Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)
In Man of Steel, Snyder exploits carnage for spectacle. In the many sequences wherein towns and cities are destroyed, Snyder stages the destruction in a way that humanity, normally driven to safety by its survivalist tendencies, stay behind to indulge in the terror. Buildings fall apart, and workers hypnotically gaze from their offices. A tornado wreaks havoc in an entangled highway forcing vehicles to spiral up in the air, and the survivors stare in dazed horror. This philosophy is so conveniently attuned to the needs of Hollywood, especially with its maniacal obsession during summer to entertain through its many depictions of various scales of destruction, that Snyder’s stylized obliteration of almost everything seems commonplace, even redundant.
However, there is something uncanny about Snyder’s visual savagery. From the perspective of a Superman story that is so rooted in the heartland of America, the near-endless string of edifices and structures bowing down to invasion bears an immense sense of dread. That everything that happens between the film’s fiery bookends is so devoid of joy that every attempt to crack a joke dissipates and is ultimately forgotten is just the kind of adroit seriousness a superhero movie needs to give its many scenes of purposeful havoc some semblance of weight.
The quieter moments of Man of Steel, the ones shown in the film’s many lengthy flashbacks, proposes a heart that is unlike any of its ilk. Where recent incarnations of superheroes insist on backstories that rely on drama, like a violent death in the family or an aberration, Man of Steel has a young Clark Kent living a very palpable American existence, aside of course the frequent displays of superhuman strength. Raised by Kansas farmers, presumably Christian in the same way most rural Americans are, he is molded to possess a simpleminded morality that will serve as foundations of his decisions as an adult superhero.
Similarly, his motivations are fashioned by the same prejudices and fears that consume the heartland. Its mostly white, mostly Christian demographic, induces its residents to be less tolerant of strangers, of anybody who might disrupt the comforts of tradition. His father's guiding words, the ones that urged him to live in anonymity for fear of being persecuted, acknowledge the very nature of middle America, one that is fearful of its capacity for intolerance. Of course, the film’s more apparent and conventional storyline, of General Zod and his dreams of populating Earth with Kryptonians and committing genocide while at it, reflects in a louder and more confrontational manner those themes on morality and tolerance.
In a way, Snyder’s Superman seems to represent the America none of these recent superhero movies even dare to represent. He personifies the traits and weaknesses of the common American, the ones oblivious to the wealth only a certain percentile of the population possesses, the ones whose ambitions are limited to the corners of their birth town. Even this Superman’s quiet charm, his inability to verbalize his actions, his reliance on memory, even that extended discomfort with his love interest, mirrors the modesty associated with America’s heartland. In the midst of all the responsibility that is suddenly placed upon his shoulder and the succeeding threat to the world, there is just an undeniable charisma in his popular struggle.