I just returned from seeing Man of Steel, and damn, if DC doesn’t finally have a movie as good as The Dark Knight. I won’t say MoS is better than the Dark Knight, because the Dark Knight didn’t have all the irritating Christian symbolism (more on that in a second) and it had Heath Ledger, but the two movies are equally good.
I’d been avoiding spoilers as much as possible for MoS, and I wanted to go into the movie cold. First, I was very impressed that the movie dedicated a good chunk of screen time to actually showing Krypton. Like Vulcan and Earth in the first JJ Abrams Star Trek movie, movie Krypton was a place we’d heard about, but never really got a chance to walk around in, and the opening scene more than took care of that. Krypton was beautiful and weird. I’m seeing two main influences on movie Krypton: the first is the Halo game franchise. Halo’s design has really influenced a lot of sci-fi, because a whole generation of artists and special effects crew grew up with that vision of the future.
Much of Krypton’s tech reminded me of the Covenant’s, especially the ships and energy rifles. I also noticed that most of the Kryptonian tech looked vaguely organic and subtly sexualized, lots of vaginal and phallic motifs, which makes sense given the culture has abandoned sexual reproduction in favor of kelp forest fetus farms. Plus, I fucking loved the liquid metal tech, especially the hovering phone droids.
Michael Turner had a short run on the Superman comic, illustrating Godfall and reintroducing Supergirl in a great story; during Godfall, Superman was trapped in a kind of VR simulation of Krypton, which resembled the world here. The dragonfly-like assault ships and the four winged dragon weren’t specifically from that arc, but they were very Turner-like in design. I think the art department read Godfall and went on to poach other Mike Turner comics, like Fathom and Soul Fire for ideas. Good call on their part, because Krypton was absolutely gorgeous. The Matrix fetus-farm/kelp forest was amazing, and I loved Jor-El’s pet dragon (did he call that thing Argo? I couldn’t hear clearly.) When the DVD comes out, there better be a goddamned deleted scene where he pets the dying dragon and tells it ‘good boy’ though, because that scene needed to be in the movie.
The whole movie felt very faithful to the comics while not being constrained by them. I loved the fact that Lois Lane not only knows his secret identity, from practically the first moment they meet, she is an active participant in keeping Superman’s ID secret. The movie went out of their way to make Lois as sarcastic and slightly vulgar as she is in the comics, but showed off her intelligence (she figured out Clark’s identity and origin in what, a 2-3 week montage sequence?) but showed that she was honorable enough to keep that secret a secret. For the first time, I felt Lois as a character was worthy of Superman’s love, a feeling I’ve never really gotten from the comic book Lois.
The movie takes great pains to establish that humanity is worth saving. Man of Steel is a disaster movie in a sense, but it takes great pains to show that the humans around Superman are trying to help one another and are heroic in their own right. The fishing trawler captain responding to the SOS from the oil rig, Jonathan Kent’s death, Perry trying to help Jenny, “Guardian’s” heroic sacrifice, the soldiers and cops and civilians throughout the movie all trying to help. Good storytelling detail- the civilians in the X-Men and Avengers movies are either panicky sheep or outright bigots, and the civies in the DCU seem a little more likable.
I’m amazed by the quality of the guest stars this movie fielded. I knew Russell Crow was Jor-El, but I missed that Kevin Costner and Diane Lane were Clark’s parents. Fucking Field of Dreams was in this movie. I also kept expecting Christopher Meloni’s character to forcibly sodamize somebody, just he is so strongly associated with the character of Keller from Oz in my mind. Also, he didn’t wear the incredibly stupid blue and gold costume, but Meloni was the fucking Guardian. Of all the DCU properties to appear in a multimillion dollar movie, they included the Guardian. His call sign was Guardian, and he was a soldier who died heroically saving Metropolis, so Guardian it is. I was actually very pleased to see that.
And even though they got Laurence Fishburne in this movie, Perry White still remains the gruff newspaper editor that is no where near as interesting as J. Jonah Jameson. Fishburne did what he could, but I don’t think he really had much to work with. Also, I recognize the balding reporter, Lombard, from somewhere, but damn if I can ID the actor. I’m curious- I’d heard they flipped Jimmy Olsen’s gender and made her Jenny, but seriously, there’s nothing on screen to indicate that Jenny is anything other than some random NPC named Jenny. Will they develop her more in the sequel?
