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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Man Of Steel: A Retrospective Review (by Debdip Chakraborty)

(Poster credit: Leonardo Paciarotti)

By the time, this article sees the light of the day, the viewers probably would have watched the much acclaimed, a tad controversial, and much demanded Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

However, before we delve into the review of the aforementioned film, here’s a review of Man of Steel, which sort of kick-started the whole DCEU franchise as it has come to be known. Zack Snyder was given the greenlight to work on his vision of the DCEU, and it’s an open secret now that it was a move which was made by Warner Bros to catch up on its counterpart studio, Marvel Studios. Man of Steel was released in the year of 2013. Christopher Nolan fresh off his stellar success of the Dark Knight trilogy, was also bought in by Warner Bros to act as a supervisor in the story telling elements. The movie was  overhyped by its own studio chairman who loudly proclaimed that it would earn over a billion dollars (quite a strange move to proclaim about one’s own movie when expectations were already so high).

A cast that contained the likes of academy award winners and nominees like Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), Kevin Costner (Jonathan Kent), Michael Shannon (General Zod), Lawrence Fishburn (Perry White) & Russell Crowe (Jor-El). Henry Cavill (Kal-El/ Clark Kent/ Superman) gets his first iconic role of his acting career, and what a ride it has been for Cavill since then. Ably supported by actors like Harry Lennix (Lietenant General Calvin Swanwick) and Antje Traue (Faora-Ul), Ayelet Zurer (Lara Lor-Van) also has a smaller but, significant role.

(Picture credit: Kevin Brock)

Man of Steel was a misunderstood piece of movie, here in this review, we will try to present with our thoughts on the movie, and try to explain some of the criticism that has rose in the past or is still there, are nothing but vague and in our humble opinion, wrong. As a courtesy, we must mention beforehand that this review contains spoilers from the movie, now read on at your own peril. 

Man of Steel opens the viewers to the planet of Krypton. A planet which is clearly on demise due to a philosophical flaw. Free will has been removed, natural birth hasn’t occurred in the planet for over a century, and a society which decides a child’s future path. While the comic book readers will genuinely love the film opening up in the planet of Krypton, it is a new experience for the casual movie goers. Indeed, the nature of free will, is much debated and needed to have been established for understanding the characteristics of not only Kal-El, and his parents Jor-El and Lara, but also, for how Kal-El becomes the person to save the world from the alien attack at the end of the movie. A clue of which is given when a young Clark Kent was seen reading “The Republic” by Plato, when a few bullies are harassing him.

Kal-El, which translates to “Voice of god” in Hebrew, has always been looked upon as Jesus like figure in many DC comics in the past. Here Zack Snyder and David Goyer also do the same with his Jesus Christ imagery sometimes, in a subtle, and other times pretty openly. After the harrowing devastation of the planet Krypton, when we first see our protagonist, he is full grown up, and he is working on a sea rig. Now, we all know what happens in this scene, and how he saves at least, five people in the oil rig, however, a subtle detail that everyone misses out, was the fact, that an absent minded Clark Kent was saved by a human, just moments into the movie. 

A lot of time, a criticism comes up about Cavill’s portrayal, and Snyder’s treatment of Superman, as not being hopeful. To that we say, it’s a very bogus criticism, Superman was built on themes like hope and sacrifice. Kal-El’s parents' hope that their child will make a better world on Earth, than what the Kryptonians built. A sacrifice, which was made by both Jor-El and Lara so that their son can built a better world, a hopeful world. These themes continue in the story, with Clark’s adopted parents as well, a la Jonathan Kent, who seems like a more realistic, grounded character than I have ever read in comics. A Martha Kent who feared that their adopted son will be taken away by the government forces or higher authorities. There’s a very poignant scene in the movie where Clark Kent questions his father whether he should have let people die, to which a very lost Jonathan Kent replies “maybe.” This was such a poignant scene that clarifies how much the Kents are trying to protect Clark from himself and the others. Jonathan Kent realizes that their son is an alien, and as a protective parent they ask him to stay hidden, in order for their safety and most importantly, for Clark’s own. But, underneath the “maybeJonathan tells Clark to take his own decision because “Whoever that man is, good character or bad, he's going to change the world.” This was a pivotal moment in this movie as so far in no other adaptation, has such a moral dilemma been explored among the Kents.

On the other side, there is Zod, a general too focused on his task of saving their people, their race and planet, that he can’t even see the Shakespearean style tragedy awaiting them, he refused to accept defeat even in the face of Armageddon because of how he was bred. He was a soldier. Michael Shannon’s laser focused delivery and range here, just deserves more than praise. In a genre, where very few villains stand out, whether for a lack of motivation, or character growth or being just the generic villain, Zod is anything but. The clash of ideologies with Superman, here is just not on the levels of power, but on the levels of philosophy: an age old question of philosophy free will versus determinism. Tell me honestly, when was the last time, a superhero movie raised questions like these? 

