Tea Party Wish Fulfillment, Messianic Fetishism and the American Way in Man of Steel

Muh ha ha...I am a god.
Muw ha ha…I am a god.

To be the smartest man in the room.  It’s a nice place to be.  Christopher Nolan has reached a point in his career where he is the smartest man in the room.  Warner Brothers begged him to reboot the Superman film mythos, but Nolan wisely decreed that he was the last person who should do that.  He knew after his successful reboot of Batman that lightening doesn’t strike twice.  Yet Hollywood lives off the delusion that lightning can strike twice.  So, Nolan, not wanting to bite the hand that fed him, agreed to produce and bring along many of his cohorts (notably screenwriter David S. Goyer and epic score maestro Hans Zimmer) to help breathe life into a stale franchise.  He gets paid no matter what, and if this things bombs, hey, he wasn’t the director (meanwhile he’s busy crafting his own original film, Interstellar).  In comes Zack Snyder, a keen visual stylist who too often succumbs to his own fetishes involving shaky camera-work and overblown non-sensical FX spun into a blender, to direct.  The result is the overstuffed but weirdly entertaining Man of Steel – which brings great comfort to the writer in me, for it’s Goyer’s script (thoughtful, though full of holes and far from perfect) that rises above Snyder’s bombastic attempt to derail the film at every turn.

Man of Steel’s greatest assets (apart from Zimmer’s score) are the cast members.  The filmmakers wisely brought on two of this generation’s greatest character actors to take on key roles: Michael Shannon, enraged and menacing as General Zod and quadruple Oscar nominee Amy Adams as a feisty and smarter than usual Lois Lane.  It’s a real treat to watch Shannon not so much chew scenery as he does annihilate it (literally, his super-alien romper-room shenanigans with our title character bring down buildings) and it’s refreshing to see Adams’ Lois get in on the action and discover Clark Kent’s true identity from the start.  She coos and pants in his arms when he rescues her, but she’s no fool and unlocks the key to bringing down Zod.  Meanwhile, enjoyable cameos abound with Russell Crowe overacting as Jor-El; Kevin Costner under-acting as the senior Kent; Diane Lane pretty, naturally aged and forlorn as Ma Kent; Laurence Fishburne sadly wasted as Lois’ boss; and Christopher Meloni as a noble military man.

The film opens with an over-long prologue on a hilariously designed planet Krypton built of phalluses and vulvas and ruled by a governmental elite crippled by politics and incapable of stopping the planet’s destruction.  Snyder goes whole-hog in these sometimes painful to watch opening moments, littering the screen with wall-to-wall effects and incomprehensible action that harkens back to his worst work on Sucker Punch.

This Lois Lane suffers no fools.
This Lois Lane suffers no fools.

The film overcomes this mess with a ping-pong, montage-style narrative that jumps back and forth between Clark Kent’s coming-out as an adult and his tortured though picturesque childhood in the sun-splashed melancholy cornfields of Kansas – full of messianic fetishism, religious motifs, and Malick-by-way-of-Abercrombie-and-Fitch-commercials cinematorgaphy.  Though Snyder does his best to derail things with bombast with every scene switch, Goyer’s somewhat hokey but well-meaning screenplay adds some weight in the flashbacks even when the overall film drags a bit.  Young Clark/Kal-El is played with relatable angst by two child actors straight out of central casting (two kids – I kid you not – named Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry) while the adult Clark/Kal-El is played effectively by Henry Cavill.  The combo of a Goyer script (with its surface level psychological underpinnings) and a Snyder aesthetic (eternal fan of the dramatic action slo-mo) results in some overly emo sequences of Clark crying or screaming (oh, how can he possibly save all these people?), but credit must be given as against the backdrop of an amazingly evocative and heroic Zimmer score, you can’t help but feel something even if it is fabricated from the thinnest of emotional threads.

