Sunday, June 30, 2013

What I Think About When I Think About Superman (Overthinking Stuff)

Everyone you know is busily reviewing "The Man Of Steel," and this is not that. I'm not going to review the movie, per se, other than to say that in a quick rundown of greatest superhero movies, it ranks about here:

1. The Dark Knight.
1A: The Watchmen.
2. The Avengers
3. Iron Man
4. Captain America
5. The Dark Knight Risess/ The Man Of Steel

I shoehorned in The Watchmen after remembering that was, after all, a superhero movie.

What struck me the most about "The Man Of Steel," though, and why this isn't a review so much as a rambling discourse, was how little it mattered whether the movie was good or bad, really, and how much, during the movie, I was able to both focus on the movie and at the same time be distracted by a whole host of other things.  That's the first time I've ever watched a movie which had my brain working on 2, maybe 3 parallel tracks at a time: one track appreciating what was, after all, a pretty good movie, while another track thought about Superman and the history of Superman movies the final track thought stuff like "No, that seems wrong, what's up with this?"

Ordinarily, I am either watching a movie and undistracted by things not the movie, a la The Dark Knight, or I am completely distracted by the outside world or flaws in the movie and so I don't enjoy the movie at all (a la The Godfather.)

So in one sense, The Man Of Steel worked on a level that usually only books work on for me: it occupied my mind and made me think even as I was being entertained, which is a victory for a movie: movies are one-dimensional, really, when it comes to entertaining: the more dimensions entertainment adds in real life, the fewer that entertainment occupies in your mind.  Music and books are one-dimensional, really: they occupy little space in the 'real world,' being just notes in your ears or words on a page: they occupy typically only one, maybe two of your senses (if you are focusing on holding the book, for example.)

Television and movies amp that up, bringing both sound and vision and moving them around a lot more, swirling things up.  That, at least for me, frees my mind from doing work, so instead of my mind sculpting away at images or thoughts -- I do some of my best thinking while listening to music -- it just sits there, passively receiving things.  Watching a movie versus reading a book is, for me, the difference between looking at a picture of Starry Night by Van Gogh and trying to recreate that picture using sidewalk chalk on your driveway (which is something I tried to do recently, by the way.)

So to say that The Man Of Steel both cast its images on the blank screen of my mind and made me think about them as it told its story is actually very complimentary to the movie.  It allowed my mind to have a little director's commentary going in the background, and to think these things, in no particular order other than that the biggest one, I think, ought to go first and there was clearly one biggest one, which was:



Superman does not kill people.

Especially if he's Jesus. (More on that later.)

Let's just get that out of the way: Superman doesn't kill.

I know that no superhero, except maybe Batman, is supposed to go around killing people; I had a whole debate with author PT Dilloway about his idea that superheroes ought to just execute supervillains, without a trial or anything, and I'm going to try not to get bogged down in the real-world mundanity of how superheroes would actually work in our justice system (i.e., they wouldn't because you'd have to reveal your secret identity to testify, plus have you ever walked through your local courthouse and noticed there are on many days roughly 1 zillion police officers standing around? They are not there for security.  They are there to testify.  Replace those policemen with Hawkman, Robin, the Wonder Twins, and more, and you'll get an idea how crazy the courthouse is, not to mention the fact that it would be an insanely great plan to have a bunch of superheroes show up to testify at preliminary hearings on Monday morning and then nuke the courthouse.)

Superman does not kill people.  That was the one thing that I always thought -- maybe was told? -- really set Superman apart from all other heroes, even the ones who thought they wouldn't kill people.  Superman is, as has often been remarked, a sort of super Boy Scout: truth, honor, justice, the American (now the whole world, thank you very much UN!) way, etc., and so on and so forth.  And key among that was that Superman, above all the others, wouldn't do all those things that other superheroes might do.  Batman would drop a guy from a balcony to get him to talk.  Wonder Woman would hypnotize them with her boobs magic lasso to get information.  Spider-Man would... I don't know, let a robber go and have Uncle Ben die.  All other superheroes had failings, is the point, and many of them seemed like moral shortcomings, the kind of moral shortcomings that made them three-dimensional characters and kept them fighting as superheroes for one reason or another, except for maybe Hal Jordan, as I was never clear on what made a hotshot fighter pilot who was kind of a waste, I took it, suddenly decide to just go and protect 1/360th of the galaxy. (Or was it the universe? Did anyone ever stop to consider that as the arc of the sector expanded from OA, it would be IMPOSSIBLE, in an infinite universe, to protect even 1/360th of it?



I don't actually know where I get the information from, that Superman doesn't kill people, but I know that -- know that -- like I know my own genetic code, which is to say I don't know it at all but it shapes me, and my information about Superman was shaped by the fact that he doesn't kill.  Even as I'm writing this, you can see me struggling with this idea, that Superman, above all, doesn't kill, even though other superheroes do not kill, either, so to speak.

I guess it's that if there's one defining thing about Superman, it's that he's so good: Above the invulnerability, above the weird powers (at least in this movie there was no supercold breath), above the handsomeness (and man that Henry Cavill is a good-looking guy, isn't he?),



above all that it seemed as though Superman always stood for the pinnacle of human behavior, and so if he didn't stand for not killing people, then who did?

So when it came to the [I'M NOT GOING TO DO A SPOILER ALERT! BECAUSE HONESTLY IF YOU'VE READ THIS FAR HAVEN'T YOU FIGURED OUT WHAT'S HAPPENED ALREADY?] point where Superman is holding Zod in a half-nelson and Zod's plan is to force Superman to either kill him or let those people die -- and was that the plan? Let me digress there:

Was THAT the plan?

Zod's plan was "I'll force you to kill me, Superman, by threatening these innocent people in this corner"?

Let's forget for a moment that Zod and Superman had just probably killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people, directly, by crashing through and into buildings that collapsed, not even counting the fighter pilots whose planes crashed and all that.  Let's also forget that Superman had deliberately let his own (adoptive, as if that matters) father die to preserve his secret identity, and so clearly is not above letting people die if it serves his own ends.  Let's just focus on that plan because:

How did Zod know Superman would be reluctant to kill him?

Was that in the movie? Was there something I missed? Superman obviously didn't stand up for all life, did he?

Anyway: that was the plan, and Superman was left with no choice but to snap Zod's neck, because...why? Because he couldn't throw Zod to the ground and pummel him? All he had to do was drop him, and the heat vision would miss and Zod would then be able to fight again.  Granted, that keeps the fight going, but it spares those people.  Or Superman puts his own (mostly invulnerable) hand in front of the heat vision long enough to stop it and let the people go free.

(SIDEBAR: How do two people who are invulnerable [if they are] hurt each other? Simple: even invulnerable things might find something harder or be worn down.  Diamonds can cut diamonds not because they're both diamonds but because, well, because diamonds can be cut by things that aren't even diamonds. Diamonds can be cut depending on the way you cut them and how hard they are and how you cut them.  So if Zod and Superman were truly invulnerable, they can't be hurt, at all, as that invulnerability would extend to Zod's spine, which couldn't be broken.  But if they were just, say, a 200 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness (diamonds are 10s, generally), then they would be extremely hard to hurt, but not impossible.)

The point is, I guess, there was no need, really, for that moment in the film to arrive: There was no real preamble (that I recall, anyway) setting up that Superman did not kill, and most of Pa Kent's training -- "let the kids on the bus die, Clark!" -- seemed to indicate otherwise, that Superman would let people die if it served a greater good (as judged solely by him, which is (or ought to be) contrary to his other ideals).  There was no indication that Zod needed to force Superman to kill him, and the moment weakened Zod's character, anyway: this man that had been created solely to protect Kryptonians, having found himself with exactly two Kryptonians left in the Universe, decides that he must die?