There were plenty of Easter eggs, of course. Jor-El’s cool liquid metal hologram displayed Krytponian statues very similar to the enormous chrome statues of his parents that decorated Superman’s Fortress of Solitude pre-Crisis, and other elements of the chrome hologram were lifted directly from panels in Lenil Yu’s awesome Birthright miniseries. In addition to Guardian, lots of other military call signs recalled various DC properties, but I’m not sure if that’s intentional or merely coincidental. The only direct Lexcorp Easter egg I noticed was the tanker truck thrown at Superman by Zod during the climactic battle, but there may have been stuff I missed. And in the credits, I noticed a character named Dev-Em- a minor Kyrptonian from the Legion era, but damn if I could identify him on screen.
Now for the part I didn’t like. The Christian symbolism. I’d gone into the movie expecting more overt symbolism, especially given the news that Warner Brothers was starting a whisper campaign among Evangelical clergy to put the word out that MoS was, if not an explicitly Christian film, a Christian-friendly one, but the elements in the movie were far more superficial. Basically, Superman starts his heroic career at 33 and flies in a cruciform pattern a few times, and Jor-El, in voice over narration keeps talking about how he sent his Son to save mankind.
However, Superman is ethical without being religious, which is about as it should be. I did however, question the wisdom of Superman confiding in a priest (who used to be the school bully who beat up little Clark back in the day). That scene added nothing, and though we as the audience were supposed to believe that Clark’s refusal to hit back helped the priest to find God, given what I know of rural Kansas politics and theology, I find myself wandering what this priest-character does the other 364 days out of the year when he’s not (badly) advising Clark Kent. Is this guy still a bully, only instead of bullying teen-Kent, does he bully women out front of the only abortion clinic within 75 miles of Smallville?
Also, did anybody else get the vibe that Jonathan Kent might have been an atheist? It was very subtle, but when Pete Ross’s dipshit mom started blathering on about Clark miraculously saving everybody, using evangelical memes and word choices, did you notice Jonathan sorta rolling his eyes. I get the feeling that he really held Mrs. Ross in contempt, but was only being polite to her because rural Kansas social mores demanded him to be, and Jonathan didn’t seem emotionally strong enough to actively fight to change an unjust culture- witness his advice to his son. Still, it was kind of subversive, you’ve got Clark who was raised by an atheist? Or at least non-believer, and he’s flying in the sun, saving the planet, and Pete Ross, raised by an evangelical house-mouse is a small town schlub managing an IHOP. To what degree did the two men’s religious upbringing, or lack of the same, define their futures?
Still, Pete Ross was likable- his arc was minor, he went from bullying Clark, to offering comfort secretly, even if like Jonathan he lacked the balls to directly stand against an unjust society. Though Pete Ross’ heroism was understated, and weak, there was still a little heroism there; he kept Clark’s secret and was better for knowing him.
One thing I wonder about is the role of the American military in superhero movies like this. In the Bay Transformers films, in Avengers, in Iron Man, in the horrible Battleship, ect, you’ve got ordinary American forces up against full on MDC Rifts-style monsters, and while the military is portrayed as heroic, decisive and honorable, the soldiers get slaughtered by the HUNDREDS.
Years back, when I wrote D20 Decade: the 1980s, I noted that a shopping mall gets annihilated in tons of movies, Day of the Dead and The Blues Brothers being two of the best known examples. It was like movie makers realized that though malls offered convenience, there were killing something vital of the old America, and took great pleasure in destroying one. We need the mall, but we also sorta hate it because we intuitively understand the consequence of its presence, so let’s have some catharsis by blowing one up on screen. Is the modern, post 911 military the same thing. We need these guys, but after Abu Garib, and PRISIM and all the other bullshit, we kinda hate them too. So we put soldiers in our big budget summer block busters just so they can die like heroes, but most importantly, so they can just DIE. (And by the way, though I’ve definitely got some opinions about that whole PRISIM clusterfuck, I’m sure as shit not talking about it on line. Those who know what I did in the Navy can guess why.)
Anyway, something to think about. Faint reservations aside, I'll definitely be buying this one when it comes out on DVD.