Critics of Steel

Man of Steel

I am not well-equipped to comment about current events or, God-forbid, new movies. For whatever reason, having opinions about new things doesn’t interest me, and it sure doesn’t come very naturally.

I am, however, a bit confused at the critical reaction to the newest Superman movie, Man of Steel. So confused, in fact, that I must jot a few notes down about it. I just returned from watching it with our French exchange student and was surprised to find myself entranced. I had gone in expecting to be underwhelmed and was, happily, not.

I’m not a movie critic, so I won’t play on in the blogosphere, but as a viewer of the film and an observer of culture, I found it to be thrilling, thought-provoking, and full of heart, everything its critics say it is not. Ultimately, I think that the movie has much to add to our contemporary discourse regarding the freedom of the individual to be unpredictable and, thereby, vital.

The Atlantic‘s Connor Simpson recapped the movie’s opening-weekend success in a rather snarky way:

Hey, so, a whole lot of people sat through this two and a half hour bad movie. Man of Steel’s very successful opening weekend in the wake of a week of bad press for being not good and also kind of soulless was definitely a surprise. This was the second best opening of the summer. The only movie to have a better opening weekend was Iron Man 3. It’s just another example of D.C. falling behind Marvel at the movie theater. But, who cares? This thing already has a sequel planned and will make a jillion dollars globally. Then, in three years, we’ll get an equally bad and soulless sequel and the same thing will happen because people won’t remember how bad this one is. The movies are just magical.

A heartfelt, soulful review if there ever was one. Also, it’s probably worth noting that the definitive evidence offered in his summation of critical response were links to two other articles from The Atlantic. So at least he did his due diligence, I guess.

In all fairness, though, I read other responses to the film in advance and the sentiments described above pretty well cover much of the critical reaction. However, to read this blurb one would think that the film was universally panned. On the contrary, Rotten Tomatoes has it checking in in the mostly good range, with audience reaction positive by a wide margin. 

As I’ve said, I’m not interested in bashing critics, but I am confused about what they want at times. Is it too ridiculous? Is it too serious? Can it be both? (I’ve linked only to the same Atlantic articles as above, so I guess I’m a lazy reviewer too).

Let me just say that I think Superman is difficult to film in our day. He is not dark. He is an overwhelmingly good person. This has been traditionally what makes the movies about him suffer in recent years. How many ways can we think of to get kryptonite into our hero’s general vicinity?

I thought that Man of Steel did the only thing that could have been done with such a dilemma. It made the notion of actually being Superman central to the plot. So yes, this means that much of the opening act will be pensive and serious. What does it mean to be Superman in the modern world? For all those complaining about Christopher Nolan’s darker influence in the film, perhaps the answer is that it means something similar to what it means to be Batman.

I’ve also read critics who are bored with the whole Jesus thing going on in the film’s subtext. I can see their point on some level, but I don’t see how it’s a particularly boring mechanism. In fact, it seems that messianic imagery is so inescapable in this source material that to excise it is to impose an academic orthodoxy upon it by mechanical rote. Have fun with it. Make Superman tell us that he is 33 years old (as they do in the movie). We get it. We can nod appreciatively or dismissively, whatever our religious preference.

One element of the film that I found particularly rich, and that I haven’t seen written about, is the cultural disintegration of Krypton described in the movie. Superman’s father, Jor-El (played brilliantly by Russell Crowe) is debating with General Zod (played with more nuance than he’s getting credit for by Michael Shannon). One point of contention between the men is that Superman is a product of natural childbirth, the first in centuries on Krypton. The culture had instead come to develop Matrix-style fetus-farming, genetically pre-conditioning every Kryptonian for his or her role in life. Zod was designed to be a soldier etc.

Jor-El saw this as a dangerous avoidance of chance and partially blames its de-humanizing effects for the ultimate doom of Krypton. Zod saw Jor-El’s actions as heresy. This, to me, correlates with a contemporary debate in our society.

Our economies, our technological advances, our governmental structures, and our educational systems, seem to more and more favor specialization for the individual. College degrees must be STEM degrees and so on. Against these systematic forces stand the humanists and the people of faith (too often at odds with one another to see that they share the same adversary). I draw the battle lines between the forces of icy efficiency and those of passionate humanity — though I realize that those lines are not always (or even often) very neat. Nonetheless as we allow less and less room for uncertainty and individual diversity into our policy, do we risk creating a generation of Zods? Good men defending their own individual roles against the greater good of society, and ultimately becoming monsters?

In all the critical complaints about the necessity of another origin story for Superman, perhaps what is being missed is that Superman’s origins are indelibly tied to the doom of his race. And this might stand as a warning for our own future.

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