Spoiler Alert — Superman The Movie
(Not that there are any surprises to spoil)
So you might guess that I didn’t like the movie. I did like it, but I also didn’t. I think it was a great 20-minute story that dragged on for two and half hours of mano a mano slug-fest. It was an incredibly noisy movie, visually and audibly. And I didn’t care for the score, at least on first hearing: I didn’t even stay through the credits.
This is Christopher Nolan’s dark re-imagining of the Man of Steel, much like the re-imagined Batman of his Dark Knight series. It’s a first step toward trying to put some real motivation behind a guy who wears tights and a cape and can’t be touched by bullets. Given the incredible basic premise, it isn’t a half-bad attempt.
Kal-El (Superman’s Kryptonian name) is born on a planet collapsing from extractive resource depletion, genetic reprogramming of the race, and war. The war part is very odd, because there doesn’t seem to be anyone the Kryptonians are at war with. Nor is there any indication that they’ve even met any other intelligent races in their attempts to colonize the galaxy. They’re all alone out there in the big, harsh, empty universe with its wretched, stony, poison-wreathed rocks for the Kryptonian colonies to die on, weapons in hand, apparently screaming in rage at the sheer emptiness of it all. Nonetheless, they have their Supreme Commander, General Zod, a fleet of dreadnoughts large enough to take on the Death Star, ceremonial armor, deadly hand-weapons, and imposing, militaristic, decadent architectural monstrosities straight out of a Geiger painting.
In an extremely noisy escape from dreadnoughts commanded by General Zod while mounted on a giant, leathery dragonfly, Kal-El’s father, Jor-El, manages to steal the entire genetic database for Krypton, beam it into his newborn son’s genetic structure, slap him into an infant-sized escape pod, and launch it toward the Earth. Huzzah.
We see Kal-El’s childhood on Earth as Clark Kent through flashbacks throughout the movie. Those flashbacks are the only interesting and touching parts of the whole 150 minute film. Comic book heroes have always appealed to adolescents — that’s who pays for them, after all — particularly their sense of alienation: the X-Men, Spiderman, the Hulk, the Batman. This movie explores Superman’s alienation pretty well — a sweet kid with good instincts who really, really, really doesn’t fit in. Like the day at school that his X-Ray Vision kicks in, and he panics and locks himself in a closet. Weirdo, the kids say. What’s wrong with him? He saves a school bus full of kids that drives off a bridge into the water, and the parents of the children he saves are terrified, though they can’t quite believe what their kids have told them. Weirdo, they say. What’s wrong with him?
His adoptive Earth-father, Jonathan Kent, is no easier on him. This is not the kindly Glenn Ford of the 1978 Superman, dealing out folksy Kansas platitudes and blue skies of endless optimism. Kevan Costner comes across as a real product of the 1950’s midwest — stern, hard-edged, distant, a little afraid of his son, and a whole lot afraid for him. It’s a bitter lesson he teaches Clark — stay hidden. Otherwise, people will hate you. They’ll try to kill you. So thorough is this indoctrination that Clark lets his father die in a tornado rather than reveal his powers.
That’s enough to mess you up for life.
So we first meet the adult Clark as a drifter, kicking around fishing boats and oil rigs, blending in as best he can and moving on when he’s forced by his strange sense of honor to save people from industrial disasters of their own making, like the oil-rig fire we see in the previews, where he stands like Atlas under a world of flaming steel.
It’s this compulsion to help the people of Earth that makes this Superman an enigma. He has no reason to love humans — just the two that raised him, and frankly more his mom than his dad. Weirdo, they all say. What’s wrong with you? Yet compelled to help, he certainly is. He doesn’t seem to understand it any better than we do, and that’s what makes this work. There’s no real reason for it, and no apology. It’s just a fixed constant in his character, like Batman’s fear of cowardice and impotence that drives his endless thirst for revenge.
We’ll breeze right by how the drifter Clark just happens to be handling bags for Lois Lane at a super-top-secret military dig in the arctic where they’ve found a spaceship under 20,000 years of ice. Of course, the spaceship is Kryptonian, sent out as an automated seed probe some 20,000 years ago, only to crash on Earth and get buried in ice (it was apparently piloted by a Kryptonian version of Microsoft Windows). Clark carries a little key-fob with him from his escape pod that turns out to be the Universal Ignition Key for all Kryptonian seedships, dreadnoughts, and computer systems; it also contains the stored Mind of Jor-El, his Kryptonian father. He discovers this, of course, when he uses his heat vision to bore through the ice, enters the ship, and puts the key in the ignition.
Starting up the seed ship causes it to phone home (a Kryptonian version of the iPhone), which call is intercepted by none other than General Zod, who has survived the destruction of Krypton because he was chilling in the Phantom Zone, a rather nasty form of solitary confinement to which he and his minions had been sentenced for their abortive attempt to take over Krypton during the little fracas with Jor-El. Krypton’s destruction frees them all, and they spend a couple of decades cobbling up a star drive and scavenging hardware before the unexpected call.
