Seriously, I am about to rant in the lead up to another, equally tedious rant. If you loved Man of Steel, have an understandable hatred for futile whining on the interwebs, or just generally care for your own mental health, I suggest you don’t bother reading the following post.
The TLDR version is: other people liked Man of Steel – and that’s fine. I resoundingly did not enjoy it (which is also fine, by the way) – but I foolishly tried to analyse why, and almost lost my mind in the process.
This is that story…
IMAGE: General Zod from Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)
I made a mistake.
Two months ago, the granddaddy of all super heroes, the original man-in-the-tri-colour-onesie – Superman – returned to cinemas. It had been decades since the Richard Donner vision of the prototypical comic book champion was so watered down by his progressively inferior sequels that the franchise had faded into a mockery of itself. A new millennium had come upon us since the (thankfully) stalled Kevin Smith/Tim Burton/Nick Cage ‘dark’ re-visioning of Krypton’s son, Superman Lives, was jettisoned into the whispers of movie studio lore. And it has been years since Bryan Singer (leaving the X-Men franchise to collapse in on itself under Brett Ratner’s profoundly mediocre directing*) had seen his resurrection of the saga stalled with a lukewarm (to hostile) audience response.
Superman had certainly lived on in comics (been killed and reborn, had his powers altered and gotten married), and he had thrived in the phenomenal animated Superman and Justice League programs (executive produced by Bruce Timm who likewise helmed the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series**), but it took until this year for Kal-El to return to the silver screen in Man of Steel, a big budget spectacle designed to reintroduce the Superman tale to a whole new audience, restarting the narrative from the beginning.
I was warned ahead of time that this version of the tale would probably not appeal to me – that I might, in fact, get quite angry at this depiction of the character.
I didn’t listen.
But that’s not the mistake bit. Not yet. The mistake comes later.
‘Pish-posh,’ cried I, when I heard their cautions. ‘Why, adaptation is the lifeblood of all mythologies that seek to remain valid! It is the responsibility of each new generation to re-contextualise the elements of these adventures to speak to their own experience! Ergo, the details will change, the tone will fluctuate, and the familiar will be remade anew! Forsooth! Egads! Harrumph!’
Flinging my martini into the fireplace, I then repositioned my monocle, bid everyone a good day (‘I said, Good Day, sir!’), and clambered up onto my penny-farthing, to pedal as swiftly as I could to the nearest moving-pictures show and pay for a ticket – keen to discover for myself how this new-fangled Superman was rejuvenating the stuffy and old with a fresh perspective.
…Okay, to be honest I wasn’t quite so philosophical. While I desperately hoped that the film would deliver a rollicking, triumphant and introspective journey (Superman is a character that can frequently be dismissed as cheesy or old-fashioned, but I legitimately believe him to be more important in our current cultural climate than he ever has been) there had been some major warning signs hanging over the production that gave me pause.
Namely, Jack Snyder.
To put it mildly, I am not a fan of Zack Snyder’s work. To me it has consistently been the very definition of cinematic style over substance – and considering that I’m not really a big fan of his perpetually washed-out-metallic-sheen aesthetic either, there really is really very little to endear me to his canon. I know many loved the film (and I am glad for them) but beyond its faithfulness to the source material’s bold visuals (and near-fetishistic masculinity), I saw little to love in 300. The Watchmen likewise perfectly recreated the page layouts of the comic, but its characters and symbolism fell flat (again, just my opinion). And the less said about what I consider to be his grotesquely misguided (and mystifyingly tone-deaf) ‘feminist’ treatise Suckerpunch, the better. So far his filmography has seemed to me to be stylistically thumping but narratively scattershot; emotionless, inhuman, and lacking anything that even vaguely resembles subtlety, character depth, cohesive narrative, or the capacity to linger in a moment of meaningful quietude.
Having said all that, however, I legitimately went in to Man of Steel hoping to be surprised. Under the presumably watchful eye of producer Christopher Nolan, the man who rescued the Batman franchise from Joel Schumacher’s neon fever dream, and the screenwriting potential of David Goyer, who (sure, while he also wrote Ghost Rider) collaborated with Nolan in the Dark Knight trilogy to turn it into one of the most diverse, multifaceted explorations of terrorism yet committed to film, there was every reason to believe that this could be the project that would give Snyder the guidance he needed to finally evolve as a storyteller.