Why?

Remember that not only should Zod now be protecting Kal El, but also Kal El contains the coding for every single Kryptonian, right in his genetic code.  Maybe the science of Krypton is mostly gone, but they've got access to some pretty sharp scientists here on Earth, don't they?

(Nothing about Zod's motivations rings true if you think it through: He is going to mold Earth to be a new Krypton, killing off Earthlings? Why? He realized by then that the Earth's atmosphere and yellow sun made Kryptonians superheroes on Earth, and that putting a Kryptonian into Krypton's soupy atmosphere, even under yellow sun, took that away-- that's why Kal El needed the air to be terraformed on the ship before he could break his bonds -- so if he REALLY wanted to win, why not just birth a bunch of superKryptonians and enslave the humans?  Zod's plan was simply to create a new Krypton, on the skulls (literally) of humans, which makes Zod an idiot.  A genocidal one, but an idiot.)

So Zod decides that the living embodiment of Krypton -- a walking Codex of genetic information -- is going to have to kill him because Zod has no purpose in life anymore, having failed in his mission to protect all of Krypton?

I guess this is an argument for why eugenics and genetic selection is a bad idea.  "We can manipulate genes to create a brilliant, tough general who will do everything he can to preserve Kryptonian life, until only one Kryptonian is left at which point game over."

The real point of making Superman kill Zod is to give him a tortured, dark demeanor necessary for all superheroes these days.  Batman has his murdered parents and all, Iron Man is an alcoholic with PTSD, Spider-Man's a nerd who let his uncle die, and Superman? He killed a guy, too, so, you know, he's dark and disturbed.

What makes it so unnecessary, though, is not just that it runs completely contrary to the Superman mythos -- he is the God who will lead us out of the darkness we've been living in, more on that later, remember -- but also you'd already gotten him pretty dark and disturbed via focusing on he's an alien, remember: something that in my memory was always underplayed by Superman writers.  He's not just Superman, protector of humanity: he's Superman, Protector Of Humanity But Always Standing Outside Of It.  He's got whatever attitudes adopted kids have, but on a worldwide scale, and that's before the world asked him to keep saving them.  Imagine an adopted kid being told one day "Hey, son, you're adopted and also Dad lost his job at the plant and Sis has cancer, so it's pretty much up to you to support and save us all, now."



That's a lot to deal with, and the beginning of the movie showed pretty well how hard it was for Clark/Kal El to cope with being different, with not knowing why God made him that way or that he was an alien, and how to react to things, like when he's challenged in the bar and backs down, only to do something even more remarkable and harsh than simply punch the guy.  Sequences like those created a three-dimensional portrait of a man who could be both amazingly naive and boy-scout-like as well as outsiderish and childish enough to resent humans while wanting to love and protect them.

I was an outsider as a kid -- not unpopular, but not popular-- and I understand the love/hate that outsiders can feel towards the "in" crowd. Humans are Superman's "in" crowd. He's always going to feel a bit like the kid whose parents just happen to be gone a lot so they can party at his house: "Hey, great, thanks for having us over, don't touch my beer."  That is a motivation -- but it's a tougher motivation to convey than "Oh, yeah, Superman killed a guy," and it's harder to dramatically dramatize that motivation than it is to have him snap a villain's neck, scream "Noooo!" and then seemingly shrug that off.

Take out that killing scene, and you have a cleaner but more complicated Superman: the one who wants to fit in and dresses as Clark Kent and all, and the one who wants to hide from drones and understands that he's got to save humanity, and both sides secretly resenting and being jealous of the other -- but you keep Superman as the ideal you are setting him up to be, and avoid lazy writing.

So in the end, Superman does not kill people not just because Superman does not kill people -- I tried researching that question and through about 1/2 hour of reading I was only able to find one "person" he'd killed, the annoying and overblown "Doomsday" guy that killed him in the comics, and I'm not even sure he killed Doomsday but I'm sure it didn't count, as that storyline was stupid -- but also because having Superman kill people is the easy way out to create a complex superhero who will make people want to root for him.  Superman's easy to root against: good-looking, ultra-powerful, rich (that Fortress of Solitude's got to cost something), popular, and nice, plus he lucked into his power, something Americans especially have always been suspicious of.  The point of making heroes have complexities is to make them seem realistic and give us a rooting interest in them: a hero without some sort of weakness or complexity is the New York Yankees: they always win but you hate them for it.  Superman being an alien with a love/hate relationship with his adoptive world is great.  Superman having to make a snap (PUN INTENDED) decision to save some people's lives and being tortured by it, however briefly? Dumb.

Clark Kent's autism.

Apropos of nothing, let me jump to something else entirely.

(This is, as you've guessed, going to be long.)

There is a theory of autism that seems as good as any, called the "intense world" theory.  While it's more complicated that I would be able to explain, the basics of it are the idea that autistic people notice details way, way, more than others, and they have (for the most part) phenomenal memories, which when you put the two together means that all the minutiae of the world are both constantly crowding into an autistic person's senses, and they cannot forget them, even for a second.

You may THINK you know what that's like, but you probably don't and neither do I, because you don't even know that you are not, generally, noticing things at all.  There's another theory of memory that says that the reason time seems to speed up as we get older is because as we get older, we notice fewer and fewer details and rely on our brains to simply fill in the extras.  So for most people, when you are young, everything is new and you're noticing all the details and every day is new and wonderful, and as you get older, June becomes not something new and amazing but simply the 44th June you've ever experienced and so you tend to not notice specific days or temperatures or trees, you just go through life and your brain adds in background scenery here and there, so that if you think about what you did last week, there's a chance that the 'tree' you drove by on the way to the store was actually a tree that you remember from when you were 20, or one your mind simply invented.

Autistic people, the thinking goes, can't do that -- they can't forget and they can't not notice, and so they get overwhelmed by the sensory experience of it all.  That's one reason why (they suspect) many autistic people prefer manufactured foods and have a limited range of foods they'll eat from: A Cheetoh always tastes like a Cheetoh, whereas the homemade cookies you made might not only taste different from the last batch, but different from each other.

And that's overwhelming, if you have to constantly notice all that stuff.  So in a way, autistic people reducing their interactions with the world are like us not noticing stuff.  We have the ability to turn off our minds and coast.  Autistic people can't, so they have to physically limit their input by, for example, not talking to people.

Which brings me back to The Man Of Steel, and that scene when Clark is overwhelmed in the classroom by all the sensory input and he runs away and hides in the closet and has to be talked out and taught how to limit his sensory perception of the world in order to function in it.  A scene like that happens, on average, about 1 time a day with our son Mr F, and less frequently with our son Mr Bunches, both of whom are constantly coping with the overwhelming nature of the world on their senses.

Science fiction -- which is what Superman is, after all: an alien from another planet comes to live in Earth and fight other aliens and monsters -- is supposedly a mirror of society, taking the things we fear and misunderstand and twisting them through the prism of fiction to allow us to examine them more closely.  I haven't seen all of the Superman movies, but I have seen some of them and I have read a lot of his comics and I don't recall, ever before this, any scenes, ever, of Kal El having to learn to cope with his senses.  In every superhero movie, there's the now-obligatory training scene in which they clumsily master their powers. 


