Table For Two: Man Of Steel

Hosted by Arturo R. García and Kendra James

Henry Cavill as Superman in “Man of Steel.” Image via filmofilia.com

It’s not that surprising that the latest Superman movie, Man of Steel, had a, well, super opening weekend. With the hopes of fans of not just this franchise but an eventual Justice League movie for DC Entertainment to assemble, the collaboration between Batman producer Christopher Nolan, writer David Goyer and director Zack Snyder had to deliver, and well.

And it did, financially. Critically? That’s another matter entirely. When outlets like Newsarama, which are usually DC-friendly, give the film a 3 out of 10, that points to how split the opinions have been on this movie.

Racialicious is no different, as our panelists came out of their respective screenings feeling differently about it. Heavy spoilers under the cut.

The critical divide concerning this film seems to emanate from this question: How did this movie made you feel?

Arturo: I felt cold. No matter how you slice it, that’s not what a Superman film is supposed to sell to you. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a few things to like in this movie, but what comes out isn’t likable. It makes some sense for the scenes on Krypton to be elegiac, but Zack Snyder’s direction makes Metropolis and Earth look bleak. Compare the colors in MOS to Christopher Nolan’s lived-in Gotham for the Dark Knight series.

And that’s without even factoring the wanton destruction of Metropolis; “disaster porn” is absolutely the correct term for a fight scene that dragged, rather than excited. And there’s literally no accounting for that when it’s said and done. To assume that “that can be addressed in the second film” is lazy and disrespectful. I didn’t sign up for a three-picture deal; finish the first story before you start loading up metaphors in the second.

Michael Shannon as General Zod. Image vie geektyrant.com

Kendra: The divide was obvious to be from the minute the credits rolled at the end of the movie. I was already clapping before I realised that my friend hadn’t moved from the position of shocked anger he’d been sitting  in since The Moment. People took it pretty hard. I, on the other hand, am not so much attached to the Superman mythology and I think that makes a big difference in how much one enjoys the film.

If you’re really connected to the idea that Superman is a beacon of hope, that he really stands for Truth, Justice, and the American Way and all that comes with it, then I get why this movie would leave you cold. Superman’s action towards General Zod was the equivalent of Batman picking up a gun and putting a bullet through The Joker’s head– something that would have caused me to walk right out of The Dark Knight. Why the respect was given to Batman’s character, yet not Superman’s is beyond me. A bit more focus on his struggle with his human vs. Krypton identity –which they did frame very nicely in this childhood, but not so much in adulthood– would have provided for plenty of angst and character conflict, if that’s really what they were looking for.That said, it didn’t outweigh the things I liked about the film (say what you will about Snyder, but damn can that man design a wonderfully unique stylized world) enough for me to leave upset.

As for the disaster porn aspect? I’m inclined to agree, though it does leave a great introduction open for Lex Luthor, innocent benefactor and philanthropist, to enter and fix up Metropolis a la the Gotham City Earthquake arc. I’m not sure that’s enough to suspend my disbelief that Supes wouldn’t have at least tried to move that  battle outside of the Metropolis City limits (and the fight in Smallville that destroyed everything but Sears, for that matter), but hey. Lemons to lemonade, y’know?

In both aspects though, I would have at least liked to have seen some sort of wrap up. Some sort of scene showing Clark dealing with the idea that he’s taken a life, or trying to figure out how he’s going to help clean up the town and city he’s destroyed. It went rather quickly from “dark and serious” to “light hearted we-want-to-be-Iron-Man-and-Nick-Fury banter.”

Arturo: Agreed on that being the “in” for Luthor (note the Lexcorp vehicle that was tossed around during the melee). But I do also agree with the critique going around that an added scene or two of Superman getting civilians out of harm’s way, on top of the bit with the serviceman during the battle in Smallville, would have gone a long way.

We’ve discussed Superman’s journey as an immigrant on the site in the past. How do you feel MOS handled that story?

Russell Crowe as Jor-El. Image via flickeringmyth.com

Arturo: In the end, Jor-El sounded most sensible of all. Or at least, his consciousness did; the computer-generated Obi-Jor-Wan-El tells General Zod straight-out, “Our worlds can co-exist.” Zod, of course, single-mindedly wants to recreate Krypton on top of a devastated Earth, and Kal-El says, “Krypton had its chance,” while destroying seemingly all the Kryptonian tech he can, including his de-facto Fortress of Solitude. I also agree with the criticism that Henry Cavill’s take on the character is hindered by having to play a character who isn’t as self-realized as he would like to believe. At the very least, he’s still hung up on his two father figures (which is part of the David Goyer wheelhouse).

