Thursday, July 4, 2013

Reflections on the Man of Steel Controversy

I must admit that I enjoyed the movie Man of Steel. While watching it, I realized that this was the first time I could conceive of a being like Superman existing in our own world. And of course, there is one particular scene that immediately caught my attention, and it has been the source of controversy. (Spoilers ahead!)

In the film, there is a lot of violence. A lot. Lots of fighting, lots of destruction, and collateral damage galore. Some have criticized this as overkill, but I think that to root such extraordinary beings in our world, the filmmakers needed to show the contrast with our world. If beings like this came to our world, what would be the possible ramifications?

The damage done by the terraforming machine was massive, using gravity-like pulses to lift cars and people up into the air before slamming them to the ground. When buildings fell and the shaky camera followed people as they ran, turned, and looked, my immediate thoughts were how much this reminded me of the news footage I watched on September 11, 2001. The collapse of the buildings amplified the evil of Zod and his soldiers, as my mind linked the fictional events to the only other time I've seen buildings fall like that. Of course, that is not to minimize the actual events of September 11.

Some complained about the collateral damage, asking why Superman didn't try to lure Zod and his soliders away from populated areas. Of course, the immediate answer for this is because it was a movie, and the filmmakers wanted to show a lot of destruction. But from a storytelling point of view, one must remember that this was Clark Kent's first time putting on the warrior's uniform and revealing himself to the world. And just as he is learning to manage his powers, he is confronted by beings equally as powerful as he is. The fight scenes were chaotic and frantic, and Clark seemed like a frightened child in some sense. The battle began when he heard Zod threatening his mother; reacting in an intense, protective anger, he drove Zod through the field, using him like a plowshare, yelling at him to leave his mother alone. The fight scene that followed was more reactive than proactive.

The most controversial scene, though, was where Superman killed Zod by snapping his neck. In the comics, Superman doesn't kill the bad guys. And of course, some have defended the action by saying that the film is a new "vision" of Superman, a modern take on the classic hero. I think that there is more to the decision than the "new take," however.

Having seen the movie a second time now, I still registered shock each time I saw the action. Zod was bent on destroying Earth, and the earlier callous destruction only amplified that point. After Kal-El destroys the scout ship, Zod rises from it, declaring that his sole purpose for which he was bred was to ensure the survival of his people. (The film mentioned the fact that Kryptonian children were bred for specific roles; Zod's was to be a warrior.) He says that without people, he now has no purpose. "No matter how violent, every action I take is for the greater good of my people," he declares. As Zod goes on a rampage, they ultimately end up with Superman holding Zod in a choke hold. Zod declares that if Kal-El loves these people on Earth so much, he can mourn for them, and begins trying to kill a family with hi heat vision.

Superman begs him to stop, to which Zod responds, "Never!"  For Kal-El, it isn't just a simple command; he is begging, anguish in his face and in his voice. It's almost as if he is that small, scared child again, hiding and panicking in the closet, waiting for one of his parents to tell him what he needs to do. As Zod struggles to kill the family, we can almost hear an echo of the speech Zod gave earlier about his entire purpose being to ensure the survival of his people. Kal-El faces a decision, and he chooses to do what Superman never does. He kills him.

But it is not a victorious kill. It's an angst-ridden one. After snapping Zod's neck, he is quiet, shaken and shocked by what he has done, tears filling his eyes. Horror-stricken, he screams out in agony and anguish; clearly, this wasn't a decision he came to lightly. The scene closes with Kal-El slumped on the ground, burying his face into Lois as she holds him.

While I love the fact that Superman has always been the "big blue boyscout" in the comics, I don't think this scene ruined his image. I think it portrayed his struggles deep inside, revealing his humanity. It shows a desperate, broken hero. There is one other scene that I think best echoes his struggle. As he walks into the church, confiding in the priest about what he should do, there is a stained glass image of Jesus in the background. Only it's not Jesus on the cross or performing a miracle; it's Jesus praying in Gethsemane, struggling with the decision of what he should do for the sake of humanity.

Superman showed that he would protect humanity in those final moments. It also gave a glimpse of his own humanity.

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