I saw Man of Steel last night, and, as a big ‘superhero’ film thought I’d post some reflections on it in the light of After Magic, which deals with the superhero archetypes seen in the recent Batman and Spiderman films.
As a quick outline, the film opens with a crisis on Krypton. The people there have mined their own planet’s core and caused it to become unstable: they have only a short time before their home planet collapses and dies. In the midst of this a couple have a child – the first born ‘naturally’ for 300 years. All other children before have been born according to some pre-determined need, and created from artificial genesis techniques. But this new child has free will. To protect him, and to preserve something of Krypton culture and the ancestral code, the baby is fired away in a pod to earth – though this is resisted by the head of the Krypton military, who wants the ancestral code himself, and wants to rebuild Krypton in a different way.
Jump forward, and Clark Kent is a drifter going around from mini-disaster to mini-disaster trying not to show too much of his powers. He’s scraggly and unkempt, and trying to cover his tracks wherever he goes – but having saved people from an oil rig disaster, and friends from a school bus (awful events seem to follow him around) a myth is growing around him. His parents are clear: don’t tell anyone, or the people of earth will hate you and reject you.
Aged 33 (yeah, you got that reference, right?) he finally ‘becomes’ Superman, as the General from Krypton has tracked him down to earth. Humans do reject him, of course, and the military capture him and generally try to blow the hell out of the ‘aliens.’ The General wants to use earth to recreate Krypton and re-start the Krypton race, but this will require the destruction of humanity. Torn between the two cultures he is a part of, Superman has to decide which way he will fall…and how he will do so.
A lot of high-velocity pushing and shoving later, and a huge amount of New York destruction, as well as some danger to Lois Lane, Superman prevails, destroys the ancestral code and settles in New York, working on the Daily Planet. The film ends with Lois Lane greeting him: ‘Welcome to the planet, Clarke…’
A review at two levels…
Accepting it as a decent bit of entertainment, I think the film needs consideration at two further levels. Firstly, some theological reflections – which need to presented, as Warner Bros have actually worked on this themselves, passing resources to pastors on how they can preach about the film. Quite clearly, Superman is (and always has been) presented as a Messiah figure… But I think they’ve created a more conflicted character than perhaps they thought, especially in the light of the archetypes explored in After Magic.
If we take Krypton as a reference to ‘heaven’ – this ‘higher’ world of greater power and intelligence, and Superman’s father-in-Krypton as representing God, then what we see is that Kent’s incarnation (the move as a baby from Krypton to earth) coincides not only with a catastrophic collapse of this heavenly space, but with the death of the God/Father figure too. Superman’s father does remain, but only as a sort of holographic consciousness…which eventually also is destroyed.
The General – representing the ‘power’ leadership of this heavenly space – wants to fight to restore Krypton and do so by attempting to colonise earth. In other words, earth is invaded by ‘higher beings’ in order that these higher beings can go on living. But the only way that they can do that is by de-humanising the earth: destroying human life so that they might live. In religious terms, we seem to have a suggestion here that with power-religion it is not that God saves us, but that we are required to save God… even though we are destroyed in the process of doing so.
So how does Superman respond to this? Well the arc of his story can be simplified thus: a child from Krypton comes to earth to save earth from being taken over and subsumed by Krypton, and destroys any last vestige of hope that Krypton can be rebuilt in the process. Or, in theological terms, the heavenly child comes to earth to save earth from heaven… and destroys heaven in the process. And this is where the ending of the film is, under the cheesy surface, quite profound. In her words ‘Welcome to the planet, Clarke,’ Lois Lane can be seen as confirming Kent’s final transition from Krypton-ite to human… emphasised by the addition of his spectacles, which suggest human imperfection.
If Warner Bros consider this to be a gospel they want pastors to preach, well… good on them… but I somehow doubt that this message of the ministry of Jesus as being about a full embrace of his materiality, the final destruction of heaven, and him sabotaging the plans of the religious to allow heaven to consume earth is one that they think will go down well with the religious mainstream in the US. But may be I’m wrong… 🙂
Theologically then, Man of Steel turns out to be a pretty interesting picture, and one that, in a slightly different way, follows that archetype I outlined in After Magic. Secondly though, in socio-political terms, I found the film far more troubling. Most obviously, ‘the alien’ – the person who is different – is immediately framed in terms of opposition. People are going to hate him. And this is taken as a natural, unalterable fact. I found this depressing enough, but the response to that fear of ‘the other’ is always violence. His class mates attack him physically, people in bars try to fight him… and when he is revealed as Superman the immediate jump is to a full-on military intervention. There is no talk of politics, of sitting down to talk about what the hell is going on. The first step is armed opposition. This, I felt was troubling.
Moreover, we once again saw Manhatten destroyed as two ‘higher powers’ battled it out. Skyscrapers fell, cars were tossed around like flies and, presumably, thousands of people died. What’s going on here? Given an entire planet to do battle on, the natural question for New York must be ‘why is it always me?’ My hunch is that there’s something about a messiah complex going on here: America suffers so that the world can survive. New York, as the most recognisable symbol of the nation, almost welcomes violence against itself in order to confirm and affirm its own internal narrative of global saviour. The material wounds that it takes in all of these films, and the huge numbers sacrificed as heaven and hell do battle, are part of the oft-repeated story that America will take on suffering on behalf of the world in order that the rest of the world can be saved.
It’s noble. It’s self-agrandising. It’s not-a-little concerning. Now, sure, it’s just a movie. But taking what Žižek concludes in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema seriously, if cinema doesn’t give us what we desire but tells us what we should desire, then this persistently recurring message that America should welcome violence on itself because its wounds can redeem the world is a worrying one that impacts on our perceptions of US armed interventions around the world in the name of battling a War on Terror for the good of everyone else, and allowing violence to be done to its own citizens in trampling over basic freedoms and rights in, for example, the recent NSA scandal.
In conclusion then, Man of Steel is a film that carries a number of internal conflicts. The studio that made it want it to be an orthodox messiah movie – and yet it is something far more subversive underneath. Yet, even with this radical message about the destruction of heaven and the embrace of materiality, the issues of violence to the other and the replaying of this message of welcoming redemptive violence against the national-self leave one with a sense that those behind it really didn’t get their vision in focus before they called ‘action.’
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