Kneel Before Steel.
Darkness, moral ambiguity, self-doubt, wearing underpants inside the trousers: these are things not commonly associated with Superman.
But in MAN OF STEEL, the newest Superman vehicle, this heretical new direction is what we get – like it or not. But Poffy likey.
The bedrock of Superman canon has been preserved (Krypton exploding, Kal-El sent to Earth, super powers) with all the same characters (Lois, Perry, Ma and Pa Kent, only missing snotty tool Jimmy Olsen – the Rob Schneider of Superman canon), but each element of the mythos has been rent asunder and rewrought into the darkest, most complex and “realistic” vision of this previously sunny-bunny one-dimensional hero. By a veritable dream team of filmmakers: director Zack Snyder (WATCHMEN), screenwriters Christopher Nolan (DARK KNIGHT) and David S. Goyer (DARK KNIGHT RISES), producer Charles Roven (12 MONKEYS), composer Hans Zimmer (INCEPTION), with visual effects by Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital (LORD OF THE RINGS).
Gone is John Williams’ jubilant score, gone is kryptonite, gone is Lex Luthor, and gone is the kiss-curl in the middle of his forehead! However, rest assured the new Superman (Henry Cavill) is still built like a freight train riding a tyrannosaurus, and is suitably pants-tremblingly beautiful, with eyes as blue as a throat-kiss and lats like angel-winged girders (although I’ve always maintained that having such superpowers would probably guarantee Superman would never attain such shapeliness, because he need not expend effort on anything, from scoring chicks to finding sustenance – but that’s another rant…). He might look like pure muscle-and-sex-on-the-hoof, but no longer is this icon of purity and goodness blithely assured of his outer or inner strength, no longer is he presented with simplistic good-versus-evil choices, but rather a shifting canvas of moral conundrums. And his underpants-over-spandex fashion statement? Gone, replaced with a marsupial pouch where, from the looks of things, he’s hiding a medium-sized raccoon.
Like that other, uh, Man of Steel, Marvel’s IRON MAN 3, this DC Comics diadem is a realistic, gritty study of the man behind the hero. Almost gone is the name ‘Superman’ itself! MAN OF STEEL (see? Not even in the title!) shows us how a modern world would react to this extra-terrestrial interloper who claims to be on our side, referring to the reclusive, mysterious stranger as either Clark, Kal-El, or – I love this! – “the alien,” which is not only a nod to the spotty-minded Ancient Alien extra-terrestrialists who believe Earth was visited by such powerful beings in the past, but also alludes to American Republicans’ paranoid delusions of illegals overrunning their borders (and taking their jobs – like lifting a school bus out of a river or stopping an earthquake).
Kal-El’s struggle, his redemptive arc, goes nowhere near bank robbers or pussies in trees; rather, he must battle against his own inner confusion, brought about by knowing he is more powerful than everyone around him, yet hiding those powers for fear of ostracism in a world seemingly in dire need of those very powers. His inner rage is salved when he embraces his outer might in that armored costume, tailored to look only slightly less-gay than all the Supermen who have worn it on Mardi Gras floats before him.
His ethic of passive control would work against him in his final battle. That trailer shot of Kal-El screaming “Noooo!” is not because Lois Lane’s pink panties are harmed – it’s a tragic culmination of him being forced to go against his core principles in order to retain other principles. Kal-El is damned both ways.
This is the movie Christopher Reeve should have made had he been given one final chance to redeem the Superman brand. MAN OF STEEL is DC Comics’ finest hour.
In the opening sequence, we visit Krypton proper, not just the Council of Douchebags responsible for its destruction. Superman’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is on the council floor, trying to convince them they’re a bunch of douchebags. We meet General Zod (Michael Shannon), who actually wants to ally with Jor-El, imploring, “The last thing I want is for us to be enemies,” because they both have calculated the planet’s imminent immolation. Jor-El’s son Kal-El is born on this eve of destruction. Zod wants to seed a new world with his chosen bloodline, while Jor-El is more an Obama Socialist and wants all Kryptonians to get a fair shot at a new life. It’s an excellent new ditty on a well-worn motif. And even the close-mindedness of the Council of Douchebags (aka Republicans) is reimagined; in this telling, they are fully aware they are destroying the planet by mining its core, yet there was no other way to maintain their civilization. We will find Nolan has sprinkled these conundrums throughout this Shakespearean epic, like dangerous grains of sand in your tight bikini.
But wait!– Michael Shannon as Zod? I cringed at first – “Kneel before Michael Shannon!” just doesn’t have the same ring to it – but Shannon quickly rises to the level of cheese and potatoes that Terence Stamp stamped on the good general in SUPERMAN II.