Similarly, I am not some slavish fanboy of the old films (so however the following criticisms may sound, they truly do not come from a ‘They did it better back when…’ place). I know that to many this will sound like heresy, but aside from Christopher Reeves’ masterful shape-shifting double-duty playing both a mythic god and a bumbling country boy, I find little in the original films worth salvaging. Superman’s 4 and 3 are cheap (really, really cheap) goofy kitsch; film 2 (no doubt due to its drama behind the scenes) feels slightly schizophrenic in tone (and what was with that cellophane symbol Superman Frisbees about?); and even the original (admittedly the best of the bunch) is at times plodding, contains that mystifying anti-musical number when Lois sing-speaks ‘Can you read my mind?’ in her head, and most egregiously of all, is marred by possibly the laziest piece of deus ex machina drivel ever committed to film in the narrative’s climax, as Superman spins the earth around the other way to turn back time (!!?!!).***
And while I’m not a pure hater of the Superman Returns – it did attempt to recapture some of the wonder of Donner’s original – Singer’s soft-reboot never quite carved out an individual identity beyond its almost-plagiarising homage. …Not to mention that, when looked at objectively, Snyder’s vision of Superman was both a dead-beat dad, and something of a creeper. I’m almost certain these two lines of Lois Lane’s dialogue were cut, last minute, from the theatrical release:
‘Wait, is that someone floating outside my window x-ray visioning into my most private family moments? Oh, no. It’s just the guy I used to date – a dude who dumped me, ran off, and was leading a double life so elaborate it was like he was two different people…’
‘Hold on, has someone sneaked into my house so that they can leer over my sleeping child like a psychopath? …Oh no, it’s just an omnipotent, moody alien with boundary issues wearing skin tight lycra. It’s fine.’
So while it may not sound like it, when the house lights of the cinema went down, I truly was eager to believe – given the subject matter of the narrative and the pedigree of its actors and producers – that perhaps both Man of Steel and its director could ultimately soar…
…I was wrong.
But again: this too is not the mistake of which I speak. That’s still to come…
No doubt many others did and continue to enjoy Snyder’s take on Superman a great deal (in fact, I know they have; I scarcely remember a time I’ve seen such vitriol directed by supporters of a film back at those who criticise it), but for me it was a resounding miss. Indeed, a completely baffling miss.
Illogical, over-wrought, weirdly tonally jarring; the makers of the film seemed to hit every cliché in the narrative with over-earnest pretention, but simultaneously remained almost belligerently ignorant of the subtext they themselves were ordering the audience to embrace. Between the incongruous religious allegories, the hackneyed terrorism analogies, the completely nonsensical way it cannibalised its own mythos rather than communicate a coherent plot, the whole thing seemed to thrash about wildly, a cluster bomb of clichés. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Even the action, which I have heard many people celebrate, struck me cold – eventually leaving me utterly, stupefyingly numb. Sure, there was spectacle (after all, aside from Singer’s more restrained vision, this is the first time special-effects technology has been at a state where the guy in the cape can really let fly with the ‘splosions and feats of strength), but after about fifty unbroken minutes of it, the carnage tipped over from breathtaking epic clash to indulgent, meaningless noise. I do recall involuntarily shaking my head as the film gormlessly telegraphed Superman’s decision to slaughter his enemy, but even then, I felt almost nothing. The whole thing seemed like little more than a CGI tech demo, with cardboard cut-outs of beautiful people danced in front of the screen, and dialogue so stilted it was like placeholder notations for a second draft that never came to be.
And so, when I left the cinema I was surprised to find that I wasn’t, as my friends had warned me, angry.
In truth, I was mostly just bemused. Sure, part of that was probably just a product of being stunned by the film’s aimless sensory overload. That final hour really does wear you down. Indeed, through some kind of unnerving magic, it becomes a hyperactive tantrum of punching and crunching so monotonous that the countless deaths it depicts actually transmogrify from horrifying to utterly boring. But overall, between the hysterically rampant product placement, the creaking script, and the asinine allusions the film was ham-fistedly trying to employ, it was all far more humorous than aggravating.
Yes, there was the immediate vulgarity (that many others have already cited) of Superman arbitrarily killing his enemy and having the narrative implicitly celebrate it – but even this was handled in such a clumsy way as to become absurdly comedic, an act of scriptwriting laziness more than any kind of moral statement. After all, Superman had, until that point, been nonplussed to watch countless people crushed and blown up and stomped on (often as a direct consequence of his own blind fury) – but suddenly, in the final ten minutes, Zod threatens a family escaped from an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue and he is so tortured that he both snaps Zod’s neck (mortal damage that he has magically been unable to do before that very second) and rears back to unleash a Darth Vader-style ‘Nooooooooo!!!’ scream to the heavens?