As Rachel Edidin points out at Wired, Jor-El, who was supposedly pre-disposed to only be a scientist, takes out a group of trained military operatives within the first half-hour of the movie without a sweat, and only loses his life to Zod because he’s distracted. Meanwhile, Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent, meant to portray that “all-American” ideal — what if Kal-El had landed in Hell’s Kitchen? Would that not count as American? — instead conveys something darker.

As Edidin explains:

Jonathan Kent is killed by a suitably cinematic tornado, twenty feet from his adopted son, who simply stands by and watches.

Why doesn’t Clark save him? Pa tells him not to, because people are looking. Note: This is the man who is traditionally held up as the source of Superman’s moral code and imperative to heroism. So what kind of a Superman do you get without Jonathan Kent—or, rather, with a Jonathan Kent who raises him with more paranoia than pride, and actually disapproves when Clark risks discovery to rescue a school bus full of kids from drowning?

Despite these narrative mishaps, it’s still an interesting visual to see Kal tell an Army official he’s “as American as can be” while in his Kryptonian suit. If there’s a next involvement, then hopefully that gets explored in more introspective scenes. It’s telling that Clark’s most human moments in the movie don’t really involve Lois; for me, it’s when we see him at home with Martha having a beer and watching Kansas University football, and when his self-image emerges within Zod’s dreamscape — he’s a guy in a Kansas City Royals shirt. That plays to my own biases as a former sportswriter, true, but they seem to be the only choices in the movie that aren’t entirely forced upon him.

Kendra: Clark might have been “as American as he can be,” but he wasn’t all that human to me. That’s not so much a criticism towards Cavill as it is to the material he was given to work with as Clark Kent. I loved Snyder’s America –the picturesque amber waves of grain, small town scenery, clotheslines blowing in the wind etc. It was like an early episode of Supernatural or Friday Night Lights but amped up– but it was almost as if they were so determined to show how American Superman is (and how similar to Jesus) that they sacrificed personality to play into the “Real America” monolith.

The destruction of the Fortress of Solitude was interesting. I’m not a Superman-in-comics girl, but I seem to remember at least in the animated aeries, Superman did the utmost to keep the Fortress  as he could so that he could forge a connection with his home world. Didn’t he even have a Kryptonian zoo in there at some point? On Lois and Clark he ended up on the New Krypton throne for a few episodes. He’s always felt some connection to his home world, and I didn’t get that here. There was no longing to understand where he came from, and it could be argued that in the end, Lois was even more familiar with Kyrpton (at least their technology) than Superman! This disconnect could have had something to do with the overall lack of humanity I got from Clark, but perhaps it was also a case of that aspect of the immigrant narrative pushed aside for the Jesus parable?

Arturo: You’re correct that he had a zoo in the Fortress. And yeah, you knew they weren’t being subtle when Superman says he’s 33 years old, on top of the crucifix pose jumping out into space. I suppose Nolan, Goyer and Snyder — or as I’ve come to call them, Three Dog Nihilist — don’t want to hear about immigrants identifying with the character.

Laurence Fishburne as Perry White. Image via blackfilm.com

This film had something relatively rare: Laurence Fishburne and Harry Lennix, both MOC, both playing characters in positions of relative authority — yet they never meet or interact while retaining their value. Your take?

Arturo: I liked seeing them as avatars for Superman’s two entry points into his new life. As General Swanwick, Lennix is apparently going to be Kal-El’s liaison with the military, and it helped to have Chris Meloni’s Col. Hardy around to represent the more fearful/xenophobic element, freeing Lennix’s character to remain diplomatic while not tipping too much of his hand (at least, until Superman finds that pesky drone).

Meanwhile, Fishburne did the most he could, I think, with Perry White’s role in this particular story. But even if it made no sense, logically, for White to hire Clark on at the Daily Planet, at least Clark is starting as a stringer; ideally, we should see Clark covering minor stories at first and having to earn a position alongside Lois — at least professionally.

Kendra: While I understand that you have to have the Planet in a Superman movie, I sort of didn’t understand having it in this Superman movie. It was nice to see Fishburne as Perry, sure, but did he really do anything besides end up as one of the eight people in Metropolis to miraculously survive the disaster? Not really. Did anyone at the paper besides Lois do anything besides get buried in rubble? Nope. I like the idea of Perry as a MOC, but I wish he’d have had more to do. The way this film was structured, the more notable race-bend would have been Lois.

Arturo:You don’t have to tell me twice.

The Museum Scene. Apparently it was a decision by Goyer and Snyder. How do you feel about it?

