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I Teach You The Superman: Tom Scioli Talks ‘Man Of Steel’ [Spoilers]

It’s kind of weird when your generation takes over. I just saw a movie made by a guy who obviously grew up with all the same stuff I did. It’s as if the movie was made based on my own notes on what I’d like to see in a Superman movie, but getting exactly what you ask for isn’t the same as getting what you want.

The moment I realized it was when I heard the laser sounds from Masters of the Universe, accompanied by the arrival of an army straight out of Krull, led by a guy in an updated version of Sting’s Harkonnen armor from 1984′s Dune with a face that wouldn’t look out of place on an episode of Thundarr the Barbarian.

The nostalgia fest didn’t stop there. Apparently Kryptonian technology is based on pin art.

As a display technology for a hyper-advanced civilization, does it make sense? No. Is it something that looks cool and evokes bittersweet childhood memories? Yes. It’s something I’d see in one of those “educational” toy stores. Inevitably somebody would use it to preserve an impression of flipping the bird.

The ’80s nostalgia made me want to go home and alternate between the Krull and Superman games for the Atari 2600. The first level of Krull was the kid’s version of the Kobyashi Maru, a no-win situation that would require hacking abilities to get around. Hacking a 2600 game required a soldering iron, so that’s out of the question. As for memories of the Superman game, I mostly had the Man of Steel’s sprite repeatedly kiss the non-player Lois Lane character.

Watching Kal-El’s mom Lara get consumed by the fires of Krypton’s destruction seems reminiscent of J.J. Abrams’ scrapped Superman reboot. A lot of the moments in Man of Steel feel like his new Star Trek films. We really are back in the ’80s. Digging out an old issue of Starlog, the go-to resource for all things sci-fi and genre before the internet, reminds me of another good year for sci-fi and genre movies, 1982. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Superman 2, and Tron all shared space in the theaters. Now a new version of Khan and a Zod-centric Superman movie are the blockbusters of the moment. There hasn’t been a Tron movie since 2010, but the musicians who crafted Tron 2‘s soundtrack are currently dominating an otherwise-moribund music industry.

Whenever directors talk about making a sequel, they talk about getting darker, they mention Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and more recently The Dark Knight. Man of Steel is officially a reboot, but it feels like a part 2 because Zod is a part 2 bad guy, and is usually referred to as such. It also felt like a prequel because it goes into his origin in a way 2006′s Superman Returns movie didn’t. By that measure, this is a not-necessarily-unconnected follow-up to Superman Returns, despite the fact that it takes place before it, a dark prequel rather than a dark sequel.The stakes are escalated and the fights are to the death. The difference here is that those other dark follow-ups were smaller, more intimate films than the ones that preceded them. Compared to Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Batman Begins, their respective sequels were character pieces centered around the conflicts, camaraderie, and familial connections of the characters.

The people that inhabit the world of Man of Steel are action figures. This is a storyboard movie, built around the momentum of one show-stopping action scene after another. The mighty Jack Kirby would resort to this whenever he got bored or frustrated with a series. In his last year at Marvel, he created endless, meaninglessly beautiful slugfests. Those last couple of Fourth World comics when cancellation was looming and he took then-DC Publisher Carmine Infantino’s advice to “dumb it down for the kids,” and those middle issues of The Eternals where he was under pressure to make it fit in with the rest of the publishing line, were all multi-issue duke outs with motivationless opponents epitomized by a mindless Hulk robot. At least in those cases you had beautiful Kirby art to ogle. The thrills here feel hollow. All the attention to detail went into crafting the film’s subtext.

Snyder is an admitted superfan of Watchmen. What this movie has in common with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ super epic (adapted into a film in 2009 by Snyder, of course) is that it seems designed to be endlessly dissected and analyzed, which is probably a smart choice for making a movie in the geeks-in-ascendance 21st century. We pick these things apart like psychic piranha.

If you’re into conspiracy theories, this movie seems like it was made in association with the global oligarchy, the military-industrial complex, and the Illuminati. There’s gnostic Christ imagery, weaponized catastrophic climate change and a climactic battle in the hallowed halls of what looks like the Lincoln Memorial, serving as the temple where Superman sacrifices Zod (and due process) on the altar of emergency powers. It made me think back to the military recruitment ads before and during the movie. I’ve never seen a film where characters crossed over from the pre-trailer commercials. I need to go back and rewatch this, but I think the actors playing soldiers in the ads are the actors playing soldiers in the movie. If that’s the case, we can assume they’re the same characters.

Apparently Man of Steel was made in conjunction with an ad campaign to promote a real-life super-soldier program as a recruitment tool. Simon and Kirby were exactly 74 years ahead of their time with Captain America #1′s similar plot of creating an American supersoldier as a morale booster.

This film continues the tradition of Superman as propaganda tool, which goes as far back as WW2, in spite of the character’s origins as a 1930′s anti-establishment iconoclast.

Superman’s powers as demonstrated in the film seem painstakingly researched. Superman’s laser eyes, an incredibly cheap special effect in Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie, are much more convincing in the 2013 version. They seem blood-based, like the Red Lantern’s bloody napalm puke. You can tell by the way Kal-El’s veins go all red and bulgy around his eyes when he fires his heat rays.

We might be seeing Grant Morrison’s universe-devouring anti-christ Superman Beast that the writer inserted almost as a letter of resignation in his script for Action Comics #9. Maybe that’s why the movie isn’t called Superman. This “Man of Steel” is a Superman without that element of mercy, taking us back to Nietzsche’s original model. This is a lot closer to the German philosopher’s original “Ubermensch” as described in his book Also Sprach Zarathustra. This just might be the most terrifying superhero movie of all time. This is Superman? Put on a towel and snap some necks?

The first clue was the absence of the red trunks. They give Superman a humanizing vulnerability, an element of absurd playfulness which is nowhere to be found. Maybe that really is a red snake writhing in a pit of bile on his chest emblem and not an “S.”

If this version of Superman seems like too much of a bloodthirsty warrior, remember that Superman was based on a novel called “Gladiator” and he is exactly that in this film. The teenage version of me would’ve loved this.

If you asked me what I wanted out of a Superman movie, I’d describe pretty much what we have here: heavy sci-fi content, lots of unbridled caped combat, and minimal scenes of Smallville. Why then does the whole enterprise feel so empty? Everybody just HAD to complain about Superman Returns, a movie that had heart and real emotion rather than the stylized kabuki dance pseudo-story we have here. I still feel cheated that I didn’t get to see a proper Superman Returns sequel, where the kryptonite-immune son of Superman sets up a Fortress of Solitude on Lex Luthor’s synthetic kryptonite crystal planet. This movie was non-stop action and lots of rad-looking science fiction. It was the Superman movie I’d always wanted, and I felt no attachment to it whatsoever. I could watch it tomorrow or never again. The subtitle of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra translates as “a book for all and none.” Maybe that explains my conflicted feelings about Man of Steel. We don’t get the Superman movie we want, we get the Superman movie we deserve.

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