Zack Snyder’s 2013 Superman reboot film “Man of Steel” is a curious thing. While it’s retroactively became the start of an expansive series of multiple superhero (and supervillain) films, the original idea came from writer Davis S. Goyer bouncing ideas off collaborator Christopher Nolan (director of “The Dark Knight Trilogy”, “The Prestige”, “Interstellar”, and so on) while they were both suffering writer’s block on writing the final Christian Bale Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises”. While they broke the story together, only Goyer remained actively attached, as Nolan took on a more hands-off producer role to concentrate on “The Dark Knight Rises” (and, later, “Interstellar”). Director Zack Snyder, of “300” and “Watchmen” fame, was hired to bring the film to life. The marketing of the film leaned very heavily on Nolan’s involvement, the selling point seemingly “’The Dark Knight’, but with Superman!”, but Snyder is a very, very different sort of director than Nolan, and the film we ended up getting is a peculiar beast.
Snyder is not a particularly cerebral director like Nolan is. They share a fascination with deconstructing superheroes (though Snyder’s fascination with deconstructing popular superheroes ended up garnering immense critical backlash with the sequel “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” when he pushed the titular characters further than Nolan ever did), but where Nolan is more interested in constructing highly clever, structured plots, Snyder is more interested in visuals, kinetics, and cinematography. In his own words, “For me, visual style has the same importance as story, as character, and as the environment. In the end, a movie is a series of pictures, and I try to be aware of that at all times”. This is not an attitude Nolan seems to share, and I think audiences were expecting something quite different with “Man of Steel”, given how heavily the marketing leaned on it being some sort of Nolan-esque affair that it never really was.
Snyder’s particular sense of aesthetics works very well for me in particular, and while I don’t think “Man of Steel” has a singular focus and as much of his signature style as other works (like its sequel), I’m still fascinated by how Snyder communicates the protagonist’s arc, the story, and the themes present through his own particular visual style. There will be spoilers throughout.
The story of the film, the arc of the main character, is essentially Clark Kent struggling with finding his place in the universe. Clark understandably feels like he doesn’t belong – he’s an alien, a freak, and many people react poorly when learning more about what he really is. Throughout the movie, learning about both his worlds (Krypton and Earth), and lessons from both his families, equips him to better deal with his future. Yet it is ultimately through becoming active rather than passive, putting himself out there, enduring suffering in conflict in the process, but making his own choices and choosing his own fate, that he comes to the point where he feels like he belongs and feels ready to assert his place in the universe – a superheroic saviour of humans. One that will put his faith in humanity, regardless of whether it’s reciprocated, or wise to do so. Superman.
Many superhero films, including Goyer’s own “Batman Begins” (which he co-wrote with director Christopher Nolan) situate themselves as “origin stories”, stories that examine the genesis of a character. Typically in superhero films, the character comes into focus by the end of the first act, and the rest of the film is them grappling with their conflicts and enemies. They learn along the way, but the superhero at their most identifiable level is constructed by the end of the first act.
Not so in “Man of Steel”. The entire film is the origin story, and it’s not until the quick montage at the very end that Superman as a character is finally properly constructed. Superhero films typically use as many identifiable, marketable aspects from the comics they draw from as they can, but this film notably completely eschews kryptonite, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane not knowing who Superman is (perhaps the most charming aspect of the Christopher Reeve Superman films), Superman having dual identities (there is no distinction between Clark Kent, Kal-El, and Superman here), Jimmy Olsen, Clark’s journalistic career (only glimpsed fleetingly at the very end), and so on. Even the very name, “Superman”, is only said twice in the film, and isn’t even present in the title of the film. This is particularly notable because the previous Superman film, Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns”, is so enormously concerned with Superman tropes, with the legacy of the Christopher Reeve films, even being marketed as a nostalgic sequel to them and as a reaffirmation of all the cultural connotations the audience had with that classic conception of Superman. “Man of Steel” is so thematically concerned with characters asserting their autonomy by not following their designated roles, that I believe the sidelining of such famous Superman conventions was an intentional metatextual layer, holistically presenting the entire movie as an assertion that one can break free of their designated roles and chase their own unique destiny.
