Only Superman Forgives: Man of Steel (2013)

Posted by Charles Reece, July 1, 2013 12:50pm | Post a Comment

I was recently working my way through Jonathan Hickman's run on Fantastic Four and it struck me how explicit the reference to the destruction of New York was made during the proceeding alien invasion storyline. Sue Storm (the super-mom of the group) demands that her fellow heroes move the battle with the invading Kree from the city's skyline to the ocean (why the ruler of the oceans, Prince Namor, has no problem with this is, I guess, because he's all googly eyed over Sue). And after the battle, the superheroes are shown helping rebuild the damaged city. This kind of real world destruction was so unimportant to superhero comics in the past that it became a central joke for a miniseries made back in the 80s called Damage Control about who actually does all the cleaning up. That's what the terrorists did to us, made it impossible to imagine a fantasy where real people aren't being hurt by collateral fallout from cataclysmic battles between superpowered beings.

Contrariwise, Slavoj Zizek has suggested 9/11 was a soporific, that it placed us in slumberland where American fantasies could take hold once again ("virtualization," he called it). The terrorists gave us real nefarious villains to which we could be safely opposed. The prominent media reaction, as he took it, like that of the typical superhero narrative, dehistoricized the attacks, setting them in the perpetual present of an endless comic book (or Hollywoodian virtual) world, where the action becomes one of pure villainy for villainy's sake, motivated by nothing but pure evil ("they hate our freedom," etc.). As Dan Hassler-Forest puts it in his book, Capitalist Superheroes:

Rather than experiencing the attacks as a sudden resurgence of the Real in an environment that had become increasingly virtual, reality instead came to be defined on the basis of fictional tropes. [p. 28]

And, as he points out, this view is rooted in an approach to postmodernity that many of its theorists share with Zizek, such as Jean-François Lyotard, Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard. That is: 

[P]ostmodern (popular) culture serves first and foremost to sever the public's active connection with history by offering up continuous representations of events that are deliberately made unhistorical. [p. 33]

Despite referencing so many dialectical thinkers, Hassler-Forest applies only a half-assed dialectic approach to the modern superhero film. To him, the the genre only replaces the realistic structural problems with a fantasy of a subjective solution:

Superman is again a case in point, seemingly embodying utopian ideals of a better future for all mankind, while most Superman narratives fail to engage on any level with social or political realities. Instead, Superman and most other superheroes tend to fight the symptoms of crime and injustice while ignoring the causes. [p. 40]

Note that there's no contamination of the fantasy by reality (no "return of the repressed" as Robin Wood used to say of horror films). Despite how much Hassler-Forest emphasizes the importance of 9/11, he basically views it as having little effect on the explicit content of the superhero narrative. It becomes just another part of the Real that needs to be suppressed for the fantasy to function properly. As always, the genre's relation to reality is seen as a one-way street: the dream replaces reality. Hapless victims begin to see the world in superheroic terms, but never the genre on reality's terms -- pure escapism by reshaping historical reality. In other words:

For the superheroes depicted on the page or on the screen provide fantasies that offer the illusion of momentary escape from the powerless nature of the modern subject, but do so in ways that are deined by their fundamental removal from historical reality, and in forms that are grounded in capitalist processes of passive consumerism. [p. 42]

But isn't the current crop of superhero films more complicated than that? If these superpowered fantasies are dreamlike, they're more along the lines of lucid dreaming. The audience continues to walk around in the fantasy, enjoy the escape, but is constantly reminded of reality, namely that they are currently dreaming. Although many saw 9/11 as something along the lines of a Hollywood spectacle, there's also the fact that the spectacle is reflecting reality, bringing into question the hermetic virtuality of the fantasy that the above quoted commentary assumes.

[spoilers follow]

Consider the controversy over the new, more violent Superman in Zac Snyder's Man of Steel. Responding to an article on how producer and co-storyline creator Christopher Nolan disagreed with the finale that has Superman having to make a forced choice to kill General Zod, a commenter posed the following questions:

Why would you make a Superman movie where the villain ended up being right and the heroes ended up being wrong? Not only that but why would you make a Superman movie where earth would have been better off if Superman had never came here?

Those are the right ones to ask, I think. So, when a fanboy is quite clear on the film's subtext, where's the repression or even sublimation that's supposedly taking place in the postmodern/virtualization account? Maybe ... just maybe, films aren't really dreams or psychoanalytic fantasies. A popular purveyor of these fantasies, professional comic book writer Mark Waid also seems to be well aware of what the film was saying when he found the film's violence equally problematic for similar reasons:

The essential part of Superman that got lost in MAN OF STEEL, the fundamental break in trust between the movie and the audience, is that we don’t just want Superman to save us; we want him to protect us. He was okay at the former, but really, really lousy at the latter. 

