It’s Not a Bird, It’s Not a Plane, It’s … A Man of Skulls?

So I wasn’t intending on seeing a movie this weekend. In particular, I wasn’t even sure that I was ever going to see this movie: The Man of Steel. It’s been a few weeks since it came out and everyone–including Sequart–seems to have gotten it out of their system. In fact, some of the things I want to note have already been observed by others. I also won’t lie: after waiting so long to see this film, some of it was spoiled for me and I almost didn’t even bother seeing it if only because of that. However, despite the awesome fact that Sequart published the second part of my article–which ironically deals with the superhero trope in another universe and even refers to Superman to some extent–I needed a night out and I promised someone that I would write on this film eventually.

So let’s get to it and I think it is safe to say that–in this case–the letter ‘S’ does not symbolize hope, but it does represent Spoilers.

We first start off on John Carter … I mean, Krypton. It was refreshing to see Jor-El actually do something: although for someone of the Kryptonian Scientist caste–born, genetically-determined and raised–he certainly knows how to fight in a truly epic sense. He also knows how to ride a flying Boga … I mean, some native Kryptonian flying creature. It is fascinating how they chose to make Krypton far more … vital and detailed than the one from the 1978 movie–which was purely glacial and darkness–but it almost seemed like the fantasy multiverse was weakening around the quadrant of Kryptonian space and that we were seeing at least two realities or narratives trying to coexist at the same time: much like this movie.

File:KryptonMOS.jpg

However, when Jor-El presumably steals, or retrieves, a golden skull endowed with the genetic codex of the entire Kryptonian race: that is where, I feel, the tone or the theme of the entire movie begins to present itself. And it is a fascinating symbol if you really think about it. A skull contains a brain and a mind that, in turn, holds many different perceptions and ideas. However, a naked skull also symbolizes death. It is also really telling that Jor-El infuses this ornamental fragment of a skull–almost a half-mask–to the body of his unauthorized natural born son Kal-El: thus potentially answering the age-old question of whether or not he can interbreed with humans. In any case, this will not be the last time we will see a skull in this movie–a Superman movie–I assure you.

So there is the tone. We have a stratified genetic-caste Kryptonian society that mined its homeworld’s geothermal core so much that it became unstable and it blew the hell up. Moreover, for all of their advanced science and knowledge, the Kryptonians not only seemed to be incompetent enough not to be able to make more ships that can use Phantom energy–yes that Phantom energy: the phantom energy from the Phantom Zone–to go into warp the hell away from Krypton, but apparently they couldn’t even hold their original outward planetary colonies or harvest the geothermal energies of those worlds instead while looking for an alternative. If the genetic caste-system they made was supposed to make their race better, well … eugenics seems to have failed common sense here.

But that is neither here nor there. So after Krypton and its stratified way of life dies with enough destruction not to even ashes, never mind bones, we come to Kal-El on his space ship going all the way to Earth: specifically Earth … where he will be seen as either a monster or a god. And then we fast-forward about thirty-three years Earth time (since it was apparently millennia dead Kryptonian time, which is fair enough) and we see Clark Kent and his various other aliases failing–or almost failing–at remaining incognito on his adopted world.

There are some iconic scenes of an unshaven Clark without his shirt on lifting heavy metal on an oil rig while being set on fire and obviously having nothing happen to him beyond an awesome looking stylized aesthetic effect: of which there are several more throughout the film. Essentially what we are looking at now, in this stage, is someone who isn’t Superman yet–doesn’t know the extent of his abilities or who he is–and yet can’t stop himself from wanting to save everyone.

This compulsive need to save everybody is not only emblematic of Superman, but of all the superheroes that come after him for a time. Even though this need gets mitigated and changed and qualified in different comics and media after Superman’s first appearance in the comics world, it is still there. He wants to save lives, or at least not harm them: even the people who cause him or others pain. In this particular movie, for instance, as we see snippets of his childhood and early life in flashbacks, there were many times he could ended the lives of all the childhood bullies and adult douchebags in his way. In fact, even with his very understanding and compassionate human parents–Martha and Jonathan Kent–I’m quite surprised that he didn’t at least have one temper-tantrum–once–and snap some other kid’s head off. But I guess he wouldn’t be Superman if he had.

