Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Superman: Man of Steel, a Review

[Spoiler Alert]
It is not often that one gets the privilege of watching truly epic Sci-Fi. But you get to with Man of Steel. Like The Dark Knight, is able to communicate good messages without making it a boring movie. And, finally, it does what all the old Superman movies never could (or wanted to) do: epicly strong characters beating on each other. Mid-air fights, awesome punches, and an impressively animated destructible environment makes for great fun.

Flight, for whatever reason, rarely feels real on camera (and in video games, I might add). But this does. Like so many of our dreams we wish were true, Superman really takes flight. And so does this movie. Great acting, spectacular cinematography, awesome script, and a Hans Zimmer soundtrack with lots of drums made for a spectacular movie experience.

The movie opens on Krypton and spends exactly enough time showing you the planet and politics there. It makes you care about the place and the people (and even the poor strange animals), and when then time was ripe, the planet was destroyed and you felt sad. There were some awesome Kryptonian battles, with Russell Crowe (as Jor-El) inspiring manliness with his words and punches before the planet dies. The movie continues to show all the classic Supermanly locations of Smallville and Metropolis, with characters that were true to the original spirit, but not simple copies, of the originals. Henry Cavil (who?) does a solid job as Superman, at displaying cool confidence through most of the movie, but some powerful scenes of questioning his identity and showing moments of despair.

I am no purist, and I hope some of the sci-fi faux pas were because of Superman orthodoxy. Superman’s powers come from his cells absorbing the “younger” sun’s energy. Though able to fly in space, he loses his powers in a Krypton-like “atmosphere.” The DNA of his entire race was put into his cells (the animation for this showed red blood cells, which are one of the few cells in the body that don’t have DNA). But, aside from these gripes, I can accept Superman as Sci-Fi with an emphasis on the Fi. At least we didn’t have to hear about mitochlorians.

The Father of Superman

The aspect of the movie which was so endearing was the relationship between Superman and his two fathers, Jor-El and Jonhathan Kent. His adoptive father (played by Kevin Costner) tells him after he resists his teenage impulse to murder a bully, “You just have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be, Clark. Whoever that man is, he's going to change the world.” But how? Clark Kent leaves home and for years wanders through the wilderness of trivial jobs and superficial relationships. We see ourselves in the young man searching for his identity. We all want to know: “Who are we? Why are we here?” We have a renewed hunger for such answers. Sure, he helped people along the way, but he didn’t really know what would finally satisfy him, how he could truly use his powers to their limit.

Batman Begins was about mental and physical training. Man of Steel was about moral training. What is the good life? The next section of the movie was a very tender telling of Clark Kent’s early life in wrestling with his identity and powers. It shows him struggling to both hide his powers while developing his virtues. These are some of my favorite scenes in the movie, with Kevin Costner (as Jonathan Kent) raises and mentors his son through normal rebellions with the added twist that if Clark goes bad, it would alter the course of the world. Jor-El tells him, “You've grown stronger here than I ever could've imagined. The only way to know how strong, is to keep testing your limits.” This is the inspiration for one of the coolest “learning to use your superpowers” scenes in all movie history: Superman learns to fly. After his first hop, skip and jump, he “falls” into a mountain. And then out of it on the other side. And then the damage he does to it crumbles the top of the mountain. Then there is an extended flight through canyons and valleys, up to space, back to the canyons, all the while having the exhilarating music of Hans Zimmer making it all the more engaging.

The Superman problem is a tough one. What does one do with (near) unlimited power? Is the old aphorism “Power corrupts” actually true? Superman finally accepts his mission from his father Jor-El, “You will give the people of earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun.” Superman’s job is not to fix all the problems in the world, but to lead humanity, to provide an example. He is to be what we all aspire toward.

The Ethics of the Man of Steel

Superman: Man of Steel is appropriately titled.  Superman is a super man; that is, he is the embodiment of masculine virtues. He is physically and emotionally strong. He is bold and confident, but not arrogant. Time and again, he allows others to insult him without fighting back. He is a defender of the weak. He is willing to sacrifice himself for those he cares about and even those who are strangers to him. Most of all, he shows his masculinity with laser vision (a power which definitely gets an upgrade in this movie). OK so maybe laser vision doesn’t make a man.

The central virtue of Superman is his sacrificial compassion. He cares deeply about humanity. This is a virtue which both Jor-El and Jonathan Kent demonstrated, each by laying down their own lives for him. At an early crisis of the movie, General Zod demands Superman reveal himself and surrender or he would make earth suffer. Superman seeks the counsel of an anonymous priest. Should he give himself for the sake of humanity? In this dialogue with the priest, there are large stained glass images of Jesus in Gethsemene (where Jesus wrestles with whether or not he should sacrifice himself for humanity) and Jesus the Good Shepherd (where Jesus is in the role of gentle leader and guide) in the background. The priest tells him “You must take a leap of faith. Trust will follow.” And so he does. He gives himself up to humanity, who, in turn, gives him up to Zod. Despite the humans constantly trying to get control of Superman, he continues to gently remind them (i.e. by taking down a drone that is spying on him, or by breaking out of handcuffs) that he will help them but, “It’s got to be on my terms.” The Man of Steel teaches us that the only way to approach a super man is on his terms.

In addition to these moral themes, the plot wasn’t without its philosophy. General Zod was no stereotypical crazed villain; he was a patriot for Krypton and, in his political theory, a Platonist. The conflict was between Zod, who wanted to give Krypton another chance and Superman, who didn’t want to extinguish earth’s chance. Zod was fighting for Krypton’s system, with children born into their given roles as scientists, soldiers or leaders; Jor-El wanted to let his child make his own path. And, while reading a book by “Plato,” young Clark Kent resists using his powers and, throughout his life, rejects the crown of the Philosopher King.

Man of Steel, Christianity and Myth

Check out this trailer. There are enough lines that make explicit comparisons to Jesus that, when they are all edited together, it’s pretty clear that the Director wanted Christians to look at his Superman and say, “That’s just like Jesus.” They’ve posted a website with sermon notes and other resources to aid pastors in preaching about The Man of Steel. CNN writes about this with an emphasis on the greedy movie studio (which, as it turns out, is owned by the same greedy parent company as CNN) trying to extract money from unwitting Christians. On this subject, I would like to say the following to Hollywood: What took you so long? I’m thrilled that you’re finally making an effort to produce something that we like and want to see. Some of the $125 million that came in this opening weekend (i.e. the biggest June opening in cinema history) came from people going directly from pew to theater after hearing the pastor talk about the parallels between Jesus and Superman. Keep it up. Tell stories of heroes that look like Jesus, and help us out by telling us what you’re doing. We’re totally into that. We’ll reward you with our dollars.

The wonderful thing about mythology is that, like Jor-El, Superman’s corporeal existence is not necessary for him to accomplish his mission. He can lead us as Homer’s Odysseus and Virgil’s Aeneas have led us. Superman’s original mission was to uphold, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” and as any cultural hero, we have poured into him our goodness and virtue. Superman, as our first superhero, represents us on the mythological scene. I am proud to stand behind the man in the red and blue. In a great scene, Lois asks him what the “S” stands for. He explains, “It’s not an ‘S’. On my world it means ‘hope.’” And let us look to that symbol which we first raised in the darkness of the Great Depression and take its meaning to heart. Let us have hope.

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