by Rev. Edwin C. Dwyer
I’m rather surprised so many people disliked “Man of Steel” so much. It was as if they were shocked it was an action/adventure, sci-fi, summer blockbuster. That’s what I paid to see, and I saw a great story develop around great action, with even greater themes. I expected not Citizen Kane, but Star Wars (no prequels!), and I got it without the pantheistic problems of “The Force”.
If one does not like the genre “Man of Steel” adopted, I understand, but what I don’t understand is grading the movie on a curve with the likes of A Man for all Seasons. I don’t care for girly romantic movies, so I really didn’t care for Donner’s Superman films (including Singer’s love letter to Donner in Returns). Nevertheless, I recognize that Donner’s two films were mostly good, and magical for anybody who saw them in the theatres. So I write this review to answer the criticisms of Man of Steel in no particular order.
Criticism 1: Too much action.
I addressed that this is largely a genre preference problem, but I did find it overdone the first time I watched it. Fr. Barron, however, shed light on this for me in his negative review. I picked up on the political theory clash right away, but Barron made the connection to how destructive that clash between individualism and totalitarianism has been in history, and how the disregard for human life accompanies it. Upon a second view I found what might have been mind-numbing as a chilling commentary on the human condition.
Criticism 2: Superman allows and executes violence.
Nobody dies from falling glass, debris, or car-crushing bat-mobiles in movies ever, and now we complain about it because it’s Kal-El? Every building Superman flies through on his own is empty, and he also has those neat eye tricks that would inform him of a building’s occupancy. The massive destruction was executed by Zod and friends, and it demonstrated how hell-bent one can be on establishing one’s utopia at any cost. The move was also a bold one by the story-tellers in that ole Supes finally was placed in a situation where decisions were not black and white. Zod made it clear he was going to kill all humans, and Kal-El had to make grave, difficult, and life and death decisions in seconds. Those are real decisions more people you sit next to in the pew have to face regularly. Many of you will have to decide whether to put your loved one’s through painful, extraordinary medical procedures or allow them to die from disease.
Criticism 3: The characters are one-dimensional.
Again genre, but this film handled it well. As the Bard says, “Brevity is the soul of wit”. We had short character interactions that let us in on the qualities we needed to know. Could we have known Ma and Pa Kent better had we seen them away from Clark? Yes, but this was about getting to know Clark through his relationships with them. I also found that when the explosions ended and I put thought into the motivations of each central character, I found complexity. I wonder if as soon as the critics saw Jor-El’s martial artistry they gave up on character complexity.
I present Lois Lane. She gets out of a helicopter in the Artic and stands up to the boys club while mentioning how she won a court case on foreign soil to arrive at the scene; she tenaciously seeks the truth. She goes inside an alien vessel; she’s brave, but maybe foolish. She gets attacked and is saved by Kal-El; she can’t do it all on her own anymore. As she continues to seek the truth about this mystery man, she falls in love with him, a great theme of Christianity.
Criticism 4: The movie exploits Christianity to gain another demographic.
Really? Are we really going to complain that an action/adventure film utilizes Christian elements in a positive way? I used trailer 2 to teach teens how to pick up on Christological symbolism in literature with great success. With the right facilitator this movie can be an apt tool for teaching. Oh, and the story had a solid pro-life message. So what if they know this turns a profit? That means we are influencing the culture again, and getting more than just a squeaky clean Pixar flick every few years. It ain’t EWTN, and maybe that’s a good thing.
Criticism 5: The story is too dark
This smacks of my criticism of contemporary catechesis. We present Our Lord, Our Lady, and our saints without the darkness that surrounded their earthly lives, or, at least, without a good sense of that darkness. Don’t get me wrong, I love artwork that emphasizes their holiness, and their presence in heaven, but, in our story-telling, we often forget how much grit they endured. The Bible is dark, folks; it’s themes, heroes, and promises are not, but it’s honesty about the human condition is dark. The key to the Bible and the film is to see the hope through the darkness. The key to becoming a saint is to capture that hope and let it shine. Sugar-coating the reality of what comes with living a saintly life helps nobody live one. I somehow doubt “steel” referred to Kal-El’s physicality as much as it did to his willpower.
(For the record, I was Escanaba’s Class Optimist in 2001, and am still described as one.)
Criticism 6: Superman represents extreme individualism.
This is Fr. Barron’s critique. I love and respect Fr. Barron as much as any other priest living today. The man is a gift to the American Church, and this was only the second movie review of my former professor’s that I found lacking (Inception, but that’s another post). May God have mercy on me!
Barron reminded us that “Superman” comes from the Nietzchean idea of an evolved human being who would be able to use his advantages to will to power. Barron’s take seemed to be that this story’s Kal-El represented this idea, but I disagree. The movie demonstrates that Jor-El, Pa Kent, and Kal-El all believe that a greater truth/goodness exists outside of themselves. I found this most appropriately symbolized when Clark visits a priest before he makes the decision to turn himself into Zod’s custody to save mankind. (Going back to character development, this scene told me, a priest, that Clark is known at this church fairly well as the priest does not find him to be a nut-case who thinks he’s an alien first. Also, I only ask what a person’s gut tells him if I know him to be a man of good conscience).
Criticism 7: Product placements
Agreed. The second time I saw it, I was looking for a Citgo on Krypton.
It’s summer, and I’m a student-priest now so I will likely see this movie one or two more times in the theatre. The Christological symbolism was obvious for the casual observer to pick up, but I noticed more subtle ones the second time (remember “El” means “God” in Hebrew), and I’m hoping I’ll find more a third time. If not, it’s still 2.5 hours of well-planned adventure that leaves one wanting to be a Christ-like hero.
Final score: 9.5 out of 10
- Loss of .5 for product placements
- Gain of .5 for Christological placement
- Loss of .5 for Jonathan Kent risking and losing his life for a dog (Really? It would have been bad enough if it was a hippie from Berkley saving Fido from a Prius, but this was a Kansas farmer. Farmers don’t risk their lives for animals, ever.)