More Steel than Man: The Curious Case of Superman

Man-of-Steel-Henry-Cavill

Last week The AV Club posted a piece about why it’s so hard to make a good Superman movie. It boils down some of the faults of Zach Snyder’s recent boy in blue being blue fest to the absence of an important character: Clark Kent. It’s a noticeable absence. Most Superman stories that neglect Kent tend to suffer, but when he’s the focus, the results are through the roof. Die-hards might scoff, but the modest success of Lois & Clark and the massive success of Smallville point to a popular desire for more glasses. 

But should we be that surprised that a Superman movie without Clark should falter more often than it, uh, levitates. Quentin Tarantino did a good job of shoehorning his superhero thesis into Kill Bill, explaining that Clark represents Superman’s critique of humanity. Audiences less savvy than Tarantino don’t see things like that, though. Clark Kent doesn’t just provide the Man of Steel with a way to keep his ear to the ground and blend in, it’s what makes him a man. This is the life he wants to live. He wants to be normal. Why else would he wake up for work everyday. For fans, Clark Kent represents more than a writer’s cynicism. He allows readers to relate to this alien, the man who can do anything, and a part of Superman sorely lacking in Man of Steel. Sure, Clark is in this movie, but the essence of Clark is missing. The humanity of the film, the man in Superman, remains MIA.

This goes beyond Clark Kent as a character, because there’s definitely a bearded wanderer named Clark in this movie. It refers to the humanity of all the characters, even the aliens. During the Attack of Clones-style opening sequence, where Jor-El leaps from dragon to dragon, platform to platform, and filibuster to filibuster, I couldn’t help but think of  another sci-fi adventure I can’t get out of my mind, Star Trek. Their opening sequences are very similar: Explosions, dying parents, a child’s escape. Yet, unlike the soulless bloodletting of Man of SteelStar Trek engages emotionally from the onset. Why? Because Kirk’s parents engage emotionally.

Kirk’s parents, even though they’re from the year 3,000 make jokes and flirt with each other. It’s gut wrenching, because it seems like these two are losing something and act like it. In the cold steel of Man, Jor-El and Lara claim to be in love (after all, they had sex), but ultimately don’t connect. They don’t do things that normal people do to break tension and show affection. The circumstances, genre, and characters resemble each other enough to make this connection. They might be aliens, but Snyder makes a case for them being human enough (after all, they had sex) that they should be a bit more relatable than they are.

Man of Steel fails to relate, because it is so inhuman. Everyone is so robotic and Kryptonian that it’s hard to find anything worth relating to. But that’s the type of film Zach Snyder makes. Beautiful on the outside, but emotionally unsatisfying. Like Watchmen, Snyder makes a visually dynamic and iconic film worthy of the source material that misses the narrative aims. There, to subvert superhero movies, and here to create one that instills a sense of belonging, a journey from alienation to an accepted hero of humanity. Snyder can make a man fly, but fails to make us believe a man can fly.

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  1. Really good points. I know for someone who was not always the super hero fan of movies but tends to watch them now it is the story beyond the action that keeps me going. For others it may not be, but it is what makes or breaks it for me

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