The Unbearable Awfulness of Man of Steel

And by that title, I don’t mean Superman the character.  No, I’m referring to the 2013 film Man of Steel.  For the sake of a friend, I will explain in this post why this film was not only dull but offensively so.  To state it bluntly, the story was terribly written, and the film completely reliant upon mindless, video game type violence devoid of any real tension or significance for its entertainment value.  Its characters were mostly bland, and uninteresting, spouting boring, on the nose dialogue for much of the film, and Superman himself was almost wholly unsympathetic.  Unless you like mindless CGI violence for the sake of CGI violence (of which there was an abundance in this film), it was just really awful around.


If Your Protagonist Doesn’t Give a Damn, Then Neither Do I

It is important in film or any type of story to establish what the character is trying to do, what goal he is trying to accomplish, fairly early on, for this established what the stakes are for a character before the story really gets going.  This is something that the makers of Man of Steel did not do, alas.  To get a sense why it fails as a story, you could compare it to the Superman films of the late 70s and it will explain a great deal.  Those films, directed by Richard Donner and his replacement, were not exactly masterpieces, but they were well told in terms of story structure.   And compared to Man of Steel, they set up the character of Clark/Superman much more competently.

Let’s look at an example.  Early in the Superman, Clark is faced with the loss of Jonathan Kent, and we learn something very important about him:

Clark learns early on, and so do we, that he cannot fully protect his loved ones from death, despite his great powers.  And so this becomes his goal, to save people, from criminals, disasters, etc.  This sets up the main lines of conflict throughout the first and second film:  in Superman, Clark goes to metropolis and starts saving people, arresting criminals, etc. (he even saves a kitten stuck in a tree!).  But then he meets Lois, with whom he falls in love, introducing a potential conflict between his desire to protect humanity, and his desire to be with her.  Then Lex Luthor comes along, launching two nuclear missile at both coasts of the U.S. simultaneously, and forces him to choose:  save millions of people on one coast where Lois is, or save millions of people on the other.  And because he makes a promise to Miss Tessmacher, who saves him from Kryptonite, he goes to the east coast first, and then goes to California.  As a result, Lois dies.  But Superman can’t accept this, and so defies Jor-El and reverses time in order to save her.  This action has serious consequences, as it sets up the main conflict of the next film, in which we see that his decision to save Lois leads inadvertently to Zod being freed from the Phantom Zone, leaving Earth vulnerable when Superman decides to give up his powers to be with Lois.  He finally has to let her go at the end of Superman II, in order to be Superman and protect the Earth.  Again, notice how each action leads to the next conflict, and every escalation of the basic conflict intensifies the opposition or stakes for Superman in his quest to save the one(s) he loved.  That’s good storytelling.

Now compare this with what happens in Man of Steel.  He is sent to earth, much for the same reasons as in Superman, but with a twist:  Jor-El, in this version, somehow implants the DNA of every single Kryptonian into Kal-El’s body, in order, I suppose, to one day restart Kryptonian civilization.  But throughout the movie–over and over again, in what felt like hundreds of lines of repetitive dialogue–we are informed that Superman was sent to Earth for some vague higher purpose, which never really materializes:  “You will give the people of earth an ideal to strive for,” Jor-El tell him at one point, and at another Jonathan Kent tells him that he was sent to Earth for a “purpose.”  I must confess, I’m not really sure what this purpose is by the end of the film, and what I do understand, I find to be joyless and repulsive.  Compare for a moment the death scene of Jonathan Kent in Man of Steel, and see what I mean:

In the beginning of the scene, Lois tells Superman that he won’t be able to stay away because “not helping people is not an option for you.”  But what happens in the scene itself completely contradicts this:  Jonathan commits suicide and Clark/Superman just lets him die, rather than reveal his secret.  Think about that very carefully:  Clark, who is practically invulnerable physically speaking, is more afraid that people will not like him than that his father will die.  This tells you all need to know about Superman in this film:  there are many more important things than saving people’s lives, even the ones he cares about!   Given that Superman is supposed to be a superhero, this makes it very hard to like him.   His goals–whatever they are–don’t really include doing heroic things like, you know, saving people from death.  All that’s left is a really powerful alien who destroys things without much thought to how much damage he is causing.