A single line by the badass Faora-Ul explains this opposite school of thoughts, “the fact that you possess a sense of morality, and we do not, gives us a sense of evolutionary advantage.” Zod, Faora and crew are laser focussed in finding the matrix that will allow them to recreate Krypton and they don’t mind using earth as a base. This of course means total extermination for everyone living on Earth. This is what sets the big climatic clash.

Another character who gets a fresh arc in this movie, was Lois Lane. Often in comics, portrayed as just a backdrop to Superman’s love interest, here, Snyder makes a decision to make her engaging, smart, competent, and courageous. She’s headstrong, as her first introduction happens in the frozen North, and she’s determined to chase any story. After she first gets a whiff of Superman, in the Kryptonian ship, she writes an article on it, which Perry White, the editor of Daily Planet asks her to drop. She moves around her boss, and gets her story online. We however get a good look at her morals and principles when she finally gets to meet Clark and have him explain his reticence to come out to the people of Earth. 

At the age of 33, Jesus Christ takes the burden of cross, for the mankind, same as Clark Kent, as Clark decides to take “a leap of faith”, in a church no less.

Lois Lane, a reporter follows Superman to an unknown alien spacecraft. And it is indeed, Lois Lane who by Jor-El’s consciousness gets the key of defeating the Kryptonians. 

The main plot of the movie unfolds when the Kryptonians arrive and force Clark’s hand. It’s from this moment onwards that we get some superb cinematic shots and a finale that really is stupendous.

This brings us to the most “controversial” aspect of the movie and one which has really divided fandom. A lot of controversy surrounds about the infamous killing of Zod in the movie, and before you come up with the argument that Superman does not kill, you really need to take a good read of the comics in the past. This is another very vague point that comes up and is very lame. Superman has killed in the past, in both movies and in comics. However, that is not how we justify this scene. 

The way we justify this is: Superman is a character who will at the very end look to solve an issue by using the least of his force possible. Give him a slim way out and he will take that, it's in his nature. That's how he becomes "super", not by blasting heat visions or rays whenever he likes, but by actually avoiding using it, till he absolutely needs to. Giving Superman a time and place to take the other route is simple and lazy writing. Goyer and Snyder forces Superman in a corner where there's no easy way out, and that makes him take the step that he will be most uncomfortable taking into account. That's what makes this scene so emotionally appealing. A general Zod who has seen the destruction of his race, by the hands of Superman now, has nothing to fight for anymore. His spirit is crushed, his soul a thing of numbness, and Zod would have stopped at nothing until he had wiped out the planet Earth in its entirety. 

His cry, is so human, seems like a cry, which is made by a newborn baby. 

The acting in this movie by Henry Cavill deserves special mention. Relatively his scenes with Martha and Jonathan remains one of the best that has come out of the pages of comics. Henry Cavill is forced to do much as both Clark Kent as well as Superman and he shines in both personas. There’s some aspects of the John Byrne Superman within him but there’s a lot of new stuff that he brings to the table, least of which is an incredible physique and look. Henry Cavill for us is the Superman of the twenty first century & it’s even more aggravating how Warner Bros isn’t really doing much to feature him in more solo Superman movies.

One of my only disappointments about the movie is how talented actors such as Lawrence Fishburn and Michael Kelly don’t get much time to shine in their characters. But this is a small thing and easily overlooked considering how exciting the movie otherwise.

The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer as usual, elevates the movie, if Superman's S means Hope, then probably the soundtrack "What are you going to do when you're not saving the world?" gives the listener that audio aesthetic of the same. Sometimes, it is a question how can a composer just by playing some notes gives us the feeling of Superman? This isn’t a David Elfman styled operatic Superman theme. This is Hans Zimmer styled, melodic, and synthetic and rising styled theme. 

Lastly we have to raise a tip of our hats to Zack Snyder whose track records includes both Watchmen and Sucker Punch. Here he brings a new world charm to Superman the character while also interpreting the movie with the zeitgeist of the current era. It makes for a movie that’s visually, thematically & literally different from the Chris Reeves ones. This isn’t a bad thing altogether. Every myth needs re-interpretation if you wish for it to not stagnate. Here Zack Snyder & Christopher Nolan deserve all the accolades for doing what has been thought nigh impossible. They successfully created a new Superman and one that we hope stays for a long time.

Superman is/ will be a beacon of hope, but this is a story about Clark Kent. A person with powers of god, trying to be rooted to his farm, his earthly parents and yet, in his moral compass can't go down when there are people out there who needs his help. 

The analysis of Man of Steel and indeed, remains one of philosophy, theology and a debate. It asks a question while a Superman is good, what becomes of the Man (and hence, the title) in the Superman?



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