How is this all a matter of virtualization or unconscious repression of the Real when the fanboy contingent is crying for a return to the good ole days of dehistoricized fantasy? These films of mass destruction are being consciously made and consciously received. There's nothing controlling us from the Freudian unconscious about 9/11. Here's Kyle Buchanan, a pop culture critic who needed neither postmodernism nor psychoanalysis to divine a trend in current action films: 

This weekend’s Man of Steel is only the latest film this year to exploit familiar 9/11 imagery in ways that are far more extreme and blatant than anything we’ve seen on the big screen before, as though Hollywood feels the need to out-9/11 itself. It’s lazy, it’s cheap, it’s deadening, and it needs to stop.

I'm kind of desensitized to cities being destroyed, too, but Man of Steel did finally offer the superpowered fisticuffs I'd been waiting from the filmic interpretation of the genre ever since Alan Moore and John Totleben attempted to portray a more realistic effect of godlike creatures duking it out in Miracleman 15:

Granted, Snyder and his effects team don't render the personalized effects of violence in as much loving detail as Totleben, but the film isn't like those awful action cartoons in the 80s, either, where someone is always shown escaping from the damage and guns don't fire bullets. (Fear of media effects in the 70s and 80s resulted in no one getting hurt by violence in G.I. Joe and other product placement cartoons.) Hundreds of thousands die in Metropolis alone, even if we don't see a river of blood. However, we rarely saw any blood in the reporting on 9/11 while still being made aware that there was death involved. My point is that the closer the movies get to Moore and Totleben's vision of hero worship, the better. Since our species is so inclined towards savior fantasies, I prefer mine with the bloodshed that inevitably follows in reality when people really believe in them. If the PG-13 rating doesn't allow for verisimilitudinous bloodletting, then at least be honest enough about the fantasy to not show people parachuting out of harm's way.

More tiresome than mass destruction is the analogizing of superheroes to religious myths, and Snyder unfortunately loads his film with this allegorical shit: Superman is 33 years old; he's depicted in a Christ pose in outer space; and, if that's not explicit enough, he visits a church to get advice from a priest. But, as Waid demonstrates, being a savior isn't good enough; the fanboy requires from his superheroes more than what he requires from his gods. Snyder's transgression was in making Superman merely Christ-like, a savior by proxy, the one who sets the example par excellence for moral behavior. No, Superman should do more; he's supposed to personally protect everyone on earth from themselves or evil Kryptonians. Max Landis, the screenwriter for Chronicle, says much the same thing as Waid. He wants superhero films to return "the hero" to the super. The point of the Jesus myth isn't that another shall decide for you, but that's pretty clearly the message in most superhero narratives since their inception. It's why so many critics call them fascistic. Platitudinous as it may be, if Snyder adds anything by forcing the Christian analogy, it's a bit of humility to generic expectations: Superman seeks help from one of Christ's representatives, rather than having all the answers.

Pace critics such as Chris Gavaler and the aforementioned Hassler-Forest who have difficulty not making a 9/11 reference when discussing just about any contemporary action film, isn't there always something of a perceptual analogy between any large scale cinematographic destruction set in a city and the one instance of destruction to a city we Americans experienced in reality (mostly through video on the TV)? Is the similarity on which the comparisons rest always ideological? To answer Buchanan's question if it's possible to make a Hollywood blockbuster without evoking 9/11, I'm thinking probably not -- not because everyone of these films is "really about" suppressing the causes of 9/11, or making it into a fantasy, but because the event has become our default source in the analogies we draw from these films. However, if something has significantly changed in the blockbuster, it's the level of the realism in depicting the violence and a bit more depth to the hero and villain's respective rationales, which can be seen in recent superhero films.

As a contrast, take an episode of Fleischer Studio's Superman called "The Bulleteers," in which the eponymous villains terrorize Metropolis with an airplane that turns into a bullet and smashes into skyscrapers, power plants and trains, killing thousands and thousands of people.

Kind of hard not to analogize that to 9/11, even though the cartoon is from 1942. The Bulleteers' rationale was to traumatize the good citizens of Metropolis until their governmental representatives handed over the loot. Stealing is not ideological in the way we now think of terrorism, which has some political goal to the killing, but the methodology is pretty similar: create widespread fear in the populace. The Fleischer cartoons are replete with such destruction, often without even the motive of greed. Thousands die just because the villain is evil. Nevertheless, there's always a happy ending, because Superman saves Lois Lane.

Surely, Man of Steel is a tad more thoughtful than that. Instead of stopping pure evil or an act of theft, Superman is faced with a zero-sum choice between mutually exclusive ways of life, Kryptonian versus human. As Gaveler points out, this is a genocidal battle. Because subjective violence is more emotionally resonant when it's individuals being threatened rather than a building (with who knows how many individuals within), Superman is shown having to kill Zod to prevent his murdering a family in the end. (Superman has killed in the comics, too, namely his battle with Doomsday resulted in both dying in the much promoted "Death of Superman" storyline.) The threat to the family is a way of making Superman's forced choice more personalized and intimate. Some have spun this as the film's ignoring all the mass death up to this one family being threatened (this is Waid's interpretation, and would be a fairly accurate summation of the Fleischer cartoons). But the scene functions as a reminder of Zod's death toll if you weren't dwelling on the inhabitants of the buildings destroyed during the mêlée. It's saying he's going to keep on with mass annihilation if he's not stopped. Hardly subtle, I see it as a stagey, dramatic culmination of Superman trying to stop him from killing humans, not the hero's sudden awareness that someone might die during the fights. (Having said that, as should be clear from above, I'm an advocate of always showing more violent effects in these fantasies, but no one's ever going to make a rated-R-for-blood Superman flick. This is as much realistic concern as the brandname will allow.)