… Anyway, I find it refreshing that this film skips the tip-toeing about and actually lets Lois Lane use her deductive reasoning and journalistic skills to pretty figure out who Clark actually is. I actually liked Lois in this film: because unlike other incarnations of her–especially the version of her in the 1978 film–she isn’t really abrasive and at the same time takes very little crap from anyone. At the same time though … while it was refreshing to see her have some active roles in what was going on, she didn’t really get to continue her main role as a reporter after a certain point in the film. It mostly focuses on her burgeoning relationship with the sublime: or Clark, take your pick. And for that matter I do wonder why, later on when the governments of the world are searching for Clark and even after, when they still want to find out who he is–why they simply don’t wiretap or do some reconnaissance on Lois Lane: retracing her steps and finding out more or less what she already knows. Then again, the humans in this film are the ones with the most common sense compared to … the others.

Because guess what? In this film we have General Zod and friends. Yes, when Krypton was dying General Zod exceeded his military authority and attempted a coup of that world. For this attempted coup and murdering Jor-El, Zod and his loyal soldiers were impressed in another seemingly cryogenic version of the Phantom Zone for a lengthy “rehabilitation” period: long enough to wake up again in their prison ship and watch Krypton blow up and leave them with essentially, well, nothing.

So, yes. General Zod. What we have here with the good General is a man that was born and bred–engineered–to be of the Kryptonian Warrior caste: although what wars or conflicts the Kryptonians could have been fighting towards their decline–unless they are a really long-lived species–is beyond me. Also, his lack of a sensible deontological imperative in his DNA is rather troubling. He was basically Krypton’s military commander and, like Jor-El, saw the Ruling Council’s decision to drain their geothermal core as rather stupid. But unlike Jor-El–who wanted to send off Krypton’s children in ships to help the race survive–Zod’s solution was to start killing members of the Council and attempt to take over: mostly because, due to his conditioning, that is all he was really mentally capable of doing.

Eventually, after he realizes that Jor-El has stolen the Golden Skull–I mean the Codex–he goes after him and, after Jor-El manages to kick his ass and send Kal-El and the Codex far away, and then he kills him. But eventually the rest of Krypton’s military doesn’t quite like Zod’s decisions and they apprehend him. So what to do they do? They know their world is dying and will blow up relatively soon. Now, the sensible thing to do with Zod would be to execute him and his followers: I mean aside from the fact that they committed treason and death themselves; it would be more merciful to kill them so that when Krypton dies as well they won’t find themselves alone in the cold darkness of space.

So of course the Kryptonians temporarily banish them into the Phantom Zone for “rehabilitative purposes”: you know, to be civilized and merciful.

It is this sort of behaviour that really makes me kind of sympathize with Zod just a bit: because I can only imagine that he has witnessed and even abetted this cultural attitude so many times over before he just got fed up. Even when he tells Jor-El that he wants to decide what “bloodlines” will survive when he builds a new Krypton–there or somewhere else–you have to also understand that he wasn’t really talking genocide at that time. No, Zod was referring to the Kryptonian Genesis Chamber–the one we see much later that somehow is on a ship under Zod’s control–where blank slates of embryos that still seem to await genetic assignment are held. I imagine he was thinking of engineering most of those potential embryos into a larger Warrior Caste, with many more Workers I’m sure.

So yes, Zod wasn’t suited for anything outside of military strategy but he was trying to solve the situation as best he could when no one else was really offering anything better or more immediate: except for Jor-El of course. Basically, Zod wanted to protect his ideal of Krypton: which was more or less what he had been created to do.

And there is the issue. You see, Zod and his crew managed to get their hands on some old Kryptonian technology after they went out to see if any of the old colonies survived. One of the most prominent of these is a “world engine”: something that is designed to terraform whole planets. Now, here is what some people might be thinking at this point. Zod needs Kal-El–Clark–because his father gave him the genetic Codex that along with the Genesis Chamber can restore the Kryptonian race.

So General Zod comes to Earth in his ship and asks for its governments to turn Kal-El over to him: no overt threats or anything. General Zod is obviously planning to find an uninhabited world like Mars or even the Moon and use his terraforming engine to make an atmosphere for his people. Then he will use the Codex’s information, with Kal-El’s help, to activate and imprint the embryos in the Genesis Chamber to restore the Kryptonians, gain power from the younger yellow sun and then, you know, make an alliance with the people of Earth and trade resources for knowledge and everything. Because, you know, you’d think that something like this would make sense.

