Note: This review was written in 2013 when the film was released, but was never published.
What does Man of Steel succeed in doing that Superman Returns could not do? Answer: Make Superman Returns look good.
I can’t think of any aspect of this film that is not superseded by one of the other five Superman films, except for the costume and the special effects. But to my mind, special effects stopped being an attraction-in-and-of-themselves after Terminator 2. I confess I haven’t seen Superman III or IV since they were new, but I don’t remember Nuclear Man’s acting being worse than this film’s General Zod, and Richard Pryor is a far more entertaining token black character than Lawrence Fishburne’s Perry White – but I’m sure whoever chose to make “Mr. White” a black man patted himself on the back for being oh-so-clever.
I guess it’s fitting that Man of Steel sucks as bad as it does, since Superman is THE quintessential American superhero (“truth, justice and the American way”) and America has been the equivalent of post-accident Christopher Reeve for some time now. But whereas Superman Returns was a tribute to Reeve’s iconic portrayal (and suffered for being such) Man of Steel is an attempt to break almost completely with this precedent. Whereas Reeve evinced a kind of old fashioned handsomeness – Don Draper minus the libido – Man of Steel opts for more of a Hugh Jackman-as-Wolverine look for the character. The opening scenes of a wandering, bearded Clark Kent working odd manly-man jobs such as bartender and deckhand on a fishing boat, feature a bare- and hairy-chested pre-Superman stomping around exuding angst like some sort of grunge-themed Chippendale dancer.
But the man of steel’s new beard (how does he shave?) is not just a nod to hipster fashion; it’s also meant to evoke that other only begotten son with a beard who has superpowers. The parallels of Superman to Jesus have been obvious almost since the character’s inception, which is one reason why they should not have been made so obvious in the film. We are treated to numerous scenes of Superman with arms outstretched and head down and to the side, almost as if he were hanging on a … you get the picture..
It’s all here: Superman is the savior of the earth. Superman is here to do the will of his father, with whom he is in communication. Superman must fight against other super-beings who have rebelled against his father. Those super-beings have a leader, and the fight won’t be over until he has been vanquished once and for all.
Of course there is a new twist. Unlike in the Richard Donner films, in which Superman’s parents die in the destruction of Krypton, here General Zod kills Superman’s father Jor-El. This doesn’t actually enrich the story, but I mention it because it brings up a key difference between Jesus and Superman. Whereas Jesus’ Father is eternally living, Superman’s daddy is dead. Thus if we juxtapose the two mythologies, we have the son here on earth doing the will of the father, but the father is dead. In other words, God is dead. Who was it that said that?
Oh yeah, that Nazi philosopher. What would Hollywood do without the Nazis? Their other staple villains – terrorists, Arabs (is that a redundancy?) gangs and zombies – just don’t have that certain je ne sais quoi that makes us, or rather them, never tire of rehashing the same old stereotypical characters and characteristics. I suspect that they just refer to Adorno’s F-scale test and make sure that their villains have all the defining marks of the “fascist personality”: Military background, check; emphasis on discipline and order, check; “ends justify the means” mentality, check; disregard for conventional morality, check; explicit or implicit racial views coupled with a fanatical devotion to his own people, check. In the case of General Zod, we can also add a Roman, Caesaresque haircut and a lack of emotions.
But then I don’t think the lack of emotions is an intentionally portrayed characteristic of Zod’s, since all of the characters in the film are one-dimensional caricatures, made all the more unbearable by the considerable liberties that the film takes with the established Superman narrative.
The lack of conventional morality, however, is an intentional portrayal. For those who don’t pick up on this theme by noticing that Superman saves people whereas Zod & Co. kill them indiscriminately, we are treated to an elucidation of this fact in a mid-battle speech by Zod’s female lieutenant, who presumably is a nod to the Ursa character from Superman II. She chides Superman for having a morality, while she and the other Kryptonians do not, which, she says, gives them an advantage and makes them superior according to “evolution.” Yep, the bad guys are pro-evolution, whereas Superman goes to church and talks to a priest. I’m looking forward to the sequel in which Superman goes back in time to prevent Satan from putting all those dinosaur bones in the ground to deceive people. [Update: Though I haven’t yet seen Batman vs. Superman, I was disappointed to hear that it has no such scene.]