And this is essentially all there is to the story, as illustrated by the mind numbing violence at the end of the film.  Clark, who has now revealed his secret and somehow managed to survive the trauma of people not liking him, now fights with Zod  and in the process nearly destroys half of metropolis, with the people still in it (after having wiped out Smallville as well):

Note how the end of the scene tries to make it sound like it is oh so tragic that Zod is going to kill a couple of people, as if the thousands of people who have already died during the fighting didn’t even exist.  So now all of sudden Superman gives a damn about people dying? I found this nearly impossible to take seriously, since by this point the action of the film has made clear that for Superman saving people is not terribly important.  He could have easily drawn Zod out into space, or into uninhabited areas to fight but does no such thing.  Again, note the contrast with what Superman does in Superman II:

There, Superman clearly is trying to fight Zod and protect the people of Metropolis from harm.  He eventually draws them away from the city as part of his plan, and the difference couldn’t be more stark:  in one film, a superhero who actually acts like it, and in another, one who acts like a professional wrestler and gets thousands if not millions of people killed in the process.

I understand that the filmmakers, prodded no doubt by Christopher Nolan, wanted to take the Superman story in a different direction, make it more edgy, realistic.  But there’s only so much wiggle room you have with an iconic figure like Superman.  Dark, brooding and sympathetically psychotic worked much better with Bruce Wayne, whose origin story even in the oldest comic books included watching his father be murdered right in front of him.  But for Superman, this makes little sense, since it changes the dynamics of his character so much.  Superman was supposed to be (as far as I know) a cross between Jesus, Nietzsche’s ubermensch, and the Golem of Jewish folklore, fitted to a sentimental American audience that wanted to believe in heroes.  Maybe that is considered passé now, but changing his character so radically makes it impossible to care about him.

And part of the way we come to care about a character is through knowing what is at stake for a character.  Stakes have to do with things a character cares deeply about and is willing to fight for, but that are also vulnerable at the same time.  The problem with Superman as a character is that he is physically almost completely invulnerable (kryptonite can hurt him, yes, but it is a weak, deus ex machina which you don’t want to use too much), so the only real way he can be threatened is through the people–the humans, who are vulnerable–that he cares about.  Once you take that away, once you shown him to be indifferent or diffident about that, you’ve removed all that makes Superman sympathetic as a character.  And thus all the tedious dialogue about him being great, the self-important shots of him brooding because no one likes him, are all you have left, besides thoughtlessly excessive violence.


The Offensive, Pseudo-Christian Themes of Man of Steel Are Intimately Related to Its World Historical Dullness 

You might be tempted to object:  so what?  Those older films were campy, cheesy, corny and sentimental, suffused with silly, 1950s ideals of American style liberalism that are painfully outdated today, and paired with bad special effects that appear equally outdated and silly.  We’re more grown up now, and grown ups need dark, realistic stories.  It is true those older films were campy, and corny.  I would be the last to deny it.  But they had one thing going for them that Man of Steel doesn’t:  they were fun.  It was fun watching Christopher Reeves take his suit off to reveal the “S” on his chest in a phone booth, fun hearing the rousing theme by John Williams blare out whenever Superman did something heroic.  I still get squeals of joy watching Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor wittily insult his bumbling sidekick Otis, and from Terence Stamp’s over the top bellowing of the phrase “Kneel before Zod!”  And this all was made possible by the fact that they adhered to a simple but effective story structure, appropriate to the quasi-fairy tale origin story of Superman.

I think part of the reason they were so fun was because these earlier films preserved the basic Judeo-Christian ethos of the story, unlike Man of Steel, and that this helps explain why Superman I & II were dramatic and fun, and why Man of Steel was stilted and boring.  The producers of those films seemed to grasp intuitively what G.K. Chesterton wrote about the Christian story, that it is joyous, and fun, and not like the pagan myths which were somber, and dreary, like so many comic movies are today.   Several people have pointed out the ridiculous shot of Henry Cavill in profile with a figure of Jesus in a church, and some have taken it as an instance of the film’s cynical ploy to get Christians to watch the film.  The same could be said of the priest’s anodyne invocation of faith (faith in what, exactly?) as well.  You could say this was cynical pandering on the part of Snyder and Nolan, but I’m not so sure.  It think he and his collaborators may genuinely not have understood that the Superman story presupposes a certain moral ethos, and thought they could jettison it without much consequence as a result.  (The guys at Red Letter Media, whose take down of the film is hilarious, still didn’t seem to get that Snyder’s equation of his version of Superman with Jesus is not really plausible.) In any case, the film is light years from the admittedly superficial but still genuine nods toward Christian belief in Superman.

