Note: this article contains spoilers for Man Of Steel.
When word got round that a big-screen reboot of Superman was in the offing, the natural question was, how would Warner differentiate what would become Man Of Steel from Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns – a movie sometimes criticised for its reliance on evoking fond memories of the 70s and 80s Christopher Reeve movies.
The answer, it seems, was to emphasise the science fiction angle of the Superman story. This was an aspect only lightly touched on in the 1978 film, which instead evoked a sense of fantastical, almost biblical awe. While the religious symbolism remains in Man Of Steel – and is used particularly strongly in some shots, with Kal-El’s arms spread in a Christlike pose – Man Of Steel draws more heavily on the imagery and themes of early 20th century science fiction and pulp fantasy, just as Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster did when they created the character back in 1938.
Man Of Steel’s opening segment on Krypton, in particular, has a distinctly pulp fantasy feel. Far from the crystalline minimalism of Richard Donner’s 70s Krypton, director Zack Snyder’s planet feels truly, wildly alien. Exotic creatures fly among asymmetrical skyscrapers. Computers, costumes and ships have an insectoid, biological look to them – this is technology that has been grown, not built.
In fact, Man Of Steel may be the most embellished, elaborate superhero movie we’ve seen: it’s difficult not to marvel at the unfettered scale of its visuals. While some have compared some of Man Of Steel’s designs to those in Prometheus, it has to be said that Zack Snyder’s unfettered world-building makes the latter look quite conservative.
This is, after all, a film where Russell Crowe’s Jor-El rides around on a lizard with dragonfly wings, dives into an ocean where babies are grown in pods and attended to by crab-like robots, and retrieves something called a codex, which looks like a human skull made of coal.
Man Of Steel’s production design appears to take influence from the darkly sensual work of artist HR Giger, the eccentric sets and costumes of David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Dune, and most of all, the organic style of Art Nouveau. In fact, the movie’s concept artist Peter Rubin has stated that Art Nouveau was a major influence in an interview with Comic Book Therapy:
“The art department was full of biological specimens, dried grasses, roots, fungi, bark, and lots and lots of bones. Books of micro-photography. Then the second big source was the nineteenth century Art Nouveau movement, the design philosophy that looked to nature to guide the artist’s hand… we tried to avoid straight lines if we could, and just do flowing, natural forms.”
Jor-El’s pet lizard-dragonfly, H’Raka, looks like the kind of exotic animal Edgar Rice Burroughs used to describe in his John Carter books. Could this be a conscious homage to a pulp series that paved the way for Superman himself? Burroughs’ first John Carter book, 1917’s A Princess Of Mars, was effectively the Superman story in reverse: an ordinary man is transported from Earth to an alien planet (in this case, Mars), where the environment gives him extraordinary powers of strength.
Siegel and Shuster have both acknowledged that John Carter was an influence. In a 1983 interview, for example, they admitted that, “Carter was able to leap great distances because the planet Mars was smaller than the planet Earth, and he had great strength. I visualised the planet Krypton as a huge planet, much larger than Earth.”
In Man Of Steel, there’s a further nod to the early Superman comics and John Carter: as Henry Cavill’s Superman trains himself to fly, we see him leap a few times before he finally takes to the sky. In his early years, Superman didn’t fly, but instead leapt, as John Carter did on Mars – Superman didn’t gain the power of flight until the 1940s.
There are echoes of early 20th century science fiction elsewhere on Krypton, too. The idea that the Kryptonians artificially breed their young in pods is very much like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931), while the idea of breeding for specific jobs is something HG Wells explored earlier in First Men In The Moon (1901).
Man Of Steel’s production design, even elsewhere in the film, gives off an air of stern Edwardian militarism. As the stored consciousness of Jor-El explains to Superman how General Zod betrayed him during Krypton’s dying days, the story is illustrated visually by a kind of animated metal sculpture. Its design recalls the hard edge of fascist art – appropriate, given Zod’s despotic personality.
The sense of military coldness extends to Superman’s costume, which is less like the thin spandex get-up favoured by Christopher Reeve’s character, and more akin to figure-hugging Kevlar armour. The man himself is invested with a kind of detached coolness – a world away from Reeves’ approachable, smiling and benign incarnation, and an attempt, perhaps, to establish a hero who’s truly other-worldly, and perhaps even unknowable.
When compared to Superman, General Zod’s spiky armour and black under-suit are the villainous flipside to the hero’s persona. Establishing the hero and villain as the opposing sides of the same coin is nothing new in comic book movies, but in the case of Man Of Steel, it’s worth exploring further.
General Zod’s design, as well as tying into the black clothing of his counterparts in the source comics and Terrence Stamp’s portrayal in 1980‘s Superman II, also appears to be fashioned after the sculptures of Roman emperors, and Zod could be seen to represent the darkest side of leadership: an utter lack of morals, and a desire to expand his empire irrespective of the cost to mere mortals.
Superman, on the other hand, is the embodiment of benign rule: all-powerful, yet ultimately benevolent and protective of the people he rules over. Michael Caine once said that “Superman is how America views itself. Batman is how the rest of the world views America,” and it’s possible that Man Of Steel is a meditation on the state of America’s military stance after 2001 – something heavily underlined by the militaristic production design and its post-9/11 imagery, such as the gigantic terraforming Philippe Starck lemon squeezer device that gradually reduces Metropolis’ skyscrapers to ash.
This could be writer David S Goyer (and producer Christopher Nolan) asking the question: if America continues to be a world superpower, how does it want to rule? With the shock and awe brutality of Zod, or the kindness of Superman? Inevitably, the latter wins out.
Some writers have criticised Man Of Steel for the harshness of its violence, and the fact that Superman spends more time beating down alien invaders than he does saving people from danger, as the character did in the 70s and 80s movies. They probably have a point, but Goyer’s film appears to be exploring the notion of Superman the warrior as much as (if not more than) Superman the saviour.
And whether audiences approved of all the decisions made in Man Of Steel or not, it’s at least arguable that Zack Snyder has succeeded in creating a big-screen incarnation of Superman that stands apart from the films we’ve seen before. From a visual standpoint, Man Of Steel looks like no other Superman film – in fact, it may be the most elaborate, baroque-looking summer film yet made.
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