Man of Steelby Kavish Chetty / 28.06.2013
Clark Kent’s adaptors and overseers are all faced with a philosophical problem: namely, the absence of any philosophical problems at all. The tenebrous urge of the new superhero culture is to reduce power so as to produce crisis. For Batman, this is a mortal reckoning with a sociopathic anarcho-politics that cripples him and threatens to outmatch him; for James Bond, this is a literal gunshot wound to the chest which spreads its humbling portent throughout his body, calling into doubt the raison d’être of M16. In each of these two films (Dark Knight and Skyfall), politics intrudes into the infantile flesh of superhero fantasy, but both systems are also organised by cheap philosophical undercurrents which lash at the historic omnipotence of the superhero. Batman is wearied by the real-world constraints on both his body and his vigilante project, while Bond signifies larger shifts away from an impossibly virile masculinity towards a culture which recognises vulnerability.
The problem with Superman – as if the name weren’t ominously banal enough – is that he is literally invincible, immortal and extra-terrestrial: he is immune to the Nolan serum of “serious comic-book drama”, and will make all attempts at being “philosophised” seem absurd. Even the name, Man of Steel is ridiculous, in its semantic proximity to porno – a man who is endlessly erect and going forever. Dominant superhero culture is trying, if sophomorically, to undo the myths of masculinity. Superman apotheosises that very myth.
The film prologues with a deep sip of sci-fi excess even before coming down to Earth altogether. We open on the dying hours of planet Krypton, being torn apart by turgid special effects. Man of Steel spends a great deal of time in the debris of the Superman origin story. That story may have been told tens of times over, but the new curation by Zack Snyder, with wing-men Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, is after something a little more contemporary: its desire, as a reboot, is to make the universe of Superman more solemn, sombre and realistic for future sequels and incarnations. There is a lot of retroactive “serious-ising” in this reinterpretation – like the conditions under which Superman in launched in a space-capsule to Earth; the fact that his iconic red briefs are now absent; the “S” on his shirt actually stands for “Hope” et cetera.
There is also an attempt to crowbar philosophical threat into a story that has none. Mr. Kent (Kevin Costner) carefully explains to young Clark that he has to keep his powers secretive, lest ye mass xenophobic of our planet ravenously turn on him. In an early schoolbus disaster scene – one so convenient as to raise suspicion as to the sophistication of its plotters – Clark saves his classmates from death by drowning, to which his surrogate father admonishes him, telling him to not so openly display his powers. “What was I supposed to do,” asks Clark of his father, “let them die?” To which he is answered, “Maybe.” This is how all attempts to be philosophical in Superman are killed in utero by an absence of any threat. The film tries to piece together these teenage musings: the god-philosophy of this Christ-like figure, the philosophy of the non-human and how we react to him, the question of purpose and identity… all fail lamely against the grandeur of the only thing this film really does well: explosive, physics-defying special effects.
The problem is that the film cannot find an equilibrium as it married to a mythos so camp as to be beyond the redemptions offered by Christopher Nolan. Let’s return then, to the action. Man of Steel is a film book-ended by spectacular sequences of devastation: in the lengthy introduction, Krypton implodes stylishly, and in its tautologically overdone epilogue, the city of Metropolis becomes a playground for aliens to beat the shit out of each other, all the while leveling skyscrapers, flattening cars, totaling up untold destruction and misery for innocent bystanders (Superman appears to be rather nonplussed by all this collateral damage dripping from his hands).
General Zod – and let’s be honest, it’s name ridiculous enough to show off the true vintage of this universe, along with “Kal-El” and “Jor-El”, nerdish appellations if e’er there was – comes down to Earth with the twin intentions of transmogrifying it into a New Krypton and hunting down Superman. Zod is played by Michael Shannon, sporting an Ancient Roman haircut and ludicrous bulging eyes, that make him look less like a planet-destroyer than a Pretorian cat-addict at Stones on a Tuesday night. They battle it out to the soundtrack of familiar collaborator Hans Zimmer’s rather more complicated score.
There’s little else to arrest attentions on here. Russell Crowe, Laurence Fishburne, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane all get a turn to fill up the yawning centre of this movie and by its exhausting climax, one truth is finally made obvious: trying to make sense of Superman will always resolve in schizophrenia.