Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross


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Spoilers follow.

As many have noted, there is an eerie absence of civilians in Man of Steel’s fight scenes. As Superman and General Zod punch each other through small towns and skyscrapers, the people of Metropolis, who are surely being killed by the hundreds of thousands, are nowhere to be seen. In the earlier Smalville spar with Zod’s henchmen, Superman warns townsfolk to stay in their homes, and then the battle annihilates their homes. People are no more than props.
Perhaps the man of steel is a prop himself. As Andrew O’Hehir points out in his review, Superman is put forth as a saviour in both the Christian and Nietzchean frameworks. Both his biological and adoptive fathers insist that he is destined to achieve an √úbermensch ideal for humanity and lead a godless world into righteousness. But he is also an allegory for Jesus Christ: in a church scene, an image of Christ is placed prominently behind him in the frame; when he falls from space, he is in an unmistakable pose of Crucifixion. Superman’s mythos is both secular and spiritual, God’s replacement as well as his extension. It’s not an accidental pairing of ideas, and not the only flags under which this Superman flies. He is important not for the things he does, but what he “stands for.” That is, Superman is significant primarily as the object to which ideologies are applied. These ideologies needn’t be consistent; as Lois Lane points out, on Krypton the symbol on Superman’s chest may mean “hope,” but on Earth it’s an “S.” A side effect of this is that whether you call him Superman, Kal-El, or Clark Kent, he is a personality-free cipher who represents ideals to which we are never made privy. He represents as many peoples and creeds as are needed to prop him (and the film’s ticket receipts) up, indulging all without pledging fealty to any. This permits Superman to commit any deeds and actions that he chooses, and any audience caught in the movie’s net of ideologies is obliged to cheer for the cipher and incapable of questioning him. Superman’s catch-all purpose, to represent an “give the people an ideal to strive towards," is precisely the same undefined ideal peddled by real-world democratic superpowers (e.g. “be the best you can be”), and it mirrors their worst functions. That’s why the gritty tone of Man of Steel — a marked change from the lighter, more heroic mood typical to the character — is not actually in opposition to this unseen slaughter, but critical to its presentation as a collateral adjunct to ideological objectives. Snyder has explained that the purpose of the film’s “realistic” style (handheld cameras, long lenses, and bleakness being the popular signifiers of the real) was to encourage admiration unvarnished by levity; “Superman is a thing that must be taken seriously and embraced and understood.” If we perceive Superman as serving our own principles, his decisions are justified. This encourages a value set that accepts calamities so long as they are made invisible to us, and so long as their perpetrators profess to serve our interests. The rumble in Smallville encapsulates this: Superman is responsible for the fight’s locale and the town’s devastation, but civilian casualties are never shown, except when Superman tells them to get inside. Even Zod’s warning to Earth, a global TV hijack, complies with this crowd control tactic: the television will tell us everything we need to know. There could scarcely be a more decisive statement of power than the film’s penultimate scene, wherein Superman needlessly crashes a $12 million spy satellite in front of a general. “You can’t spy on me,” he says, absolving himself of public accountability or transparency. Is this the ideal to which we should strive? A military master whose methods cannot be reproached, who turns our gaze away from his catastrophes? A chest-beating piece of warmongering where the only building left standing is a Sears?

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