It would be easy to dismiss Man of Steel as a mess, as an overly high-minded yet ironically run-of-the-mill FX-laden comic book fan-boy extravaganza.  Yet if you go in with lowered expectations (expect to leave with a headache and don’t expect this to be anything nearly as good as Nolan’s Batman films) you’ll find yourself entertained, and you’ll find something beneath the surface.  Take for instance, the quasi-Nazi/quasi-art-deco Kryptonian history lesson Kal-El gets from Jor-El’s digital ghost (don’t ask) in the abandoned Alaskan outpost/fortress of solitude.  Or how about that little in-joke where Pa Kent’s grave is etched with a date of death in 1997 – wasn’t that the same year Costner’s career died?  Then there are the wacked out visuals on Krypton and the prescient product placement in Smallville.   Your eyes can’t help but notice the Sears and IHOP signs as Smallville gets trashed by Zod and his gang – and then notice the parallel destruction of Metropolis where Lexcorp signs (a fake corporation hinting at a very mad Lex Luther behind the scenes who will not doubt be mad in the sequel over all this property destruction) are all over the city.

I ain't no weepy kid from THE TREE OF LIFE...I'm a real American bad ass with Mr. FIELD OF DREAMS as my pa and that MILF from UNFAITHFUL as my ma.  How do you like them apples?
I ain’t no weepy kid from THE TREE OF LIFE…I’m a real American bad ass with Mr. FIELD OF DREAMS as my pa and that MILF from UNFAITHFUL as my ma. How do you like them apples?

And with the smartest man in the room in the background or behind the proverbial golden curtain (be it Lex Luther NOT in the film or Nolan behind the film), you can’t help but probe for deeper meaning whether it’s there or not.

Let’s just say that Nolan’s Batman trilogy painted a picture of liberal elitism marrying corporate fascism. The villains were terrorists, and as they held the big city hostage, a liberal celebrity playboy who also just happened to be a corporate big wig had to push the boundaries of the law (remember all that cell-phone monitoring in The Dark Knight?) to save the day and restore order.

Say then what does Snyder’s Man of Steel represent?  Here we essentially have a god-like superhero rising from the American heartland and completely destroying a big city (full of all those smug elitists and run by corporations) in an all-out one-on-one battle between good and evil (Kal-El and Zod).  At one point, Superman tells a suspicious general that he should trust him because, “I’m from Kansas.  I’m as American as it gets.”  What is this if not grand-scale Tea Party wish-fulfillment?

If, as I’ve been saying for years, Christopher Nolan is this generation’s Fritz Lang…then that makes Zack Snyder this generation’s…dun dun dun…Leni Riefenstahl.  Yes, that’s giving Snyder way too much credit, but what is he here but a visual propagandist?

And that makes the inevitable Übermensch franchise something worth watching.

Or maybe it’s just a run of the mill rock-em-sock-em comic book movie with some hokey attempts at depth and a better than average cast that should please most summertime audience members.

After all, in its simplest terms, the Superman mythos taps into man’s innate desire to want to fly.

Why then did I feel like Snyder captured more a sense of a civilization crashing and burning?

WOWIE-ZOWIE look at the building fall down!  And that other building fall down!

Nom-nom-nom pass the popcorn.

Written by David H. Schleicher


  1. Ugh, do we have to acknowledge the “Sucker Punch” was an actual movie? It was more like a moving photograph with no script.
    That said, at least this story, which has been told over and over and over is a good one. It’s a lesson of humility and of strength in the face of pain. It’s not a love between Lois and Clark, it’s a love between Superman and the Earth.
    That said, I really want to see this. I’ll brace myself for the “Sucker Punch” flashback.

    • Boz – you gotta see it. And yes…I think you find the film agrees with you…it’s a love story between Clark/Kal-El/Superman and planet Earth more than anything (unless you get caught up in the Snyder fetishism ha ha).

