Friday, June 14, 2013

A secular saint: Reflections on Man of Steel


There are no major spoilers in this essay, but if you want to see the movie with no preconceived notions at all, bookmark this and come back after you’ve seen the film.

Last night I found myself sitting in an IMAX theater 2 hours before a midnight premiere, something which I have done more and more often in recent years.  With some old Superman trade paperbacks in hand, I planned to while away the time before my friends arrived in an hour by reading some comics and getting "in the mood."

A steady stream of arrivals poured into our theater – the crowd skewed young, but was pretty evenly distributed between men and women (I suspect Henry Cavill might have had something to do with that, ladies).

I don’t want to write a review of this fairly good movie.  Men and women brighter than me have already done that.  I wanted to talk about a few moments within the film in relation to the zeitgeist.

“Hope” as a religion

G.K. Chesterton said that once man ceases to believe in God he does not believe in nothing, but rather believes in anything.  Kal-El/Superman’s “S” which represents hope – not just for the learned mistakes of Krypton, but for the future of mankind – is a captivating notion – particularly for a secularized society.  See, even those who scoff at religion as silly superstition find parts of this movie inspiring and uplifting.  The movie carefully plumbs the depths of man’s inborn desire to know why he is on this earth and relates them to the question that Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent so well says to Clark, “You’re the answer to the question, ‘Are we alone in the universe?’”  What is so thrilling to the secular about this line is the possibilities that it evokes.  It lights perhaps previously darkened pathways in the mind, soul, and heart.  But for those of us who already "have the lights on" and know that we live in an enchanted universe with angels, demons, good and evil, it’s simply another perspective on realities we already accept and know.

To my agnostic/atheist friends: those thrills you felt as this character developed in front of you – it wasn’t just a storyline.  It’s pushing at something deeper.  Ask yourself why.

Did God make me this way?

The young Clark Kent has all sorts of challenges to how and why he simply is.  At one point during an excellent exchange with his “earth father,” Jonathan Kent,  Clark asks if God made him with all these superpowers.  Kevin Costner (who by the way, is simply a better and better actor as he gets older.  That doesn’t happen very often – op. cit. R. Redford) nails the non-response expression absolutely perfectly.  What’s interesting to me as an avid fan of Christopher Nolan (I’ve followed his career and watched every film he’s ever written, directed, or produced) is that this trope is a development for him – specifically related to this character.  In Inception and the Batman films, he was perfectly willing to have an entirely naturalistic battle within those plots while leaving God "out of it."  By having even Superman (albeit, a Kent raised with “Kansas values”) ask about God, he doesn’t allow the question to be reduced to an absurdity or non-question.  In fact, he takes it further later in the film…

Kal-El as Christ figure

A de-Christianized society probably missed the framing during the church scene when Clark is talking with a cleric of some Christian denomination.  When Clark is talking, he has in frame directly behind him the scene of Our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane.  For those of you unfamiliar with this scene in Scripture, Christ is praying to God the Father to “let this Cup (his death and crucifixion) pass, but that if it must be, that it is good that God’s will be done.”  Juxtaposed against that deeply relevant Christian cultural reference is Kal-El asking aloud whether he should give himself up to the authorities to possibly face a “crucifixion” himself.  The link is clear and Kal-El’s response is not initially a mirror of Christ’s resignation.  As he is walking out of the church, thinking he has simply posed an unanswerable question to the cleric, he is stopped by the statement, “Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith.  The trust comes after.”  What a beautiful way to look at not just a sacrifice he was willing to make for mankind, but indeed, how we can examine our daily lives and our relationships with others, and our relationship with God. 

We love watching NYC get destroyed

No matter how many times it gets done, we never, ever, ever get tired of watching a NY-type city get utterly destroyed on film. (Avengers, Hulk, Dark Knight Rises, etc.)  I write this in New York city an hour or so before I plan to visit the 9/11 Memorial for the first time.  How and why we so obsess over destroying this city is not yet clear to me, but if I can take a guess, I think  there is something about our current state of affairs that makes us want to feel helpless and powerless.  Why all the post-apocalyptic TV shows, books, comics, and films where everything is horrible and destroyed?  Perhaps we know that there is something deeply wrong – that we can’t put our finger on – and in our failure to discover (or even try to learn) nuance, we resort to the Old Testament answer: fire and brimstone.  The problem is that we are in a New Testament world and the Old Testament answers are just shadows and anticipations of the reality, and are hence, inadequate not just as perspective but as solution.

Secret identity

Before the information age secret identities were an expected part of comic culture.  I recently spent some time on a podcast pointing out that the discovery of a “secret identity” isn’t as big of a deal in the age when everyday Americans have their phones wiretapped (by our loving government).  Long-time Superman fan and close friend David said to me shortly after the film rolled credit, “Yeah, and Lois Lane, investigative journalist, finding out who he really is, that’s credible, at last!”  Yup, it is.  And the biggest lacuna in this film is how this man, who ostensibly was heavily photographed (or was he not – where were you, Jimmy Olsen?) is going to pull off a disguise in the form of some cool new Warby Parkers?  Sorry, Warner Bros, DC, and Mr. Nolan, it’s not believable.  Take an even bigger risk than you did in this film by developing the Lois/Clark relationship early and dealing with him killing someone.  Kill the fake secret identity thing.  It’s not only irrelevant in today’s society, it’s definitely irrelevant in the cinematic universe you’ve just created.

Things I didn’t expect

Jor-El/Russell Crowe as a huge part of the movie

I think Russell Crowe did a fantastic job (who knew he could do the eminence grise thing so well already?).  I didn’t expect the high level of interactivity and it was a bit of Jor-ex-machina (literally) but I think it ultimately synced very well.

A thoughtful exploration of the distinctions between mother/father/parent both in the natural and adoptive framework

Some of my dearest friends are well into an adoption process now and as I’m going on a journey with them of sorts (talking to them, following their blog, participating in their fundraisers) I have become ever more interested in how adoptive and natural parents interact.  Again, in the information age, it’s very hard to “disappear” entirely after giving up a child.  There are some incredibly touching scenes about the various parent/child interactions that I firmly believe are worth the price of admission alone.

Superman as a Royals fan? 

Yes, I get that Clark is the defender of the hopeless, but you didn’t need to hammer it home, Zach Snyder. J

Superman as killer in this iteration

DC has an alternate comic universe called Injustice which is entirely based off the notion of Superman-as-killer.  It’s fascinating and compelling for reasons far too nerdy to get into here, but when it does happen here in the film it takes everyone by surprise.

Fight scenes that would get tedious in light of the carefully paced exposition

Things got a bit Michael Bay at points, with slavish devotion to proper building collapses and precision in how Superman and his antagonists would get thrown into and destroy buildings.  We could have halved most of the fight scenes and still gotten some great stuff out of it.

Evil Krypton girl

Hope we haven’t seen the last of this one very bad lady who gives Supes a run for his money in a throwdown.

***

My friend Brian has said on more than one occasion that we are in the midst of the “Golden Age of Comic Book Movies.”  That luster doesn’t just come from lights-out special effects and cinematography.  It comes from informed, thoughtful story-telling about characters who have deep storylines.  In the case of our Man of Steel, 75 years.  Looking forward to the next 75.

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