We see Krypton amidst a sky battle that resembles a STAR WARS glutfest of air traffic, and Jor-El riding a winged animal that reminds us of Obiwan riding that lizard-thing in SITH. Jor-El steals a DNA device that has been artificially birthing Krypton’s children and implants it in Kal-El’s capsule, sending it to Earth. Jor-El in Iron Man armor battling Zod; Kal-El’s capsule through a wormhole, rather than a linear path to Earth (excellent choice!); Zod and his minions banished to the Phantom Zone (which is apparently reached by rocket-propelled dildo). Then Krypton explodes. And at last, we let out our breath…
For the last half-hour, we’ve been on the edge of our seats – and we haven’t even seen Superman yet!
We meet the new steward of the pantyless tights inauspiciously, Cavill playing a drifter onboard a fishing trawler, being cussed out by a shipmate for being a rookie. His beard is bushy, his mien submissive. Then an oil rig explodes – and in a blaze of shirtless, drooling body-glory, this rookie fisherman is holding up a whole goddam oil rig to save riggers from being crushed. The same phallic throbbery is enacted in SPIDER-MAN 2, when Spider-Man holds up a steel tower to save Kirsten Dunst’s Breasts, eliciting the same reaction in men (“I want to BE him!”) and women (“I want to DO him!”)… Then the drifter is gone.
We see him floating from job to job, trying to remain under the radar, amidst – flashbacks.
This movie does not assume the audience knows the Superman legend. But let’s face it – everyone does. So it’s a double task of revealing this journeyman’s Same Ole backstory creatively, yet keeping it free of the taint of Morgan Freeman Voiceover Exposition.
In the flashbacks, we meet Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), presented as a tragic figure, burdened with the knowledge of his son’s growing powers, yet unsure of how to advise young Clark on adapting them into a society fearful of strangers. In a tear-welling moment, he sticks to his tenet of keeping Clark’s powers secret, forsaking his own life, in another of those amazing rewrites of Superman canon – that squeezes yet another trauma onto Clark’s already complicated life. Costner is magnificent in one of his most poignant roles (it’s not just a cameo – the constant flashbacks keep him in the game). When Clark learns he is an off-worlder, he beseeches Costner, “Why can’t I keep pretending to be your son?” Costner replies, with a hitch in his voice, “You are my son!” All three of us in tears: Costner, Clark and Poffy.
Diane Lane is Clark’s mother, tender yet strong. When a supervillain throws a truck through her house, she tells Clark later, “It’s only stuff – all replaceable.” Yeah, well, when your boy can lift that truck out and reconstruct your house in minutes with his super-speed and welding eyes, it’s only “stuff” – try saying that if you have to hire a crane you can’t afford and rent a hotel for two months while some lazy contractors replace your roof so badly that it constantly leaks and you can’t afford to fix it again or take them to court… Sigh, it’s good to be the mother of a god.
Speaking of god: Since 1978’s SUPERMAN, the Christ allusions have been ubiquitous, and MAN OF STEEL’s messianic allegories come thick and fast – yet in subtle ways. For example, we meet him as a fisherman. (“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Mathew 4:19); Jor-El says, “He will be a god to them”; then there’s the fact that he is his own Trinity (Kal-El, Clark and Superman – Father, Son, and Holy Shit!)… The only allusion that slaps us in the face with its obviousness is a scene of Clark speaking with a priest over whether he should reveal himself to the world, while a stained glass window depicts the Garden of Gethsemane haloed behind him. Get it? Clark in doubt – LIKE JESUS WAS. Oooh, that smarts! Take this cup away from me? I don’t think so, Ted Neeley!
The Superman-Jesus connection.
— from SUPERMAN review, by Poffy The Cucumber.
Clark Kent is raised by a single, surrogate mother; his father is spiritual (Jor-El, who omnisciently speaks from beyond the grave through Kryptonian crystals); the three stages of Superman’s life mirror Christ’s – birth, teen angst, and thirty-something; Superman’s full-fledged, formidable powers suffice for the miracles of Jesus, and like Jesus, Superman brings a message of peace – which may seem ironic coming from an omnipotent demigod who can kill you quicker than thought. Like Jesus, Superman is far advanced in knowledge and power; like Jesus, he won’t shut up about his home in the sky; and like Jesus, his girlfriend is a whore.
The inevitable Meet Cute with Lois Lane, but again, with a new twist. Firstly, the whore-iness of Margot Kidder is replaced by crystal-voiced girl-next-door Amy Adams. And gone are the musings over “Clark without his glasses…” She knows. She knows from their first meeting. Since her inception as an investigative reporter character, no one has credited her with the intelligence to easily divine the obvious Clark-Superman connection. Until now. She is not treated like an idiot here. Lois gets the last line, the movie’s thematic hammer. As a screenwriter, you are always looking for that One Line that defines your movie – as Spielberg found it in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS’ first lines, “Are we the first? Are we the first to arrive here?”- so too does the genius Nolan, with Lois’s last line.