To give Snyder the benefit of the doubt for a moment, he may well have been thinking of Superman’s reckless and willingness to resort to murder in his first outing as a hero in the terms of an origin tale such as Spiderman, where Peter Parker had to start by being irresponsible (let the mugger go) so that he could learn to be responsible in future (to stop other innocents like Uncle Ben dying as a result of his apathy). Sure, it would still be the laziest of possible resolutions (aside from spinning the Earth back around the other way, of course), but Snyder might have been thinking that by indulging such extremes you can later cobble together a tale of heroism and moral fortitude out of remorse and redemption. You know – like Spiderman’s guilt… Except, of course, that Spiderman didn’t personally gun Ben down. He didn’t plunge his hand through his chest and shout, ‘Responsibility!!!’ into the sky as lightning crackled overhead.****
But I digress…
No, ultimately the whole of Man of Steel felt too tacky and self-indulgent to get mad about. From the derivatively mopey emo tone they tried to slather over every scene (even though there was never any specific reason offered for why being superhuman, good-looking, popular with the ladies, and awesome, should be such an onerous drag); to the endless expositional pontificating by poor Kevin Costner’s (apparently suicidal) Pa Kent; to the embarrassingly insincere attempt to manufacture pathos by ripping off the origin stories of other heroes. The whole thing seemed to be so desperately trying distinguish itself – to shout ‘This isn’t your grandma’s Superman!‘ – that it collapsed over into a weirdly joyless farce.
Nonetheless, when I got home from the cinema, I decided that the whole experience should not be for nothing. There had to be something worth talking about in the shambolic mess I had just witnessed… The film certainly seemed to want to say something, even if it kept contradicting itself and indulging all of its laziest impulses.
And here comes the mistake bit…
Hmm, I thought. That messiah stuff was kind of weird.
That fundamental contradiction between the sacrificial analogy the filmmakers were ponderously trying to draw and their character’s own behaviour, seemed so preposterous, so juvenile, that I decided to write a short, playful response to it.
And that was it. That was the mistake. The white rabbit had scampered by, and the moment that my fingers touched the keyboard to start unpacking that obnoxiously irrelevant Jesus imagery I was tumbling down a nonsensical hole that felt like it stole weeks from my life.
IMAGE: Dream sequence from
Terminator 2 Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)
Suddenly, all those once-humorous contradictions started piling up. The aimless, artless, facile equivalencies the film tried to evoke, all while belligerently ignoring the implications of its own message, steadily began overtaking me, started rubbing me raw. Now it wasn’t just the Kal-El-is-Jesus comparison (which, to be fair, was stolen from Donner’s film, Donner just handled it far more elegantly), it was the clumsy endorsement of Nietzsche’s notion of the ubermensch; the exploitatively cowardly sensationalising of 9/11; the terrorism analogies that ironically embrace rather than discredit the use of ideological horror; the pretentious hypocrisy of all the film’s rote philosophising about ‘restraint’ (they even throw in a Plato reference, despite going on to wholesale contradict everything Plato was arguing); the way that the empty rhetoric of ‘hope’ and moral fortitude that gets vomited up in stilted dialogue but never validated by the plot; the complete nonsense of having characters drone on and on about what Superman is ‘meant’ to represent, only to then show him embodying the complete opposite of these qualities at every significant moment…
I tried to remain rational, tried to stay as detached, and objective and analytically unbiased as I could manage – but a strange gravity kept pulling me in. Perhaps it was the realisation that, despite what people who scoff at comic books might think, super heroes have a substance, have an inspirational mythos that they carry with them; and to see it so callously maligned kind of stung. Perhaps it was irritation at the film’s faux-philosophical self-satisfaction, despite the fact that even it didn’t seem to know what it was saying. Whatever it was, I found myself spewing out a tedious analytical screed so lengthy it felt at times that it would never end (I literally checked the word count at one point to find, with horror, that I was already over eight thousand words in) all while trying to comprehend a film that I had previously sloughed off as inordinately expensive B-movie cheese. (Not to mention that here I am doing it all over again…) At times, when I allowed myself the egotism of such hyperbole it felt like I had spent more time thinking about the plot and its themes than the film’s creators ever had – and then that thought (petty as it was) got on my nerves too.