The main element of Superman iconography the film indulges in is the “S” symbol, but it’s examined as an icon through which different characters project their own meanings. Like Superman as a character, like the film itself, and like I’m doing right now, it’s audiences that draw their own meaning from symbols and art, regardless of what meaning creators intend. Clark sees the symbol as a sign of belonging and connection with his biological family, Jor-El sees it as what it represents in his language (hope), humans see it as the letter “S”, Lois suggests it should stand for “Superman”. By making the Superman suit akin to a royal suit of armour passed down through the House of El, and by exploring various character’s readings of the El/”S” symbol, the film both reappropriates and recontextualises key parts of Superman iconography, it also empowers audiences through the narrative to draw and project their own meanings onto such symbols. In one of the main posters for the film, embedded below, Superman is literally flying above, transcending, his symbol.
Audience projections onto Superman and his surrounding symbols would be explored in more depth in the sequel, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, where the theological and social implications of Superman’s existence become a major story point. In “Man of Steel”, it’s used more to explain how Superman comes to position himself as a beacon for hope, both internally (hope that his faith in humanity will be reciprocated, but resolve to keep fighting for them and saving them no matter if it is or not), and externally (the existence of a superpowered angelic figure giving hope to people that they’ll be saved from dangerous circumstances, by the Kryptonian guardian angel from the sky coming to save them).
The immense destruction in the third act of the film ties into a larger interest of Snyder’s, that of portraying superheroes as the modern version of ancient mythology and mythic figures. In his own words, “I wanted the movie to have a mythological feeling. In ancient mythology, mass deaths are used to symbolise disasters. In other countries like Greece and Japan, myths were recounted through the generations, partly to answer unanswerable questions about death and violence. In America, we don’t have that legacy of ancient mythology. Superman is probably the closest we get. It’s a way of recounting the myth”.
Snyder tries to mesh his philosophy and aesthetics drawing from classicism and mythology, with realism and grounded storytelling. With superhero films in particular, he tries to both explore character’s psyches with psychologically realistic depth, yet also use them in mythic ways, as emblems for broader philosophies (clearer in “Watchmen”, where characters embody various political ideologies, and in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, with characters standing in for theological conflicts).
He says “I really believe this – and I think it’s obvious – I believe superheroes, they’re our modern myths”. So he’s interested in using the scale and representational aspects of superhero characters to make movies with some sort of relevant meaning for modern audiences. Unlike “Watchmen” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, this movie isn’t as much deconstructionist than reconstructionist; rather than breaking characters down and examining why they persist in our culture, here he builds a character up to assert why the character persists in our culture. He isn’t questioning why Superman is a popular figure here, he’s making the case for why Superman is a popular figure. In his own words, “I felt like in the recent past, people have been apologising for Superman a little bit, for his costume, for his origins, the way he fits into society. And we really wanted to just say ‘No, no, this it the mythology, this is how it is, and it’s supposed to be this way’”.
In visual terms, one of the most interesting parts of the film is how it uses a handheld camera style while being so colossal in scale and spectacle. This ties into the grounding aspect Snyder and Goyer are interested in, and also lends a warm, naturalistic feel to many of the smaller-scale scenes, like the Clark flashbacks. Speaking of those flashbacks, their non-linear structuring in the first half of the film helps communicate how Clark feels lost and like he doesn’t belong, he constantly mentally retreats to his past, and is adrift in every sense of the world. It’s not until later in the film as he grows in confidence and begins mantling the role of a superhero that the narrative ceases flitting all over the place.
Some people even compared the style of the movie’s trailers to director Terrence Malick, whose films have a very unique aesthetic playing with scale in nature, natural light, operatic music, and meditative voiceover. Snyder’s work is decidedly less cinematic and philosophical, but on a surface level, some of the scenes in the film do evoke Malick’s visual stylings. Goyer has an interesting story on that matter – “we were shooting some stuff on the Kent Farm, and it was magic hour, so it was dusk and we were out in the fields….it was just a small group of us and we were shooting with available light, handled and [director of photography Amir Mokri] was doing the camera….I just turned to Zack and I said ‘Can you believe we’re doing this? I mean, this is so amazing.’ But, more to the point, the scene that we were shooting, stylistically, it reminded me of something out of ‘Days of Heaven’, the Terrence Malick film rather than a comic book movie because a lot of the movie – there are moments like that that are really cool. It’s much more textural than I think people will expect”.
