Saturday, June 15, 2013



There is nothing about Man of Steel that we have not seen previously in the beginning story of any given superhero. And I believe when I say that, I am not judging it too harshly. We are in a superhero bubble. It is a time when everyone wants their pet superhero franchise running. Some want more than one, clearly. Christopher Nolan’s investment in Zack Snyder’s reboot of the Superman franchise – one more to DC, against Marvel’s shipload – is suggestive. Having directed the hugely successful Batman trilogy, Nolan teams up with buddy David S. Goyer to write the treatment for Man of Steel

The single biggest question on my mind – which I voiced out loud as well – as the end credits rolled was this: What was there in this story that it needed two people to write it? It is the sort of story that, if I told you play-by-play, I would still not have spoilt the film for you. Not any more than the promos would have done for you already. Let me disappoint you further by saying this: There is nothing more to Man of Steel than they have already shown to you on the teaser trailers, and I don’t know who is to blame for that – Syncopy films or its super-talented writing team, led by the inimitable David S. Goyer who is as good a writer as his Christian faith. We saw that in the Invisible (2007). We see it again in Man of Steel

Man of Steel has Superman tread the fine line in the Church and State question. America reconciles to Superman and further chooses to believe in him. He is the southern kid raised with the belief that great things are left to God and God alone. But then he could be God if he got around to it; if and when the time is right. Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) says so. In Clark Kent’s (Henry Cavill) life, he assumes a riskier position than Uncle Ben had with Peter Parker in the Spiderman universe. He assumes the role of the Father with full knowledge that he is not and that someday Clark would come to realize it as well. In fact, he would make sure that he does. It is sinful for a man to not know what he has been sent here for, especially when it has been pre-programmed and written down for him. And it goes like this: 

Go to Earth. Get raised in good faith. Find Lois Lane, for it was written in heaven that you should end up with her. Make Krypton live in you, cell-for-cell. 

I think it must be clear by now that I am only familiar with the Superman comics in as far as knowing they exist (seeing how I haven’t expressed outrage at factual inconsistencies). Maybe a little more. With this limited knowledge, I have always thought of DC’s Superman to be inadvertently similar to Nietzsche’s Superman. And while I would have gladly liked my misconception to be rectified, I did not expect it to be overthrown completely. Superman, after all, is what every human aspires to be, isn’t he? He has super-human strength. He see past things, he can hear things that are normally inaudible. Best of all, he can beat Earth’s gravity. He can just push off, if you see what I’m saying. 

A Kryptonian expat by the name of Faora (Antje Traue, does better in latex than Scarlett Johansson could ever have dreamt) taunts Superman in the middle of a duel – You are weak, because you believe in morality. That comes crashing. It had never occurred to me that this is one place where Superman departs from Nietszchean hero-morality. Superman is against evolution. He is the son of Jor-El (Russell Crowe), a Professor X/Martin Luther King Jr. type pacifist. He believes in coexistence – of Kryptonians and humans on Earth – conveniently excluding the fact that they are multitudes stronger than humans and that the Earth’s conditions nurture them in a way it can never do to us. This means Kryptonians would end up wiping out the human race in the survival of the fittest. 

Now, I do not know how much of it is from the comics, but we learn that Kal-El is the only child of Krypton who was born out of intercourse. Everyone else, including and especially General Zod (Michael Shannon, a tad too angry), are mass-manufactured – they are sons and daughters of Krypton who are hence bound to the betterment of their race. They do not have the conception of a Mother or a Father like Kal-El does. On top of that he has a sense of southern masculinity where he replaces Pa Kent as guardian and protector of his Ma(w) (Diane Lane). The result is some delightful man-to-man action where Superman shows Zod what would happen if he dared threaten his Mother.

Such scenes abound in Man of Steel, which are made for the excitable movie-goer. There is the interrogation scene where Lois Lane (Amy Adams) flirts like she knows her Superman more than anyone else. There is repeated mention of Superman as one under complete control of his powers, so much that for him to surrender, he must choose to. You let them put you on handcuffs? Lois asks him, bemused. Superman shrugs and says he had to give people the assurance that he was not above and beyond them. Moments later, in a burst of exasperation, he tells the FBI off saying he has been around for thirty-three years in the world and has not harmed anyone. If you do not see where I’m going with this, soon to follow is a scene where Superman goes to Church. He wants clarification. That he would risk his neck for the people of the Earth is certain. But could he trust Zod with his word? Superman walks out before the Pastor could say anything, but he runs after him asking him to take the leap of faith first. 

But then he needn't be told that. For he is (insert irritating Hans Zimmer-styled thumping here) the son of God.

Almost downright creationist, maybe even based out of the Genesis at places, Man of Steel has more ways to insult the viewer than merely though its painful clichĂ©s. Random picturesque shots adorn flashback sequences, adding to aesthetic value in a very Tree of Life way. These shots further elongate sequences where Clark – the kid, the adolescent and the helpless young man – beats himself down repeatedly wondering why he has been sent to planet Earth. To add to it are disgraceful lines that are high on intensity, low on meaning. It would have helped if there was a little more tongue-in-cheek humour that Cavill seems more than capable of. But no. Superman is the next-door introvert who keeps quiet because he is not sure if he has the right thing to say, saving people like that’s all his heart tells him to do. He would barbeque your truck on some electric poles and leave it behind as a thank you note rather than show some attitude.

And then the action sequences. Except for the final clash between Superman and Zod which has some ingenious CGI – you know you have reached the next level when you add shakycam to computer-generated imagery – the action scenes are straight out something like the Avengers or the Transformers series. I mean, sure America has seen a few skyscrapers fall. In Man of Steel, you lose count of those. You remember I spoke of a duel between Superman and the Kryptonian Faora earlier? Easily the hardest to follow, the most you can make of it are rings and blurs of red that say that Superman is being tossed around amidst flying debris. He takes a few, gives them back. We know the transaction happens although we never see it. And in the end, the Kryptonians leave – be it voluntarily, or sucked into a black hole. 

I read an interesting article that said Man of Steel holds the record for the most product-placements in any film, beating Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Other than a neat glimpse of Lexcorp hinting at a possible sequel, I don’t see how it makes sense. For instance, Superman consumes Budweiser. Superman uses Gilette, Toshiba and shops at Sears. Given the skilful hands the film rested in, it would have helped to incorporate the products better in the script – they could perhaps have done a self-parody for all its worth. A Superman movie being just another studio venture, to me, seems unacceptable.

Overall, Man of Steel has a very promising Superman in Cavill, a stellar Kevin Costner as Pa Kent – who is so good playing St. Joseph that it is most unfortunate he had to die the way he does – and a spell-binding last act that seems to be the Nolan trademark. There are a few more curious goings-on like the relationship between Perry White (Laurence Fishburne, the first Black man in the role) and Jenny, and hints of chemistry between Faora and the unstoppable Zod which might raise some eyebrows on comic book nerds. Otherwise, the only thing significantly original about Man of Steel is the rather distasteful beard that’s slapped on to Zod which – for a change – has David S. Goyer written on it.

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