(SIDEBAR: About that? I think that's kind of bunk.  These are people who are pinnacles of human perfection.  Ever see an athlete try to master a different sport? They don't look clumsy, do they? They may not be able to hit a curveball, but pro athletes tend to excel at lots of physical endeavors.  A pro quarterback is likely a pretty good golfer and would probably be able to do the 110-m hurdles without falling all over himself.  I'd like to see a superhero get superpowers and simply be able to use them, as that's actually more realistic, if you ask  me.)

So if this IS the first time when a big deal was made about Clark's needing to learn to control his X-ray vision and superhearing, given that the past 10 years have seen a spike not just in autism but in stories about the spike in autism, was that conscious on the part of the filmmakers?

People tend to imbue autistic people with an aura of mystery -- probably because Rain Man was so good at math -- and think that they might all be savants, secretly.  I myself have wondered whether autism might not be a trait that would lend itself to improvement in the future -- suspecting that maybe the ability to focus on details and the desire to be alone might be useful for long manned space missions, for example -- and so it's entirely possible that Clark's struggles were intended to mirror autism, to begin to look, through a sci-fi lens, at a condition that now affects 1 in 88 male children.

I'm not the only person who noticed this.  Google "The Man Of Steel and autism" and you'll see others, primarily people who have a direct connection to autism, have noticed it, too, so maybe it's just that we all see what we want to see in the movies, proving the My Aunt's Dog Theorem again. But I don't think so, because there's a lot, though, that could be said to reflect autism in Superman beyond simply his heightened sensory input: He has few close friends and prefers to be alone.  He has difficulty understanding ordinary human interactions and relating to them, at least at times.  AND he is largely impervious to cold and heat extremes.

Last winter, I was playing with Mr F outside in our yard, and at one point I became aware that Mr F had taken off his boots.  He was barefoot, in a foot of snow, and had been for long enough that I had to bring him inside and warm his feet up, worried that maybe he had frostbite.  He was fine, and I eventually guessed that he'd been bootless for about 10 minutes.  Do you think you could walk, barefoot, through a foot of snow, for 10 minutes?  Other people (as noted in this Cracked article that compares autism to mutant powers) have demonstrated the ability to ignore cold for far longer than that.

Kal El's powers have always been said to come from 'the yellow sun'.  But it's more interesting to think about the powers that come from being able to concentrate, to control the brain so effectively that one can deliberately and for a short time limit sensory input, which is what happens when Kal El doesn't use X-ray vision: He is deliberately opting to not see some form of the light spectrum.  THAT is a phenomenal power.  Try this: look around the room and DON'T see "red."  How'd that work?

Kal El learned to not see X-rays, and has the ability to turn that on and off.  That's not superstrength.  That's supercontrol of one's mind, and the idea that Superman may be kind of autistic and may therefore represent the next phase of humanity -- a humankind that must learn to deal with, effectively, the amazing array of information we are going to be (and already are) presented with, as well as a humankind that can genetically manipulate ourselves into improvement -- is thrilling.

Think: we have Google glass and exoskeletons and designer genes, and this is only 2013.  What will humanity be in 2113? What will the influx of information and longer lives and better vitamins result in us being? In 50 years we've practically ended tooth decay and have pills that can strengthen the bones of the elderly.  People a hundred years from now may be nearly 7 feet tall on average, and have nearly-unbreakable bones, and brains that can filter information at a rate our computers nowadays would find boggling.

Autistic people are already doing some of that, crudely and without much help from us.  Much like the first fish that pulled itself onto land and had to struggle to breathe while the rest wondered what it was doing, autistic people may be the first tentative step into a new era of human understanding and interaction, and Superman may help people understand that the way Isaac Asimov helped shape how we think about robots.

We are okay with people crashing planes into buildings?

What I actually find myself thinking at various points in movies now is "OK BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FACT THAT LIFE IS [THIS THING]?" and by that I mean that not just is it rather alarming -- not to me, I'm a realist -- to see movies allowing planes to crash into buildings in New York Metropolis, but also all the rest of modern life, too, like cell phone cameras.

So think about this: first of all, 99% of the Kal El-Zod battle would have been televised, live.  That's what happened on 9/11, after all: by the time I got to the office that morning, news cameras were trained on the World Trade Center, as they have been on every other major disaster.

And think about this, too: would it have been so hard for Lois Lane to track down Clark Kent?  Nowadays, it almost certainly wouldn't.  I don't know how long, in today's world, you could keep there from being any notice of a guy who rescued a bunch of people on an oil rig, or a truck crucified on trees.  (That's what that looked like to me: Superman crucified that truck.)

Cell phones and the Internet and email would mean that Lois almost certainly wouldn't have to travel around the world to interview people, and also that the legend of a super man would have been around on the Internet already, if ONLY on "IO9" or something, where there would be talk about how weird it was that the truck got crucified.

But the most alarming part about the movie taking place now was that now we have an idea what planes crashing into a big city would be like, and to me the the alarming part about the planes (of sorts, I know there were also Kryptonian spacecraft) crashing into buildings was twofold.

The first fold was that I was certain people were going to object to this, in an "it's too soon" kind of way.  I've long believed -- especially since 9/11 -- that we as modern people are too sensitive.  I don't know for sure and I only have movies and history books to tell me, but I do not think that the Pearl Harbor attacks resulted in a national weak spot where nobody could ever again talk about anything even remotely related to them, let alone a response along the lines of what we've done, requiring see-through backpacks to get into NFL games and harassing 15-year-olds about what they wear to the airport.

(True, after Pearl Harbor we did round up everyone who looked even vaguely Asian, but that's a different story.)

(I also don't think that the response to Pearl Harbor was to write movies and books about how it psychologically affected the people of the 1940s, but again, that's just my general impression.)

So even 12 years later almost, I saw planes crashing into CGI buildings and instantly thought "Man, this is going to be protested."

And then, it wasn't. In fact, most articles that I saw about it actively sought to compare the destruction in this movie to 9/11, without all the fuss of the prior 12 years.  Which strikes me as odd in the completely opposite way that I was expecting.  I'd thought that people would be wringing their hands over a fantasy in which not only do foreigners aliens crash planes into our buildings, but our efforts to stop them are futile, requiring technology that we cannot create ourselves, but what we got instead was "Man, that was so much worse than 9/11, wasn't it! Ha ha crazy movies."  Which is an entirely different take on it, and one I'm not sure I understand.  We seem to have flipped a switch from "NO MENTIONING 9/11 EVER" to "Let's just use it as a comparison for mock destruction."

I wonder what that says about our society -- that we can finally look objectively at tragedies? Remember, about 3,000 people were killed on 9/11, which means the odds that you even KNOW someone who KNOWS someone who died that day are pretty slim.* (*Odds not applicable for NYC residents.)  So we should have been able to look at it objectively all along.  People don't freak out every time you mention a big earthquake or the McVeigh Oklahoma City Bombing, and never did, but everyone went insane if you mentioned 9/11, for a long time, until now it's just become another cultural reference all of a sudden, like in a conversation you could either quote Jim Gaffigan or compare something to 9/11, either way, all the same.  That, I think, is not necessarily the proper response, either.

(I know that in each case I am over/under stating the reaction.  There are people who didn't flip when you mentioned 9/11 and who thought it ridiculous that schoolkids in Oregon were offered counseling, and there are people now who feel that perhaps trivializing 9/11 by comparing everything to it -- the way evilness is measured in Hitler units-- is wrong, too.)

Then there's the second fold.  Consider this quote from a critic at "Variety":

any contemporary American blockbuster offering up a spectacle of mass destruction is a 9/11 movie.