There is a Phantom Zone in this film (though they don’t call it that), where time and space are immaterial, where the void swallows you whole, where logic and physics are meaningless. It is a prison, one that Zod gets thrown into for being arrogant enough to question the social order – the Kryptonian council who want to pretend that things are great, and that no one need worry about any of it. In scratching the surface of Man of Steel’s themes I shared Zod’s fate; I felt I had stared into that same abyss. It was an impossible, immaterial vacuum, where images at first appeared to have substance, but remained disturbingly, nonsensically one dimensional. Where words like ‘honour’ and ‘hope’ and ‘sacrifice’ were hollowed out and stripped of context, but still flaunted in a vain display. It was an act of analysis that, of I’m honest, left me feeling peculiarly grim – something that I most recently remember feeling when trying to discern the ‘feminist’ message of Snyder’s repugnant Sucker Punch.
The result of this foray into critical madness – following Snyder’s Kurtz into a superhuman heart of darkness – can be found on the PopMatters journal website: ‘A Man of Steel That Sinks Like Lead’. If you are particularly self-loathing, you can inflict it upon yourself there (although I will probably republish it here sometime in the future). Upon its publication it was immediately torn to shreds by fans of the film as being needlessly nitpicking and of taking the film too seriously. ‘It was just a film’, seemed to be the overwhelming catch-cry.
And although I did (and do) say to those commentators that my experience is in no way meant to discredit their interpretation – that I am glad for them that they enjoyed Man of Steel, I just did not share their point of view – perhaps there is some truth in what they say. After all, it was long, and exhausting, and frankly I feel only worse having written it; and like the film itself, there is an inescapable stench of futility hanging over the entire enterprise. The people who love the film will continue to love it no matter what (and they are more than welcome to it); meanwhile the people who hate Snyder’s vision will no doubt find nothing within my screed they have not already noticed themselves.
As I look back on this little purge of mine, I realise that the word that keeps resurfacing is ‘Indulgent’ – and I think that’s where I personally land on Man of Steel. To me, it is the exemplar of lazy and indulgent filmmaking, in all of its gaudy excess. It gratifies only the most fleeting of superficial desires for bombast and spectacle; its characters are no more than mouthpieces to advance the most flimsy of plotlines; it wallows in adolescent nihilism; it affects subtext in order to ape significance but follows through on nothing it evokes; and it shamelessly trades on the good will of its predecessors, offering nothing new to an audience itself.
But there was one further indulgence that I hadn’t considered: that of my own unwillingness to just walk away.
After all, I don’t like writing long, boring, tracts of criticism that dig for meaning and come up empty. It’s a chore that, believe me, is even less fun to write than it is to read. So why – when there have been plenty of other shallow action spectacles that have pilfered iconography they didn’t understand to ape gravitas they didn’t earn – why was I unable to shake loose of this one when I saw that analytical Phantom Zone open before me?
Perhaps it was some selfish affection for the Superman character, who I felt was being twisted into something unrecognisable; perhaps it was some personal contempt for Snyder himself, and his hackneyed, empty symbolism; perhaps it was just sanctimonious reprisal, petty revenge for feeling that I had been tricked into digging for substance where there was only exploitation.
In any case, whatever it was, it was a mistake. One that I vow I shall never make again. I free myself both of the burden of hoping for something better in Snyder’s work, and of tilting at his windmills in critical analysis. Superman has weathered worse than him, and there are far more substantive texts still out there to explore…
You have no more power over me, Man of Steel. Do whatever you wish, because I won’t let you plague me any more.
All right. Good. Now that all of that is out of the way, let me move on with my life and get back to checking the internet blog-o-sphere to see what’s going on in the world.
Let me just click on this first link here and –
Hmm? What’s this? The next Superman film is going to have Batman in it?!
…Snyder is going to do Batman?!
And played by Ben Affleck!?!?
Oh, gods no…
Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.
All right. Fine. You win.
Just let me kneel down on the ground here and…
IMAGE: Emotions from Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)
* Who used his extraordinary reverse-Midas powers to turn one of comic books fiction’s most celebrated dramatic arcs (and the gathering propulsion of the preceding films) into a muddled, affected soap-opera, sprinkled with poorly-staged CGI explosions.
** Truly, his smack down with Captain Marvel alone nails every epic note that Man of Steel failed to hit, and the debate over his political and social responsibilities in the Cadmus story arc make a joke of the clumsy military posturing in Snyder’s tale.
*** …Also: ?!??!!!?!!?!!
**** Not to mention that I think it’s fair to say that in superhero terms, committing an act of murder is usually considered to be in the wheelhouse of ‘letting the toddler touch the stove top’. It’s enough to just tell them no, and let them figure out for themselves why it was the right thing to avoid.