‘Superman, the Destroyer: Destruction in the Shadow of a Cape,’ Kwasu David Tembo, University of Edinburgh

I shall not discuss what should have happened or what I would have done as so often happens when superhero films are addressed and redressed. Where to start, then? Well, we could look to the scripture itself and discuss our opinions about seeing some of the ‘deeper’ or lesser known aspects of the Superman mythos employed in Man of Steel, the codex for example, and the use of certain elements that seemed to be directly transposed from Superman stories such as “Memories of Krypton’s Past” by Ordway, Pérez, and Stern. We could turn our eye toward aesthetics perhaps, and discuss the innovative re-imagining of Kryptonian culture as ancient, exotic, and static, where “everything is made of bones and shells” that, intimating the dark aesthetic of the Swiss Surrealist H.R. Giger, radically distances itself from the nostalgia of the Deco aesthetic it is typically, almost fundamentally, associated with (Scott Hecker, 2013). Or, we could discuss Snyder’s use of light, jump cuts, and his signature zooming techniques, how they make sense when it comes to Superman – Snyder being a highly kinetic director, one who understands and can manipulate speed to spectacular effect – and in doing so, try to disseminate why, interestingly, there was little to none of his signature slow motion in Man of Steel. All that considered, I think a helpful way into the film is for us to isolate a question, debate, or point of tension. So, let us discuss the destruction in Man of Steel.

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Since the film’s release in June, there have been many outspoken criticisms of the amount of destruction in Man of Steel. Comic writers and ‘spokesmen’, including Mark Waid, Max Landis, and Kevin Smith, all have criticized Snyder and Goyer for the extreme levels of destruction portrayed in the film. This critique of destruction is made all the more exigent because in all the acts, scenes, and portrayals of destruction shown in the film are enabled by Superman itself. I find this critique somewhat curious, in some ways maybe naive. This is because Man of Steel is, in many ways, a cautionary tale: be careful what you wish for.

Seven years ago, Superman Returns was released and was met with a sort of acerbic, frustrated disappointment. Singer’s effort has been famously mocked for its lack of violence and destruction, particularly that kind of unique, divine destruction one imagines Superman itself to be capable of. In “Sold Out: A Threevning with Kevin Smith”, Smith, with much ire and exasperation, declares that “Superman Returns was fucking boring, man. That’s a really boring movie” (Smith, 2008). Partially absolving himself of accusations of unsporting jealousy by calling Brian Singer a better director than him, Smith goes on to call Superman Returns “the art house version of Superman, the whiney, emo Superman movie, where Superman doesn’t throw a single fucking punch…you won’t believe how fucking boring this [Superman] is. It was fucking astounding to me, I couldn’t fucking believe it” (Smith, 2008). And as if great Rao itself heard this effusive plea for someone to put the Action! back into the modern incarnation of the star of Action Comics#1, Man of Steel emerged and delivered what is fair to describe as an apocalyptic spectacle of desolation and destruction for a modern audience demanding that their superhero films be, as a rule, ‘real fictions’.

Superman Returns was predicated on the mixture of a Donner sensibility, intermingled with an air of obvious nostalgia and as such, the film worked (or didn’t, depending on your view) precisely because it took Superman out of modern conditions. By replacing “realism” with nostalgia, Singer effectively neutralized the problem of Superman’s power in Superman Returns, limiting Superman and the threats it faced to nostalgic ideas of heroism and villainy, that are as allegorical and symbolic as they are conventional; from Lex Luther as the megalomaniacal real-estate agent; to the malignant island of evil, an inversion of the fortress of solitude, that expands like the Luthor’s (and by extension mankind’s) own internecine will through the earth, threatening to destroy civilization; and Superman as the apopototic tool of redemption and cure. In Superman Returns, the essential element of Superman’s power is so always-already symbolic that the reality of its power, power enough to lift an island and throw it into space as shown, is sublimated into the messianic iconography and symbolism that always mediates its various “acts of god”.

In Man of Steel, the audience is shown what could be considered the antithesis. Snyder, for better or worse, answers that longstanding question of what it would be like if Superman actually existed amongst us. The answer, in a word, according to Snyder and Goyer, is destructive. After Superman Returns, maybe nostalgically anaesthetized to the fundamental reality of Superman, namely that it is a being of power and this power will always manifest and when it does, it is always disruptive, the now jaded audience demanded a realistic depiction of Superman. Man of Steel suggests that though Superman is shown to be psycho-historically conflicted by his human conditioning through the Kents’ ethic of denial and suppression versus Jor-El’s ethic of overcoming, the reality of its power is what ultimately matters. The reality of Superman that the audience once demanded takes on the horror and monstrosity of realization in Man of Steel, and  the audience is now affronted by a display of the essential destructiveness of its supernature? The iconic smile, the salutes and waves, the flag billowing proudly behind the ur-god of the atomic age, the iconography and symbolism that once acted as a protective screen shielding the consumer of Superman from this truth about the type of power it represents, a power that is simply beyond good or evil, are shattered in a spectacle of abiding wrath. This controversy surrounding the biblical levels of destruction shown in Man of Steel indicate the persistence of a fundamental anxiety about the figure of the super being, a god in a cape, one that Max Landis’s Lex Luthor sums up in the following monologue:

“Mark my words, Superman will be the downfall of civilization. He represents the end of human achievement. You wanna know why? Because no human will ever be as good as Superman and that’s why he’s boring, and that’s why he’s dangerous. You wanna know why Superman never says anything? Its because he’s a ‘good guy’? No…its because he’s hiding his    real motives: to subvert and destroy our society. A messiah figure in the modern era would be the most destructive thing to happen to Metropolis and global culture imaginable. People would stop trying to be better. And I, Lex Luthor,  a self-made man, I can’t allow that. Our society must reject Superman” (Landis, 2013).

