The Curmudgeon


Saturday, March 26, 2016

Man of Steel

Zack Snyder 2013

I never thought I would see the day when a tragic warrior for truth, justice and the American way would gain my sympathy; but Man of Steel managed it, despite the po-faced pomposity bequeathed by its producer, Christopher Nolan, and the zoom-ridden ugliness of style which, in the aesthetic of its pubescent director, apparently passes for the sort of gritty realism appropriate to a superhero comic-book.

On a distant planet, a megalomaniac villain tries to sabotage the rational eugenic system which prevents overpopulation and keeps society stable. Driven by overweening self-righteousess and personal ambition, he produces the first "natural-born" child for generations. (The unfortunate glitch in the breeding system which allowed this pathological personality to surface is one of the film's numerous irritating plot-holes.) Aware that his species' exploitation of the environment has placed the planet irrevocably on the path to destruction, the villain ships his child off to a different planet, where the dominant species' exploitation of the environment has placed it irrevocably on the path to ecological catastrophe. Before launching the capsule, the villain attempts to preserve for eternity his species' flawed biological code, imprinting it in his son's cellular structure by shining a light on his navel.

The son arrives on the primitive planet and, over thirty-odd years, gradually accustoms himself to the rather stupid and unpleasant inhabitants, whose redeeming features include no-nonsense military men who fly aeroplanes on suicide missions; a preponderance of black males in positions of authority; and females who think that chiselled features and godlike powers make a guy kinda hot.

Into this distasteful situation comes the hero. He is a figure from a tragic Western: a patriotic leader who wishes nothing more than to see his people preserved and his lost homeland resurrected and, when among equals, is perfectly truthful about his plans. He even admits the cruelty and pain inherent in such plans, which is more than the film does when depicting the human cost of the faintly ludicrous and wildly over-edited punch-up at the end. At the start of the film, the hero had attempted to join forces with the villain in an effort to save their world from its ossified rulers; but the villain's addiction to randomness, so reminiscent of Heath Ledger's Joker, caused him to betray their friendship and sentenced the hero and his followers to years of imprisonment; from which the hero eventually emerged with a thirst for justice and a barely justifiable beard.

The hero launches a technological revolution to advance the primitive world to the level of his own, treating the Earth (viz. the United States) much as an earlier band of pioneers from an advanced civilisation treated the quarrelsome native Americans. His quest is assisted by a feisty warrior maiden with a charming accent, who breaks with the tradition of superhero molls by doing a bit more than falling out of things, being rescued and simpering. Fighting against literally insuperable odds, the hero and his people are defeated and tragically wiped out by the suicidal fanaticism of the American military, abetted by the villain's son, who has absorbed his confused moral code from the kind of Kansas farmer who braves tornadoes to save the family dog while imparting a moral lesson.

The film's satori line (the obligatory maxim which is delivered cynically early on and then virtuously recontextualised at the climax) is not, as I thought it would be, "evolution always wins", but "a good death is its own reward." Man of Steel ends on a note of grim irony, with the primitive planet's new deity negotiating an uneasy peace with the heavily-armed representatives of several billion adopted family dogs. As symbolised by the alien sigil on his costume, this is the defeat of truth, justice and the American way, and the triumph of hope: tail-wagging emotion over human principle. Evolution does not always win.


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