Film Analysis: Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013)
This is not a traditional film review, but a spoiler filled discussion of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, that is his vision of the most iconic and famous superhero of them all: Superman.
Continue reading only if you have seen those films or if you don’t care for spoilers. You have been warned!
Zack Snyder as an Auteur
Usually when we think of ‘auteurs’ and the ‘auteur theory’ (“a director’s film reflects the director’s personal creative vision, as if they were the primary “auteur” (the French word for “author”) we think of critically acclaimed independent art house filmmakers. Now if we stick with the original definition of what makes an auteur Zack Snyder, and his college buddy Michael Bay and other loud directors like Roland Emmerich fit the description just as much as your ‘Wes Andersons’ and ‘Sofia Coppolas’. Zack Snyder has a clear vision, some people mights say he’s a visionary (I certainly would), he does possess a very recognizable style. Even my little sister, who has seen only a couple hundred films, noticed his visual trademarks watching Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.
Like they ask on the AuteurCast: What makes a Zack Snyder film a Zack Snyder film? I find that much like Michael Bay, Snyder is interested in the technical aspect of filmmaking preferring visual perfection over character development. All of his films look immaculate. The visuals are stunning: Every frame could be a painting. They are true achievements in cinematography, and hopefully the Academy will recognize that one day. A lot of work and attention to detail goes into production design, set decoration, art direction and costume design. Snyder has worked with the best people in those departments to guarantee top quality in every one of his picture.
Looking at his filmography there are two films that stand out as odd. The first one is his debut film, the remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which doesn’t fit in with his oeuvre thematically and stylistically. The second one is Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole which retains Snyder’s themes, but is an animated film and represents the one film where he probably had the least creative control. Interviews seem to suggest it is the one film that he is most dissatisfied with, possibly resenting the producers involvement and their forcing of ideas into his film. To appeal to kids, he had to incorporate humor in Ga’Hoole, and if you look at his catalogue (again with the one major exception of Dawn of the Dead which was penned by James Gunn) you’ll notice that his films are almost completely devoid of any humor.
That doesn’t mean that Snyder doesn’t have a sense of humor or that he takes himself too seriously. Sucker Punch proves that he likes to have fun, but there is a general sense of weight and darkness running through his films. He certainly isn’t making comedies and he wants you to take his films seriously. His sense of fun comes once more from a technical aspect: Editing. He loves to manipulate the image (much like Wong Kar-wai): Slowing it down, then accelerating it, but also using certain filters and specific cameras to give his films an immersive grainy cinematic feel. He has a strong sense for aesthetics and he knows exactly what he wants his films to look like. He is a master in choreographing battle and fight sequences as 300 proves and he is able to perfectly recreate a fictional comic book world in Watchmen. With his newest film The Man of Steel he proves once more to be in control of his craft, visually evoking Terrence Mallick in some quiet nature shots, that allow our ears to relax a little bit between the noisy action set-pieces.
Thematically there are a couple themes that run throughout his films. Zack has continuously asked the question: What makes a perfect human being? The best answer he has given us so far is that it has to do with our physical training and the discipline of our bodies. His ideal of the “perfect body” clearly echoes the Greek God, and coincidentally another college buddy of his, Tarsem Singh directed Immortals which in a lot of ways could have been a Zack Snyder film (if only because the producers were trying so hard to market it as an unofficial 300 sequel).
While the whole ‘body’ discourse might seem shallow and uninteresting, Snyder is actually asking an important question: What or who are we, when all that constitutes our identity and self-image is stripped away from us leaving only our flesh and bones? Who are we then? Who are we at our core? What can we be? Can we be something more than what’s physical? Do we have a choice? When does our life become meaningful? Snyder’s answer to this is: When we become part of something that is bigger than ourselves. When the individual joins a group. When we figure out what our role is in society. If you still think Snyder is “style over substance” think again, because he is asking deep questions and not many action directors working today are doing that.
