Me vs. Man of Steel

Even though this stuff is all over the internet, and kind of hard to avoid if you’re remotely interested in this sort of thing, it’s only fair to say SPOILER WARNING! What follows contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILAGE of what is evidently a super-successful super-movie, so read no further if you’ve not seen Man of Steel yet and don’t want to be forewarned.

seriously, I’m going to spoil this sucker

Okay, so I quite enjoyed Man of Steel, and I therefore admit the title of this post is a wee bit misleading (but just hang on a minute, and I’ll get into a little bit of a fight with the movie).  I very specifically did not enjoy 2006’s Superman Returns, so perhaps some of my MoS pleasure was just relief that here at last was a modern Superman movie that was neither dull nor crippled by hopeless nostalgia for dated and clunky previous iterations of the character.

I had a suspicion I was going to like it ever since the trailers started popping up, just because to me they hinted at a stylish, ambitious, action-oriented blockbuster of the sort Supes has needed for decades.

And on the whole, I’d say this is one of those (quite rare) films that more or less lives up to the promise of its trailers. They were honest and more or less accurate reflections of what we got in the full movie. What the trailers can’t convey is that Man of Steel is a remarkably skilfull exercise in narrative structure, by summer superhero blockbuster standards. I thought almost precisely the right amount of time was spent on each stage of Kal-El’s life story, and it’s not dealt with entirely linearly, which makes that quite an achievement. The use of flashback is really quite elegantly judged, in terms of pacing and context. Me like.

Me also like much else about the film, but I’m not going to going to talk about its many other pluses. I’ll just say if you haven’t seen it yet (and if so, what are you doing reading this far down? We haven’t got to it yet, but there really is a BIG SPOILER coming! It’s mere paragraphs away now!) … if you haven’t seen it yet, I think it’s well worth the price of a movie ticket, if only to see what talented film-makers bravely wrestling with a revisionist take on a global pop-culture icon can do when they’re not afraid of taking a few risks.

The price of taking those risks is alienating a portion of the audience, and there’s no doubt Man of Steel has done that. There are various reasons some folks have taken offence, one of the biggest of which we’ll get to in a minute. For me, there were two, somewhat connected, concerns that slapped me right out of the movie, downright troubling me and leaving me mystified at the thought processes that sometimes go on behind the creative scenes. Both relate to stuff happening in the extended climactic action of the film’s last quarter or third or whatever it is.

The first is the 9/11 imagery. I really wish the sight of skyscrapers falling over had not been permanently and irreversibly contaminated with echoes of real-world madness, but for a great many of us – especially Americans and above all New Yorkers, I imagine – it has been. Nobody who makes this kind of movie is unaware of that fact, of course. So when you have sequences of a skyscraper being felled by an aircraft, as you do here, and of people running down city streets with boiling clouds of dust and debris behind them as skyscrapers slump down, and of the stubs of once towering buildings in the background behind dusty faces, a conscious decision has clearly been made to allow those very specific echoes to come to the surface.

I can think of a number of creative reasons for going down that path. I’m not going to get into them here because, to be honest, I don’t really much care why the decision was made. I just think it’s a lousy decision. Invoking traumatic and in many ways unresolved real-world horror for the sake of energising a fundamentally disposable (however enjoyable and ambitious) summer superhero movie is, imho, a bad call. Whatever the motivations, for me it comes across as tasteless, manipulative and devoid of empathy. Speaking as someone who lost no one, was nowhere near New York and isn’t even American – i.e. someone who’s surely a good less sensitive to this stuff than an awful lot of potential audience members – I just flat out don’t want to be made to think about 9/11 in a Superman movie. In other kinds of movies, absolutely fine; not in this kind. Maybe that’s just me (except I know it’s not, because others have reported being similarly bothered).

I also know my second grumble isn’t just me because I’ve seen other folk say similar stuff: the off-screen civilian body count. It’s not just that by any logical measure this must have one of the highest civilian casualty rates of any superhero movie ever made, even though you hardly see anyone actually die. No, the trouble arose – and the film almost lost me completely – when I thought to myself, in the last few minutes of the movie: ‘Hang on, did I just watch a Superman movie in which Superman caused the death or injury of at least as many innocent civilians as he personally saved? I think I did.’

Somehow, Marvel managed to get through Hulk rampages, Avengers vs alien army battles in the middle of New York, Thor vs Destroyer in a rural town, without ever once making me worry about the implied civilian casualties. MoS left me slack-jawed with stupefaction at the implications of what Superman was doing in built-up areas. I mean, the guy had to have been leaving a trail of maimed and crushed and crippled passers-by littering the ground like autumn leaves, the way he was carrying on. He throws stuff around, he punches/pushes Zod and other Kyrptonians through buildings (through a gas station even, if I remember right!), he basically causes some of the aforementioned falling skyscrapers, he generally behaves with near-total disregard for the consequences of his fisticuffs. A little bit of it (the bit when the Kryptonians threaten Ma Kent) can be justified as him being a bit overwrought, but the rest of it? Naughty boy, Supes.

You might get away with all of this (I don’t really think you would, but whatever) if you saw Superman directly saving a lot of people at the same time, but you don’t. The scales remain wildly imbalanced. As with the 9/11 stuff, I could guess at some creative reasons why the film-makers may have allowed this perception to arise (although it’s possible they thought no one would care/notice, if they made the action spectacular enough, I suppose) but again, I don’t really care because unfortunately I think what happens at the very end of the movie makes it an irretrievable mistake, narrative-wise.

I speak, of course, of that bit where Superman snaps Zod’s neck. Which doesn’t really bother me in itself. I know lots of folks are appalled by it, as some sort of betrayal of the character, but I don’t mind. In fact, in principle, I rather like it as a logical and dramatic device, and a set-up for sequels to come, and applaud the film-makers for having the courage to go that route. Or I would if the motivation for killing Zod wasn’t saving the lives of innocent humans. In isolation it works fine, but when you’ve spent the previous half hour fretting about all the folks getting pulped as a consequence of Superman’s carelessness, it rings a horribly discordant note and only serves to shine a light on all the previous – and avoidable, at least some of it – implied carnage.

Hard as it might sound to believe, after getting all that off my chest, I really did enjoy lots of stuff about the movie. I think it was a valiant, imaginative and frequently stirring and exhilarating effort at rejuvenating a seriously problematic franchise. I’ll be in the line to see episode 2. I just really, really hope they do something about the collateral damage issue.

Because whatever else he’s about, one thing I know for absolute sure: Superman’s not about collateral damage.

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