So Zod comes to Earth. He wants the Kryptonian genetic database to bring back his people, and he doesn’t care what he has to do to get it. Meanwhile, Kal-El has had a long father-son chat with the holographic projection of Jor-El, and now he Knows Who He Is. And why he’s on Earth. And how to fly, and not dig a canyon-sized divot when he lands, and how to cook a perfect three-minute egg with his heat vision without making it explode.
From there, the story descends into a very noisy CG slug-fest as Superman takes on Zod and his minions. He wins, of course, by virtue of his ability to grit his teeth and fly into a gravity-beam that’s ripping the Earth apart. I’ve never understood why gritting your teeth and making fists helps you fly better, or hit harder, or think faster. But apparently it is the key ingredient that allows the hero to overcome pretty much anything. Remember that the next time you’re puzzling over a test question. Grit teeth. Make fists.
Zod and his minions are sent back into a black hole, Superman is now out of the closet, and Clark Kent dons his glasses and joins the staff of the Daily Planet. Happy ending. Huzzah.
There are several things I did find interesting about this re-imagining.
I grew up on the Superman of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, and he was definitely comic-book fare. Given the politics of that era, it was only natural that he should align himself with Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Any space alien — any earthbound god, for that matter — who wasn’t just plain stupid was going to present himself on the White House lawn, not at the bloody Kremlin, and of course he would want to shake the President’s hand: there could be no higher honor in all the galaxy than to shake the hand of the President of the United States.
The world has changed a lot.
In 1978, the Mario Puzo script had Superman quoting his old line about “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” The audiences invariably laughed — something that would never have happened in the early 1960’s. Even so, Kansas was painted with spacious skies and amber waves of grain — the cinematic shot when Clark leaves his mother, shortly after Johnathan Kent’s death, is one of the most glorious shots of a Kansas field I’ve ever seen.
In this film, the Kansas flashbacks were color-unsaturated and tinted an overcast gray, like faded 8mm movie film. There was a grimness to all the characters more reminiscent of my actual memories growing up. Adults took themselves very seriously back then, and there was tremendous social pressure to conform, to not stand out. Boys all wore long pants and short hair. Girls all wore long hair and long skirts. The constant bullying and jockeying for dominance among the school kids — Weirdo. What’s wrong with him? — was certainly a big part of my experience. There was nothing salutary about it: it was simply ugly, and this film captures that.
The Krypton of this film was a crystal clear (if heavy-handed) allegory about our own Earth, particularly the United States, especially in the fact that Krypton makes no sense.
They have genetically pre-programmed citizens who, nonetheless, revolt or commit crimes regularly enough that they have a standard process of “somatic reconditioning” — extended torture — performed for centuries on end in a gravitational black hole dedicated to that purpose. They have a civilization spread across the stars that has died out everywhere other than Krypton without meeting any other intelligent life, yet they’re all perpetually geared up for the highest possible levels of war. They’ve mined the core of Krypton until the world is on the brink of literal collapse. Why? Because they needed energy and other “resources.”
What a bunch of Nimrods!
Every bit of this, of course, has direct connections to current events in the US: GITMO, our military-industrial complex, fracking, financial fraud, global warming. Put our story together, and it makes as little sense as Krypton.
Perhaps most interesting, however, is the portrayal of the military. For most of my adult life, we’ve had movies that either brazenly glorify the military and its traditions, or paint the Pentagon as a bunch of bumbling fools who are easily outmaneuvered by a couple of plucky kids.
This is the first blockbuster film I can remember that paints the paranoia and naked terror that lies just beneath the surface of our national military bravado.
People and their institutions are often studies in opposites. Military might, police procedure, and all other forms of institutional force are about maintaining control through one-sided threat of violence. Just underneath that attempt at control is the terror of not having control. Of chaos. Of disorder. Of counter-violence.
In Superman, the military gets to stand by and watch two gods duke it out. Bullets bounce off them; big bombs knock them off their feet and muss their hair; they move faster than any human can even follow with their eyes, and can vaporize you with a glance. If they notice you as an inconvenience, they might turn around and swat at you like you would swat a fly. If you survive, it’s only because they missed, and simply didn’t care enough to follow up with a second swat.
You cannot tell them what to do.
Defiance is the first fracture in the illusion of control, and generally brings a swift escalation in threat of violence. Try telling any cop who has just told you to get out of your car to stuff it sideways, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. This is why Superman allows himself to be handcuffed and led into an interrogation room, and he says as much: it makes the humans feel more comfortable. But then he tires of the posturing, and stands up, and the cuffs fall off like they weren’t even attached. He’s polite, but firm. He’s here to help, but on his terms. End of discussion. He waits patiently for them to get used to the idea.
They cannot tell him what to do. It terrifies them, because it destroys their illusion of control.
The fact is, in real life it is always an illusion of control, regardless of whether those who are charged with being in control realize it. The government cannot stop the Chinese from hacking US computers. The gun-wielding thief cannot actually force the store clerk give him money. The parent cannot control the child’s behavior. All any of these can do is threaten mayhem and hope the other person responds to the threat.
Superman is a myth, or an allegory, that can show us what happens when the illusion of control by threat of violence is dispelled, because he cannot be controlled by violence.
That was an interesting twist I wasn’t expecting.