There was a comic strip recently -- I think it was either Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal or Tom The Dancing Bug -- which talked about every generation getting a different kind of God, something I suggested SHOULD happen.  But it's more fair to say every generation gets its own set of symbols and uses them to describe their own world.

Consider: Vampires in the 1980s were Anne Rice vampires: literate, largely non-threatening (they gave Interviews!) but only vaguely sexual or romantic.  Vampires before that were frightening creatures of the night.  Vampires now are teenagers who glitter in the sunlight.   I'm not sure what that says about us as a culture, but it does show that each generation has its own vampires, and its own superheroes.

Superheroes in the 1980s were different than the current breed, even in the movies.  Christopher Reeves' Superman as I recall him, at least, was far more a boy scout than Henry Cavill's, and eventually became almost a comic foil to Richard Pryor's computer genius.  He was less complicated, and his adversaries, were, too: Zod, as I recall, in the original movie, didn't have any machines to take over the world and wasn't going to recreate Krypton-on-Earth.  He was just going to rule over everyone as a supervillain.

Batman, too, was reinvented in the late 80s, but differed markedly from the Batman that current audiences adore so much.  Both have their gadgets and their fighting, but this Batman is... different.  Less super-y, more grounded in a reality (at least until the third movie, which really took off the brakes), more like a regular guy with some stuff than a Batman.

And now, our 9/11 and disaster movies are changing, too-- disaster movies have always been around, and we've always used them (as scifi gets used) to demonstrate our fears.  Sometimes disaster movies are direct, unsubtle: The Day After, Red Dawn  Sometimes they're not, like with The Man Of Steel, which couldn't be more of a 9/11 movie if it was called "9/11 Movie."

Is there any way to escape that Man of Steel's last hour is 9/11's first couple? No -- but don't focus on that, actually. Focus instead on what is being said, directly or indirectly, about our response to 9/11, the 'messages' you can take from this movie and how it demonstrates what we take for granted about the world.  I'm not saying these messages were intended by the filmmakers, but I AM saying that they can be seen in the movie, and the My Aunt's Dog Theorem says that therefore the messages are true.  It may be that the filmmakers were trying to tell you this stuff. It may be simply that their fears or thoughts couldn't be kept out of the movie.  But here are some messages you could take from "The Man Of Steel," one of the first 9/11 movies of this generation:

We need better surveillance so get used to PRISM:  Lois Lane takes time to track down Clark, and then the military very nearly misses out on getting Lois Lane -- who only had been leaking stories all over the Internet about this mysterious alien she'd found.  Why didn't we know this alien -- this POTENTIAL THREAT -- was living amongst us? Why did we have to wait until the attack was imminent?

You can say that's a crazy thought, but think about the Boston Marathon Bombings that just happened.  Isn't that EXACTLY what people were saying? Why didn't we know? People were practically demanding precognition from the government, in the aftermath of Boston, and so were poised to accept PRISM when Edward Snowden -- the Snowdens of Yesteryear -- revealed it to us. ("Revealed," in the sense that this was part of a law that had been passed long ago but nobody paid any attention to it.)



published by Tom The Dancing Bug
Read it here.
(SIDEBAR: IF "PRISM" works so well, why did it not catch the fact that those two (and their friends?) were plotting a bombing? The bombers obviously used electronic communications to do their thing.  The dead one had a JIHAD PLAYLIST ON YOUTUBE.  Way to go, NSA: Civil Liberties, ZERO, Terrorism: ONE.  As you read stories about all the terrorist attacks that haven't happened becuase of PRISM, raise your hand and ask the person nearest to you "Why didn't PRISM catch the Boston Bombers before they bombed?")

(The answer you will get to that question will almost always be "We need better surveillance and have to improve PRISM."  The fact that a government program doesn't work doesn't mean it dies.  "Star Wars" as a defense still exists, as evidenced by this article noting that after 30 years it still hasn't met its goals.)

Did Christopher Nolan mean to make a movie that implied to the public that better surveillance of everyone and everything is necessary?  I don't know.  But that's one message in his movie.

(SIDEBAR: On that note, too: Why did Superman have to crash the drone at the end? Is that part of the Darker Superman mythos, now? He just wantonly destroys property? Was that supposed to be a fight back AGAINST surveillance? A late, tacked-on commentary on the drone issue that nobody but me cares about because having the President be able to order a missile strike on US citizens without due process is apparently okay?  A better ending would have been to have Superman fly the drone down to the Colonel's backyard and land it there, and tell him to quit wasting his time.  It's bothersome that Superman would waste $12,000,000,000 of the taxpayers' money to make a point he could have made without doing that.  So maybe the movie IS antisurveillance, with Nolan commenting that Superman -- the embodiment of people?-- should be destroying drones?)

(Nah.)

Another message:

We can't stop the next 9/11, so be ready.  So not only do we need better surveillance, but almost as if in response to my hypothetical question about why this surveillance didn't stop a horrific attack on a public gathering, Message Two is that we're going to be killed anyway, so don't get all up in the government's face when it happens.

The Kryptonians' attack on Metropolis, gravity beams and whatnot, was just 9/11 reimagined, and our response?  To call in the military, which literally drops like flies and can't touch these guys at all.  Our secret weapon against the Kryptonians is something that was created years ago on another planet, a thing we barely understand, and which we're simply going to drop on the Kryptonians and hope for the best, if we can get close enough to them.  If we're lucky, someone somewhere on another part of the world will do their best to give us a chance to drop that old baby-crib in there and gum up the works. (This alone could be a reverse metaphor for World War II: as "our" guy fights on one side of the world, we prepare to end the whole thing by dropping some untested technology on a city.)

(SIDEBAR: If 'let's use Kal El's rocket to drop onto this spaceship' isn't a deus ex machina, I don't know what is.  The explanation for why this worked was the infamous sort of "We've got to SCIENCE this SCIENCE THING with MORE SCIENCE" movie line-- a line which if you say it fast sounds smart, especially if you add the word "isotope" in there.  That kind of thing happens all the time in science movies: a character spouts some jargon and everyone accepts it.  But how likely is it that the universal key that Kal El had could arm a baby's spaceship to destroy a machine that didn't even exist when Kal El was born?  Remember, Zod modified the Phantom Zone prison ship to become his spaceship -- and somehow Kal El's crib could neutralize or blow that thing up WITHOUT ANYONE PROGRAMMING IT? Because the people in charge were not Jor El or Kal El, so they weren't programming it, so apparently Lois learned enough from Jor El's Suri program to reprogram the crib, but not enough to TURN THE KEY THE RIGHT WAY?)

(Jor El as Suri? That's right.  Zooey's "Is that rain?"


is just Lois' "Is that a way to hyperoxygenate a Kryptonian spaceship?)

"WE'VE GOT TO SCIENCE THIS THING WITH SCIENCE!" is the worst possible way to end a sci-fi movie, and now that you know about it, you'll see it everywhere.  At least I'm honest when I write stories like that. When I write write a Deus Ex Machina story, I have the artistic integrity to not just make it obvious, but to also have Jesus himself announce that it's time to use the machine of the gods.

(Deus ex machina actually means "god from the machine" in Latin. But I prefer to think of it as "machine of the gods." It comes from Horace, who told poets never to use a god from the machine to solve their plots.Both Jor El, and the Crib Of Nuclear Death/Starship, are deus ex machina.)

Back to my point: The Man Of Steel makes a convincing argument that we're losing the War on Terror, or will continue to lose it. Or both.  A bunch of foreigner aliens show up, demand that we turn someone over, that person turns out to be an ILLEGAL! alien who we didn't even know was here, and then they start blowing up stuff, all because we were ill-prepared and didn't know whose side to be on.