But evidently, the same genetic code that resulted in Zod’s seeming lack of obedience is the same force that lacks an ingrained understanding of knowing his limits and the need for Scientist and Diplomat castes.  Zod’s plan is to take Clark and Lois Lane, not search Lois Lane or Clark, reveal what he did to Jor-El to Clark after giving him a really disturbing vision through potentially some kind of telepathic device, and then explain how he is going to take over Earth and exterminate all humankind to make a new Krypton: presumably because Earth has a more gentle environment than Krypton ever had … though his plan to terraform it using what are essentially sonic booms seems to be kind of at cross-purposes with even that idea.

However, there is also the common sense of the film to consider. It’s interesting how with all that attention focused on a Watchmen, 300, and Sucker Punch stylized sense of violence that director Zack Synder would have neglected other aesthetic and, dare I say, plot concerns. I mean: there have been other stories that took Superman’s ‘S’ and made it actually look like another kind of symbol. You know: they actually made the symbol more alien looking as it, well, should have been given that it was from Krypton again. Also, the fact that all Kryptonians–including Jor-El and Zod–seem to wear spandex and the House of El ‘S’ symbol is extremely off-putting (and confusing) and a part of my brain kept saying, “Really? Really!?” That sort of thing works for a meta-narrative or a parody: not something that is supposed to be as “serious” as The Man of Steel.

I mean, look, I understand that Synder and others wanted to get to the Superman bit right away, to say, “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no it’s Superman! Look at him! Superman!” but seriously: in addition to the spandex S-wearing Kryptonians, could have at least had a lead-in into the Superman costume instead of having it right there ready-made by Jor-El? I mean, really? Really? And some more lead in into watching Clark discover his powers would have been nice too. I understand they don’t want to go all Smallville, but seriously he must have a damned good learning curve: is all I have to say. It’s almost like a good portion of this movie is, “Look, it’s Superman! See? He has his costume and powers and such! Isn’t that awesome!? And look at how we are adapting him to our world now! See! See!?”

But all snark aside for the moment, even after all that I gave the film the benefit of the doubt. I mean, we have the basic Superman qualities right there in front of us and a lot of the old archetypal elements too. I was also entertained by the interplay and the destruction. When Zod finally started to use his world-engine and it split, under my breath I whispered to myself, “Double jeopardy, Superman.” The depiction of the disorientation that Earth’s environment had on the Kryptonians was impressive too.

But as for the ending … All right. This was what was spoiled for me. But before I go into that, I want to refer everyone back to Zod and Clark’s exchange in the latter’s dreamscape. Do you remember that scene: where Zod is telling Clark all about what happened and what his plans are and, as he does so, Clark is buried by a massive amount of humanoid skulls?

Well, fast forward from there. Clark–now called Superman–destroys the ship with the Genesis Chamber: with all of those blank embryos. Through a joint effort with the military and Lois Lane, he manages to send the rest of Zod’s men back to the Phantom Zone, or purgatory, or whatever you want to call it. Then it is only Zod. Now Zod by this point is actually using what he knows and has adapted–as a Warrior–to Earth’s environment and the powers of its yellow sun.

At this point, Zod has basically lost everything. The Chamber, his people and any hope of restoring the Kryptonians that he claimed to want to protect. Zod has nothing left for him except for, really, what he had always been seeking this entire time. Gone is the self-proclaimed saviour, the grizzled general, and the ends justifies the means warrior. All that is left is a battle-maddened monster: the thing that had been growing inside Zod for far too long. As I said, a lesser man who was not Superman–especially one whose father was killed by this man–would have totally rubbed it in. I also admit that in a very perverse way, I enjoyed the fact that Zod pretty much lost everything he ever claimed to love and all that was left of him was the beast he always was.

In a way, Zod was real legacy of the original Krypton as depicted in this film: with all of its self-contradictions and an inherent idea of superiority. Superman, on the other hand, is different: in that his birth hadn’t been predetermined and it was “natural.” Also remember that he still holds the Codex inside of his DNA. Here is a man that attempts to do as much as he can, improve himself however he can, and save anyone he can to the best of his abilities. In Superman is the potential for an Apollonian future. A holographic Jor-El takes a great deal of time telling his son that he has the potential to elevate humanity to the stars.

Both Zod and Superman come from a dead world and deaths have shaped them more or less into what they are now. But the irony is that while Zod doesn’t see any potential for a new Krypton without the “pure genetics” of those embryos, Superman may well understand what I believe his father had really been thinking: that by giving him the Codex–the DNA of all Kryptonians–he could interbreed with humanity and make something better and freer than the old Kryptonians. Of course, Zod would never see this–or even accept this–and this is where the end game begins.