The tragedy of this film is that Superman is a great character with whom more competent and imaginative filmmakers could have done so much more. Even the teen soap opera Smallville did a vastly superior job in exploring some of the character’s emotional complexities and psychological hardships, which is why Christopher Reeve gave his approval to the show before he died. Man of Steel, in contrast, merely throws out a few cheesy and platitudinous lines about how “being different is a blessing” and other such drivel that sounds like dialogue from an anti-bullying after-school special.
Perhaps much of the film’s failure lies in its fatal mistake of transplanting Superman, a child of the early to mid-twentieth century, to the present day. The America of that time is long gone, and the Superman of that time simply has no place in the world of today. But whereas Batman seems more timely than ever in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant trilogy, Superman seems un-updatable because he is a fundamentally different kind of superhero.
Man of Steel should stand as proof that Nolan, rather than being adept at bringing comic characters to the big screen, was great at making Batman movies. He co-wrote the script for this film, which is something he should not be proud of, and the look and feel of the film are very reminiscent of the Batman films, with a kind of shadowy grayness coloring, or rather rendering colorless, almost all of the scenes. In addition to being derivative, this grayness simply doesn’t work because Superman, unlike Batman, does not inhabit grayness; that is, shades of ambiguity. Superman is a character of black-and-white, of moral absolutes. Like Jesus, he is all-good.
In the world of superheroes, Superman pretty much kicks everyone else’s ass. There really isn’t any other superhero who comes close to his strength and abilities. Batman is just a guy. Spider-Man has the proportionate strength of a spider, which is awesome, but nowhere near as strong as Superman. One can imagine the Hulk giving him a good fight, but since Superman is indestructible (except for kryptonite, which the moronically impassioned Hulk ain’t gonna be smart enough to get his big green hands on) there isn’t really anything Hulk can do against him.
Superman’s near omnipotence is one of the many aforementioned parallels between him and Jesus. Another is that both are Jews. Superman is the creation of two Jewish comic book writers from the 1930s, and as other authors have explored, the character is a big Jewish fantasy. That’s why Kryptonian names – Kal El, Jor El, Zod – all sound Hebrew. (In yet another obnoxious deviation, here Kal El is called “Kal” for short. I was waiting for them to announce that his new secret identity is Calvin Kent.) The whole spiel about mild mannered and seemingly weak Clark Kent having a secret identity and being, actually, the superior of everyone around him is, at the larger level, the fantasy of every nerd on earth, but more specifically, a fantasy of Jews in the 20th century, who often hid their Jewish identities for fear of persecution or discrimination.
Man of Steel emphasizes this need for secrecy by making Jonathan Kent the voice of skepticism about humanity, saying that people are not ready for Superman and will not accept him, so he must hide who he is. (There is also an unmistakable suggestion of an analogy to gay kids, as with the X-Men films, with the father warning against “coming out” and the mother telling him that he has “something beautiful to share with the world” – or something trite like that. I don’t remember exactly because I was vomiting into my popcorn bucket. I’m sure Otto Weininger, the early 20th century psychologist who characterized Jewishness as essentially feminine, would concur with this confluence of gays and Jews.)
Returning to the parallels with Jesus, this raises an interesting question: If Superman, the Kryptonian who saves all the non-Kryptonians, is a Jewish fantasy, is Jesus, the Jew who saves all the goyim, equally such?
As it stands, neither Jesus nor Superman is that simple. In The Jesus Mysteries, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy demonstrate, as have many other writers, that most if not all of the characteristics of Jesus and his life story are to be found in various pre-Christian pagan traditions. Seen from this perspective, Christianity ceases to be the opening up of Jewish chosenness to all of humanity, and instead becomes the inclusion of Jews into the already existing Indo-European tradition. Or, more nefariously, it is the hijacking of Indo-European tradition with the introduction of a foreign agent which is at first strengthening, but ultimately proves poisonous. (See Revilo Oliver’s Christianity and the Survival of the West for an erudite and enlightening discussion of this topic.)
While Superman is a Jewish creation, many elements of his story are not Jewish but Aryan. In the early 20th century, before the creation of Superman the comic book hero, the word “superman” was already in use, as the English translation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch. It’s ironic that a character who takes his name from Nietzsche would quickly become the enemy of many of Nietzsche’s ideas, and especially of those who claimed inspiration from those ideas. Nonetheless, either in spite of or in tandem with this association-antagonism with Nietzsche, Superman has picked up a considerable number of Aryan attributes over the years. Just like Jesus.