  2. Hey – let’s rank Snyder’s films!

    I’ll start –

    Man of Steel – 8/10
    Dawn of the Dead – 6/10
    300 – 5/10
    Sucker Punch – 0/10
    Watchmen – one of the worst films of all time

    He’s an eclectic guy!

    • Let’s see, “Watchmen” was known as being the unfilimable graphic novel. They fucked it up waay beyond comprehension so that it beared little to no resemblance to the novel. People dismissed it as “superheroes with no powers” which wasn’t the point of the novel at all
      “300” just basically took the graphic novel and used it as a storyboard. The downside was that it was printed on brown paper and only used black and red inks.
      I never saw “Dawn of the Dead” so I have no opinion.
      I figured out what really bothered me about all these movies when I accidentally pulled up a behind the scenes of “Sucker Punch”. Snyder films all his green screen footage in a warehouse that is brightly filmed. I mean, 4th of July bright. Then, he takes out the green and turns the footage completely dark. What it creates is something that fucks with my eyes. A bright, glowing character and dark, mudy environment.

      • Wow – that’s interesting about Snyder’s filming technique. His films have always hurt my eyes (Man of Steel less so, Dawn of the Dead I reckon was before this technique was honed) – but that explains a lot! Sucker Punch was unwatchable.

  3. I think it must be age… I don’t feel motivated enough to actually go out to see superhero movies anymore. What you’ve described here– I much appreciate your going deep to offer us detailed analysis– just confirms I shouldn’t even be bothered. Further, this is just me… I wouldn’t go to a superhero movie to look for meaning or philosophical insights into life, albeit some of my favorite actors are in there. Ok… I just might, basically because of them.

    • Arti – to me comic book/superhero movies are to men what rom-com’s are to women. Most are predictable, pointless, uninspired by-the-numbers dreck…but occasionally there are ones that come along and play with the genre conventions and surprise us (see Nolan’s Batman films or when it comes to rom-coms something like Silver Linings Playbook). Man of Steel, both as a comic book film and as a rom-com (yup, I said it, it’s a rom-com where an alien falls in love with the earth, just as Boz pointed out) falls somewhere in between…and coupled with all the weirdness and visual fetishism, makes it a very interesting and entertaining film to watch.

      Oh, and the cast is great…especially Shannon and Adams.

  4. I have no real drive to see this movie; every shot I see of the film looks lifeless and devoid of colour, not what I would expect from Snyder. I am glad that Nolan isn’t directing though, I don’t think he’s the smartest man in the room; he’s just tricked everyone into thinking that.

    • Charlie – what is movie making but a bit of trickery…magic? And Nolan is one of the best at (he clearly told us he would forever be trying to trick us…for that look on our faces…in The Prestige) so I agree somewhat with your statement about him. Whether he actually IS the smartest man in the room or he’s tricked everyone into thinking he’s the smartest man in the room, doesn’t that still make him the smartest man in the room (both in perception and in his knowing trickery)? He was also very smart to know he has no business directing any more comic book/superhero films (hopefully he stands by this and doesn’t succumb to greed or laziness).

  5. “The result is the overstuffed but weirdly entertaining Man of Steel – which brings great comfort to the writer in me, for it’s Goyer’s script (thoughtful, though full of holes and far from perfect) that rises above Snyder’s bombastic attempt to derail the film at every turn.”

    That pretty much says it all David! Well I wasn’t expecting much but it does appear that from what I’ve read (and what you have added here in this typically excellently-written review that it’s entertaining in spite of itself. I hope to see it later in the week -couldn’t get to it over the weekend- and can at least go in saying I was a huge fan of the original television series. I am not a Snyder fan, but oddly enough I like WATCHMAN more than you do and am mostly with 300. But nothing to really write home about.

    • Sam – though I think you’ll find much of this problematic…I’m surprised you didn’t see this with the kids over the weekend. I’m very interested to hear your take as we’ll as theirs.

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