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Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close

June 17th, 2013

I’d been wary of Man of Steel from the moment production of the film was announced. I was unhappy about the prospect of producer Christopher Nolan’s grimy “superheroes in the real world” aesthetic being applied to my pal Superman.

Early trailers did nothing to allay my concern. I felt a bit better once I saw the clip of Henry Cavill and Amy Adams discussing Superman’s S-logo as a symbol of hope, but then the reviews came out and seemed to be confirming my fears of a dark and dour Kryptonian.

I recently got into an argument on Facebook by writing “If (Superman’s) brooding, you’re doing it wrong.” It was an intentionally flip, reductionist statement, but it got at the point I’ve been trying to make for years, that Superman is an intrinsically optimistic character.

The modern view of fellow crimefighter Batman is that of a grim vigilante inspired by his earliest, pulp avenger adventures and conveniently ignoring the three decades he spent trading quips with Robin and punching aliens. It works because Bats was conceived as a figure of menace who operates at night.

Superman, by contrast, flies overhead in plain view. He wears bright, primary colors. He”s powered by the sun, for Rao’s sake. Possessing the ability to do virtually anything, he chooses to do the right thing.

That’s what I was afraid of losing once I began to see photos of Henry Cavill in the muted colors of the Kryptonian full-body condom he sports for Man of Steel.

So, now that I’ve seen the movie, what do I think?

Let’s be clear, Man of Steel is not the Superman movie that I wanted. However, on the whole I quite liked it. It preserves what I value about Superman…with a couple of major caveats that I’ll get to shortly.

The movie establishes Kal-El/Clark Kent as an outsider among humans, but Cavill’s portrayal was much less emo than that of Tom Welling over on Smallville. His Superman displays the right instincts, and I sensed that he could play the lighter character of the early Richard Donner films if desired.

The script is well-constructed, and carries through its theme of nature-vs.-nurture. Tellingly, Superman has two complimentary fathers in his life, whereas his counterpart General Zod has none.

Zod himself is a more complex character here. He’s by no means a sympathetic figure, but by the end you do understand that his motivations run deeper than wanting people to kneel before him.

My primary criticism of the film–at least in its IMAX version–is that it’s an assault on the senses. It’s achingly loud. Every punch is another jolt to the inner ear. It literally took hours for my hearing to fully return to normal.

It’s also very, very violent and destructive. When brawling Faora and Nam-Ek in downtown Smallville, Superman tells people to take shelter, but what good is duck-and-cover when airplanes are crashing in fiery explosions on Main Street?

In Superman II, the villainous Kryptonian Non–the counterpart of Man of Steel‘s Nam-Ek–was punched through a building, trailing a vaguely Non-shaped wake of destruction but leaving the skyscraper more or less intact. In the new film, buildings tumble into plumes of debris. And while I wasn’t quite as bothered by the imagery as was Bully over on Comics Oughta Be Fun, there’s no doubt that thousands of people were NOT saved by Superman. I do wonder just how much humanity could ever truly trust him–despite his many good deeds–in the aftermath of 9/11 a dozen times over.

And there is one moment which is so completely at odds with the traditional character of Superman that it must be discussed. This is huge spoiler territory, so stop now if you don’t want to know how the movie ends.

Superman KILLS Zod. He snaps the villain’s neck.

It’s an entirely justifiable action, and clearly it is meant to be a moment of failure and anguish.

As Bully suggests, the script doesn’t give Superman the chance to do otherwise. Having already exhausted the plot device that exiled the other super-criminals to the Phantom Zone, Kal is left to fight alone against a Zod who–devoid of any future purpose in life–states his intention to murder every last human. With no strength-sapping Kryptonite or convenient “molecule chambers” around, there’s no way out. Zod has to die.

Again, it’s not presented as a punch-the-air moment, but rather one that is emotionally wrecking for Superman. Unfortunately, the movie is pretty much over at this point, so there’s no room for reflection, no suggestion that this is the beginning of his long-standing moral code against killing.

Now, none of this is truly an indictment of Man of Steel. I thought that it was a well-written, well-acted movie. I could see “my” Superman within it, and I hope that next time they let him come out and play.



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