Antje Traue as Faora. Image via digitalspy.com

Arturo: It made narrative sense in the abstract; the minute Faora  – and props to Antje Traue for damn near stealing the whole movie —  that pretty much took away Superman’s option of sending Zod to the Negative Zone alongside her and the rest of the troops on both sides (including Alessandro Juliani, who played Dr. Emil Hamilton on Smallville and shows up here as an assistant to … Dr. Emil Hamilton. Cheeky.) I also like to think that there’s fics out there of Faora and Col. Hardy learning to respect one another now that they’re both trapped in limbo. What else is there to do but, uh, see if the House of El was on to something with that whole “natural procreation” business? (You’re welcome, ‘shippers.)

But I digress. And my misgivings about Goyer and Snyder’s choice here harkens back to the attachment to the Superman legend. I think it goes beyond that; the movie is sold, in the marketing and in the dialogue, on that legend — on him being “the bridge” between Earth and Krypton; on, “You can save them all.” Superman, over the years, has offered a counterpoint in canon to the idea of “flawed” heroes as engaging in anti-social behavior. That’s why he provides a necessary counterpoint to Batman — and, to Wonder Woman; Diana was raised by a people who understood the nature of war. So when she kills someone — and oh yes she has — she does it knowing full-well there wasn’t another way.

Snyder tells ComicBeat in the link above that he and Goyer conceived the sequence as Superman’s “Kobayashi Maru.” What he apparently fails to consider is that what makes Jim Kirk Jim F’ing Kirk is that he BEATS the Kobayashi Maru. Otherwise he’d be just another Starfleet establishment guy. Similarly, Superman is supposed to be the hero who swerves around those odds. What, he couldn’t take the hit for that family with Zod tracing his heat vision across a wall?

Instead, Superman chooses to take a life his first time out. Not just not save somebody, like Batman did in Nolan’s Batman Begins, but voluntarily snap his neck. And the question of “Is he less of a hero if he doesn’t snap the next guy’s neck?” isn’t one I find palatable if the series goes on. In another movie, this might make more sense. In a Superman story, well, I have to concur with a guy we’ve featured here before, Mark Waid:

It’s not a victory. Not this sad, soul-darkening, utterly sans-catharsis “triumph” that doesn’t even feel like a win so much as a stop-loss. Two and a half hours, and I never once got the sense that Superman really achieved or earned anything.

If a Superman movie can’t even make Mark Waid cheer — hell, he admits he nearly walked out of the theater — then that’s a sign of a problem all the big opening weekends in the world can’t fix.

Kendra: I’ll agree with you there. Half the reason I was so shocked over Zod’s death had nothing to do with my attachment to the character. It was simply the way the movie had been marketed. This Superman seemed such a serious  paragon of hope and virtue. The level of violence in the film was as unexpected as the goofy, soap opera tone of Lois and Clark would have been. I didn’t see this one coming, especially not with all the Jesus imagery. In that regards, I almost have to applaud Snyder and co. because rarely am I actually surprised in the theatre anymore.

But, as surprising as it was, I think it’s just what I expect from DC at this point, which played into part of the reason I’m not upset about it. A good deal of the Batman trilogy literally took place in Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago and Arrow, DC’s latest CW show about the Green Arrow, had Oliver Queen killing street thugs (not even Big Bads!) from the first episode, and the villain’s (John Barrowman as Merlyn) master plan was to kill all the poor residents of Starling City in order to make the city safer for the rich. The heroes of DC-on-the-screen clearly live in a darker world than the pages of their comics. True to character or not, dark heroism sells and Superman never stood a chance.

(And the Green Lantern movie? That doesn’t exist.)

Open Mic!

Arturo: What compounded the problem with the museum scene was the utterly tone-deaf progression of scenes that followed. He goes from seeking succor from Lois to dropping Silver Age drone jokes with the general in milliseconds. We never see him help in the reconstruction of Metropolis (which in real-world terms suffered $700 billion in damages), or mourn any of the people who undoubtedly died. The very last scene, where he joins the Planet as a stringer — a rare accurate choice, if not an accurate portrayal (where did he put together the clips to even get that far?) — was cute enough. But it had to follow a very distasteful presentation by Snyder. In other words, a typical Zack Snyder movie.

Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) prepare to jettison the infant Kal-El from Krypton. Image via blastr.com

Also, and I can’t get over this, but for all the rumblings about a lack of chemistry between Cavill and Amy Adams (which I can’t really buy; I thought she did fine in a role that, like everybody else’s, got increasingly limited as the film went on), the non-love story going on in the House of El was almost perversely comic. Jor-El assures the audience and his son, “Hey, we decided to go all natural because SCIENCE!”