Speaking of style – the score is gorgeous, fantastic, inspired, some of Zimmer’s best recent work. Twelve drummers play at once in many of the cues, and the raw power and strength come through so clearly from that. Hearing actual motifs in a superhero film is a joy, since that’s so rare in the genre these days. I particularly liked the Zod motif, with its ominous repetitive string pattern.
I identify the main themes of the movie as being that pain and sacrifice are worth enduring for what they enable, it’s worth upholding the moral principles one believes in even if it’s in vain, and that people have the ability to transcend assigned limitations and choose their own path. All three of those themes essentially come down to that while it can be difficult and painful to keep doing what one believes is right, it’s worthwhile to at the very least try. These aren’t especially complex, deep, or unique themes or approaches to a story (and the narrative choices behind them aren’t half as daring as they are in the sequel), but it’s the way Snyder often explores them more through imagery than plot or dialogue that interests me.
The Pains of Birth are Worth Enduring for the Life that Follows
The movie opens with Superman’s birth parents, Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van, as Kal-El is born. Lara is clearly in pain during labour, but afterwards both parents are happy and proud of his birth, and of what they’ve accomplished. Clearly, they view the pains they endured as worth it. Towards the end of the movie, the people of Earth suffer pain and death as the Kryptonian antagonists attempt to terraform the Earth, then as General Zod attempts to kill Superman. However, the way Superman is presented at the end (as well as the way both his fathers talked about his potential throughout the movie) seem to indicate that such pains were worth it, that the catastrophic events of the film were worth birthing the world’s first bona fide superhero, an angelic being that can go on to do what we know the character as typically doing – saving people, righting wrongs, defending the Earth, and so on.
The plot device of the kyrptonian “Codex”, a macrocosm amplifying Superman’s representation of potential, birth, new life, and liberation from structures limiting free will and autonomy. As befitting Snyder’s mythological, larger-than-life approach, Superman isn’t just one baby representing new life and potential, within him is embedded billions of other babies representing the same.
The movie also employs some notable phallic and vulvic imagery, with the most striking phallic imagery on Krypton (the pods Zod and his comrades are placed in startled me when I first saw the cinema, in how blindingly phallic they were), and the vulvic imagery mostly confined to the Krypton ship on Earth, with its many curiously shaped doors, openings, and grooves. This imagery also reinforces the focus on birth, reproduction, the potential of new life to forge its own path, and so on.
The Struggle to Uphold Principles is Worthwhile even if in Vain
To assert Superman as a relevant modern figure, Snyder seems convinced it’s necessary to place him in a morally murky world where it’s not always possibly to uphold ones principles perfectly. Certainly a gloomier proposition than the sunny optimism of the Christopher Reeve Superman films, but it’s just a matter of Snyder making a different sort of film. The third act of the film indulges in ever-escalating violence and destruction, as the city of Metropolis withstands massive devastation as the godly Kryptonians fight within it. To save a family General Zod is trying to kill out of spite, Superman kills him. It is unpleasant seeing such an optimistic figure of hope kill someone. But Snyder seems convinced that for the character, the mythology, to mean anything, it must be grounded in a world with relatable moral difficulty and compromise.
In his own words, he says ““I think with Superman we have this opportunity to place this icon within the sort of real world we live in….I made him real, you know, I made him feel, or made consequences [in] the world” and “There are other superhero movies where they joke about how basically no one’s getting hurt. That’s not us. What is that message? That’s it’s okay that there’s this massive destruction with zero consequence for anyone”. Many question why Snyder insists on making superhero movies with such unpleasant conflicts, and why he doesn’t indulge in more escapist, nakedly fun filmmaking. I think that’s a totally legitimate feeling, and position to take, but I ask…why not? There are hundreds of Superman stories where the character isn’t placed in such situations. The Christopher Reeve films aren’t going anywhere. Why not explore the character in a new way? Snyder is clearly deeply invested in the genre, and is trying to say what he seems to perceive as new things (regardless of whether he succeeds) in new ways (regardless if everyone finds them enjoyable). Clearly I personally enjoy his aesthetics and lens through which he examines superheroes, but for other directors working in the genre whose work I find distasteful or dull, I don’t take what they’re doing personally. There are always old reiterations of these characters we can fall back on. Why not celebrate that some filmmakers are trying to create new iterations? If they succeed, great, if not, at least they tried something new. And even if they didn’t, it’s impossible for them to “take away” from what’s come before.
