Sometimes, there’s just too damn much to say about a movie than can fit into any one review. (Even Stephanie Zacharek’s exhaustive, excellent one.) So, here’s more: Stephanie Zacharek, our lead film critic, and Film Editor Alan Scherstuhl hashing over all the portentous craziness in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel
Warning: This discussion is thick with spoilers. It’s nothing but spoilers. In fact, we might spoil books four and five of Game of Thrones, too, so consider yourself well and truly warned.
To: Stephanie Zacharek
From: Alan Scherstuhl
Stephanie, is it too much to ask for these movies to mean something?
So, in his 33rd year, Kal-El, son of Jor-El, reveals himself to the great mass of humanity he had been sent by his father to save. Or something like that. Between Henry Cavill’s scraggly beard and this Superman’s habit of stretching out his arms like he’s either on the cross or about to take a Nestea Plunge, Man of Steel has more Christ imagery than a Vacation Bible School feltboard.
Just before letting mankind imprison him, Superman asks a priest for advice—while standing beneath a stained-glass window depicting Jesus in prayer at Gethsemane. He harrows a hellish place in the Earth’s core. And that 33-years-old thing really confounds me. Yes, this Superman is a bit of a late bloomer, preferring to be an itinerant man’s man in the Paul Bunyan mold, but the idea that he’s north of 30 before donning his red-and-blues strikes me as misguided as the idea that Batman takes all those years off before The Dark Knight Rises and then cries in a hole for half the movie. It’s a bold, big-idea take on the character that, onscreen, is much less fun than just watching the character have an adventure.
And the big ideas, as you point out in your review, are hopelessly vague: So, Superman is kind of like Jesus—so what? It’s not as if the film makes anything of this connection, or has him sacrifice himself in any meaningful way. In fact, if Superman were like Jesus, that wouldn’t be too much of a compliment to Jesus: The cosmic forces that Superman defeats in Man of Steel only threaten humanity—and kill tens of thousands of us—because Superman happens to be hanging out here in the first place. That’s a logical—and theological—hash.
All those buildings that get destroyed in Metropolis with the force of several dozen 9/11s? That’s all the direct consequence of the hero’s existence. Something’s off.
To: Alan Scherstuhl
From: Stephanie Zacharek
I think it’s okay to want these movies to mean something. But they need to mean something meaningful. And pasting a Jesus metaphor on Superman just isn’t going to cut it. First off, the idea of self-sacrifice for the good of mankind is at the heart of superhero movies to begin with. If you want the comparisons to be there in Superman, they’re so obvious an eighth-grader could write a pretty dutiful, if dull, term paper on them: An otherworldly guy sends his only son down to Earth to do good for mankind, and although the son is benevolent and powerful, he has some very human weaknesses. Yadda yadda.
I had to keep myself from snorting when I heard that reference in the movie—as direct as a church pew carved out of good, aged oak—to Superman’s 33 years on this Earth. In Man of Steel, Clark/Superman’s suffering is presented as this really austere, existential thing. I actually like religious overtones in my comic-book movies, but only when they’re really crazy. I love, for instance, the vibe of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy movies; those pictures are like intense, nutty Catholic art, the Italian stuff where you have Jesus pointing to his heart spurting blood, with this expression on his face that says, “Look at all I have done for you!” Even the sets are grand, like cathedrals with lots of gold leaf. The Jesus stuff in Man of Steel is just so dour and serious and dumb. Where’s the pageantry? Where’s the religio-glamor?
And as lovely and deeply human as parts of Man of Steel are, I do blanch at the careless destruction of Metropolis. A critic friend and I were discussing this, and he said that if Man of Steel were really true to the spirit of the superhero, Superman and Zod would have taken their battle elsewhere, instead of knocking windows out of buildings, seemingly not caring about how many innocent citizens might get killed or hurt in their schoolyard brawl. That, to me, seems like a Christopher Nolanism—this idea that a superhero movie needs to be about something Big and Dark, and the best way to convey that is to suggest, but not show outright, injury and death among the general populace. It’s a cheap way of raising the stakes. It’s a way of signaling to people, “Hey, this superhero stuff is really deep and significant.” Without actually making it deep and significant.