Perhaps more than the limitations that the super-being’s power impose on the idea of human potential and will to power, Man of Steel effectively reminds the viewer of what a Kryptonian is capable of. This move away from nostalgia toward realism says to the viewer: “rejoice, or tremble: its power remains unavoidable.”    

“Looking up, seeing nothing, in disbelief looking up again”-The Mathematics of Rubble

The controversy surrounding the levels of destruction in Man of Steel suggest that in reality, Superman, to most, would take on a Miltonic aspect: it would appear to us as a beautiful monster, the imminent eschaton with a cape and a curled forelock, a being that represents the pinnacle of an unreachable level of power. “The Insane Destruction That The Final “Man Of Steel” Battle Would Do To NYC, By The Numbers” by Jordan Zakarin provides statistical estimates of Superman’s destructive aptitude, and a hypothetical measure of what I call its ‘essential disruptiveness”. He states:

“When Superman (Henry Cavill) and his nemesis General Zod (Michael Shannon) duke it out for almost the entire third act of the movie, their incredible speed and power are largely on display in Metropolis, the fictional city that is largely based on New York. In a study done…by scientist and longtime disaster expert Charles Watson… his team at Watson Technical Consulting to model…[the anticipated] damage done to Metropolis, both in the form of human casualties and monetary cost…[They] ran analyses of the World Engine ground zero in Central Manhattan and central Chicago, finding that the major damage would be a mile in diameter. WTC estimates that, in the days after the attack, the known damage would already be stunning:   129,000 known killed, over 250,000 missing (most of whom would have also died), and nearly a million injured. The impact, WTC writes, “seemed to be similar to an air burst from a 20kt nuclear explosion in terms of shock effects, but without the radiation or thermal effects.”…The numbers are staggering, but then, so is the imagery. Superman and Zod’s   battle is one of epic proportions, these two superhumans from a distant planet laying waste to the gleaming city.They toss each other into buildings, with each crash easily blowing holes through the architecture and sending the towers — and the many people inside of them — free-falling to the broken pavement below. The rain of searing wreckage blew streets apart; people became trapped under fallen buildings and overturned cars, crushed beneath facades and hot and twisted metal. The onslaught from the back-and-forth battle was random and merciless; the two Kryptonians paid little attention to the damage they were doing to anything but each other. In the end, Superman wins the day. But at what cost?” (Zakarin, 2013).

What is the effect of the fictive on the real? What is the cost of reifying a god? We are made to ask because in Snyder’s innings, the salubrious smile of the Kryptonian Sun-god is wiped away. The Apollinian succour of the dream of flying is shaken to splinters by the awful Dionysian power always-already rumbling at the core of it – Fall ye to the ground, ye millions? Feelst thou thy Saviour/Destroyer, world?

Apocalyptic Apostasy: The Revaluation of Superman

 From the various reactions to the film and the ongoing debate surrounding it, it is clear that many people felt a similar unease over the level and portrayal of destruction in Man of Steel. Perhaps the most vehement of these reactions comes from Max Landis in his “Regarding Clark” Man of Steel review and discussion. Landis points out that in Man of Steel, “Superman takes part in two of the largest disaster scenes [Landis] has ever seen in a movie”. He clarifies; “I’m not talking about The Day After Tomorrow or Independence Day [which] are movies based around disaster scenes”, into which one goes with the wish and expectation to “see a city be destroyed”. Landis and others (see Kevin Smith’s “Fat Man on Batman 40: Man of Steel Super Special with special guest Pal Garman”) agree that “a city should not be being destroyed in the fucking Superman movie” and that “Superman should not be allowing that to happen” (Landis, 2013). Though Landis “kinda loved the way it looked as it was being destroyed”, the films many “direct 9/11 corollaries” were shocking for Landis and many others who criticize the film for its seemingly wanton depiction of destruction (Landis, 2013). It seems Man of Steel gave audiences who had previously been given a tame, familiar Superman, the blood and destruction, they demanded: their curiosity regarding the upper reaches of power won out.

