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man of steelIn one of the best comic book stories of the last several generations, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Batman confronts Superman. Years into a dystopian future in which the United States has become more or less imperialist, fundamentalist, and oppressive, the rather conservative and patriotic Superman has rather unthinkingly joined forces with America to maintain order. Batman, true to form, has created a libertarian resistance, opposing all repression with vigilante ferocity. Superman, he knows, must be taken down before the grip of the government’s control can be broken.

In the most recent movie dealing with the DC Comic universe, The Man of Steel, writers David Goyer and Christopher Nolan create a dystopia of Superman’s (Kal-el’s) home planet, Krypton, more ordered but as fascistic as what Miller prophesied for Earth thirty years ago. Krypton has actually entered a post-imperialist phase, it’s own reach having decayed centuries earlier as the new home planet (the original planet is long gone) has become the over used playground of militaristic, rigid castes. The government has allowed no natural births for time immemorial, with each child coming into existence for a specifically defined purpose, ready to serve her or his part in the greater good. This is a cold, cold Sparta, gone mad.

Before going any further in this review, let me state that while I’m no longer a movie buff (I used to be, long before having so many little Birzers running around the house), I do consider David Goyer one of the finest writers of our era. His ability to mix serious existential questions with science fiction, fantasy, and myth is nothing short of brilliant. In particular, I think his Dark City is one of the best science fiction movies ever made, and his work on The Crow and Flash Forward was excellent. His masterpiece, though, is the 2005 Batman Begins, a work closer to opera than traditional cinema. Every one of his stories really focuses on the nature of existence and the difficulties of being human, no matter whether the adversaries are flying alien butchers (Man of Steel), hovering alien vampires (Dark City), or psychiatric madmen (Batman Begins). I would go so far to argue that Goyer is one of our best living myth makers, an artist who knows the essence of story and that our role within existence must, in some way, conform to a transcendent justice. Goyer always presents struggle with a backdrop of pervading, if somewhat elusive, grace.

The Plot

Recognizing the errors of their homeworld and its insular, rigid culture, Kal-el’s parents not only sacrifice themselves to redeem the past, but they also do so by defying the reigning law and procreate naturally. As it turns out, their son (Kal-el) is the first natural birth in memory. They consciously want to build the future as Providence erases the past, Krypton imploding then exploding from years of abuse by its current occupants.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the destruction of Krypton and a fanatic, violent attempt to preserve the artificial order of the culture, sets the stage for much of the conflict in the overall plot of the movie. When the would-be tyrant, Zod, attempts a coup and confronts his friend turned enemy, Jor-el (Kal-el’s father), he screams “heresy” when learning that Jor-el and his wife have defied the eugenic rules of their society. He kills Jor-el with the thrust of a concealed blade. Even while being tried and found guilty for his attempted coup, Zod vows to hunt down Kal-el, killing him in the name of revenge, believing such a death might help redeem the “crimes” of the parents. The surviving government sentences Zod and his accomplices to the Phantom Zone, an otherworldly, two-dimensional prison.

Immediately following the exile, Kal-el’s mother comforts a robot servant and Krypton explodes. And, we’re only 19 minutes and 25 seconds into the movie.

The entire middle of the movie centers, non-chronologically, on Kal-el being raised by his adopted parents, Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) in Kansas, his very angst-ridden struggles to discover himself, and Lois Lane’s hunt for him based on too many internet rumors to ignore.

Though every actor does a fine job in the movie, Costner as Pa and Lane as Ma really steal the show. The Kents love their adopted son dearly, but the father especially fears what kind of man his boy will become and what the world will think of him. His mother has faith that Clark will grow up well and do good (and well). Far more skeptical, Pa wants the family to keep to themselves as long as possible, allowing Kal-el to develop and accept his power before presenting them to a distrusting world. In a wonderfully stirring moment, Pa takes charge of an interstate of halted travelers, soon to be hit by a tornado. Saving a number of his fellow travelers, Pa chooses to die in the tornado rather than allow his son to reveal his powers too early in his life.

As Stratford Caldecott mentioned at The Imaginative Conservative this past summer, there exist a number parallels to the Christ story here. Ma makes a wonderful Mary, and Pa is the perfect Joseph. Kal-el, it turns out, has far more in common with Christ than not. Commentators have been noting these parallels since Superman first arrived on the cultural front in 1939, but Man of Steel, as Caldecott and Chris Morrissey have beautifully argued, embraces not just the forms of Christianity but the essence of the faith as well. Charity and faith abound.

