Alex Yarde, a comics superfan, breaks down Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel.
I finally saw the new Zach Snyder film, Man of Steel, this weekend. Beforehand, I voraciously consumed trailers spoilers, tweets, and reviews. I discussed it at length with friends, who are also fans of Superman. I’ve anticipated this film for over a year.
Movies are a form of artistic expression and expressing ideas through art is ultimately about making choices. The artists decide what to emphasize and what not to. Long ago, Snyder and his colleagues publicly admitted that their take on Superman would be unique. So, we, as moviegoers, should expect some changes. (Warning: Spoilers below.)
The first choice was changing the iconic costume. Since his inception 75 years ago, Superman wore red belted trunks over a blue leotard. This look harkens back to turn of the century strong men. Superman’s most famous pose, breaking chains wrapped around his chest, was a nod to a circus, a strong man’s most basic trick. Snyder changed this because it is archaic and he wanted to update Superman’s look. In this version, the Man of Steel costume comes from the interior layer of an armored spacesuit he finds aboard a derelict Kryptonian spacecraft. As in Batman Begins, the hero’s costume is more utilitarian. Man of Steel’s Krypton is a feudal, caped society. The S symbol is the El family coat of arms. But, of course, this is not the only change for Superman.
Snyder’s Krypton is a beautifully realized, hyper advanced, organic civilization in decline, much like Frank Herbert’s Dune. The members of Kryptonian society are bred in pods to serve a predetermined function. A Kryptonian child is either a soldier, scientist or leader, and this is determined at birth. The Kryptonians themselves are the architects of their own destruction by depleting their planet’s core. This contrasts with Donner’s very “new age” late 70’s take on Krypton, which favored an organic crystalline design. Donner’s Kryptonian civilization was at the peak of its advancement. Its fate was sealed by their star, the Red Giant Rao, going nova, not their own mismanagement. In both iterations, myopic leaders fail to heed the warnings of Jor-El (Superman’s father). Snyder’s Jor-El, believing that abandoning space exploration, forbidding natural births and dogmatic allegiance to orthodoxy would be the death of his society, hides a genetic codex of all future Kryptonians in the body of his illegally, naturally conceived son, Kal-El (Superman) and sends his son to earth to be the redeemer of the Kryptonian race.
Composer Hans Zimmer did not have an easy task in coming up with a new score for this super hero movie. A generation of Superman fans have hummed John William’s Superman score for decades. But Snyder wanted a clean break from the prior films, so the music needed to change too. I like the direction they went in musically. The featurerette called Crafting the Score fascinated me. An eclectic group of legendary drummers jamming was terrific! So much thought and care was put into every musical phrase. The mournful violins of “Kryptons Last” I thought were very poignant. “What are you going to do when you’re not saving the world?” with its lofty building crescendo, hypnotic rhythmic percussion and triumphant horn section stuck with me afterward.
Man of Steel was a decidedly somber “Nolian” affair. The light-hearted camp and wonder of the 70s was sacrificed for a darker tone. There was a lot of detailed exposition and no catchy lines (save Ma Kent’s “nice suit son!” ). Lois’ first interview with Superman wasn’t a romantic rooftop interlude but a sterile Army interrogation room. Sparks didn’t quite fly between them either, except for her escape pod rescue from re-entry. As it turns out, threats of mass extinction are a buzz kill. This Lois and Clark duo, however, shared a genuine affection. It was more comrades-in-arms than real chemistry but there was a connection. The filmmakers knew they were never going to catch the lightning in the bottle of Revee’s and Kidder’s “first date” and quirky chemistry. I respect the choice not to try.
The most controversial choice made by the screenwriter is Kal-El’s choice to get rid of Zod. I personally don’t get all the pearl clutching. This notion that “Superman doesn’t kill” just doesn’t hold water. He did during John Byrne’s run in the 90’s. Even Reeve’s beloved Superman and Kidder’s Lois joyfully threw Zod and Ursa to their obvious deaths in the bottomless Arctic crevasse (And yes, I know about the North Pole police cut). Let’s look, however, at Superman’s action in the context of this film. After the rest of his followers were sent to the Phantom Zone, Zod pledges to destroy the earth. There is no Belle Reve prison for super villains (yet). No prison on earth can hold Zod. No access is left to the Phantom Zone either. There is no Kryptonite. Zod is about to fry a family right in front of Kal-El eyes. What would you have done? Kal-El made a judgment call that I think anyone in the same situation, within the context of the story, would make. In my view it’s a righteous kill.
Now before fans sputter at the screen but he’s SUPERMAN! He should have found another way! Let’s all remember that technically he’s not Superman, at least not yet. Sure he has the suit and the powers, but he’s a rookie. He lacks experience. The name of the film after all is Man of Steel. Only two-thirds through the film do they even start calling him Superman. It’s a sharp learning curve for Snyder’s Man of Steel. He doesn’t have 12 years of training in a crystal ice palace with Marlon Brando contemplating the complexities of the human heart. This Superman had a week to discover his true identity, learn how to fly and understand his ultimate purpose. Like anyone else, Kal-El will continue to be molded through his experiences. The Kents taught him not only the practicality of being cautious in revealing himself but also the importance of altruism, hard work and self sacrifice. Jor-El (in holographic form) pushes him to test the limits of his power. In time, he just may become the hero we all want him to be and the promise the symbol on his chest stands for.
Those that were the most vocal critics of this film wrote some of the best Superman comic stories I’ve ever read. I respect anyone who passionately defends Superman’s Legacy out of love for the character and I appreciate the perspectives of others. Here’s the thing with the stories of great literary heroes (I challenge anyone to dispute the Last Son Of Krypton is not), they are open for others to interpret. Superman doesn’t exist. He’s a fictional character. He’s a work of art. In art you make choices. With 75 years of continuity in every type of media to draw from, Superman belongs to everyone who loves the character not just an elite orthodoxy. I believe Snyder/Goyer/Nolan and the hundreds of artisans and technicians involved in the latest film do love Superman too. It shined through in the quality of their work. I don’t agree with all their choices however I think they were for the large part successful. Krypton, it turns out, wasn’t built in a day.
In future installments, they have quite a menu of loose ends to work from (first contact with future alien invaders, inquiries and finger pointing in the wake of the near destruction of Metropolis, a new career as a cub reporter at the Planet for our main character and a budding romance between Clark and Lois). I’m personally rooting for a presidential bid from a certain bald, sociopathic billionaire in the sequel. The battles of Metropolis & Smallville are all Lex Luthor needs to run on an Earth First/Anti Alien platform. He also has the brains and bankroll to salvage any Kryptonian technology, which we hope Kal-El realizes he can’t leave lying around.
One question that occurred to me was now that our little blue planet has a champion, how long before Mongol and his War World or Brainiac or, most awesomely, Lord of Apokolips, Darkside show up at our celestial doorstep? I, for one, am excited to see DC’s new universe grow. Dogmatic allegiance to orthodoxy didn’t do Krypton any favors and it won’t do any for Superman, the character. Perhaps fresh eyes, an open mind and a leap of faith to explore a different take on the character is what we, who love Superman, need for the future.