I’ll put my premise in the first sentence: Man of Steel is a scathing deconstruction of Superman and particularly of Grant Morrison. The second sentence will warn about spoilers for Man of Steel and, for that matter, for Sucker Punch.
Let’s start with the Watchmen movie, since it wasn’t very good. Because the thing is, as many bad things as there are about it, it at least tried very, very hard to be a Watchmen movie. It’s clear Zach Snyder wanted to film the movie version of Watchmen, and just failed, largely because you can’t make a movie version of Watchmen.
Notably, he moved on to Sucker Punch, a film that is about pretending to offer one kind of pleasure only to suddenly turn on a dime and become a blisteringly angry critique of that pleasure. It starts by being about sexualizing badass women who are horribly scarred, and then ends by being about the importance of giving survivors the agency to tell their own stories. It’s a glorious inversion of the male gaze. After all, the act of gazing that the film is most focused on is the one the film repeatedly elides. Whenever the narrative comes to a moment where Babydoll begins her erotic dance it switches realities to an over the top action sequence. We’re repeatedly given the wrong kind of pornography, and then we cut back to close-ups of the post-orgasmic bliss on the faces of the men who have seen what our pornography of violence was standing in for. So the male gaze is being complicated and critiqued from the get-go.
Similarly, I think it’s telling that the final sequence openly admits that Babydoll is not designed to function like a real person. Everything in the film is working towards that voiceover and its call for allowing survivors to tell their own stories. That’s the eponymous sucker punch.
If the movie fails – and I’m at least willing to grant that a movie that spectacularly misread has failed in part – it is because we are too trained to take pleasure in the violence-as-sex pornography that the film attacks such that the point when it turns ugly simply isn’t upsetting enough. Though I think the scene where Blondie and Amber are killed is quite upsetting, and consciously so – it’s the scene where Blue really becomes properly unhinged, and he’s genuinely scary in it. And the violence is allowed to be shocking and fast, in marked contrast to the excessive slow-motion used for the pornographic violence. But it perhaps doesn’t go quite far enough in turning on the audience and making them suffer for having enjoyed the film. (And note that there’s no more “fun” violence after that.)
Still, this is clearly what the film is trying to do the entire time. It is carefully constructed to turn ugly and then, finally, show a viable alternative to what it critiques. The worst that I think you can say about it is that the turn could have been crueler and more effective. But the critique only works because the film is still able to disguise itself as a mainstream action-adventure flick. It wouldn’t work if it couldn’t fool the audience, which makes a portion of the audience missing the joke a necessary risk.
So let’s take Man of Steel in this context and ask what sort of movie it is.
The obvious answer should be that it’s angry and deconstructive, much like Snyder’s last two films. And yet this is not an answer anyone seems to have taken seriously, with a large swath of otherwise sensible people suddenly clutching their pearls. Like Mark Waid, who is, to be clear, a comics writer I usually really enjoy and respect. But…
So after complaining about the disaster porn and death toll of the final sequences, Waid complains, basically, that this vision of Superman isn’t a hopeful and utopian figure. “The essential part of Superman that got lost in MAN OF STEEL, the fundamental break in trust between the movie and the audience, is that we don’t just want Superman to save us; we want him to protect us. He was okay at the former, but really, really lousy at the latter. Once he puts on that suit, everyone he bothers to help along the way is pretty much an afterthought, a fly ball he might as well shag since he’s flying past anyway, so what the hell. Where Christopher Reeve won me over with his portrayal was that his Superman clearly cared about everyone.”
He’s not wrong, but equally, let’s ask why this matters. Waid, ultimately, is asking to be allowed to enjoy Superman as an unproblematic utopian fantasy. He wants to enjoy the basic fantasy of Superman and doesn’t want any unseemly questioning of that premise.
This is not good, not least because of the nature of that fantasy. Let’s look specifically at Pa Kent. In most renditions of Superman, the character learns his flawless values of truth, justice, and the American way from his hardworking agrarian father. As I suggested in a previous post on this subject, given that the American values of hardworking folks in rural Kansas are, not to oversimplify, responsible for almost everything wrong on the planet, I am not averse to this being interrogated a bit. The fact of the matter is that a Superman raised by hardworking farmers in Kansas who has fully adopted their values would, and we can state this as empirical fact based upon their voting patterns, be overwhelmingly likely to be a misogynistic, racist religious fundamentalist who actively supports regressive politics that leave the poor to starve so that the rich can get just that little bit richer. Perhaps the Kents are one of those handful of progressives that exist in rural Kansas, but with counties that went 85% for Mitt Romney last year, well, you know.