PLUS, SPECIAL BONUS CONSPIRACY NUTJOB THEORIST CONTROVERSY:  Superman turned himself in and was taken to a secret military prison where things only started to go bad once we let the press in and then turned him over to his original authorities.  I don't know about you, but THAT spells G-I-T-M-O, and so now moviegoers have been conditioned to keep our own secret prison open and running and press-free, and to NEVER EVER repatriate those guys, unless we do Extraordinary Rendition style.

Hey, I TOLD you it was a nutjob argument.

Moving on:

TAKE THAT, SCIENCE!

As I said, much of the secret plan to save Earth, or the 99% of Earth that wasn't decimated by the saving itself, could be summarized as "LET'S GET ALL SCIENCE UP IN YOUR FACE!" without any other details, which was probably a good thing because when they did talk science, it seemed to me like it was kind of missing the mark, like maybe people had googled some science-y things, read the first paragraph of Wikipedia, and then moved on.

I mean, I KNOW, this is THE MOVIES, if you want REAL SCIENCE then go...where? Japan, I suppose, since the US isn't all that big on science anywhere these days, not REAL science, anyway -- we're all about the 15-year-old McDonald's hamburgers and yet nobody can tell you how your car runs, let alone how a 'hybrid' works.*

*Magic

But that being said, if you're going to TRY to be realistic, why not actually BE realistic? A couple of science-y things bugged me in the movie because they were almost but not quite right. Things like:

Elements not found on Earth? OK MAYBE. It's been over two weeks since I saw the movie, as I write this, and so I can't remember exactly what point of the movie this was, but I remember someone in the movie saying something like "that's no element we've seen before which means this didn't come from Earth," and I thought WELL THAT'S JUNK SCIENCE.

Maybe I'm the only one in the theater who just read a book not that long ago about the Periodic Table of the elements, because I'm cool that way, but even without fancy book learnin', I can tell you that the fact that a scientist has not SEEN an element before means NOTHING vis a vis said element's existence or lack thereof on Earth.  From Wikipedia (but you have to read past the first paragraph on the "Periodic Table" entry:)

Elements with unknown chemical properties

Although all elements up to ununoctium have been discovered, only elements up to hassium (element 108), along with copernicium (element 112), have known chemical properties. The other elements may behave differently from what would be predicted by extrapolation, due to relativistic effects; for example, flerovium has been predicted to possibly exhibit some noble-gas-like properties, even though it is currently placed in the carbon group.[94] More recent experiments have suggested, however, that flerovium behaves chemically like lead, as expected from its periodic table position.[95]

Further periodic table extensions

It is unclear whether new elements will continue the pattern of the current periodic table as period 8, or require further adaptations or adjustments. Seaborg expected the eighth period, which includes a two-element s-block for elements 119 and 120, a new g-block for the next 18 elements, and 30 additional elements continuing the current f-, d-, and p-blocks.[96] More recently, physicists such as Pekka Pyykköhave theorized that these additional elements do not follow the Madelung rule, which predicts how electron shells are filled and thus affects the appearance of the present periodic table.[97]

Element with the highest possible atomic number

The number of possible elements is not known. A very early suggestion made by Elliot Adams in 1911, and based on the arrangement of elements in each horizontal periodic table row, was that elements of atomic weight greater than 256± (which would equate to between elements 99 and 100 in modern-day terms) did not exist.[98] A higher—more recent—estimate is that the periodic table may end soon after the island of stability,[99] which is expected to center around element 126, as the extension of the periodic and nuclides tables is restricted by proton and neutron drip lines.[100] Other predictions of an end to the periodic table include at element 128 by John Emsley,[3] at element 137 by Richard Feynman[101] and at element 155 by Albert Khazan.[3][n 9]


I don't expect you to read that all.  It summarizes to "There are elements we know about but can't explain and also we're not sure we know all the elements," so there are at least two ways you could have in your movie an "unknown element" and be more scientifically accurate:

1.  Scientist says "It's an element that we've only seen on Earth briefly synthesized in labs in small quantities, so whoever produced this much either has a great lab or has been to another planet."

2.  Scientist says "This element doesn't occur naturally on Earth, but the [space lab etc Hubble? is that still a thing]  found traces of it in emissions from a star that used to have planets around it. Best guess? It's extraterrestrial."

YOU JUST GOT SCIENCED.

It was nice that they wanted to be realistic about Superman's taking off but that means he was jumping, not flying.  For a long time, people wondered whether Superman flew or jumped; in the early comics, of course, he was "able to leap tall buildings with a single bound," but couldn't fly, and then about the time he got the ability to have supercool breath and shoot beams from his eyes which is, by the way, the exact OPPOSITE of how vision works -- we don't see things by shooting light from our eyes to reflect back, that would be RADAR or similar equipment, which probably means that Superman's heat vision is actually a LASER, or Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.  That's not as far-fetched as you think, having Laser Eyes (TM).  Again from Wikipedia:

Living cells can be genetically engineered to produce Green fluorescent protein (GFP). The GFP is used as the laser's "gain medium", where light amplification takes place. The cells are then placed between two tiny mirrors, just 20 millionths of a metre across, which acted as the "laser cavity" in which light could bounce many times through the cell. Upon bathing the cell with blue light, it could be seen to emit directed and intense green laser light

So Superman's eyes could have reflecting surfaces in them working as the tiny mirrors, amplifying the green fluorescent protein, and shooting it out.  It's probably just not green because of a trick of the light as it passes through his pupils.

ALSO? When Laser Eyes (TM) becomes a fad among teenagers I am definitely not going out at night anymore.

So the jumping/flying thing: In order for Superman to JUMP way high, he'd have to exert a superamount of force on the ground.  According to this article, Superman would have to exert at least 5,600 pounds of force to jump off the ground and to a height of about 660 feet.

Concrete can generally only withstand about 3,000 PSI of pressure (pounds per square inch) so when Superman jumps up, he crumbles the pavement below him.  Or the rock, or whatever.

EXCEPT, Superman isn't jumping up, he's flying.  He's taking off.  And unless his takeoffs require, like jets on an aircraft carrier, an extreme amount of acceleration in a short period of time -- that's why jets are slingshotted off aircraft carriers, because there's not enough time to get them up to speed via conventional means of having engines pull them forward -- Superman wouldn't need to leap that fast or that hard to take off, so whether he crumbles the pavement on takeoff, or doesn't, depends on how he's flying. If he's flying via a way that requires him to accelerate, then, yeah,  he'd probably crumble the pavement.  But he's not flying that way.

For starters, remember that Superman DOESN'T crumble the pavement when he lands, so he has a way to decelerate, which is to say, he has a way to accelerate in reverse, since "deceleration" isn't a thing. If Superman can slow down and land reasonably he can also take off reasonably, as well -- his acceleration gland, or whatever, wouldn't work in only one direction, would it?

For another, Superman isn't flying the way jets fly.  Jets fly by speeding up fast enough to take advantage of the Bernoulli effect -- a decrease in pressure by an increase in speed, which means that air flows more quickly over the top of the wing than the bottom as the jet speed increases, until the air pressure below the wing is so much greater than that above the wing that the jet lifts off.  Superman isn't doing that, because he's not shaped the right way, and flying like that would require that Superman not carry anything outside of him because that would alter his shape and affect his ability to fly -- which is why planes can't fly upside down for too long and also (probably partially?) why we don't tie cargo to the outside of planes.

(As for why Superman puts his arms out in front of him when he flies? Probably for the same reason you put your arms out in front of you when you dive underwater.  No particular reason, or to protect your face by breaking the water first. It may help him steer, too, but it's probably to cut wind resistance so his eyes don't keep tearing up.)

