Man of Steel, Urban Destruction, and Zach Snyder’s Homeric Filmmaking
by Henry Gorman
Man of Steel has a magnificent superhero film pedigree. Its story springs from the mind of Christopher Nolan. Its script flows from the pen of David S. Goyer, who helped Nolan write The Dark Knight. Zach Snyder, whose Watchmen and 300 won the acclaim of the viewing public and Hollywood’s younger and bolder critics, directs. This film should have been a marvel.
A trip to Rotten Tomatoes suggests otherwise. Man of Steel hovers around 55%, well below forgettable-but-shiny fluff like Star Trek: Into Darkness, blowing-its-chances-to-be-bold-and-meaningful Iron Man 3, and Christopher Nolan’s adventurously literary yet deeply flawed The Dark Knight Rises. The critics who do sing its praises issue them quietly, or with qualifications. This film failed.
I lay the blame at Goyer’s feet. Nolan’s story is long, complex, and exposition-heavy, as all of his stories are. When Nolan writes the script himself, this density is not a problem. He balances complexity with compassion for his audience. Consider the long expository sequence in Inception where Dom Cobb shows Ariadne, and thus, you, how the Extractors’ dreams-within-dreams process works. Nolan shows us each step so that we can understand exactly what’s going on, and steadily builds our understanding of the characters and the relationships between them, so that we can care about it. Man of Steel‘s prologue fails at these tasks. A group of characters and an entire world is thrown at us in minutes. They immediately rush into action that we neither comprehend nor care about.
The prologue is characteristic of the script as a whole. Remember how The Dark Knight used Alfred’s “Some men just want to watch the world burn” speech and the Joker’s multiple-choice “Want to know how I got these scars?” monologues to clarify and underscore the film’s key thematic points? This script only has sketchy moments where characters like Russel Crowe’s Jor-El flatly state the issues the film is supposed to exploring. Nothing in the dialogue communicates them effectively.
Thus, it was up to Zach Snyder to make the movie’s themes function. He wasn’t entirely successful, but the gap between the weakness of the material he had to work with and the ultimate quality of the film shows that the man who gave us 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch (the last of which I actually consider a masterpiece) is a highly thoughtful and capable filmmaker.
One of the themes the script obviously tried to highlight, albeit ineffectively, was Superman’s human/Kryptonian dual nature. The Kryptonians’ advanced technology and solar superpowers make them like gods to us. Since this is a Superman film, the script calls attention to this through some rather on-the-nose Christ parallels. In one almost laughably on-the-nose scene, Clark talks to a priest about whether or not he should go and face Zod and the other Kryptonians right in front of a stained-glass window of Jesus praying in Gethsamane. This imagery is trite and its power is limited and Zach Snyder knows this. So he reaches for another register for talking about divinity and humanity. I’ll call it Homeric.
The ancient Greeks conceived their Gods as distant, incomprehensible, capricious, and frequently cruel. Zeus and Apollo rape everything in sight, Hera and Artemis transform Zeus’s rape victims into cattle and bears, Dionysus fills men and women with joy and then drives them to rip one another to shreds. Even typically helpful deities like Athena and Hermes have their moments of capricious cruelty. In the Iliad, Athena spurs a Trojan archer to shoot Menelaus while he tries to negotiate peace just so that she can see Troy burn.
Snyder makes the film’s Kryptonians gods of this sort. He recognizes the sense of coldness and audience alienation that will come with the film’s dreary expository moments and uses it to distance us from these terrible deities. Even Superman’s benevolent father Jor-El is distant and difficult to engage with. The piece’s villains, General Zod and his supporters are the very worst sort of Homeric god. They are eager to tear apart the Earth and render it unfit for human habitation in order to simply make their lives more convenient. Their emotions are beyond ours as well. Faora’s cold arrogance and General Zod’s enraged intensity (he is intense indeed– nobody does crazy eyes like Michael Shannon) make them feel incomprehensible, unapproachable. And so, like the Greek gods, they bear a human shape but remain alien, frightening, and completely beyond us. Snyder plays this up by surrounding the Kryptonians with alien-feeling design, cold gray colors, and a pronounced lack of intimacy. Their scenes are frenetically paced, offering little room for reflection or subtler expressions of emotion. They have a cold beauty which impresses us even as it pushes us away.
By contrast, Clark’s human parents, the Kents, are played with warmth and intensity. Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent has a wonderful combination of kindness and gravitas. And Snyder directs the scenes of Clark’s boyhood with an almost Terrence Malick-like hand. These sequences’ many long, low-angled shots which give us a child’s perspective of his parents’ love. Snyder gives human faces and human emotion time to shine through. These scenes are as beautiful as the tableaus of Krypton, but their beauty is warm and pulls us closer, like a father’s kind embrace.
Zach Snyder must apply the human/Kryptonian dichotomy he has made to Superman himself. And again, he borrows from ancient Greece. Homer’s Iliad centers around Achilles, another man who is part human, part divine. When Hector, the great champion of Troy, slays Patroclus, Achilles’s best friend/boyfriend, Achilles becomes like a god in both strength and in terrifying indifference to human life. He kills without ceasing until his sword takes Hector. Then, he ties his fallen foe’s corpse to his chariot and drags him around the walls of Troy. Achilles only returns to being a mortal man when Hector’s father Priam comes to beg for his son’s body, and brings Achilles first to empathy, then to tears.
Zach Snyder nobly strives for this effect in the final battle between Superman and General Zod. Zod begins the battle by proclaiming that since Superman has thwarted his plan, his heart is filled with nothing but rage. Making the craziest eyes that he has yet in this film, he proclaims that all he has left is to kill all of the humans that Superman so loves. Zod is a wrathful and callous and distant god in the Olympian and Homeric modes.
Superman rushes to face him. Their battle is wondrous. These flying men could pulverize mountains with their fists. They fly into space, attack each other with a satellite, and level city blocks. Superman too becomes like a Homeric god. He hurls Zod through buildings with no visible concern for the casualties he will cause. Man of Steel‘s urban destruction feels particularly visceral. Snyder knows that his audience knows what tumbling sky-scrapers look like. This film doesn’t just acknowledge 9/11, it actively incorporates its imagery. The buildings falling after an impact, the huge clouds of smoke and dust, the screaming people trapped in the rubble are all there. Superman participates without much thought in a hundredfold repetition of his country’s most painful tragedy. Thus, he becomes startling terrifying and alien to us.
But then the two gods hurtle through the roof of a train station, and suddenly, the film personalizes all of the death that it had shown us. Zod seeks to turn his heat vision on a family cowering in terror. For the first time, Superman empathizes with the humans around him again, and reacts with horror. His feelings give him the strength to finally stop his foe forever. The moment is Homeric, and, for a few moments, the film feels right.
Alas, Snyder’s heroic filmmaking efforts are not enough to save Man of Steel from the mediocrity of its script. As readers of the Iliad, we can become invested in Homer’s Achilles. We can weep with him for the death of Patroclus. We can weep with him when he weeps with Priam. But this film’s Superman cannot give us any such emotional connection. So we must rail against David S. Goyer, for creating so impoverished a script, and Christopher Nolan for letting him do it.