The Pa Kent of the film, however, embraces this problem. He instills no sense whatsoever in Superman that he has a responsibility to the world, or to anyone but himself. He teaches Superman to hide and suggests that maybe he should never surface or help people. He teaches selfishness and individualism. Real American values.
But more fundamental is the basic conception of Superman. Note that the film begins on and spends an awful lot of time on Krypton, which it presents as a vast and terrifying sci-fi spectacle. The random injection of personal dragons really makes it. Krypton is the dead world before ours – ancient Von Danniken style aliens who seeded the cosmos and died out, the race that existed before us. To us they are gods and giants (and notably, it’s only in relation to our world that they become gods and giants).
My favorite bit of The Hobbit, which I also unpopularly loved, was the scene where the mountains start to fight because they’re giants. Because it so captures a particular feeling within the Norse mythology that Tolkien is remixing. Sometimes you find out you’re standing on a giant, and then you die. And the giant never notices you or cares, because it is a giant, and you are not. This is how the old gods work. They are from an order older and scarier than ours, and we cannot even comprehend them.
Man of Steel is Superman done as Norse-flavored mythology. The Kryptonians are ancient gods from a world before ours, and when they fight there is nothing for us to do but die in their wake. It’s a film about power, and about how the people who have power can never really be in touch with humanity. Power is for old gods who live far above us. And in typical Snyder fashion, it gives us what we think we want, and then turns it to be just a little too horrifying to actually enjoy. It gives us the big, epic fights we think we come to see in superhero movies, and turns them from wish fulfillment to disturbing and uncomfortable spectacles. And it worked – everyone was, in fact, made uncomfortable by the ending of Man of Steel. The problem is that people missed that this was the point – that the movie wasn’t supposed to be wish fulfillment and mindless fun.
This has always been a problem with superhero stories. They are not, as some suggest, power fantasies. The joy is not that we can fly. It’s that we can cower, looking up, asking helplessly “is it a bird? is it a plane?” while other people we can never be make the big decisions. They are a fantasy that we can stay asleep while traumatized psychopaths fight unending wars against the forces of darkness. As Warren Ellis put it in the promo line for his Supergods, praying to a man who can fly will get you killed.
Supergods, of course, is also the title of a Grant Morrison book, and it is Morrison’s vision of Superman that is perhaps most at odds with Man of Steel. For Morrison, Superman is the ultimate version of Jesus – a resurrected solar god we can really count on. The perfect, caring man who will always win and whose fundamental role in the narrative will make it all right.
And Man of Steel asks, OK, what does that entail? What happens if you make a perfect and all-powerful man who will always save the world? And it suggests that this would be monstrous. That the last thing we actually want is God himself flying around punching whatever he judges to be evil. (Or, worse, not punching the things he judges to be humanity’s problem and not his.)
I should note that I don’t hate Superman. I love Superman. My dog is named Krypto for God’s sake. But much of what I love about Superman is that he lets you tell stories about the entire idea of superheroes in a way no other hero can. Not even Batman. Superman stories are about their entire genre, and there are things you can do as a Superman story that you simply cannot do anywhere else.
But this is not something that has ever been done. Not really. Nobody has ever really called into question the possibility that Superman is an unequivocal good. Only Lex Luthor ever gets to voice that suspicion within the comics themselves, and, you know, he’s the bad guy and all. A Superman story about how superheroes may not actually be a very nice fantasy is new, especially a well-done and properly vicious one with teeth. The idea that Grant Morrison’s blithely utopian view that someday we will all become superheroes is complete shit, and that in fact all superheroes would be is another structure of power that we cannot affect and that does not care about us is one that Superman comics have never voiced. And I’m glad to see one major piece of Superman that goes down that road, because Superman is a large enough concept to handle that. I don’t want every Superman story to do that. But I want one to.
And Man of Steel does. It takes aim at Grant Morrison directly, using his “join you in the sun” speech from All-Star Superman. And it says, no. Superman would be terrifying. Cities would be leveled in his wake, and when he fought the evil gods victory would mean that not all of us die. That’s what one roots for when the old gods fight. That the side that wins doesn’t actually kill us all. That we get to go on living in their shadow.
Because someday we will join Superman in the sun. And we will be incinerated.