Landis also states that the final conflict between Zod and Superman “should not be a city destroying sequence”, and that instead, “it should be two guys fighting in space or on the moon[:..Superman] should stop him!”.  He must, right? He must! He must… “Watching that city die”, Landis continues, “reminded him of Transformers 3 or the end of Avengers, everything ends in the same city-destroying pandemonium, terrorist attack from space, everything gets levelled and all these people die!”. It is helpful to think of Landis’s emphatic review  as a commentary on “the way superhero movies have become” namely, that

“at the end of [Man of Steel] and allot of these movies, all I’m seeing is fire and death and that confuses the living shit out of me because everybody is going to these movies and they’re all making so much money and at the end…a hero stands tall as all of society has crumbled behind him. That isn’t a superhero to me, a guy who stands there after everyone else is dead. That’s like a rock star. I don’t wanna see movies about rock stars. Put the hero back into ‘superhero’ movies because I think that the ‘super’ may have taken over” (Landis, 2013).

During a presentation at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival, Grant Morrison offered a similar opinion, stating that the levels of destruction in Man of Steel, the Avengers, and Iron Man 3, to name a few, are the West’s reaction to trauma, specifically, post 9/11 trauma. According to Morrison, as a direct consequence, the symptomatic fear created in the post 9/11 atmosphere has violently superimposed itself onto the idea of the comic book superbeing and its cinematic expression. What has occurred then is that superheroes have become tributaries of the military-industrial complexes of the State, superpowered apparatuses for homeland security and foreign, in some cases interplanetary, interstellar, or intergalactic, policy. Morrison suggests that in the midst of the West’s growing fear of itself and its standing in the various spheres of global socio-politics, its heroes transformed into soldiers. Man of Steel is symptomatic of this militarization of the comic book superhero, and, in these terms, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the post-Nolan “superhero film is to 9/11 what kaiju films are to Hiroshima” (Morrison, 2013). In all these various criticisms and reviews, there is an essential element. In my opinion, what Landis  and others are reacting to is, for better or worse, an essential truth about the fundamental nature of comicbook super-beings, a truth that twice Alan Moore – in Miracleman and Watchman– startlingly and brilliantly develops to its radical conclusion: In reality, Superman, by its very nature, is insolubly disruptive.

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While many were disturbed by the destruction in Man of Steel, the destruction itself was, at least theoretically, the most interesting and, dare I say, accurate aspect of Man of Steel. Man of Steel suggests that, in the last instance, Superman on Earth, whether it is smiling or breaking buildings in half, destruction is the most realistic outcome of a being that powerful on Earth. Its mere existence in and amongst human beings is essentially disruptive. And not in a nostalgic, quaint manner either. This disruptivity, as Snyder and Goyer correctly show, is nuclear or atomic in nature. We must also keep in mind that Man of Steel does not depict the peak amplitude of Superman’s power which is the same as saying that the upper limits of Superman’s disruptivity remain unknown, both to Superman itself, as well as the audience. In spectacular fashion, Man of Steel asks the viewer, could humanity survive that revaluation? For some, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, to entertain the idea that a character whose myriad nuances, beauty, and heart-wrenching tragedy that are typically reduced to Deux Ex Machina conclusions is simultaneously a Deus Exitium – a god of destruction. The vehement response to the destruction depicted in Man of Steel interestingly reflects perhaps how our anxiety toward omnipotence, divinity, gods, and goddesses, has been modernized and reborn as ‘superman’, the archon of modern pop-culture redeemers, an anxiety that has in some form or other, always haunted ‘the last son of Krypton’, keeping it company during its asylum on earth. And so, in “making it real”, Snyder  and Goyer offer the audience an explosive  insight into a truth about the nature of the comic book super-being, replete with the fantastic damage of things falling apart: It is reified. Things break. People die. In the garden of its turbulence, the linkages and apparatuses, however flawed and incomplete, that afford an inferior species meaning, are torn open like warm bread. Like the devastating toll of the klaxon of Zod’s world engine, this truth rings out, enough to drive all – the hopeful child looking to the sky for a hero, the faithful acolyte who turned the pages, dreaming of becoming a god, and the soul survivor of a celestial shipwreck, mad alike: Superman cannot save everyone and in trying to save, it destroys. In the comics, we are given a somewhat stunted, almost farcical buffer for the truth of Superman’s disruptivity in the form of a maintained illusion called Clark Kent. In Man of Steel, that bespectacled veil of maya is dazzlingly torn asunder. The audience is given the alien, not the “man”. They are reminded of a simultaneously horrible and exciting truth: Superman’s presence on Earth is never benign. Its presence always-already carries with it an apocalyptic potential whereby its power leaves our understanding of ourselves as little more than a shadow burned into the Earth. Standing in the rubble, eyes smouldering like ignited crucibles of Force, the question hangs in the air: Quis ut Deus?

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ABOUT
Kwasu David Tembo is a second year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh’s Language, Literatures, and Cultures department. The working title of his doctoral thesis is Project Zarathustra which is concerned with the dissemination of the DC Comics character Superman through the selective application of philosophical ideas and theories. His research interests include – but are not limited to – comics studies, literary theory and criticism, philosophy (particularly the so-called “prophets of extremity” – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida). Kwasu’s extracurricular interests include producing experimental electronic music (with/through Ableton Live), fencing (épée), writing (poetry,short stories, comics), chess and dancing.