So if Superman flew the way jets fly-- requiring acceleration to take off -- he couldn't fly upside down.

IO9 once posited that Superman flies using "negative mass."  "Negative mass" is an as-yet purely hypothetical idea that some particles are negative, rather than positive, and that attaching the negative mass to  positive mass would result in a unique situation of reverse gravity -- while the positive mass would exert its gravitational pull on the negative mass, keeping them together, the negative mass would create the reverse, pushing the positive mass away (which means technically that the positive mass falls away from the negative mass), and hence being propelled forward.

This was actually proposed by two scientists in a project NASA -- remember NASA, back when science did more than intercept our emails? -- ran from 1996-2002 that asked scientists to invent rocket propulsion ideas that did not depend on the science we have now, and two guys came up with the Diametric Drive: tie a hunk of negative mass to a rocket and watch it fly away.

Since we don't know how far away Krypton was, it's possible that Superman is made of negative mass, at least partially.  If Krypton and everything around it was negative mass, that would mean that the entire system acts like a regular solar system, since the charges on the mass are all the same -- nothing's pushing away from the other thing and gravity works like normal.  Superman, being born on Krypton, was made of negative mass.  But once he gets to Earth, he's got to grow his body like the rest of us, which he does eating Earth proteins and the like, and so he's adding positive mass to his already negatively-charged body.

Since Superman has greater control over his body -- he can shoot lasers around in his eyes and consciously choose what spectrums to see, remember -- then it stands to reason he could turn this negative mass "on" and "off," and repel things around him.  That's not so hard to believe: athletes can turn their powers on and off, too.  Usain Bolt doesn't sprint everywhere, sometimes he just uses regular slow-twitch muscles.  So Superman can turn his negative mass on a little or a lot, and doing so, can repel other matter.

THAT is how he pushed an entire school bus out of the water: the bus fell away from him in a reverse gravity field.  And that's how he flies: when he turns on the negative mass, the Earth falls away from him, and he would fly in suborbital loops.

As he got better at it, he could use his negative mass powers to move away from other objects -- in essence, flying by bouncing off all sorts of other things at once, which is how he navigates around the city, and ALSO which is why he's not hurt when he crashes through walls: the negative mass repels the wall before it ever gets to him.  Same for bullets.  They wouldn't even rebound: they'd just get to him, and fall away, momentum neutralized.

WHICH IN TURN IS WHAT THE KRYPTONIANS WERE DOING:  They used the 'gravity machine' that caused cars to bounce up in the air and then down and which caused planes to drop like flies out of the sky,  but rather than simply increasing the Earth's gravity, was actually REVERSING IT, which IN TURN means that Zod's ultimate plan would have allowed him to kill humans by simply having them float off into space -- after suffocating in the lack of atmosphere, as the air itself was repelled by Earth's negative mass, and the Kryptonians would then use their own negative mass to cling to Earth and create a noxious atmosphere.  (All of which makes more sense, too, than the idea that the Kryptonians were going to "increase" Earth's gravity, something that seems impossible to do based on how gravity appears to work.)

All of which means that the "science" of showing Superman jumping and leaving a crater behind him is stupid.   And again, why go half-science? You don't have to get all theoretical physics to simply have the movie use accurate science.  In my book "Santa, Godzilla, and Jesus Walk Into A Bar," a villain uses the 'science' of a theoretical Santa Claus machine to try to take over the world, but almost ends up destroying the Earth by hollowing out Earth's core to get mass for the machine to work on.  It's all based on solid scientific principle (if by "solid" you mean "entirely theoretical and not yet possible"), but you don't have to know that to enjoy the book.

In the end, the ground-crushing is there to please the masses, who think "Wow, that's neat, Superman is jumping really hard!" and it all seems quasi-logical, but it's lazy.  If you want scientific credibility -- if you're striving for 'realism,' -- then you can't get it without being actually real. People fault Star Wars for having explosions in space, but I don't think George Lucas was trying to be 'realistic.'  He was just making stuff up and not worried about whether it would work.  "Planet-destroying laser? Check. Tractor beams? Check. Contained field of light that can slice people up? Check."  So faulting Lucas for bad science is like faulting a musical for having too many characters breaking out into song: it's the whole point of the thing.

But "realistic" sci-fi, like The Man Of Steel, and Battlestar: Galactica, can't have it both ways.  You can't say "We're superrealistic" and then not bring the science.  That's every bit as annoying and harmful to public interest in science as it is when Neil deGrasse Tyson craps all over something just to show how smart* (*annoying) he is.

Again: the point isn't that the science has to be REAL, it's that if you're going to PRETEND it's real, if you're going to make it realistic, why not do it right? Either go fake or go real, but don't do a little of both.  Movies hire legal consultants to make sure their legal scenes are plausible, and military consultants to do the same.  Did they hire a scientific consultant? (Other than Bill Nye shilling for Gillette, I mean, and using the wrong mathematical equation in the ad:



If you watch that, you'll see Bill Nye used an equation in the graphics to demonstrate... science? Something.  Anyway, the equation he used was not the equation for the science stuff he was talking about.  It was an equation for determining the rate of speed for falling.  When I asked him via Twitter why he didn't use the right equation for what he was talking about, he never responded.

(The equation for asperity is the "Archard equation," and it's Q=KWL/H, where

Q= total volume of wear produced by the debris,
K= the dimensionless constant
W= the total normal load
L= the sliding distance
and
H= the hardness of the softest of the contacting surfaces,

and using that equation you could determine how long it would take you to shave with a feather pillow. Which you could do, I assume, but it would take a long long time.)(Asperity would be one way Zod and Superman could hurt each other.)

In any event, as with science in movies, if you're going to use science as a graphic, you'd expect the scientist to use the equation for the stuff he's talking about as the graphic.

Another science-y thing that bugged me? How did Zod get so strong so fast? 

The explanation for Superman's strength was that he would grow up under the yellow sun of Earth and incorporate it's radiation into his cells, or something like that.  Along the way, it turned out too that it wasn't just the gravity or the yellow sunlight but also the atmosphere -- or at least, the atmosphere of Krypton could take away the newfound strength, so instead of Krypton's pieces becoming "Kryptonite," the atmosphere was what would weaken Superman.

IF that's the case -- if you accept that science, which you have to do if you want to suspend disbelief,-- then Zod would have two ways of getting stronger: first, his body would begin absorbing yellow sun radiation, and second, his lungs wouldn't be filled with Kryptonite anymore.

The process whereby a Kryptonian becomes super-ish appears to take differing lengths of time.  Kal El was in grade school by the time his senses evolved into something that drove him nuts -- or perhaps it had happened before but he never learned to control it?-- whereas Zod's senses hit that peak in moments.

So assume that the goopy air of Krypton holds Kryptonians back somewhat -- like maybe how liquid breathing can help develop lungs. Some experiments are being done on premature infants to have them breathe liquids (like the divers did in The Abyss) to help their lungs develop normally.  So Kryptonians breathing mucky air may have lungs that develop supercapacity, making them instantly stronger when they breathe thinner air, a theory that works for runners who train at high altitude: they're more fit and become stronger (exponentially?) by simply being in healthier atmosphere. That would make sense.

The sun is more problematic: you have to assume that it's the sun hitting the Kryptonians' cells that give them their power, rather than the Kryptonian building cells incorporating the yellow sun's radiation, and that means that it's instantaneous, something that's backed up by Superman getting his strength back as the clouds clear in the Indian ocean as the sun comes out.