But what has the entertainment value of these films to do with Christianity, you might ask?  Simple.  The Christian God cares about humanity, so much so that he became man himself and died for them in order to save them.  Pagan gods, by contrast, see humans as slaves, playthings, and waste their lives without much thought.  And by extension, when Superman acts like he doesn’t care–like a pagan god–given his enormous powers, he seems  threatening, rather than inspiring.  Just look at the last scene of Man of Steel: 

So here is Superman, asking a general to “trust” him, while he goes about destroying more of his equipment.  This, after he has wiped out Smallville (you know, the place where he grew up) and maybe half of Metropolis.    I distinctly recall watching this scene in the theater, and being emotionally confused by it.  I knew I was supposed to be on Superman’s side, and I wanted to be, but I kept asking myself, “why is he being such an asshole?”   Indeed, the whole message of the film could be summed this way:

But that’s what is likely to happen when you strip superhero characters like Superman of their essentially Christian moral code; they often become thoughtless, violent thugs, almost by dramatic necessity.  They have nothing else going for them as characters.  It maybe neat to watch a couple of CGI figures bash a city to pieces like Greek gods, but then there was a reason why the Homeric epics were about the humans, and not the gods:  there was simply nothing at stake for them, because they could not die, or suffer, and therefore could never generate any sympathy with an audience.  Unlike the Triune God, who became man precisely to suffer, and die for humanity, and so became the greatest story ever told–the God who can be dramatic, because he cares about humanity.

Of course, the idea that Superman is a sort of space Jesus is asinine when you think about it, and the older films played with it in a way that was in some respects superficial.  But they got the essential moral compass right, and this makes all the difference, since it made their version of Superman a character we can root for.  The pagan Man of Steel, by abandoning this Christian ethic, makes Superman seem not terribly different from Zod, who doesn’t care about killing people either.  Ironically, by jettisoning this Judeo-Christian element of the Superman story, Man of Steel also violated the one and only commandment the church of Hollywood enjoins on its votaries–“don’t be boring.”  And Man of Steel is boring, precisely to the extent which it embraced such a preposterous neo-pagan ethic.


Dullness as a Symptom of Civilizational Decay

There are objective elements to good storytelling, even though obviously we react differently to different stories based on how much interest we have in their subject matter.  You didn’t need to have a “Christian” version of Superman to make it likable, necessarily; you could have cut out the stylistic references to Christianity in Superman (I’m thinking of Marlon’s Brando’s speeches to Kal-El, which make explicit the connection) and it still would have worked fine, as long as it had similar sort of moral basis to it.  And you may simply like mindless violence; that’s okay too (unless you’re goal is to imitate it, of course).  The subjective element is predominant, I grant you.  But nonetheless, there are basic components to good storytelling that people don’t seem to understand anymore.  The Anglican writer Alan Jacobs has written somewhere that Western society has lost seemingly lost its ability to tell a good story because it has outsourced storytelling to Hollywood.  Personally, I fear the situation may be even worse:  not only have we seemingly lost the ability to tell a good story, many people don’t seem to be able to understand what a good story is anymore, and enjoy it properly, much less be able to tell one themselves.  It’s all just formless, generic entertainment I guess.  No more evocation of fear or pity for us (i.e., Aristotle’s catharsis)–just give us more explosions!

Is that overdoing it a bit?  Probably.  I have spent way too much time thinking about this turd of a movie, and besides, not all movies are this awful.  I have heard nothing but good things about the new film Guardians of the Galaxy, and it is doing splendidly at the box office from what I gather.  So intelligent films, even Hollywood blockbusters, are not dead yet.  But audiences are not particular; if you don’t give them the real thing, they are apt to take whatever entertainment you can shove down their throat, and there isn’t much they can do about it.  But we as consumers of story (and as producers of story?) can make things a little better by at least knowing what a story is supposed to do, while we await films that actually try to tell one.    At the very least, we will be much better able to understand and enjoy them when they do come our way.





Alypius Minor

~ by Alypius on August 10, 2014.

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