ISLAMABAD / LAHORE / KARACHI: Three Superman fans, from Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, assess the rebirth of the first
Kneel before Zod
By Vaqas Asghar in Islamabad
A man who descended from the heavens to save humanity. A man of immaculate birth, haunted by a father of otherworldly origins, conflicted by his task, no destiny, to protect the entire human race, even if it means dying for their sins. Sound familiar?
The religious undertones in the new Superman movie Man of Steel are almost impossible to ignore. Superman, whether in comic book form, animation or live action, has always been a superhero whose ethical code set him apart from your average earth-born hero. Most significantly, he never killed and went to great lengths to protect non-combatants. The iconic Superman who forgave every terrestrial foe over whom he felt he had an unfair advantage is not clearly shown in this movie, but perhaps that is because General Zod and his supporters are fellow Kryptonians, and thus his equals.
However, the Zack Snyder movie does establish Superman’s ‘chosen’ origins in multiple scenes, the focus being on internal conflict over identity and the eternal existential question, ‘Why am I here?’ In fact in what is possibly the best scene, the man born Kal-El, the son of Lara and Jor-El, chooses to instead identify with an identity in which he is Clark, son of Martha and Jonathan Kent. By choosing this ‘terrestrial’ identity, he hopes to be accepted by the imperfect people his father has chosen for him to live among and protect. This scene portrays the inner conflict of a man who is slowly beginning to understand how to cope with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The identity conflict also plays out in the best non-CGI battle in the entire movie: the battle between Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner over the title of “Best Father-figure for a Man-god”.
Costner and Crowe are the most influential characters in the movie outside of the principal trio of Superman, Zod, and the super love interest, Lois Lane. Although they share no scenes, since one is technically dead by the time the other is introduced, the efforts of both men to help the gifted child realise his potential as the saviour of a race are among the acting highlights of the movie.
Then there is Diane Lane as Martha Kent. Superman’s adopted mother is the most important female character in the movie. As the mother of a child who has lost two fathers, she serves as a constant reminder of why good must conquer evil, and why, to quote Jor-El, Superman must always continue to “test his limits”.
By humanising Zod’s desire to bring Krypton back to life, the general is shown to have motivations that a human being can ‘appreciate’ for its ends, if not the brutal means. At the same time, Zod’s remorse for some of his actions early in the movie show him to be less of a megalomaniac as with Terrence Stamp’s version in Superman II, and more of a battle-hardened Kryptonian soldier to whom victory and Kryptonian life are of supreme importance.
As for Cavill’s Superman, the character is well played and conveys an emotional fragility that was somewhat lacking in previous movies. This is especially apparent during his constant quest for an identity. One off-point though, was that much like the first Iron Man, Superman gives up his secret identity far too soon, although it is only to one journalist in private instead of during a whole press conference full of them ala Tony Stark.
Cavill does justice to earth’s most-beloved extraterrestrial (sorry ET) without besmirching Christopher Reeve’s iconic performances. Clark Kent comes across as a believable young man who is different in a way that only he can know, and is an outcast for being different, recalling the theme of xenophobia most evident in comics such as X-Men, which heavily relied on the same theme in the original movie trilogy and the prequel. As Superman, he becomes a god-like figure who initially questions his powers, at one point quoting his father as saying the world would reject him out of fear if they found out who he really was. However, another exchange with the older Kent led to the ‘birth’ of a hero, with Jonathan telling his son, “You just have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be Clark. Whoever that man is, he’s going to change the world.” And change the world he does. Ironically, by stopping Zod from changing it.
Full credit to the child actors playing a young Superman. Their performances as the younger Clark Kent, especially during scenes with Costner, seemed to effortlessly flow from the screen. They created a genuinely touching father-son bond.
The movie’s reliance on superhero action often means that the other supporting actors, most notably Laurence Fishburne, are under-utilised. Fishburne, in fact, has only one real scene in the movie, which in his defence was very well done.
But it was Christopher Meloni’s one-line ‘welcome to earth, you are our friend’ speech that will stand out among the performances by characters who are not, or will not in future, become a part of Superman’s immediate family. Comic book fans know where this is going.
All in all, the production values of the film were appreciable. Most of Superman’s powers require effects to be made believable, so there can be no critique on the relative lack of CGI-free action sequences. Who wants to see a guy who can fly and shoot ‘laser beams’ out of his eyes getting into a high speed car chase?
However, Nolan and Snyder’s attempt to balance action with plot development does not entirely succeed, with many established Superman themes shuffled around. This is partially because the film is meant to set up an Avengers-esque sequel featuring DC Comics heroes such as Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, and of course, the last son of Krypton. To establish the fact that this movie is in the same universe as Batman, there is at least one reference to Wayne Enterprises late in the movie.
One failing in the movie is its inability to truly persuade the viewer to sympathise with the protagonist during action sequences. Batman and Iron Man are ordinary human beings with deep personal flaws (alcoholic and hermit, respectively) who rise to extraordinary challenges, even superhuman ones, while Superman is a chivalrous, Herculean figure who meets and defeats his equals. The absence of a certain humanising Achilles Heel in the movie may have influenced this as well. Anyone remember the green glowing rocks from the comics?
At the same time, the movie lacked the humour that is typical of superhero flicks, perhaps because most of the characters are not associated with comic relief. This will probably be corrected once Lex Luthor and Jimmy Olson are introduced in future movies, although super-villains Darkseid and Doomsday could force that hypothesis to fail.
