It sure isn’t Superman…
It was with a mix of elation and trepidation that I realized two iconic Pop Culture figures from the previous American Century would be resurrected this summer: Superman and The Lone Ranger. Though such figures do not normally fall under the purview of The Jade Sphinx, both have had such a long-lasting and profound impact on the way we view ourselves and our culture that attention must be paid.
But the America of 1933 (the birth of the Lone Ranger) and of 1938 (the debut of Superman) are very different places from that of 2013. Could both figures survive the transition into what we laughingly refer to as modernity without losing some vital essence, the very things that made these figures what they were?
Well, in the case of Superman, the answer, sadly, is no. We do not often go to big budget junk pictures, and it is rare that we find them satisfactory. However, Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, must hit a new low for a genre with a decidedly low bar. Never have I seen a blockbuster film so cynical in its conception, so ham-fisted in its execution or so bleak in its worldview. What should have been an exhilarating romp that left one with a sense of wonder instead is a grim and dour computer game, devoid of life, sentiment, wit, intelligence or fun.
This creates an interesting aesthetic conundrum. For those who know the core of the Superman mythos (and surely he is as mythic to modern America as Theseus was to the Ancients), the story runs thus: on the planet Krypton, scientist-statesman Jor-El realizes that the planet will soon explode. He unsuccessfully tries to convince the powers that be that doom is imminent, so he builds a rocket to send their infant son, Kal-El, to the distant planet earth. The ship leaves just before the planet explodes and lands in the cornfields or rural America (usually Kansas, in most tellings). He is raised by the rustic Kent family, given the name Clark and taught American virtues and a sense of honor and of duty while growing to manhood. He moves to the big city (literally a Metropolis) and becomes a great protector and savior, a symbol of courage, honesty and purity by which all humanity can aspire.
The aesthetic conundrum at the core of The Man of Steel is simply this: how can Snyder and his producer/writer (Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, respectively) take this same material and fashion out of it a film so grim, so lacking in warmth, so devoid of hope and so ugly to look at? Every artist brings something of themselves to whatever theme they approach, but surely some themes are, at their core, immutable? Surely the fundamental message of great myths – be it hope or despair, transcendence or degradation – would shine through?
Apparently not. Every choice made by Snyder and company was calculated to leech Superman and his mythos from any sense of grandeur, any sense of fun, any sense of transcendence.
First, let’s look at Krypton. In both the comics and the films, the planet is often presented as a kind of paradise. The comics showed us a primary-colored super-science wonderland worthy of Flash Gordon. And the latter Superman films with Christopher Reeve opted for a futuristic Greco-Roman splendor, with a sparse purity often associated with Greek drama.
In Man of Steel, Krypton is as ugly as the nightmares of H. R. Giger. Its inhabitants wear gray latex drag while moving through what looks like a massive digestive track. Snyder and company have Jor-El die when he is stabbed in the gut by the film’s villain, General Zod – saving the explosion for Superman’s mother.
We then see the grown Kal-El finding himself while bumming through the US. Reporter Lois Lane has a run-in with him, and soon investigates the story of the mysterious man with strange powers. But soon General Zod and his cadre of Krypton survivors come to earth, looking for Kal-El because it seems that Jor-El downloaded all of Krypton’s genetic information into his infant son. With this information, Zod hopes to recreate Krypton on earth… leaving no place for humanity.
Where to begin? First off, Snyder shoots the film with a near complete de-saturation of color. Imagine a black and white film poorly daubed with a waxy crayon and you get the effect. Worse still, the thudding, repetitive and unpleasant score by Hans Zimmer is more reminiscent of the antics at a stoner’s rock concert than a glorious science-fiction romp.
As for the special effects – they are not that special. When Superman and Zod battle at the climax (seemingly forever), it is blurred motion and fast-cutting, more computer flummery than cinema.
The performances are nearly invisible. Henry Cavill may be the handsomest man to don the blue-and-red suit, but he lacks the charisma of Brandon Routh or Christopher Reeve. (Or George Reeves!) His Superman is a cypher. No one else manages to make any impression at all except for Kevin Costner as Pa Kent – and a film is in trouble when the most energetic player is … Kevin Costner.
But the fundamental problem with the seething mess that is Man of Steel is one of tone and artistic vision. It seems that Snyder and Nolan wanted to do an “adult” take on Superman, but to them “adult” can only mean gloomy, negative and nihilistic. I weep for the intellectual and emotional maturity of both men if that is indeed their yardstick of adulthood, because it is both horribly restrictive and blinkered. Transcendent joy is as much an “adult” aesthetic as the cheapest form of tragedy, but try telling that someone with the emotional sense of a 15 year-old.
The filmmakers nail their own coffins finally with their vision of Superman, himself. For more than 70 years, Superman was the “good guy;” the man we looked up to, the person we all aspired to be. This vengeful, glum and, finally, not terribly bright man may be many things, but he will never be … Superman.
Tomorrow, a special Fourth of July message.