Amy Adams, not surprisingly, delivers a gorgeous performance of Lois Lane. Adams has already proven her acting genius in movies as strange and diverse as Enchanted and The Muppet Movie. By no means glamorous in the modern, plastic Hollywood sense, Adams radiates wholesome integrity and true beauty. Sadly, her dialogue at the beginning of Man of Steel is a bit clumsy. Trying to make her tough, Goyer and Nolan make their only misstep in the entire film. They give her course and uncouth words relating to male body parts as she confronts a strong-willed male military officer. I don’t want to dwell on this single flaw too long, but suffice it to say, Goyer and Nolan’s dialogue comes across as an early 1990s apology written by clueless men who try to think what feminists might be thinking. Adams, being a true woman and not an artificial one, can’t deliver the lines with any justice, and I visibly winced in embarrassment while getting through this—thankfully—very short scene. Let’s hope a future director’s cut of the movie does away with this. Adams/Lane has already proven her strength in every one of her actions, and this ridiculous dialogue did nothing to advance the film.

Though Goyer and Nolan get credit for the screen play, much of the film’s story actually comes from a well-known comic book writer, Mark Waid. In particular, Man of Steel borrows from Birthright, a reimagining of the traditional Superman story (thus, making Krypton creepy and fascistic) and from an imagined story of St. John’s Revelation should superheroes and villains actually exist at the time of Apocalypse, Kingdom Come.

Though Man of Steel exists in the same DC universe as Batman Begins, a huge gulf separates the two men. In contrast to Bruce Wayne’s cultured aggression and innate darkness, Kal-el is silent and unsure of himself, but, because of his devoted parents, he is certain about his morals. Wayne’s Gotham City is dark and decaying, while Metropolis is bright and gleaming, and Smallville is Edenic (except for the little kid bullies) and pastoral. While Wayne embraces punctuated violence in the name of justice, Kal-el embraces restraint in the name of love and charity. Wayne is a city kid; Kal-el is a farm boy.

In the larger DC universe, the Kents are Methodist and the Waynes are Catholic (Anglo or Roman—it’s never quite certain); but they are the descendents of Arthur and bearers of the Holy Grail. In Man of Steel, the Kents seem to be Catholic, and at a moment of crisis, Kal-el visits a priest, seeking advice. After claiming to be an alien, the priest stares skeptically. As Kal-el leaves, assuming the priest has no real advice for him, the priest jumps to his feet and offers hope. It’s one of the finest scenes of the movie.

Having grown up in Kansas, and having grown up with Superman (I have a nice collection of comics, dating from 1974 to 2006), I found the depictions of Kansas in the film very telling and important. Kansas serves, properly, in the film as almost all that is good, again with the exception of the childhood bullies who learn to appreciate the “weirdness” of Clark. Sadly, for those of us from Kansas, it’s clear that Smallville wasn’t actually filmed there. I knew from the opening shots that the fields were too lush and too flat to be Kansas. Sure enough, the farm scenes were filmed in Illinois. Still, Costner nails his role as a Stoic Kansas farmer, ready to do his duty but not ready to have his personal life or the personal life of his family known to the world. I grew up with lots and lots of Pa Kents, and I still consider them some of the most dignified men in the world.

A favorite scene for me, redeeming any flaws with filming Kansas in Illinois, arrives at the end of the movie. As a high-ranking American military officer reluctantly confronts Kal-el, asking him if he presents a national security risk, the Man of Steel answers in measured glee. “I grew up in Kansas, General. I’m about as American as it gets.” While all Americans know how proud Texans are to be Texans, few know that Kansans are equally proud of being Kansans. My soul more than cheered a bit at this line.

The Virtues

As with almost everything in the DC universe, the ideas and actions expressed in the movie should resonate deeply with readers of The Imaginative Conservative. Comic book characters are about the last figures in these last years of western civilization willing to practice and embody the virtues openly. The ancients (classical and nordic) had their gods and demigods, the medievals their saints and martyrs. We moderns and post-moderns have our superheroes. After all, the differences between Heimdahl, Ignatius of Loyola, and Kal-el are matters of degree.

The entire movie of Man of Steel honors thy mothers and fathers, prudently accepting the holy traditions of our ancestors while revealing the unholy ones to be, well, unholy. Only through the sacrifices of his two mothers and two fathers, does Kal-el come to embrace his own gifts but use them not for the greater good but for the common good.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Great piece! Loved the movie and may I add that as an Okie, I’m as proud to say I’m from Oklahoma as I am to say that I am an American. In fact, to be honest, during my time in Croatia when locals ask me where I’m from I usually respond with “Oklahoma.” You’re starting to make me want to read comics, Dr. Birzer!

  2. Watching the movie, I thought they got Jonathan Kent wrong. He is too afraid both for and even of Clark. Get Jonathan Kent wrong and you get Clark/Superman wrong. In the scene you mention on the interstate, I was waiting for Clark to help him even at the risk of exposing his abilities. It would have been a great moment of him choosing to take that risk. Smallville got Jonathan Kent right. He wasn’t fearful. His motivation was loving concern.

    Man of Steel was a disappointing remake of Superman II as Superman Returns was of Superman. Let’s hope they don’t remake III and IV!

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