Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A super superhero movie”

Posted on June 21, 2013


Oh no, you say, not another brooding superhero. But this one’s the best of them yet.

It may be easier to begin with what I didn’t like about Man of Steel. I wished that Krypton – the planet, the people, the clothes, the pincushion-like robots, the turtle-carapace spaceships – had been envisioned better. Only the awesome Michael Shannon, playing Zod, came close to channeling some sort of otherworldliness, aided no doubt by that protuberant mole on the side of his neck – it looks like a button that, if pressed, would make his head split open and reveal the shiny machinery whirring inside. I didn’t care for the Kryptonian nomenclature either. After all this evolutionary advancement, the best you can do for a power capable of transforming Earth into Krypton is… “World Engine”? That sounds like a Google upgrade, and only marginally better than “Codex,” which might be something you stuck into an IBM mainframe, circa 1964, rather than something responsible for the genetic destiny of an entire race. Where’s the mythic, bone-rattling grandeur of a “Death Star”, a “Mjolnir”?

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Otherwise, I loved this film. When I heard that the story was co-written by Christopher Nolan (he also produced), I was afraid we’d have another Dark Knight on our hands. I am not the biggest fan of that solemn, self-important trilogy, which, for all its attractions, made a fetish of its lugubriousness. (I sometimes feel like telling Batman, “Yes, your parents died. Gotham is hell. But after all these years and all this money, can’t you find something to crack a smile about?) The biggest surprise of Man of Steel isn’t that its hero turns out to be a brooder like Nolan’s earlier superhero – or like all of Nolan’s earlier protagonists, really – but that he couldn’t have been anything else. It’s the most natural of developments. Superman – rather, Clark Kent – broods because he is an alien. He broods because he wants to know who he is, where he’s from, who his parents are, why he’s such a freak (you may rightly surmise that a kid who reads Plato isn’t quite… normal), and why he has such strange powers. He broods because he’s like an X-Men character who’s yet to meet Professor Xavier.

And until that father figure arrives in the form of Jor-El (Russell Crowe, in possibly his blandest actorly outing), there’s another reason Clark broods: he is afraid. Through his mother we learn that he’s had a difficult childhood (he found it hard to breathe), and worse, one day in the classroom, he’s frightened by his inchoate superpowers. Through Zod, much later, we see how monstrous those powers must have been, how terrible to control – and it’s no surprise that Clark is wary of them. There’s no triumphant music when he hoists his school bus to shore after it falls into a river, and there’s no indication of levity when he mangles the truck of a misbehaving drunk. Clark is constantly torn between yielding to his natural instincts and respecting his father’s advice to curb those instincts. In the film’s most touching scene, his superpower-free father saves a girl and a dog from a tornado and gives up his life to protect his son’s identity. How can you advertise yourself after this? Seeking anonymity, Clark ploughs through a series of blue-collar jobs. That white-collar Daily Planet gig, with the handy costume-change telephone booth nearby, is going to have to wait.

This tortured aspect of Superman, which has never been put on screen before, makes Man of Steel a genuinely affecting origins story. (It helps that the supervillain is no generic megalomaniac, but someone who needs to kill Superman to achieve his goals.) We know this stuff by heart, and yet, we feel we’re watching it for the first time. The first time we see Clark smile – outside of a photograph from childhood, where he’s holding up a prize – is when he hears his real name: Kal-El. And the first time he laughs is when he tears through the skies. The film wisely saves the flying for this moment, and till then (as in a rescue at a burning oil rig), we’re only given hints of his superpowers. The film, similarly, plays coy with the first-time revelations of details we anticipate: the elevator doors close just as Clark Kent is about to slip on those iconic spectacles for the first time, Lois Lane’s first-ever utterance of “Superman” is beeped out, and there are teasing allusions to Lana Lang and Lex Luthor. The Kansas portions are presented as flashbacks – the first time we see Clark is as an adult with a penchant for sacrificing himself to save his fellow man.

This Superman-as-Saviour angle, too, appears as if for the first time. “He’ll be a god to them,” predicts Jor-El, about to dispatch his son – conceived rather uniquely – to Earth. Subsequently, Kal-El is frequently seen in the crucifixion pose. And when in doubt, Clark turns to his Father. He goes to church, where he learns that he’s going to have to take a “leap of faith.” He’s going to have to learn to trust humans just as they’re going to have to learn to trust a being who’s faster than a speeding bullet. (The action sequences, appropriately, are a blur. Blink, and you’ll miss the shot of Superman attempting to fly away and a Kryptonian villain catching his leg.) There’s a strong element of modern-day warfare in the film – Lois Lane is picked up by the FBI, Zod asks for Clark’s “extradition,” and the (overlong) destruction-strewn climax feels like 9/11 a hundred times over – but the final battle is almost Biblical in its emotional appeal. Superman has to fight his people, the people he’s wanted to meet all his life, to save the people who tortured him while growing up, who were scared of him and mocked him, and who refuse to believe in him even now. You may come away remembering that sermon on the mount about loving your enemy.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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