Jor-El tells Clark he will become “an ideal to strive towards”. To strive towards. Not to always successfully follow, but to attempt to follow. Jonathan Kent teaches Clark why sometimes being passive rather than active is a good thing, why he should sometimes turn the other cheek. Jor-El extols the scale at which Clark can act as a saviour. A nameless Smallville priest tells Clark that, while sometimes it can be difficult or even foolish to trust people, “Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith first” before any reciprocation happens, for “trust comes later”. Clark synthesises these lessons in how he places his faith in humanity, tries to save them even if they hurt him and attempt to kill him. Even as a child, before such a principle fully crystallised in his mind, he did so, and sometimes trust was indeed reciprocated after his “leap of faith”, after helping people even if they didn’t act “deserving” of such help. This is demonstrated in the below cinegrid, where Clark is seen saving a boy even after he bullied him, that same bully later helping him after Clark was bullied by someone else, and where Superman is seen saving military personnel even after they fired on him and tried to kill him. Jonathan Kent didn’t have faith the Earth would reject Clark as a child, Perry White has no faith the Earth would react well to learning of the existence of an alien, and their opinions have merit, but Clark eventually decides reciprocity isn’t necessary to him, and that he will act rather than remain passive anyway.
Between Clark’s self-sacrificing nature, the Christian imagery used around him in the movie, and the very Biblical nature of the character (not just in terms of Jesus the messiah, but also Moses, with Clark’s parents sending him out in the proverbial casket/ship down the river/space to hopefully a better home/world), the character having both a godly father and an adoptive human father, and the very “Garden of Gethsemane” moment Clark has in a Smallville church, Superman is clearly intended as a religious parallel in the film. While this isn’t explored in any real depth here, like it is in the sequel “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, it meshes well with Snyder’s aesthetics.
Water is a common element in the film, and three key scenes of Superman saving people take place within water, with each scene (in chronological order) showcasing Superman’s increasing strength and ability to save others at a greater scale. As Clark slowly mantles his destiny of becoming the superheroic saviour Superman more and more, one could justify seeing each time Clark is submerged in water as a sort of progressive baptism and rebirth, with Clark grasping his potential and reaching for his angelic, godly nature more and more each time.
Individuals can Transcend the Role they’re Assigned
Arguably the main theme of the film, and certainly the in-narrative genesis of its story, the film asserts that people can transcend and break free of the roles they’re assigned – whether biologically be genetics, socially through society, through the cultural connotations of certain symbols, or any other way. That people have the aboility, and perhaps even owe it to themselves, to try and break free of such limitations and choose their own paths. Jor-El most explicitly states as such, dismissing General Zod’s insistence on Kryptonian hyper-stratified culture where everyone is assigned an unchangeable role since birth, and babies aren’t even born, but rather artificially gestated.
Jor-El insists free will, autonomy, and liberty are paramount, ideals worth forever striving towards, and is insistent on the merit and worth of the potential of people to strive for something other than what other intended for them. He is not just all talk either, as he even tells Clark to not just follow his and Krypton’s advice and guidance, but to seek to to find his own path synthesising aspects from both worlds if he so wishes. The kryptonian Codex is implanted within Clark, but Jor-El truly embodies the principle he fights for, and doesn’t push Clark to necessarily fight for that same principle. It seems paradoxical in a way, but Jor-El is a true and complete believer in autonomy, even if that means not pushing others to believe in, and fight for, it as well.
That freedom makes Clark’s choice to eventually become the angelic superheroic figure that both his fathers knew he could become all the more meaningful, because it was truly his choice. It wasn’t a case of him following the role others designated for him, or blindly following the conventions of the mythology and symbolism surrounding him, it was truly his choice. The lessons Jonathan Kent taught Clark about sacrifice don’t really come into as much play until the sequel, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, but Jonathan’s death preserved Clark’s ability to choose the most appropriate time to come out to the world, as well as instructing Clark that saving people (or dogs, for that matter) is more important than self-preservation. As the film closes, some more conventional aspects of Superman mythology finally come into play, with Clark getting employed at the Daily Planet and wearing glasses and whatnot, but it’s all contextualised throughout the characterisation Clark has gone through in the movie – he is making the choice to become the iconic Superman, rather than the film stiltedly reverse-engineering it and rushing him into that role.
It’s not just an origin story for the superhero, it’s a birth story for the man. I give it four phallic pods, and a half-eaten roll of Lifesavers.