I guess an 11-minute 9/11 trigger sequence was fine by Zack Snyder, but the notion of two people saying they loved each other was just too out there; you’ll also note that Jonathan and Martha Kent did not share one conversation; each of them talked directly to Clark (or, in Martha’s case, to Zor & Co.) but not to each other at any length.

Kendra: The destruction actually reminded me of my complaints with the latest Star Trek flick where they also destroyed several major cities and then never dealt with the thousands-to-millions of people who might have died. Maybe that’s just the cinematic new normal? Next weekend’s White House Down could make it official.

The only couple I genuinely believed in MOS were Jor-El and Lara, and your observation on John and Martha leaves me disappointed. I liked both of those performances enough that I hadn’t even realised that you’re right– they don’t really interact. Their stories are focused mainly around Clark.

Superman and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) connect amid the destruction of Metropolis. Image via flicksandbits.com

Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough between Superman and Lois (script-wise) for me to believe them as a couple, and that’s where I think the lack of focus on Clark Kent being the person while Superman is the alter-ego really hurt the film. I can’t believe in love between a human being and symbol, and that’s what Superman/Lois is when you don’t give her (or the audience) the opportunity to get to know Clark as an adult. I’m going to desperately need any sequel to help fix that, because at this point The Dark Knight Rises’ blank slate character John “Robin” Blake had more of a personality than Clark Kent. But then, maybe a lack of personality is just one of those sacrifices one has to make to be a hero in this DCU.

The “darkness” of the DC Film/Television universe that we keep coming back to does have me wondering what’s next. Like, are we looking at David Fincher’s The Flash coming down the pipeline?

Arturo: Well, Guillermo Del Toro is supposedly planning to bring Justice League Dark — think the JLA meets Supernatural — to the screen. That’s actually a good fit for his particular vision. At least Deadman’s already … you know, dead. Saves Del Toro the trouble.

Kendra: Yet still no firm plans for a Wonder Woman movie. Admittedly that’s not something I’ve ever been clamouring for (I’ll take Batgirl/Oracle over Wonder Woman any day), but given that Man of Steel is being called a feminist movie, I just feel like maybe we could do better with, y’know, an actual female superhero.

But don’t mind me, I’m still bitter over the traumatizing Birds of Prey cancellation of my ninth grade year. (Another surprisingly dark DC Comics show. See the trend here?)

  • Karine1976

    I think it’s pretty clear that Lex Luthor will be in the sequel as some kind of reconstruction profiteer (or a red herring for the real baddie à la Bane). Is it too early to start a chromatic campaign? I vote for Denzel or Jimmy Smits, a black or brown version would fit with the 80′s version’s origins.

  • http://www.politicalseason.blogspot.com PoliticalSeason

    On the disaster porn issue and people being mad about Kal-El not seeming to care about the millions dying in their titanic battle, people should stop putting it down as a flaw in the new MOS and and just ignore it for what it is, which is filmmaker error. They simply didn’t think about how this looked. They were intent on filming a battle scene that showcased Superman’s might in a way it has not been before and they simply blew the logical question here of “hey, wouldn’t Superman try to avoid all this collateral damage?”. It’s not the character’s behavior at all. They just blew it. So you really just have to watch the movie and accept that all the destruction with no Superman mitigating response is just one big movie blooper.

  • Sils

    Does anyone remember this clip from Hari Kondabolu, Superman is Undocumented?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuPAQkCoClI

  • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

    Interestingly, Lois has been reimagined as a WOC in two different out of canon (but well received) limited series: In All Star Superman, she’s East Asian, while in Secret Identity she’s Indian.

    • aboynamedart

      I hadn’t heard that about the All-Star incarnation of the character. Can I ask where you picked that nugget up, for future reference?

      • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

        I might be wrong. I thought Frank Quitely drew her as Asian, but the animated version is probably not,
        The Secret Indentity version is definiteky East Indian.

  • merchantfan

    Wow, I don’t think I’ll check this out. It’s really sad they underplayed the immigrant themes. Superman’s always been a story about immigration. It was written by two immigrant boys from New York for pete’s sake. What’s more, it’s a *happy* immigration story. So here it’s neither. I think all-American is more about behavior in the description of what Jonathan Kent should be and not necessarily race. He could be from the barrio (though that would still probably be a different story), but he’d still need to be kind-hearted, hardworking and generous. I am depressed by all the darkness in the DCU right now. Justice League Dark might be fine because if it has Constantine (does it?) that is appropriate for his series.

    PS. I am glad someone else agrees John Blake was the most boring character ever. He seemed to have less of a life than Batman. Which is never a good sign for ‘Robin’.