The Man of Steel and the Son of Man: Superman as a Christ Figure
Speaking specifically of Man of Steel, you might have noticed how Superman is not only the ultimate perfect human being, but also an allegory for Christ. While some of it may seem surface and present in all of the Superman films, this is the one single example with so many instances that I tried to list them all, with the help of my father who is a pastor (thanks dad!). Here it goes:
1. The Man of Steel is generally referred to as Superman or Clark Kent, but his real name is Kal-El. What’s so interesting about that? Oh, nothing, just the fact that el means “deity” in hebrew.
2. Much like Jesus, Superman has an otherworldly, one mights say “heavenly” father, but that alone is unimpressive, but wait: This father is the one giving him instructions on how to save humanity. Kal-El is Jor-El’s only son, sent to earth to save earth. General Zod is very much like a Herod or Egypt Pharaoh type of character, trying to take out Jesus or Moses at any cost. In fact the “ark” on which little baby Kal-El travels to earth recalls many people of the little “raft” Moses was put in to be protected from the Pharaoh who wanted to kill all Israeli baby boys. Much like Ka-El, Moses was also adopted and then later became a leader, who saved a nation from slavery.
3. While Kal-El wasn’t born from virgin birth, he does represent the first natural birth in a long time, which means that he was conceived under almost “supernatural” circumstances.
4. Superman wasn’t born in Israel, we all know that much, but doesn’t the little farm in small town in Kansas remind you of something? Oh, and don’t forget he grew up with adoptive parents. Joseph and Mary could be considered adoptive parents for Jesus. In the film that would be Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). If we take that analogy a bit further, much like in Jesus’ life his father is out of the picture pretty early on, though I’m sure his death wasn’t as silly as Jonathan’s in Man of Steel. And while Jonathan Kent wasn’t a carpenter, he had a “similar” job one might say in being a mechanic. Either way: Both came from humble earthly families.
5. Like Jesus, Superman is rejected by the people of his own town: They are scared when they see his powers (school bus incident). Both don’t announce themselves, but rather speak through their actions.
6. So like Jesus he has to lay low and try to blend with people and basically learn how to be human, to better understand humanity and thus becoming their “leader”. They both have two identities at the same time. Jesus is the Son of God and a human being. Superman is an alien from Krypton, while also an American citizen, like he clearly states at some point in the movie.
7. Both Jesus and Superman are immortal. Well, technically kryptonite could kill Superman, but come on: We all know that’s not going to happen. Jesus on the other had dies, but then triumphs over death in resurrecting on the third day after his passing.
8. They don’t fight back. In the bible there are instances where Jesus might have been tempted to seek revenge against those provoking him or doing him wrong, but much like Superman when the kids are picking on him, I’m sure he had to refrain from using violence against other human beings. To be fair that analogy ends where Superman and his fights with General Zod cause massive destruction and the death of millions of Metropolis inhabitants (even if the film ignores that).
9. Connected to that: Jesus is called the Lamb of God. Why is that image used? Because lambs don’t fight back when they’re being slaughtered. Reminiscent of that is the scene where Superman surrenders himself to the US Army (the “Romans” in the analogy) who recognize he’s not a threat, but he still is handed over to Zod’s people (the “Jews”, his own people).
10. Kal-El is 33 years old. Jesus was 33 years old when he was died on the cross for our sins.
11. The dark red cape is clearly a reference to Jesus being given a similar clothing item by the romans who were mocking him before crucifying him.
12. Superman floating in mid-air or flying. So obvious, but okay: Jesus ascends to heaven after dying. Also a dove is hovering over him after he is baptized by John the Baptist.
13. Both represent hope for humanity and are strong advocates of free will. In Krypton’s society every birth is programmed. Every child has his role and basically destiny mapped out for him or her from before they’re even born. Kal-El represents an exception to that: He is the first child to be born purely because their parents wanted him. He can choose to be whatever he wants to be, much like God has given mankind the freedom of choice. We are free to believe or not believe in God. We can decide for ourselves what the meaning of our lives is, and that’s what Superman is all about. And of course it’s also a very American thought: The American Dream, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness and all that.