Laurence Fishburne is editor Perry White (how ironic!). Bet he’s reassessing who The One is right about the time the ground is about to swallow him and Superman flies through the Earth and destroys the machine that created the quakes. Is it coincidence that the machine looks like something from THE MATRIX RELOADED?
The great Richard Schiff in a small but key role as a scientist.
this ain’t rock and roll – this is… genocide!
Surely the greatest re-write/re-imagining is wrought on that old platitude, “You were sent here for a purpose.” All our lives we’ve been assaulted by that meaningless messianic nudge-wink, and I’m so sick of it, I’d even be glad if someone simply changed it to, “You were sent here for a porpoise” and have Superman frolicking with dolphins. But Nolan and Goyer shock us with their revelation of Kal-El’s ultimate “purpose” – sent to Earth by Jor-El to save Krypton’s bloodline by seeding it with his genetic code! Jor-El has been turned into Jor-Adolph! But wait! This is not evil for the sake of evil. Not evil at all when looked at “from a certain point of view” (as Obiwan Kenobi will attest when he tells you that Vader killed your father).
Jor-El is working for the good of his race. Any one of you would do the same! And there is General Zod, seeking to unleash Kal-El’s genetic code to bring Krypton a-blazing into existence on Earth – once again, allying with Jor-El in the most complex of ways. He screams in anguish that he is doing all this “for the good of his people!” Hmm, where have we heard that before? Ah, yes, from every leader since time began, no matter where history ranks them on the good-evil scale – from Jack Kennedy to Dick Cheney, from Barack Obama to Richard Satan’s Vagina Nixon, from Nancy Pelosi to Babycry Boehner. Be it Mussolini, Gandhi or Augustus Caesar, every leader’s refrain has always been “for the good of the people.” So Zod is not “evil for eeeevil’s sake.” He is only perceived as a villain because he is trying to wipe out your race at the elevation of his.
Whereas previously, Kal-El’s “purpose” was sullied by the kink of spirituality and Glenn Ford opining, “…and it’s not to score touchdowns,” now it is couched in scientific idiom and ultimately ethical conundrum. Terraforming! Genocide! It seems Jor-El did not send his only begotten son to Earth only because it was habitable, but because it was habitable, Kal-El was sent with the means to create a new “heaven on Earth,” native fauna be damned.
Jor-El – who keeps appearing and having conversations with everyone as if he hasn’t even died – rationalizes his ulterior agenda, that “he took steps to ensure the survival of Krypton” and that Kal-El was “the bridge between two races.” …Uh, riiight. And Vader killed my father.
Of course there are niggly annoyances, as with any blockbuster: Superman spends way too much screentime battling those giant MATRIX tentacles; way too many skyscrapers get smoked; Jor-el keeps appearing around every corner even though he’s dead. I mean, if you wanted to be here so badly, why didn’t you build an escape rocket big enough for the whole El family? Kal actually asks disembodied Jor this – just before Jor unveils Kal’s gay-ass costume (nay, “battle armor”– snigger!) – and Jor’s answer, which could have been a scientifically sound one (couldn’t acquire enough propellant for liftoff with the heavier payload, or didn’t have the time to build a bigger ship, etc.) instead rambles into the territory of, “She lost the will to live.” But the grand arc of the film is unassailable.
Some complain there is no chemistry between Lois and Clark – firstly, they just met! – but in the interrogation room where Clark thanks her for “believing in him” and she brushes it off, “It didn’t really matter anyway,” this mantoy that can crush mountains quietly assures her, “It did to me.” Whoa! Don’t know about Lois, but MY thighs are weak. And after saving Lois from one too many big explosions, in their tentative public embrace we feel their longing (probably brought about by induced shared stress syndrome), as he desperately crushes his raccoon against her.
Though the flying sequences are exhilarating (for the first time, the brilliant staging shows us it is an act of will), and though the effects are mind-blowing (it is, after all, a summer boy’s movie), Cavill brings a quiet dignity to a role that is not usually associated with such. Look at that shot of him turning his face to the sun and basking in its rays. Solemnity. Quietude. Sure, there’s lots of punching and Pretty Orange Explosions, but there is not an ounce of cheese or ham in Cavill’s performance; it is all Shakespearean tragedy (with maybe a little crème brûlée). No matter what he may do in the future, this will be his primo role. For some sad reason, Brandon Routh in SUPERMAN RETURNS, through no fault of his own, has become the George Lazenby of Supermen. Admittedly this is Cavill’s first donning of the cape – and it may be his last, depending on the vagaries of the fickle movie industry – but Poffy Predicts he will be the Face of Superman for the next generation.
The more you look like Christopher Reeve, the more you look like Superman. And Cavill channels Reeve even more than Routh did. MAN OF STEEL cements him as the new steward of the legacy. Christopher Reeve can finally Rest In Peace.