungrateful Earthlings who know not what they do. And as if all this wasn’t enough, when he’s confused he goes to church and what should he have behind him? The figure of Christ, wearing blue, in stained glass.
General Zod only strengthens the Biblical angle because his story is similar to Satan’s. He was the protector of Krypton and was once on the same side as Jor-El (a wonderful Russell Crowe) who dies early in Man of Steel only to reappear as a holy ghost (holy here being an abbreviation of hologram). Zod rebels and initially, he’s successful. But the rebellion is ultimately quelled and he is cast off the dying planet to a futuristic hell with and his band of evil Kryptonians (they all wear black, helpfully). Seems to me it would have been more of a punishment to keep Zod and gang on the planet which is exploding. But no, they’re shackled and sent off. Only to find their way out, come to earth and demand Earth give up Kal-El. Enter Kal-El and cape.
The Nolan treatment worked for Batman partly because the character had been a campy joke in the comics and most of the films. So turning him into a serious dude was radical. It also worked because Batman is a privileged but not unfamiliar. Superman, on the other hand, is not normal. To fit him into Nolan’s hero mould by taking away the humour and cuckoo-ness of the story is a very bad idea because you just cannot treat Superman realistically. Why? Allow me to introduce you to Larry Nevin.
He comes on at 5 minutes and 12 seconds — Skip to 5minutes 12 seconds — and says things like:
“If you had a Kryptonian patrolling Metropolis every night, you couldn’t keep the glass in any window. Sonic booms.”
“When a Kryptonian crushes a human woman in his arms, she stays crushed.”
“What you wanna do is take one Kryptonian sperm with a pair of tiny tweezers and put it in the right place. It can fertilise the egg that way. Even so, you get problems six months later, when the baby tries to kick.”
(You can see the five-part BBC documentary Superman —> The Comic Strip Hero here. The last two quotes are from the last part of the documentary.)
This probably says nothing good about my hormonal functioning, but Cavill shirtless and pretty much literally on fire versus Niven pointing out how Kryptonian sperm would vaporise an unfertilised human egg and scatter around the house, burning little holes into everything — my heart belongs to Niven.
But even if you ignore how utterly adorable Niven is — those glasses! Come on! How can you resist that face! — I find this bulked up Cavill is a little unnerving. It’s not that I have anything against muscles per se. I watched The Immortals only because I wanted my fill of Cavill shirtless after having been seduced by his cheekbones and clefty chin in the ghastly The Tudors, but this bulked up body in Man of Steel looks…unnatural. Which is fitting, I suppose, since he’s playing the part of an alien. The only thing that seems natural about Cavill’s Superman avatar is how his chest hair peeks out of the costume’s neckline. The rest of him is just too much like an action figure for me and my hormones to take seriously.
Niven, on the other hand, is just the cutest nerd ever. Sigh.
Edited to add:
And you can practically hear the wails of Superman-fan in this piece by one Darren Franich, who notes this is the first time Superman is entirely nonchalant about killing someone.
The Dark Knight concludes that Batman is a kind of necessary evil for society, a parasite created to kill other parasites before ultimately being extinguished; Rises concludes that Batman is Jesus Christ, basically, although the movie throws in enough complications to make you wonder if Nolan isn’t secretly incepting us. Man of Steel is kind of like Rises without even the bare pretense of sacrifice. If I read the ending correctly, we are supposed to understand that Superman has become a better superhero because he has been forced to kill someone. The movie expects our sympathy: “Poor Superman. He had to kill Zod. That must be so hard for him.” … The fact that nobody involved in the making of the movie could come up with a clever way for Superman to not kill Zod — like maybe use any of his superpowers besides his incredible ability to punch real hard — says more about the filmmakers than about Superman. The fact that nobody thought that Superman should have any emotional reaction to killing someone is either confusing or incredibly cynical.
Good stuff. Though fact of the matter is, the movie’s made some $125 million in its first weekend, so we can whinge away but this formula has worked.