14. One last really obvious one is Superman’s unconditional love for humanity. Where does that come from? John 3:16 famously says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” And while Superman doesn’t die in Man of Steel he certainly is prepared to sacrifice himself.
15. Kal-El’s job, before becoming the Man of Steel, is to be a fisherman. Now, Jesus’ disciples were fishermen, and Jesus specifically uses the image of them becoming “fishermen of souls“, when he choses them. It’s a beautiful image, which is effectively used in the film too.
So far we’ve considered plot elements, but what are some visual choices that underscore this idea? Well, there’s the constant use of light (especially lens flare), and in almost every outdoor shot we see the sun: The ultimate source of light. But what does that have to do with anything? Well, Jesus is God and God is metaphorically referred to as the Light. “Yes, but that’s vague.” Okay, then did you notice when Superman goes to church? “Yeah, so?” There’s a shot of him and a Jesus image (on a stained glass) in the same frame. I think it’s pretty obvious the filmmakers wanted us to know they were doing all the Christ analogies on purpose and that we were right in trying to seek them out.
Now, why all this? You might ask. Marketing, is certainly one answer. Especially in the States they were trying to appeal to the Christian community even specifically targeting pastors. That’s the cynical answer, the more hopeful part of me wants to believe that they were trying to make some kind of commentary on the person of Superman and add one more layer of meaning to the film.
Some Christians might think that Superman is trying to “substitute” God within the mythology of the films, but in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel even young Kal-El is asking himself why God made him the way he did. So there is room for God in Superman’s universe. The two of them can co-exist.
As a Born-again Christian and someone who appreciates of Zack Snyder’s work I overall enjoyed this film. It isn’t without its flaws plot-wise and in terms of character development. It’s a loud film with lots of explosion and destruction. There are however some more romantic scenes and even if the romance angle isn’t explored much it manages to be satisfying thanks to a charming and magnetic Henry Cavill and a committed performance by the lovely and always cute Amy Adams. More than anything else it’s a technical achievement: Splendid, seamless special effects, gorgeous cinematography by Amir Mokri and excellent art direction all around. I’m not a fan of the frenetic editing, but I can see how people have gotten used to that. I loved the hand-held camera use in Man of Steel, the epic score by Hans Zimmer and the use of flashbacks. I didn’t like how pa’ Kent dies, the fact that there are still people walking around in Metropolis after half-hour of destruction and the fact that many people have seen Superman, yet it’s enough for him to throw on a pair of nerdy glasses and all of a sudden he is Clark Kent.
What about a sequel? Well, of course there’s going to be one. Where can they go from here? The advantage is that they have more freedom in terms of storytelling, because they’ve already told the origin story in this first installment. It would be interesting to develop Superman’s character a bit more, make him more “vulnerable”, the stakes are a bit low, when you know he’s not going to get hurt anyway. That’s why Die Hard is such a great movie: John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a regular guy that gets beat up pretty bad. That also makes him more relatable. A flawed hero always is, but that’s a though one to figure out, because the very nature of Superman is that he is perfect.
Zack Snyder remains an interesting filmmaker for me to watch and discuss. His films have more to say than they would normally appear to, even though once more it might just be me reading to much into a film as I generally tend to do.
That is all folks. Hope you enjoyed this Film Analysis.
From planet earth I am your Professor: Davide Perretta.
Signing off. Goodbye!
Nice reading, well done bro! 🙂
Grazie, Mic! 🙂
Really great analysis, I especially appreciated your discussion of Zach Snyder’s signature style since I had never heard it put in those exact words before.
Thank you, Marc! Yeah, I think critics tend to write him off or just ignore him, but he’s definitely worth discussing. Glad you liked it 🙂
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