So you can only explain Superman's late-developing eyesight and the like as either him being a kid and not fully using his senses until that one day, or to say that there were other such events in his childhood and he was always working on them until he could control them -- which latter interpretation makes Superman sound a lot more like someone who has autism, which is treated (these days) primarily by intensive therapy that simulates everyday situations and teaches children how to interpret social events and react to them in ways that society accepts.

In either case, though, it takes Superman/Kal El years to properly master his powers, while Zod and the others got control of theirs in minutes, even though they only just realized they had them.  Which means The Man Of Steel had the obligatory "Clumsy Superhero Learns To Use Powers" scene and then immediately undermined it by showing that the powers weren't all that hard to master, making Kal El somewhat of a loser.

Finally, what if Superman isn't merely autistic and an alien, but is also Jesus? Or:

Superman = Jesus? Probably, and TAKE THAT, EVOLUTION!



"For God so loved the world that he gave His only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
-- John, 3:16.
" You ARE my son. And I have to believe that you were sent here for a reason. And even if it takes the rest of your life, you owe it to yourself to find out what that reason is."
--Jonathan Kent
"You have a sense of morality and we do not. And that gives us an Evolutionary Advantage. And if there's one thing that History teaches us it's that Evolution always wins."-- Faora

That last quote is the one that REALLY got me thinking about this issue in the movie, although it was already heavy on religious overtones even before (as PT Dilloway also noticed) making Kal El be 33 years old when called upon to sacrifice himself to save the world.

Early on in the movie, there's a scene where Clark saves the busload of children, and the mom of one of the kids is in the Kent's living room saying that God did something to make Clark that way or to save people.  It's amazing to me that such a stunt, even 20 years ago, wouldn't have attracted media attention, given that a young comatose girl who was reported to be able to heal people became a phenomenon enough to draw thousands of pilgrims a year, but maybe it wouldn't have attracted all that much attention in the pre-CNN pre-Internet era where Reddit couldn't "vote up" Clark's feat.

That was the first hint that Clark was a messiah, and if there was any doubt about how we should view him, that doubt was disposed of when Clark went to a Catholic (?) priest to ask what he should do about Zod's demands that he turn himself over.  That scene (unintentionally?) mirrored the feeling of Jesus' time in the garden before being crucified -- the part where Jesus prayed to God to be let out of this duty, and God told him that he could not, a part of the story that actually is less satisfying if you think about it.

I have always taken solace in the idea that even Jesus could try to get out of his fate.  Having been put here on Earth for the sole purpose of dying to save the rest of us, even Jesus, the ultimate superhero, couldn't entirely hold up under pressure: he asked God, at the last minute, to let him out of it, to let the cup pass him by.  God said "no," and Jesus did what he had to do.

Looked at one way, that story is inspiring: If Jesus could waver in his most important job, we regular folks need not feel terrible about not always wanting to do what we're supposed to do, if in the end we go do it. Weakness isn't a sin; failure to try might be, but weakness is not.

But looked at another way, it sort of makes Jesus less noble, because God doesn't give him a choice.  It's not as noble to say "God made me do this, I had no choice in the matter" as it is to say "God gave me a choice and I chose the right path."

It's possible that I'm misremembering the story, or perhaps misunderstanding it -- maybe Jesus went voluntarily anyway, and it's not like it's LESS brave to do something simply because you have no other choice, but I think the story would have been more inspiring if Jesus made the decision on his own to go to his death, if God said "Do what you want, Son," and Jesus sacrificed himself.

That's one thing I was pondering as Kal El made that decision, with Jesus looking over his shoulder: Did Jesus CHOOSE to give his life? Or was he CHOSEN? There's a difference, to me.

It's hard to say whether Kal El really had a choice.  I mean, in a superficial sense, he had a choice, but did he?  And was it that much of a choice? These people show up -- his people, who he knows nothing about and I believe when they demanded he go to them that they hadn't really demanded anything of him that would be too terrible (they mostly sound like they're arresting him), but also remember that Kal El is Superman, after all: what HE knows as he's pondering what to do after Zod demanded he be turned over is that if he's NOT invulnerable (that was never made clear in the movie, after all) he's sure hard to hurt, and superstrong, and all that, so what he was faced with, his choice, was this:

1. Ignore the demand that he go meet his people even though he really had no idea that they wanted to, or even COULD, harm him, or

2. Go meet them and find out about his background knowing that he couldn't really be hurt, after all, or at least that it would be very difficult.

So to one extent he had NO choice: if he doesn't turn himself over, people get hurt.  And given what we knew about his background, we can expect he will make the right choice.

To another extent, that really isn't that hard of a choice, anyway, and not worth all the hand-wringing that he had to go through, and makes the Kal El= Jesus comparisons -- comparison that were overt even before they became ridiculous -- overblown.  Jesus, who also had superhuman powers, at least could feel pain and was not at all uncertain about what was going to happen to him.

I mean, there's this:


In which Zod overtly threatens EARTH, and needs to arrest Kal El, and then there's this:

Mark 14:32-42 They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34 “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.” 35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” 37 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” 39 Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. 40 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him. 41 Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
One version has Jesus being strengthened by an angel, but either way, Jesus knows he's going to his death.  There's no question of being arrested or meeting his own kind or getting answers, and unlike Kal El, Jesus doesn't even have invulnerability or superstrength to rely on.  When Jesus tries to get God to change his mind before surrendering, he's trying to get out of certain death, which he then accepts.

THAT is a choice.  Kal El's choice isn't half as serious as Jesus', no matter how earnest the comparison is intended to be.

Then consider Faora's quote -- that "Evolution always wins."  She means "evolution" as in "Kryptonians have evolved beyond morality," which is clearly untrue: Jor El, at least, had a sense of morality, because he was trying to save the planet and trying to avoid the destruction and continued eugenicizing of the Kryptonian people.  

Be that as it may -- perhaps it was Jor El's morals that led to his death, too -- there really is no mistaking the moral/religous vs. science theme of the movie at that point.  If you didn't already get the "science is bad/God is good" theme from the fact that Krypton was destroyed simply for FUEL, and from the fact that babies were grown in a Giant Squid Matrix, you got beaten over the head with it like a Kryptonian taking an F-16 to the face when Faora spoke, setting up the major conflict of the film.  It's not humans vs. Kryptonians, or privacy vs. government surveillance, although those all factor in: it's faith vs. science, and faith wins in overtime, although faith has to cheat a little to do it, by killing at the end.

That now raises the question: is Kal El, in the end, more moral than the Kryptonians? They were willing to kill humans to save their own people, and to kill Kal El to free up the genetic codes for all Kryptonians.  Kal El was willing to kill Kryptonians to save humans, and neither apparently considered whether there were other options.  True, Kal El's was more a spur of the moment decision (one that was originally not in the script, but was added at the insistence of the writers over Christopher Nolan's and DC's early objections.  Zack Snyder said the killing was there to explain Superman's later reluctance to kill -- he is so overcome by the one death he deliberately caused that he later on does not want to kill, -- but Snyder also admitted that it was done to darken Superman up, by making future viewers wonder if perhaps Superman wouldn't kill again, if he had to, which of course undermines the first explanation for why Superman killed Zod) but in each case, the decision to kill this person for the benefit of that person was made, and it's hard to see the moral difference between those two decisions.

I'm against the death penalty, I should note.  So even if Kal El had tied Zod up and put him on trial, I wouldn't have supported executing him, and given that, I can't justify letting Superman make the spur of the moment decision that Zod needs to die to save a few extra people (given how many people had to have died already, Kal El's choice is even more starkly irrelevant.