You see, Superman took away Zod’s dream. So now, with nothing left to lose, Zod decides he will take Superman’s dream away as well: or taint it as much as possible. As some of the fine people at Sequart have already said, Zod wants to die at this point and, for all of his really poor decisions, he isn’t stupid. He knows the one way he can force Superman to kill him. There is no Kryptonite or magic in this film. There is just brute power. In the end, Zod forces Superman to choose. It’s actually surprising that he doesn’t just kill as many human beings as he can out of sheer spite, or use them as human shields, but the way I figure it Zod is just bloody tired at this point and really just wants to go down fighting and spiritually take his opponent down with him.

So, for the first time in film, we get to see Superman forced into a situation where he has to kill his first villain: punctuated by the crunching sound of General Zod’s neck in his arms.

Really, the only other moment that could be any more poignant is if Batman had shot the Joker with a gun.

I mean, for us it is a no-brainer. Zod was threatening innocents and in a scenario of sharp choice we know what most human beings would do. But this is Superman: with his altruistic ideals and his need to save everyone. Essentially, Zod made Superman–for one instant–compromise the ideals that are attributed to him. He infected him with the violence of his own being, the anger and pain engineered into him by Krypton. And even though Zod lost everything, in a way he won. He forced Superman to do what he had been doing during the entire film: he made him choose between lives. So when Superman is crying at the end and Lois is holding him, you know the real thing Superman lost is the idea of his own innocence: of not having ever taken a life in both the film and in other media.

Of course, I know that he has killed others before in the comics but those acts are not emblematic of the character. At the same time, it is very tempting to go back to that vision of him standing in that growing pile of humanoid skulls and wonder if those deaths were to be the result of Zod … or himself. After all, in addition to all those people who inevitably died in Metropolis due to the sheer collateral violence of his battles with the Phantom Zone soldiers, Superman just killed a man. It has set a precedent in at least film. What is to stop him from doing it again? What is to stop him from drowning in that past of the dead?

Will this and was this the only time he will have to be the arbiter of life and death? Remember what happened with this film’s version of Jonathan Kent. Unlike the heart-attack of Jonathan in the 1978 version of the film–the immaculate and moving way in which Superman was taught that for all of his power he still had limitations–this Jonathan forces Clark to choose not to save him from a tornado so that no one else will be able to confirm what he is yet. Essentially, Superman is taught that he has no limits: except those he and those he loves makes on himself. It was a little bit of a clunky lesson compared to the last, but it is something to consider in the context of this film: especially when you look at how Kryptonian society–by its very genetics program–also made choices for others.

And then there is that other question to consider: why was the Codex of all Kryptonian DNA shaped like a golden skull? And whose skull was it? How far into Tomorrow can one go before all they find is death? If you’ve ever read Superman: Red Son, which I highly recommend, you also might really wonder about that too.

There was some concern that Superman as an Apollonian figure of hope and something to aspire to would be dragged into the muck of darkness and humanity. Well, at least this incarnation of him has been. Can he learn to get past this? Most likely. Is he still Superman? Well, many of the humans around him seem to think so. Does any of this change who he is for all time? Certainly not: as far as I am concerned this is just another continuity and there will inevitably be another reboot of him in some media or other somewhere down the line. Can he still provide hope? The answer, I think, is yes.

I appreciated a few elements in this film, but I am ultimately going to give it a 3/5. It’s interesting but there were aspects that needed some improvement, some plot-holes filled, and an actual philosophical story with an occasional bit of action would have been nice too. At the very least, if nothing else, it leaves me with wondering what next the Man of Tomorrow might bring.

Advertisements

About matthewkirshenblatt

I am a writer and blogger living in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario in Canada. When I'm not writing for the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization and GeekPr0n, I tend to write science-fiction, epic fantasy, horror, literary and mythological revisionisms, and generally weird fiction stories though I have been known to make poetry, television and comic book scripts. Also, when left to my own devices I tend to write weird and strange hybrid creative opinion piece articles like those you will find on this Blog. I am also very interested in comics, video games, Star Wars, table-top role-playing games, Neil Gaiman's works, H.P. Lovecraft, vampires, zombies, and budgies.
This entry was posted in Film and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s