I prefer deflationary approaches to my fantasies. They should say something about reality (which isn't the same as preferring realism). I'm glad that there's an element of doubt that's become more prominent in the heroic fantasy after 9/11, not just with the dependency of the central hero on real world representatives of the system, but in the way the supervillains are presented as being ideologically opposed to that system. Thoughts of terrorism has certainly made the villains more interesting in these films. The recent version of Star Trek's Kahn, like the The Dark Knight's Joker, is used to expose the structural violence on which cultural order rests. No matter what kind of pacifist utopia Roddenberg imagined the Federation to be, the exploratory ships contained photon torpedoes for a reason. Into the Darkness dramatizes the repression of this violence by putting Kahn into suspended animation, while keeping the torpedo technology (one of the movie posters symbolizes the violence surrounding Kahn its relation to the Federation). Internally, the society might be pacifist, but it's going to need weapons to prevent external threats to the utopia. It seems to me that the supervillain is less likely to be a purely evil Otherness nowadays and more likely to reveal questions regarding what the hero signifies when suppressing this threat..

So, although Landis is right, Man of Steel does demote the hero, I'm not seeing why that's a bad thing. If Man of Steel says that we can't trust saviors to save us, then that's surely one of best lessons from any film this year. After all, it's not Superman alone who saves the planet. Rather, it's the sacrifice of Dr. Emil Hamilton and a bunch of soldiers who fly another Kryptonian ship into General Zod's own that sends all his forces back into the Phantom Zone. Lois Lane was willing, too, but falls out of the ship. Once again, her rescue helps us not feel so bad about the final death toll. That Superman has to work with the humans in order to save them seems the intended post-9/11 message here. Something similar was suggested when a bunch of teamsters lined up cranes in The Amazing Spider-Man so that the injured hero could swing to his destination to beat the Lizard. Likewise, Batman proved incapable of defeating the menace of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises without the help of Gotham's finest.

Because of the nature of this help, these recent versions of Superman and Batman, at least, can be seen as agitprop for the military, police, national security forces or whatever else exists to maintain the order of things. The superheroic fantasy is displacing itself, following the media mythologizing of first-responders, with one about realworld heroes. But both characters have always been vigilante fantasies of a moral status quo. They are incorruptible standins for cops and military types, who are idealized as America's true heroes. Someone like Superman lets us imagine what if the agents of order always used violence for justice, i.e., if those with power actually used it for the commonweal. (Superheroes are rarely the opponents of the status quo, usually only if the diegetic order is dystopian to which they can be opposed as a sympathetic terrorist or radical, such as in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta or Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.) That there's some ugly inferences to be made from this fantasy has been explored in Neil Gaiman's take on Miracleman and, later, Warren Ellis' The Authority, where the superheroes as self-appointed saviors take many cherished enlightened liberal ideas and force them upon the world. In other words, the police state or martial law lurks behind most superhero fantasies.

I agree with the above critics that the superhero fantasies tend toward conservatism. How could they not? Unless being used as auto-critiques by Moore and the like, they offer fantastical support for people putting their trust in an authority figure to return a destabilized system to order. It's just that if you're going to make a conservative fantasy, don't repress what you're fantasizing about. And it does seem that there's less repression in these superhero films than there used to be in Hollywood blockbusters before 9/11. Who knows why the Crimson Jihad wanted to blow up the United States in True Lies? No way could it be a problem with Arnold or what he represents. Post-9/11, probably because it's not exactly a bunch of conservative ideologues who are making these conservative fantasies, Superman is shown to need the American military in the film in the same way he's taken by Hassler-Forest to represent American power. It might remain a fantasy of American superiority, but Man of Steel makes sure we acknowledge it. Like the weapons on which Tony Stark became so rich in Iron Man, the role of the hero has become part of the problematic in these blockbusters, the absolutism isn't as absolute, and we have the terrorists to thank for that.


The full title of Dan Hassler-Forest's book is Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age (2011) for Zero Books. 

Man of Steel poster by Mark Ansin for Mondo.

Note: rather irritatingly, the diacritics in 'Zizek' no longer work for the blog software, so normal Zs will have to do. I'm sure that all my previous references now look like shit. Oh well.

Relevant Tags

Star Trek: Into The Darkness (1), Star Trek (17), Man Of Steel (2), Superman (5), Superheroes (8), Dan Hassler-forest (1)