Irrelevant, but educational: his choice illuminates, in a way we don't often think about, the difference between letting thousands of strangers die away from us versus letting one person die in front of us.  Many, many people support the wars in Iraq and Iran, despite the thousands of people who die there -- but I'm willing to bet only a tiny fraction of those people would, given the chance, order a US soldier to shoot an Iranian right in front of them, or would order the war to continue if they watched it on their front lawn every night.  There's a reason the US government cracked down on footage of battles after Vietnam -- the carnage shown to the general public turned opinion against the war, and since then, the homogenized and tightly controlled images have led to no wars being cancelled, and the largest protests against any military action in MY lifetime have been parents getting upset about a videogame that shows the battle of Fallujah too realistically.

Which makes it not surprising to me that we could find in a movie superhero an idol who kills, however accidentally or unavoidably, thousands through a wild battle in Metropolis, even one that then kills directly when given the chance -- not the necessity -- of doing so.  This is an era when fake presidents in movies launch rockets from limousines, and superspies mete out death in secret in the glassy buildings of the Middle East, to our approval.  Even the anti-government types of the Marvel Universe -- Tony Stark's loner Iron Man, Bruce Banner's Hulk -- happily go to work for the government when asked to do so, killing foreign invaders while friendly-firing thousands of civilians to death, civilians who in recent movies are our OWN citizens, ponder the symbolism of THAT -- and it's even less surprising to me that people could attempt to equate with Jesus this Kal El. This Kal El is a man raised to weigh the supremacy of life against other factors before deciding whether kids should drown.  It's hard to imagine Joseph telling a young Jesus (who never hid his belief that he was sent by God to save humans, unlike Clark) to let some people die rather than reveal his secret, and harder still to imagine Jesus not saving Joseph from a tornado if he could.

But that is the world we want to live in: flawed superheroes who are told they have morality, even though their morality appears fluid and subject to change.  I never cared much for Superman before this movie, as a hero or the subject of the story.  I'm not sure I care for this new Superman, as a hero, either, but at least he made me think.




Selected other readings.  
As I wrote this over the past two weeks, I read essays by great thinkers like:

Andrew Leon, on Strange Pegs, who didn't like the movie. Click that link to read his well-thought out critique.  Also, A. Lee Martinez did a series of "Superman Rebuttals" that were far more concise and coherent than the rambling mess you just read.

PT Dilloway, who knows a lot about superheroes and comics, got his review in first of all of them that I read.

Other Stuff I've Written That Was Referenced In This Post?

You don't really click the links as you go, do you? So I tried to cut down on that.  Here are some other things I wrote that relate:

Deus ex machina? In my book "Santa, Godzilla, and Jesus Walk Into A Bar," the plot (?) loosely revolves around a miniature trumpet that eventually is used by a guy at Jesus' direction.  Click here to buy the book for just $0.99!

We hate superheroes who inherit their powers instead of earning them? YES WE DO: Click here to read about that in my old post, "The Best Superhero Gadget."




4 comments:

Pat Dilloway said...

This article is so long I need to make notes as I read:

You know, from a special on History or A&E about Superman, the super breath thing is actually one of his most realistic powers. I guess because the idea is that if his body is so super strong his breath would be stronger than ours. Even the freeze breath would make sense like how we blow on hot things like soup or coffee or something to cool them; if you have super lungs then you could make the temperature much colder like freeze breath.

Your points about Zod make sense. I mean if you get superpowers from the planet’s atmosphere, why would you want to change that to not have superpowers? Especially if you’re a military general.

I haven’t watched the Christopher Reeve movies in a while. I know in Superman Returns they show young Clark discovering he can hover and run fast and stuff, but not really about the hearing and stuff. They did deal with that in the TV series “Smallville” where one episode Clark would realize he could hear all sorts of stuff and another he accidentally started fires when his heat vision would randomly kick in. I only watched a couple seasons of that so there was probably more.

Hurm, that junk science about elements is what happens in my superhero story, which is how Emma ends up with the weird black thing in her office. D’oh!

I think a good theory is Superman puts is hands out to ward off bugs. I mean imagine how those splatter on your face and costume when you’re going Mach 17 or whatever he does?

Of course the best theory about Superman’s power is most were invented in the 30s and 40s when no one gave a crap about trying to explain everything realistically. I’m not sure when we started to do that. Maybe it was once the Web became a thing and everyone could go look things up in seconds and then rag about it on a message board.

I think the movie’s idea is Zod and the others were able to master their powers faster because they were products of all the Kryptonian breeding and schooling systems, which are probably far more advanced than Ma and Pa Kent’s farm and the Smallville Public School system. But it does raise the question of why Clark’s senses didn’t kick right away. It makes more sense in X-Men that the mutation kicks in with puberty what with the hormonal changes and all that but for it to happen in grade school wouldn’t make sense unless maybe he has super-puberty too that kicks in earlier?

Kryptonians’s “evolution” was obviously pretty lame as their planet went blooey because they were too dumb to do anything about it. Which really you can make the case Superman stands for both science and faith because it was science that allowed Kal-El to be sent to Earth. Though really Jor-El’s relationship to science seems conflicted because he was a scientist and used it to save his son but he rejected science to create his son because he distrusted the eugenics programs. So it seems a little muddled, pretty much like the whole movie.

I thought the way Pa Kent died was so idiotic. It was much better in “All-Star Superman” and maybe some other comics where he dies from a heart attack, which demonstrated that even with all his powers, Superman couldn’t save everyone. I think that would have been a better message than him standing there while his father dies. But his father kind of deserved it for being such an idiot as to run INTO a tornado to save a dog. I mean I loved my pets when I had them but if it were between me or the pets, me wins every time.

Briane P said...

I agree about the Pa Kent death. I think the thing is that the moviemakers didn't have a clear theme in mind. Not that you have to have one, but if you're going to make a movie with such an obvious attempt at a message, you ought to think through what the message is.

Briane P said...

As for the elements thing, it's not a problem unless you're trying to be realistic. They went for realism in TMOS, so they should've done it right.

It's like "Law & Order" vs. "Night Court." I expect the former to get the law right, but not the latter. TMOS tried to have a realistic explanation for everything. So why not actually understand how the periodic table of elements works?

Scarlet Knight feels more StarWarsian. I wouldn't fret it.

Andrew Leon said...

I'm kind of commenting as I go because:
1. I don't think I'll actually have time to read all of this right now
2. I'll forget my comments if I don't.

My biggest issue with Nolan's Superman, as I said in my review of it, is that he relies too much (completely) on our outside knowledge of Superman to make the movie work. Except, if you look at the movie without any of that outside knowledge, the movie falls apart. It's a failure -as a movie- and only works within the context of pop culture knowledge, which is flawed, so it doesn't even work on that level.
(Nolan is full of himself and incapable of telling a good story anymore. If he ever was. The only excellent movie he did was based on a book.)

I'm pretty sure Smallvile dealt with the whole sensory overload thing. He also destroys things on accident with his heat vision in the show. In all actuality MoS seemed like a sequel to Smallville above all else.
Also, Daredevil deals with that stuff in his movie, both as a boy and the fact that he has to sleep in a sensory deprivation tank as an adult.

I don't think people are more sensitive. In the generational rotation, we are in the "protective" stage where we try to protect our kids from -everything- that could be remotely negative, hence kids' sports teams where there are no losers. The kids aren't fooled, just the parents fooling themselves.

Okay, well, that's all I have time for, at the moment. I'll have to come back later for the other half.