I listen to Pop Culture Happy Hour every week and their comic-book-guy, Glen Weldon, is a freak for Superman. He wrote a book about the history of Superman as a character and its influences in culture (I haven’t read it; it’s somewhere in my trans-dimensional queue. One of my infinite selves will get around to it one day.) and Glen Weldon hated, hated Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. He hated it much so that I was prophylactically prepared for moral outrage when the movie came around to the three-dollar theater. One of the PCHH folks (probably Weldon) described it as “evil”. But I ended up being somewhat charmed by the movie despite its immorally unacknowledged body count and its monochromatic lack of soul.
I’ve had problems with Snyder’s previous work. I blamed him personally, as director, for the dead-eyed lack of performance in Watchman. What left Watchmen dead, however, informs Man of Steel’s portrayal of Superman’s actual origin story. This story is a seventy-plus-year-old commentary on the Romantic Übermensch-ian justifications for imperial nationalism that caused a half dozen world-ish wars during the 19th and 20th centuries. There’s really no way to be faithful to that and give it the modern sort of heart that a loving contemporary human might truly enjoy seeing. Apart from the time constraints, there’s simply no room in this canon retelling for any humanizing additions as there was in Smallville or the other Superman films. Snyder is working in the tradition of D. W. Griffith, not Richard Donner or Mario Puzo, complete with the implications of that kind of questionable historical ambition.
So the film has no humor and no statement of nuance that doesn’t rely entirely on the viewer. What’s left are the facts of the canon and the highest production values possible.
The one consistently annoying thing in this edifice (apart from the way the sound was turned up far too loud in the theater) was the incredibly tight framing of the shots. Visually, this is a movie of faces. Faces talking, faces reacting, and faces intercut with short shots of CGI mannequins driving each other through CGI concrete. Making this a film of faces makes it much more effective than it might have been otherwise and there is little chance of confusing or forgetting the important characters. But it’s a bit like some recordings of Philip Glass or the use of dynamic range compression. It’s the exhausting exploitation of a technique for maximal effect—and framing faces from the middle of the forehead down to just below their flappy jaws is nothing if not maximum—which becomes a statement in itself and it isn’t a statement of entertainment. It is information design. It is the knob of fidelity turned up to eleven. It might not be art.
If one assumes this movie is propaganda of heartless bashing, it is perfectly put together for the purpose, a well designed technical explication, an accurate restatement of an early formulation of a fictional canon and a simple philosophy. This reading might be a bit of a leap but it is possible because the film ignores what was lasting about Superman’s legacy, it ignores the stories that came later: Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan; Superman, Lana, and the version of Lois Lane that came about as feminism was going mainstream; Superman versus the corporate supervillain. This film is focused entirely on Superman as a presentation of the limits of theology, a depiction of a reluctant Übermensch. Not Christ as some badly-planned publicity seems to have attempted to present him, but Joshua or David plus a self-abnegating conscience.
The next film in the series will pit the government-friendly Superman against the insurgent plutocrat, Batman. If Snyder and Nolan have motives beyond canonical presentation of the original source material, they’ll probably show their hand much more obviously when they match the two heroes against each other. It doesn’t bode well that they’re skipping the sympathy-producing storylines of the 40s through the 70s in favor of Frank Miller’s edgy sociopathy.
Making choices about what is and isn’t canon will be revealing. If humor, human fascism and the quasi-legal plutocracy of Lex Luthor don’t make the cut, then the people choosing the cut will have shown their hand and we can look past the design of production and make clear judgments about the motives of the film’s creators.
I guess we’ll have to see.