Overall though, the movie is definitely worth watching and would be money well spent, even if it did not live up to the expectations attached with a Nolan superhero movie. That is the ‘price’ Nolan must pay for making the epic Dark Knight series.
After more than 70 years in print and almost 40 on film, Superman has finally figured out how to wear his trousers over his underpants.
And that can only be a good thing.
The Steel Knight also rises
By Uzair Amir in Lahore
Every superhero has a foundation, a myth, that one ideal or principle that defines who they are, and more importantly the reasons for that particular belief. Christopher Nolan explored that in depth when he started work on Batman Begins, the first movie from the very successful Batman trilogy. The same approach was taken for Man of Steel, a reboot of the Superman film series. However, sadly this task was entrusted to Zack Snyder, who only managed to deliver a noisy, excessively action-packed, and mind-numbing movie experience.
The world is not what it once was, all of existence is on red alert and the Clark Kent of the movies is not the Clark Kent you remember from the comics. This pretty much sums up the whole movie. Russell Crowe does a horrible job of portraying Jor-El and Lois Lane and Clark Kent — one of the most iconic couples in the comic world — are hardly given any attention. It seems that the only thing the movie got right was that Superman managed to wear his underwear on the inside for once.
We’re told about the history of Krypton, one that took too long to tell, and its over-reaching inhabitants who brought about their own destruction. We see the conflict between General Zod and Jor-El. Then we are hit with that magic moment, the one when it all began, when the messianic future-titan baby to be known as Clark Kent is dispatched to Earth.
The film is an overdose of repetitive mind-numbing action, all thrown together haphazardly in the 143 minutes that can only be described as more special effects than perhaps all the previous Marvel movies put together. And the worst part is that it is hopelessly and transparently dark and humorless. Batman was able to pull off being dark because well, he’s Batman. He represents the darkness and lives in the shadows.
Superman on the other hand gets his powers from the sun and represents all that is good in this world, ironically in a package that is anything but earthly. But the makers of Man of Steel tried to play to the trend of making movie heroes darker than they actually are. Unfortunately for them, a hero that has come to represent ‘the light’ can be anything but dark and gloomy. In order to further the character in such a light they even pitted the United States army against Superman. There’s no Lex Luthor, no Kryptonite, no glasses, no mild-mannered reporter, very little Daily Planet, and even less Metropolis. Henry Cavill, who spends most of his time posing rather than acting, is alternately presented as an alien messiah, a superweapon and an American flag flapping in the wind. As a result, Man of Steel sometimes feels like artsy advertising, which explains why the movie fails to inspire any human emotion. Through it all, director Snyder has made a series of odd choices that weigh down the entire movie. One is his insistence on making this a science fiction film, rather than a superhero film with science fiction elements.
What could have been a powerful, beautifully crafted story sometimes feels like an odd mix of Star Trek and The Avengers. Add to that the story’s focus on spaceships and technology over character building and the result is a movie that never really feels like a true Superman movie. There are some glimpses of what the movie could have been but it really never comes close to capturing the heart and idealism that Superman stands for.
A rough guide to the man in the red underpants
By Ameer Hamza in Karachi
There has always been an inherent problem with the Superman franchise; Supes is a veritable Swiss-army knife of super powers and it’s hard to relate to him. In contrast, however, take the terribly ‘human’ example of Batman, who can win every fight, solve every problem, and is generally awesome all while carrying the burden of his limitations. In Batman’s case, you don’t need contaminated rocks from a dead planet in another galaxy to hurt him; you just need a gun to bring him down. He’s a superhero but he’s someone we can relate to.
In the case of Superman, however, the Kryptonian from Kansas can do everything – he’s faster than a speeding bullet. But all of this makes him superhuman. It’s hard to feel as if you can relate to him because he doesn’t have to struggle. So, how do you ‘humanise’ a superhero? You give him an alter ego. In this case it’s Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet who fights an unending battle for truth, justice and the American way. Superman’s civilian identity as Clark Kent put extra limits on him.
In the latest cinematic adaptation of the Superman comics, Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, however, this equation is dropped altogether. Superman/Kal-El spends most of his time as a drifter, searching for his true purpose in life and as a result emerges as little more than a wallflower.
The film begins with a detailed history of planet Krypton and how its inhabitants brought about their own destruction. Twenty thousand years earlier, the Kryptonians had begun exploring the Milky Way Galaxy but they soon abandoned it in favour of genetic cultivation. In essence, they stopped looking for planets to house their expanding race and opted for a one-child policy. They carelessly mined their planet’s core and destroyed it. Superdad and Supermom (Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van) jettison Superman (Kal-El) off the planet to protect him from the immanent destruction. They send an important Kryptonian artefact with him as a result of which, the villain, General Zod, vows to hunt him down.
Supes lands on Earth, is adopted by the Kents and develops powers on Earth because of our weak gravity and awesome sun. Instead of going to work immediately, Kent waits 33 years before donning the suit. He does save a few people here and there but only if they are on the same route as his daily commute. When Kal-El does go to work, he is embroiled in a battle with General Zod. The fight scenes are glorious but extremely destructive. Man of Steel is a great exhibition of Superman’s sheer power but it fails to bring depth to his character. He maybe the new Superman but he is not our Superman.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 30th, 2013.