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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Superman

I stood in line.
I settled into my seat.
The lights went down.
The lights came up.
I left.

I want to talk about what happened in between.

Superman was never on my list of favorite super heroes. Even though he could fly and was invincible he never really piqued my interest. So, when Man of Steel came to the big screens of America, I went, not as a die-hard fan, but ready to give Superman another chance.

As I watched the movie, I was of course impressed by the visuals that were created in thousands of computers by thousands of fingers on keyboards, excited voices in boardrooms and solitary concept artists with thousands of pencils, and it was all beautiful.

Russell Crowe's monologues in the early stages of the film also raised my hopes and prepared me for the havoc of greatness that Superman would undoubtedly unleash on the world and the moral bedrock that he would become; the "ideal to strive towards." Crowe's character, along with Superman's mother, send him off in the hopes that he will live on and that he will change earth forever. I got interested.

Zod, the villain, (Michael Shannon) was also a fairly strong character. He was focused and consistently intent on rebuilding his race that was destroyed. (I was also under the impression that this was Superman's reason for being sent to earth, but I might be hazy on that point.) Zod took the necessary steps to realize his plan and made difficult, though questionable, moral decisions that would eventually lead to his goal being completed. There was even a ship full of  embryos from Krypton that were primed to rebuild the population and he had collected the tools he needed to overhaul earth, wipe out the human population, and begin again. Superman now had a focused enemy. It was getting pretty good.

Lois Lane was tough, smart, sensible, and had strong personal convictions that she expressed throughout the movie. She was brave, but often got into trouble (i.e when the guardian robot attacked her in the frozen ship and on the multiple occasions where she fell from the sky, hurtling to her death). This suggested to me that, although she was capable, she still needed someone to save her. Superman now had a damsel in distress. This movie was now full of possibilities.

Superman. It is ironic to me that the strongest character in this movie is also the weakest. He has a mission in life, a sworn enemy, a damsel in distress, super powers, and a new found sense of who he is and what is expected of him. What does he do with all that? How does that affect him? He becomes nice.

Don't get me wrong. Being nice is great. I am completely a proponent of loving your mother, sticking up for the underdog and throwing semi-trucks into trees when their drivers do not respect women. All that I completely agreed with. Also, it was Superman's 'waiting period' when he couldn't do anything too amazing because Kevin Costner thought everyone would be too afraid. However,
1) He was Superman, so if he felt a strong sense of purpose for his life, why did he care what anyone would think of him? He's also invincible with god-like power so what could anyone do to him? He had also been completely rejected and ridiculed his whole life by everyone anyway except the people that had actually seen him use his powers or been affected in some way by them. (i.e the ginger kid he saved off the bus.) So how much more could he actually be rejected and why does he care? Furthermore, I don't think that having absolute, raw power would make anyone feel at ease, no matter how genuinely he smiled at you.
2) His 'waiting period' never ended. Our hero had been encouraged early in his life by his father (Kevin Costner) to figure out who he was so that he could make the difficult choices that he would have to make. Instead, he never faced a difficult moral dilemma. Superman was simply trapped into saving the world by Zod, who actually had convictions about who he was and what he was doing. Superman never had to choose between saving the world and saving himself and so through saving himself he saved the world. This is convenient, but I would argue that it is not exactly noble.

He did choose, on several occasions to rescue Lois. She was the only human that seemed to fall consistently into his good graces. With Lois, Superman shone.

Lois was the lucky one who saw a consistent Superman. However, everyone else on earth was not so lucky. He started out well by saving a bunch of men from a burning oil rig and subsequently the helicopter from being crushed. Well done Superman. I now know that you are interested in preserving human life. However, I was soon confused when there was a standoff in the Smallville main street. He told all the bystanders and shop owners to stay inside and lock the doors. I have two questions at this point.
1) What good was that going to do against aliens that could break walls with their hands?
2) Notice how they never revisited the people that had locked themselves in their shops? This was probably because someone had thrown a car through their window and crushed them, or because they had become toast due to the multiple missiles that had blown up the entire town. However, this was not all Superman's fault. The military was mostly to blame for the actually collateral damage and disregard for human life. However, there is a final scene with a huge gravity machine that is leveling the planet and he is in charge of bringing it down. He destroys the machine, which is great, but after he destroys it, he has a final showdown with Zod in the middle of the city. For a guy who just an hour ago was going out of his way to save 5 guys in a helicopter, he seems to have become pretty cavalier with knocking over a few dozen buildings, blowing up some cars, and collapsing a parking garage which happened to be sheltering all of the people he had instructed to hide there. This could also be blamed on Zod, but since all Zod wanted to do was kill Superman, couldn't Superman have simply flown out of such a heavily populated area and settled their differences there? This also would have made it possible to spare Zod's life since Superman would not have been distracted by the family that he was suddenly interested in saving. He also didn't seem very concerned with destroying the embryos that were the remaining remnants of his race (besides Zod who he also killed), commenting casually that 'they had their chance', or that he wasn't around when Zod threw a truck into his mother's house and slapped her around. At this point, all traces of consistency had vanished from Superman's character. Lois Lane truly was the only consistent beneficiary of Superman's full attention and devotion, except maybe Superman himself.

Also, briefly touching on the Messiah allegory, I thought that in certain subtle ways, it was set up well. However, transistioning from subtlety into blatancy (the church scene where he talks to the Priest) and then not ever concluding that thread or connecting it with the rest of the story was, on par with the rest of the film, disappointing. Not only that, but the story never revisits this theme or explains why it was brought up in the first place, making it unfortunately consistent with Superman's character. All this allegory suggested to me was that Jesus was also just a ansgsty, indecisive, really nice guy who accidentally saved the world.

In conclusion, from the way Superman was introduced, I was expecting someone full of conviction, of devotion, of nobility, consistency and sacrifice, who would make some difficult choices, protect the innocent, and bring justice to every situation. Instead, Superman seemed selfish, easily distracted, inconsistent, unsure, and impulsive. At least he was a really, really nice guy...sometimes. This latter description sounds a lot more like who I am, than who a Superhero should be. Personally, I want my heros to be better than I am. I'm not saying that Superman can't have his flaws, but I don't think I can aspire to be like someone who has so much power, so much potential and so little to lose and yet never overcomes his own fear, insecurities and obstacles that keep him from choosing to be something greater than what he is trapped into being. He is not my hero.

 


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