The peak of Superman’s SuperAryanity is probably Richard Donner’s films. First, there is the unmistakably Wagneresque theme song by the incomparable John Williams. Then there is Superman’s arctic homeland, where he goes to chill out and rejuvenate himself, which brings to mind the theory of the arctic homeland in the Vedas and the myth of Apollo returning to Hyperborea every 19 years. Superman as Hyperborean divya – maybe Donner was reading Miguel Serrano at the time.
The source of Superman’s strength is the sun, which makes him an Aryan sun worshipper. In Platonism, the sun is the symbol and analogue in the visible realm of the Supreme Good, or God, in the invisible realm. Man of Steel does reference Superman’s link to Plato in a scene of the young Clark Kent reading one of his books. I’m sure the filmmakers have in mind the concept of the Guardians, those superior beings who shepherd and protect the rest of humanity. However, they don’t seem to understand what Plato was talking about, since the character of General Zod is actually closer to a Platonic Guardian than Superman is.
When Zod and Superman are fighting, Zod says, “I’ve trained as a soldier my entire life. Where did you train, on a farm?” Earlier, Zod says that he was bred specifically to be a warrior, since at the time of his birth, Krypton had a policy of engineering all births and pre-establishing roles for all Kryptonians. (Nazis!) In The Republic, this is basically the social order that Plato advocates, albeit without all the advanced alien technology. The Guardians would be selected at an early age and put through a rigorous program of training, from which only the best would emerge.
This dichotomy between the “free” Superman and the disciplined and trained Zod recalls the classical conflict between Athens and Sparta. In Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war, he has Pericles the Athenian statesman waxing lyrical about how awesome the Athenians are at being soldiers, even though they spend most of their time pursuing pleasure – sorry, “being free” – and not training all day long like those mean, uptight Spartans. In other words, they have the best of both worlds. They are free to do as they please, and this freedom naturally gives rise to both superior ability and moral goodness.
It sounds nice, and readers should recognize that this same idea has been hugely influential on subsequent concepts of liberal democracy and free society, for which classical Athens has long been an ideal model. The problem, though, is that it’s a pipe dream, as the Spartans quickly showed the Athenians by kicking their asses all over Greece. The idea that a man without training or discipline can be the superior of a man who devotes himself to discipline and training is a liberal fantasy. It’s like saying that I can lollygag and lounge all day, then go up against a professionally trained MMA fighter and emerge victorious because of the mysterious moral power of muh freedom. This is the same fantasy that informs the American myth of its World War 2 victory – we beat the Nazis because we’re free and they weren’t, and God loves freedom and ‘Merica. (In actuality, of course, America was the 4th quarter quarterback that claimed victory for the whole game.)
But Zod differs from Plato’s Guardians in one crucial way: he lacks morality, and Superman does not. Plato specified that the Guardians were to be inculcated with the dominating idea that their purpose was to serve the greater good of their society. This is analogous to the bodhisattva vow in Buddhism, in which tradition it is said that if one does not practice the higher teachings (the tantras) with the motivation to benefit all sentient beings, one will become not a Buddha but a demon. For Plato’s Guardians, the ultimate purpose of all their training is to attain enlightenment (quite literally in the metaphor of the cave) and to attain direct knowledge of the Ideas of Justice and Goodness, because these Ideas exist independently of man, and only an enlightened being who is linked with them – a being through whom these Ideas flow and incarnate on earth – can truly serve the greater good of society and the world.
So if Zod is a kind of demon who has fallen off the path, Superman should be a representative of the true path of the Guardian. But in Man of Steel, he isn’t, because the narrative is too infected with the liberal fantasy that Guardians can emerge naturally from a chaotic, decadent – sorry, “free” – society, rather than from a traditionally ordered society that is structured to create and cultivate such beings.
Although there are beings so great and powerful that they do indeed emerge from the most improbable of circumstances, as though they chose such circumstances consciously just to test and refine their will through struggle, the reality is that traditional structures produce better men than the chaos which is called an “open society” (Karl Popper’s counter-proposition to Plato’s Republic.) Without these traditional structures, long gone in the Western world if not the world as a whole, we are left with nothing to do except hope for the coming of such an improbable being. Waiting for Superman, as the title of another film has it.