Fri 21 Jun 2013
Superman: Man of Steel does not have one big villain. It has two.
The first villain is Zod. Everyone has talked about him, but rarely in the context of how he fit into the long introductory sequence on Krypton. Zod was born to his role but still made decisions about how to live his life. He was designed to be a soldier, but he decided to use violence against those he views as wrong. Instead of a following a civilian leadership, he chose to become Zod the dictator.
On Krypton, he is contrasted with Jor-El and the government. The government is so shortsighted that they have doomed the planet. The movie does not explore how it happened and what could have been done to avoid it. Since Kryptonians are born to their roles, no obvious mechanism exists for replacing them with someone more competent. History is full of humanity having to deal with incompetent heirs to the throne. Often enough, getting rid of them has required violence.
This is the path Zod chose, and he failed at it twice. First, he failed to gather enough forces to make his revolution stick. Second, the solution he would have implemented had he succeeded would not have saved the planet or his society. The bloodlines he planned to select would have been weaker than the ones Krypton was already using, because they would have been less diverse. It was the lack of diversity, the lack of randomness, the lack of an ability to harness a broader range of opinions that doomed Krypton in the first place.
This lack was seen clearly by the other rebel fighting the government in order to save his society, Jor-El. Born to study science, he embraced his chosen role and then expanded upon it. He learned the ways of politics in order to work within the system and stand before its highest leaders to have a chance to convince them of a desperate plan to save that society. He learned the ways of combat, and allied himself with Zod in case violence was needed against the government. He used his combat knowledge to make a stand against Zod, when Zod both moved too soon and with a plan that could only leave their society weaker.
Jor-El knew that it the lack of diversity that had doomed the planet. More diversity results in more viewpoints to create and double-check the solutions a society can come up with, giving it a far better balance than a monolithic society has. Willing to extend his convictions on that matter to every aspect of his life, he and his wife gave birth to a child born randomly of their own genetics, an act that scandalized Zod.
In the end, Jor-El’s efforts paid off, giving his son everything he needed to rebuild Kryptonian society. If he choose to, Kal-El could recreate it exactly as it was with everyone born to their role. However, Jor-El also sent to Kal-El to a people much different than his own with other viewpoints, in case simple replication was not the best option.
The action then moves to Earth, where we meet the second villain of the the Man of Steel, the government of the United States of America.
Lois Lane arrived an exploratory dig being run, for reason that are unclear, by the United States government with heavy involvement from its military. She showed up a day early, against their wishes, and only by a legal ruling by a Canadian court, in whose territory the dig is apparently taking place. This Earth that Kal-El was sent to is one where the United States is willing to send its troops onto the the soil of its closest ally and dictate the terms of how the dig will be run. Right from the start, we learn that this is an America where the American Way could probably be interpreted as being enormous assholes.
This is followed up by a Jonathan Kent who lives in paranoia that humanity will discover what his adopted son is. Many have commented on how odd it was that Jonathan felt this strongly on the matter. His emphasis on hiding over the need to do good rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
Next comes Perry White spiking Lois’s story about finding an alien, which flabbergasted some of the audience even more. This is enourmous news, well-sourced news, coming from his most reliable reporter. Why on Earth would he kill the story? As a journalist, his dedication to the truth should lead him to run the story. As the editor, his obligation to the publisher dictates he should break the story for the sales it will generate. The reason he gives in the movie is the same on that Jonathan Kent gives.
A farmer in Kansas and the editor-in-chief of a major metropolitan newspaper give the same reasons. Both believe that a person who has done nothing wrong has something to fear from the society they all live it. How one reacts to a society that out of whack is the central theme of this movie. It is why the movie spent so much time on Krypton with Zod’s and Jor-El’s reactions to what was going on. It is also why the United States government and its armed forces are all over this movie.
From the government being jerks at the dig and Jonathan and Perry’s warning, the movie goes straight to a manifestation of what there is to fear. Zod showed up, demanded the surrender of Kal-El without detailing any of his crimes, and the American government cravenly decided to cover their own asses rather than seek justice. Even more horrifying, when it is revealed on national television that Lois knows Clark’s identity, the government arrives within a few minutes to illegally detain her.
This is an America with a surveillance state so thorough that it can pinpoint the location of one of its citizens within seconds. It is an America so entrenched in power that it can disappear a journalist in broad daylight and not fear the consequences.
Where’s Superman when you need him?
In this case, he was talking to his mother, seeking her point of view. He decides to take her advice and offers the American government his trust. He is not dumb about it and also calls them on their bullshit when they try to get away with things. In the end, however, he gives them a say in how the Earth will deal with Zod, mainly by agreeing to let them turn Superman over to the Kryptonians.
It is during that delivery that we see the first cracks in America’s unrelenting villainy. When Zod demands they turn Lois over to him, the army balks. America illegally detaining its own people is one thing, but apparently handing the same people over to a foreign power is another. It is only Lois’s agreement to go that prevents the scene from devolving into a fight that the army was going to lose badly.
That army reverts when the Kryptonians begin fighting on Earth. They use their weapons equally against Superman as Zod’s crew, stopping only after Superman repeatedly risks himself to save the humans firing upon him.
Zod’s escalation into terraforming Earth forces Superman and the army to work together to make a plan to stop the terraforming and send Zod’s forces back into stasis where they cannot hurt Earth. Again, Superman puts his trust in humanity, leaving the army, the government, and Lois to neutralize his relatives while he saves the Earth. Working together, their plan succeeds, missing only a single hostile Kryptonian.
Unfortunately, the one left behind is the racist, woman-beating, coup-leading, genocidal General Zod. Denied the equipment to wipe out humanity all at once, he decides to attend to it manually, using only his bare hands. Opposing him stands Superman, who can only rely on his own body to try and stop him. Zod is a soldier and better at fighting than Superman. Clark’s only advantage is that he’s been on Earth longer and is more used to his powers. Giving time, Zod would undoubtedly match that advantage. Put in a position of immediate peril to the humanity that he just saved, Superman considered all of that and ended Zod’s life. He was not happy about it.
America’s ending in the movie was not quite as clean. When America insists on spying on him, Superman crushes their spy drone and drops in front the American general he has been dealing with throughout the movie. The encounter that follows is interesting. First he tells the general off, then when the general questions how they can trust him, Superman tells the general that he is from Kansas. The is another bit of writing that has been criticized by the Internet as potentially giving away his secret identity, but given the story told about the American government already in the movie, we can assume it is not an accident. A government that can find Lois in seconds is a government that already used the article she wrote about Clark to figure out who he really is. Indirectly confirming his identity to them lets them know that he trusts them not to abuse that information, if for no other reason than to avoid Zod’s fate. The scene ends with a high ranking officer freely admitting her attraction to Superman, indicating both that shes does not fear the consequences of speaking her mind and that at least some highly placed people in the government do not fear him.
The status quo for this incarnation of Superman at the end of the movie is an interesting one. Like his father Jor-El, he is willing to work with the society around him and oppose it when necessary. In this, he has much in common with his original incarnation who was much more likely to beat up a person in power than work with them. It is also publicly known that he has a secret identity, which has not often been the case in his stories in the last few decades. Considering the American society around him, it serves him primarily to remind humanity that there are good, honest reasons for the world not to be privy to every detail of your life.
He may not be the Superman many of his fans wanted to get, but in an America that spies relentlessly on its citizens and the world, imprisons people for decades without a trial, and arrest or exiles its whistleblowers, he is a Superman I am happy to see.